By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Most musicians spend their entire lives hoping to create or even just briefly touch a magnum opus – an album or composition that finds its players at the peak of their creative and technical powers; that fleeting moment where talent, resources, and inspiration align perfectly. In reality, though, the careers of many gifted artists rarely rise above steady gigs and fleeting recognition within the industry – playing music as hired guns, bouncing from session to session, refining their own groove and sound. And for the few who do break out to the wider public, arriving at the actualization of genius once is remarkable enough.
To play a key part in four of the most critically acclaimed albums released within a single year’s time is almost unfathomable. It puts you on hallowed ground. It also takes a hell of a lot out of you, which is why it’s hard to begrudge Stephen Bruner’s desire to take some time off right now.
“I’ll be honest with you, I have not touched my computer in a couple of months,” Bruner says, taking the call from his house on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. “It was a lot of energy, and you don’t realize it until you look up and you haven’t even turned on your computer in a little bit.”
Bruner, a prodigiously talented bassist and producer better known as Thundercat, has played a significant role in shaping four of the most challenging and sonically dense albums of the last twelve months (and probably the entire decade): Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. That he managed to juggle his roles and responsibilities all while putting the finishing touches on his most recent release, the universally lauded prog-jazz/hip-hop release The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, is an incredible feat.
Bruner sounds relaxed over the line but the traces of weariness linger: “It took a lot of mental running, and there’s a lot music that came as a result of it, but I feel like it wouldn’t hurt me to sit back and close my eyes for a second, you know?”
In an era where artists are expected to always be on and hyperconnected, Bruner is going against the grain by taking five and playing each day by ear.
“You’re not supposed to do that, but it’s been pretty intense. When we finished mastering the album, I just sat on the toilet and cried like a bitch,” he adds with his characteristic baritone laugh.
To outsiders, it seems like a real jazz fusion/space jazz/soul scene has emerged in LA. Do you feel like you’re part of a “movement” or is it business as usual?
It’s business as usual.
You know, man, I don’t really like terms people come up with for stuff a lot of the times. It’s not cool to label music a “movement” – it’s a terrible thing to do to music, and it’s like a point of selling. It’s genuinely like “wahh wahh” [mimics a trumpet]. I definitely feel like it’s part of a big sea – a big lava sea, and we’re just flying on this star craft, trying not to get shot down by meteors and fire snakes.
[Laughs] Yeah, the cops are the fire snakes.
How much does a community of collaborators and supporters influence what comes out of a scene?
I feel like everybody across the board wants to see things progress at a very good manner, and that would be the natural cause for things to appear. People want to see change, and they’ll be the change themselves. A lot of artists are always looking to be inspired. You want to be struck by lightning. I feel like this is the general consensus, and it’s absolutely a real thing.
In between the release of Apocalypse and The Beyond, you’ve also been a part of making some of the most critically acclaimed and talked about albums in a long time – You’re Dead!, To Pimp a Butterfly, The Epic. Do you carry those experiences with you? Are things learned that seep into your own music, or vice versa?
Absolutely! That’s what it’s for. It’s a revolving door. It’s a constant give-and-take. There’s direct ties with the music, and I draw on that inspiration like a well.
What was it like simultaneously working on your own album, the Kendrick LP, and the FlyLo record?
How was that? [Laughs] I’ll be honest with you, I have not touched my computer in a couple of months. It was a lot of energy, and you don’t realize it until you look up and you haven’t touched your computer in a little bit. It took a lot of mental running, and there’s a lot music that came as a result of it, but I feel like it wouldn’t hurt me sit back and close my eyes for a second, you know? You’re not supposed to do that, but it’s been pretty intense. When we finished mastering the album, I just sat on the toilet and cried like a bitch. [Laughs]
It was so amazing to step back and hear Kendrick murder – like, literally just go for blood – and to see a genuine masterpiece of music. I was so happy to be involved with it at the capacity that I was. It was overwhelming. I could feel like something had been working inside of me and when it was done I felt it. I was like, “Whoa.”
Ever since then all I’ve done is buy a bunch of dumb-ass jackets and play “Payday 2” on Playstation 4. [Laughs] I’ve got a bunch of cool jackets, bruh. [Laughs] I got a cool fox one and another one that was supposed to be a skeleton but somebody lied. The Internet is full of liars.
Working on To Pimp A Butterfly, did it ever feel like it might be too good to be true? Meaning, did you question whether a major label like Interscope would actually put out something so politically charged?
No! No. My mind will never be business, like, “How are we going to sell this?” or “What’s the look going to be?” or “What’s going to be the angle?” It was never that. It was just balls-to-the-wall. We were creating a fireball and throwing it, ready to stand back knowing you might catch some fire. It was more like that Spirit Bomb that killed Frieza [in “Dragonball Z”]. [Laughs]
When you’re playing on someone else’s record, what sort of contributions are they getting from Thundercat? That’s to say: What are the qualities that you think you bring to a piece of music – not necessarily your own – as a bassist?
I think there’s a high chance of me setting the studio on fire, and people don’t realize that it’s always an imminent danger. [Laughs]
I don’t know, man. I try to find where somebody really operates. It’s almost like catering to folks. One time, Stanley Clarke told me that we’re servants, and that’s what the music is for: You’re supposed to serve, and you’re serving people. And it made sense to me once he said it. This is a service. You can try to make it yours, but either way, you’re still giving and I try to approach it that way. For the most part, I try to contribute as much as I can.
When you listen to other people’s music, what’s your reaction to the bass playing? Do any genres of music have particularly shitty bass lines?
[Laughs] No, I think it’s all funny. The act of being a live instrument inside an electronic world is the perfect storm. It’s always a funny conversation – making sure your bass sounds right. I remember when I was younger, my friends were all trying to learn how to play key-bass, because they were convinced it was the only way to get any work around town. I was kind of like “Yeah, but I don’t play keyboard, so…” [Laughs] That could have been me being lazy, but at the same time, it’s always been the question of how to fit in.
I think that given time and people allowing you to siphon through ideas breeds something else. And for me, there would be questions of where things you create would fit, but you try to find it, and hopefully the person you’re making music with will try to find it, too. I mean, 808 music – you know, trap music – has a whole different feel that doesn’t translate to the live experience. There’s no way to make it live, and I wouldn’t want to hear trap music live. That would discourage me! Even still, there’s other melody that does not have to be the bass frequency, totally, and it’s about finding different places where it fits. [Long pause]
[Deadpans] I think everybody’s gay. At the end of the day, we’re all gay and we’re all gonna die, and it’s gonna be really weird when you die too. Hopefully you didn’t die in a very dumb manner, but other than that… [Laughs]
That’s the conclusion of life.
Speaking of 808 and trap music, your cousin Terrace Martin had an integral part in the Kendrick record too, and he’s produced hip-hop records for years. Is more traditional hip-hop production an area you’d be interesting in moving into?
Well, if you knew anything about the music that I’ve been involved with, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing too. But as a life choice? It’s part of what comes with it. I do music, and the paintbrush I chose was the bass, and whatever that affords me, I’ll move forward with that. That’s been part of my history as a songwriter and producer of beats and hip-hop records. That’s how I treat my music, and it’s totally part of the process, and I absolutely see it being part of the process for the rest of my career.
At the same time, it forces me to be that much more articulate and careful of where I place that, because you’re giving yourself away at such a high rate, it can be confusing. I’m just trying to find a good place for that.
The word “jazz” has often been affixed to the records you’ve worked on and, obviously, yours as well. How do you define jazz? Is it a genre that live and breathes and changes, or is it a traditional style whose demarcations were set by the masters?
I feel like there’s a reason why it has a chance to change, because it doesn’t belong anywhere and it doesn’t belong to any of us. It’s one thing we can tap into, and it can come through you, but the essence of jazz is improvisation. However that spirit travels – be it through rap, be it through rock – that’s what a lot of the greats were telling us back in the day. Everyone’s favorite hero was Miles Davis, and if you look at what he was doing, he was always traveling and trying to find new ground and going to the frontiers. He even started looking like Sly Stone towards the end of his career. This is supposed to travel through things, and I definitely think a change of guard happens. That’s the title of one of Kamasi’s tunes. It is true – the change has happened, and it’s happening right now.
There’s always going to be traditional-style jazz, and somebody’s not going to feel comfortable unless it’s really quiet, and really “swinging.” There’s that. But what happens when J. Dilla is born and takes the swing into another era? What happens when Kendrick gets the swing and he’s a rapper? Is it not jazz? It’s absolutely still jazz.
How would you describe your relationship with Steve Ellison? From being on Brainfeeder to working on each other’s music to touring together, how was your friendship evolved over time?
It’s aged like fine wine. That’s the best way to describe it, I’d say. I’m totally for it, and we’d walk a mile in each other’s shoes. I love that dude so much. He’s like family. Through the good and through the bad, he’s always been a great friend. He puts all the pressure in the world on me and no pressure at all, and I thank him so much for that. He’s one of the bigger creative inspirations for me, and I hope he knows that, even though I’m sitting here playing videogames. [Laughs] I would hope he’s always going, “What’s Stephen doing?” Literally, both of our names are Stephen/Steven, and at some point today, I’ll ask myself that same question about him. [Laughs]
You’re a fan of video games and video game soundtracks in particular. What are the standouts from your youth?
“Sonic the Hedgehog” – all three of them. [Laughs]
Whoa, that was a big jump. I’ve gotta go down memory lane.
“Mortal Kombat” – are you kidding me? The first “Mortal Kombat” sounds like it could have been put out by the Chick Corea Elektric band, man. [Laughs] I’m telling you! It could have been a GRP recording.
Were you a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis guy?
Ooh, I was definitely more of a Sega Genesis guy. That fluidity, those 32-bit graphics, and side scrolling? Oh yeah.
I loved the “Jurassic Park” game on Genesis. That soundtrack was dope. It’s that John Williams effect.
Wow. Yes, yes. John Williams! Those sweet-ass changes from that epic-music-making motherfucker! [Laughs] That shit will bring you to tears.
Music runs in your family, and you’ve been doing it professionally since age 15. To say that you’ve been exposed to encyclopedic amounts of music would be an understatement. What’s the last thing you listened to that blew your mind?
I remember when I discovered Tame Impala and the way I heard of them. Sometimes it really is satire; it becomes the scene and setting. It felt so good, and I remember being on a tour bus and hearing their music, and it was like, “Whoa”.
Another moment was finding out about Shabazz Palace. That was insanity.
And when I heard Future’s new album, I was like, “This is beautiful.” You could tell that dude’s been through some shit, man. It was like the darkest trap shit I ever heard. [Laughs] I was like, “What is this? Is he OK?” I think he’s literally crying on one song. He’s in a weird place right now.
Any chance that the Bruner Brothers will be playing together again anytime soon? You guys have a Facebook page, but it seems like you, Ronald, and Jameel are each focusing on different projects right now.
I don’t really know the answer to that. I think you just answered that one yourself. [Laughs]
Of course, at some point we will definitely play again, and it will be really interesting. My little brother [Jameel] is out touring with The Internet, and my older brother [Ronald] is still touring with Chaka Khan. Everybody is out in space; out in Deep Space 9. [Laughs]
How else are you keeping busy these days?
Right now, I’m watching my girl play “Starfox” on Nintendo 64, which is the dopest thing. You really can’t ask for anything better right now. Nintendo on acid? That’s what Nintendo 64 is. I tried to play “Mario Kart” with her one time, and she almost threw up. I didn’t know if I was going forwards or backwards. That shit will fuck you up! [Laughs]
Who do you play with on “Mario Kart”?
Have you played the new one? The new one is so good. I’m, like, drooling as we’re talking. I need to take my Wii out of storage.
I usually pick Luigi, but I’ll go for Bowser if I feel like fucking people up.
I like playing with Tanooki Mario. That’s an option now. You can play as raccoon Mario, and I get very happy to see a fat, small Italian guy in a raccoon suit. [Laughs] I may just have to find a person like that in reality and make him dress up that way on stage – my Italian Tanooki friend. That might just be the most racist shit I could ever do.
With your recent “creatures of the forest” hats, I think he’d fit right in.
“Mario’s Black Friend” – that would be a good video game. [Laughs] The whole game is about jumping dudes and figuring out where the line between racism and sincerity is. It’s an RPG. Nobody really wins; you just try not to get shot by your black friend. That’s how you win the game: by getting home safely.
Somebody should do that! Make a video game that’s completely socially biased. Name the game “Make It Home Safe” and you can play as a black guy or a white guy – only those two modes. And the downloadable content lets you play as an Asian guy or a Latino.
And your Latino guy wins by avoiding deportation.
[Laughs] Right, right, right! And you want different super powers for each. The black guy can jump high and always has a pistol with him from the start of the game, no matter what. The Asian dude is, like, really smart.
We’ve got a really good video game concept on our hands. [Laughs] Somebody should do this. “Racism: The Video Game.” It would be funny.
Maybe Rockstar Games would be interested?
Yes! But it would have to be a PC game. [Laughs]. This is fucking terrible, man. [Laughs] What kind of interview is this?
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.