Bass Mentality: Thundercat Talks Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Cartoons + The Future

By GARTH TRINIDAD
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Critically acclaimed bassist Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) and his brothers—keyboardist Jameel and Grammy-winning drummer and producer Ronald Jr.—inherited their swagger and musical devotion from their father, Ronald Bruner Sr., an internationally renowned jazz drummer who played with Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, The Temptations, et al. Pops instilled in his sons a set of musical values early on. He tended to their ears, nurturing their curiosity, playing them music, pointing out subtleties, and decoding sacred rhythmic and harmonic knowledge. As a teenager, Stephen joined Ronald Jr. as a member of legendary LA thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, then toured with jazz legend Stanley Clarke in Japan while still in high school. But it wasn’t until his early collaborations with hip-hop outfit Sa-Ra that he was officially dubbed Thundercat.

Stephen’s personal narrative plays like a storybook tale, replete with passion and adventure, joy and pain, romance and whimsy. Like a funk-possessed kid from the Lost Boys tribe of Neverland trying to navigate the real world, Stephen searches for harmony in work and life through the haze of being an in-demand musician, solo artist, performer, father, and friend.

During a much-needed respite—post Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington collaborations, between the new Flying Lotus co-produced mini-album titled The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam (Brainfeeder 2015) and the preparation of a new full-length album—Stephen shared jovial anecdotes from his life in music.

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LA CANVAS: Do you have any favorite places to play live, places where you felt good?

Thundercat: Oh yeah, there’s definitely been times where I was blown away and felt totally fulfilled. Like there’s this spot called Le Bikini, I think it’s in the South of France. The guy that runs the place is this AMAZING chef. After the show, he would cut on Lou Reed and cook choice steak and this whole spread. He needed it to be perfect. He re-did the club, soundproofed the doors. It had to be right. That’s years with Suicidal [Tendencies]. Tons of great experiences. We just played in Oregon at Pickathon. It was a genuine festival. Thousands of people, but in the forest. It looked like the scene from Return of The Jedi where the Ewoks are gathering, and the Stormtroopers come flying through. The equipment wasn’t the best, but it was warm and centered, and it felt like all those people were right there with us so we were going for broke.

LAC: Do you feel you would be the same Thundercat without the 13 years you played with Suicidal Tendencies?

TC: Never. Not even remotely. It nurtured every last part of my character. Mike Muir gave me the boldness to be myself, to be here with everybody. I can’t thank him enough. That was my band. I still feel like they are. That was real life for me. From the Superbad years, full on Jonah-Hill-beginning-of-high-school, to having a child. It’s like WHOA you know? Skinnier and faster to fatter and slower, and slightly stupider [laughs].

LAC: What bass players do you love the most and why?

TC: Stanley Clarke is A-one since day one for me. I remember my dad bought me the Journey to Love CD. That album stuck to my ribs, man. From slapping bass for a melody to trying to take that further, plus you got George Duke on there. It was so concentrated for me. Then it was Jaco [Pastorias] in middle school. My dad woke me up at like 3 or 4 in the morning, so I could hear “Portrait of Tracy.” A friend of ours had a late-night radio show at the time. It was beautiful. Then my dad said it was one guy playing the bass. I was, like, no way. He bought the album and put it on the next day. Super Nintendo went off, I went into the bathroom with the CD player and started trying to learn how to play it. I learned it in increments over the years with help from various people. Learning it taught me the science of the bass, how much you can truly do with it. It was a turning point for me musically. Then Paul Jackson of the Headhunters, of course. His tone was so important to me. It sounded like he was playing congas. He showed that percussive side of the bass. Ron Carter was one of the most recorded cats ever. Charles Mingus. Miroslav Vitous was a moment for me too.

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LAC: When did you start calling yourself Thundercat?

TC: I never really called myself Thundercat. I actually feel awkward saying that to people. It was something my friends would call me because of my slightly obsessive attachment to the cartoon, always wearing a Thundercat shirt. For me, it was the best cartoon ever. Cats from space that use gold, the pyramid, the colors, the primaries, and different hues—red hair, yellow skin, wearing blue. And the sword that’s clearly a penis. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, but I was like YEAH!! I was going crazy! The first people that referred to me as Thundercat were Sy Smith, Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn, and Erykah [Badu]. I was playing at one of Sy’s shows when I met Taz. He told me I looked funky and invited me to the Sa-Ra production house. Taz completely looks like one of the Thundercats. So I went and started spending time at the house. It was Shafiq that would introduce me as Thundercat. And when the guys were signed to GOOD Music, Kanye would poke his head in and refer to me as Thundercat. And I remember clearly the moment Shafiq introduced me to Erykah as Thundercat. And she walked over to me and simply said nice to meet you, Thundercat. And it was like, ok that works for me.

LAC: So there’s an album on the way?

TC: I’m taking a breather at the moment, playing Playstation everyday. I feel like I’ve exuded a lot of energy in the last couple of years with Lotus and Kendrick. And I did stuff with Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, and hopefully those guys will put that stuff out, but everything has its time, you know. I’ve had to slow down after the Kendrick record and take my time, be more discerning about what I do, why I do it, and who I do it with. Puffy called me a while ago at 6 a.m. out of the blue and wanted me to come to the studio because he heard what I did on Kendrick’s album. Pharrell called at the crack of dawn too, but just to say he dug what I did. I linked up with St. Vincent recently and hope to work with her soon. And I would love to work with Tame Impala. But yeah, there’s definitely a buttload of music. It’s all fragmented at the moment. But when Lotus and I sit down next to each other, that’s when the magic happens.

Photography by Holly Gable

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