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Featured photo by Eddie Gurian
Inline photos by Freddy Leighton

Stephen Bruner’s star has been shining brightly over the last few years, ever since his 2015 annus mirabilis, when he played an integral part on several critically acclaimed records. In addition to performance and production credits for Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Bruner released his own EP, Where The Giants Roam, which yielded hit space-funk track “Them Changes”, eventually included on this year’s darkly humorous album, Drunk.

Despite attaining cult status, the man better known as Thundercat remains as accessible and friendly as ever. When we first meet him in the 9:30 Club’s green room, he’s playing around on his laptop and handheld Nintendo Switch when we walk in – a few minutes snuck in between an extended sound check and the start of our conversation. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, part of Bruner’s touring band (and an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist in his own right) sits to his left, casually plucking at an electric violin. The room is dark, and after the first couple of questions, he stands up and beckons us to follow him outside for the rest of our conversation.

The sun is beating down with surprising vigor for this time of the day, this time of the year. Bruner squints into the camera; at least the light is reflecting beautifully off the glass-paneled apartments surrounding us – the golden hour living up to its name. It’s late afternoon in September, and the bass virtuoso/bandleader/composer is standing on the street outside the club where he’ll be putting on a masterclass in prog-jazz, hip-hop, and general wizardry later that evening. But for the time being, he’s just a dude wondering about shoes.

“I do ask myself why Birkenstock doesn’t make more models in crazy colors for men’s sizes,” Bruner quips when I point out that he and my photographer are wearing the same Arizona sandal. “You know that shit would sell. I’d buy all of them!”

His laughter is big and percussive, like a cascade of loud applause, and it bounces off the blue club wall in front of him, where a trio of teenaged boys – already in line for his show – stand a few feet away, wide-eyed and excited. They are eager to talk to Bruner, but keep their distance until we’re done snapping photos of their idol. They laugh in nervous unison as he poses by leaning against a motorcycle parked by the curb; we all join them a few minutes later when Bruner makes a passing reference to the ‘Pickle Rick’ episode from acclaimed TV show Rick and Morty, one of his personal favorites.

Bruner cuts a relaxed, if oddly-dressed, figure, and one that is impossible to miss: ornate red and gold Thai-style boxing shorts, white Birkenstocks, and a hi-liter pink Thundercat hoodie (part of his latest merch collection) to match his latest hairstyle of pink twist-braids. As he cracks a mischievous grin, I’m reminded of lyrics from “Tron Song II”, one of his latest songs:

It sure is cool to be a cat.

Thundercat’s latest release, Drunk, is available now on Brainfeeder Records.

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Brightest Young Things: We spoke a couple of years ago before your show at The Howard Theatre, and I think we finished off the conversation talking about Starfox 64 and police brutality, and a video game based around those concepts. It was kind of wild.

Stephen Bruner: Ha! A game about police brutality? That would be pretty intense if they did that. I feel like there would be one that exists already, based on how crazy white people usually get. There’s a giant possibility it exists already – a strong sense that it’s there.

BYT: You could argue that there’s a heightened state of danger for black and Latinx people in this country right now. You’ve talked about finding humor in most things, and the song “Jameel’s Space Ride” is a prime example of that – it’s not just a song for your brother; there is a lot more embedded in it. How are you able to remain grounded and keep a sense of humor about everything that happens in your life, and in society at large?

Bruner: Aw man, who said I was grounded? [Roaring laugh] We’re out to lunch with this already.

I don’t know, man. I just play a lot of video games – I do. It’s a true story. There’s different things that people go to, a lot of the time. I feel like you can’t ignore it, you can’t duck it or dodge it, and it becomes part of your every day. It’s not saying you go postal, or that you have to – but you feel like going postal sometimes.

I just try to play a ton of video games, you know? Cuphead just came out today after two or three years – I am so pissed it took so long. [Laughs] This game had to be done like last year, they’ve been sitting on it. It’s been done this whole time. They’re just idiots. Sorry – I get up in arms about video games.

Yeah, I don’t know man. One thing has been songwriting for me; I put those things there, and take it all to the face. Take it all to the face – as soon as you wake up, they’re killing us. “Aw man, they ain’t sending nobody food! Aw man, somebody’s about to launch a missile! Aw man, your car’s about to run out of gas!” The whole nine. You just take it all to the face. [Laughs] That’s it. That’s it.

BYT: Speaking of missile launches, I know you’re pretty fond of Japan. I was actually in Tokyo for work the morning North Korea fired the rocket over Japan.

Bruner: Oh my gosh.

BYT: Yeah, that shit was fucking crazy. My parents were freaking out and calling. But people in Japan were completely unphased – they were going about their day as normal.

Bruner: You know, the Japanese people are very interesting. As you can see in these defining moments. But yeah man, it’s a dark reality to live with, but people will never stop being people – no matter how many people people try to kill there will still be people. [Laughs] That’s just the reality – you can’t kill everybody off, you can’t kill anybody off, no matter how hard you try people will still exist.

BYT: I know you were one of the big acts that played at Fujirock this year, and you wrote a song titled “Tokyo” – you love video games, anime. Japan just seems to have a really important place in your field of interests.

How many times have you been to Japan, and what has your experience there been like generally? You can be based anywhere in the world – have you ever considered moving to Tokyo?

Bruner: I don’t know if I can handle living in Tokyo. I feel like the culture shock would be so intense, especially with the service industry in America – you can’t make up for that. Once you get a chance to travel a lot, you start to realize when that waitress comes back and asks you if you want some more to drink, that’s an important moment. Nobody else does that! Nobody does that.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Japan off the top of my head, I just have a few standout moments that were very defining and inspirational at different parts of my life. As far as moving there, I don’t know, man. That’s a tall order there. I feel there’s people that go so far as to do that, and good for them, but I just can’t. For me it’s not a misplaced passion or a weird infatuation – it’s more like I’ve just had a good chance to realize how immensely their art has affected our culture, and I don’t take it for granted. I’ve got a very big appreciation. They take themselves very serious and you can see it by everything they do – it’s like a different part of the scale or spectrum in being a human, and it’s something we’re not used to seeing. And then when you see it, you do have the moments of infatuation; you get caught up in it, but there’s so much more to it.

One of my favorite experiences ever in Japan was of course with Leon Ware when I was a teenager. That was the first time I went – the very first time I went to Japan was with Leon Ware, one of the greater songwriters in America. I feel like I was spoiled by getting a chance to go with him, because if it was anybody else I don’t think they would have looked at him in the same light, you know? But when Leon got there, they treated him like he was Marvin Gaye, and as a stepping stone to experiencing Japanese people it was a big step. That’s where that would begin and it would get all intertwined with Erykah [Badu] and Flying Lotus and Suicidal [Tendencies], you know? Different artists, and then myself. Yeah – I love Japan.

BYT: Having been there so many times, are there any outstanding things for you to do in the country? Have you been up to Mt. Fuji yet? The Studio Ghibli Museum? Do you even want to do those things?

Bruner: Yeah man! I always feel like it’s a bit of a stretch – anytime you want to do something outside of what’s already set for you, they get a little weird about it. They’re surprised you want to stay an extra day – “it’s not how we planned this!”, you know? But every time I’m trying to figure out ways to stay longer, and do more things, and see more of the country. I’ve visited a couple of the temples out there – I’d love to go to Fuji and see the Agi-ha Forest. But every time I mention stuff like that they’re like “No. No no no no – stick to Tokyo.” I tried to spend some time vacationing there last time I went but it just got filled with interviews.

BYT: When we spoke in 2015, you had just come off producing, performing, and composing parts of four of the most challenging and sonically dense albums of the last few years: Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, and your own EP, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam.

You mentioned specifically the need to disconnect and step away from a computer for some time – play video games, hang out, do your thing. Since then you’ve come back and hit us with Drunk. Was it hard to get back in the studio? What does that revamp process look like for you?

Bruner: I mean, I think anytime you set out to start doing something, it’s always a difficult thing. It’s a theory of a blank sheet of paper, for an artist; It’s a challenge to put yourself in that position in life, and even in your mind, to put the two together. But you have to, and so that’s what you do. I tend to look at it as less than a problem than a process. And every part of it – from playing someone something that they may not understand or get, to getting to the point where it becomes something or it does not, or things that I thought were the most amazing things that simply…aren’t. It’s about finding the in-betweens for me, so a lot of the time I’m just enjoying the experience. It’s a pathway for me.

BYT: You worked with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. I heard this collaboration came about because someone you know mentioned your fandom to one of them, and then it was just the grapevine at work – next thing you’re know you’re working together on this great song. What was that experience like?

Bruner: Bro, Kenny and Michael McDonald are some of the most amazing songwriters ever. Honestly, I just felt like it was a great experience for all of us – it was trippy for them. I don’t think they had been together in the last decade or so, and they both stretched out. They’d both ask me for my opinion on stuff and I tried my hardest not to have one just so they could feel free enough to do what they had to do, you know? Even to the point that I didn’t want to play them the music even after it was done, because I wanted to give it a chance to be alive without them going, “Oh let me change this, or change that!”

But yeah man, they opened themselves up to me. They didn’t go hiding to try and keep things away. They went full-fledged, and I had a chance to see the greatness that is them. We still talk to this day; there were more ideas that were being created, and still possibilities of things coming.

BYT Photographer Freddy Leighton: Was the yacht rock thing something you were into coming up?

Bruner: No! I didn’t even know yacht rock existed until people started telling me about it. I feel like the further you go back, there was more good-spirited music. It came from a great place. You think about guys like Earth, Wind & Fire, and how we haven’t seen anything since them that was that amazing. I feel like music is bigger than a genre. You know what I mean?

FL: My parents are both from Ghana, and my dad collected records; he always listened to Kenny Rogers, ABBA, The Eagles – all this stuff that was deemed kind of corny, and I would get made fun of for it as a kid. But there are definitely some chops to it.

Bruner: Yeah, man! Good stuff, just from a different era, that’s all. In a minute people are going to be looking at trap like it’s yacht rock.

BYT: Lil’ Yachty takes on a whole new meaning.

Bruner: They’re going to be like, “What were you listening to?” [Exaggerated puzzled expression] And you’re not going to want your kids listening to it, I’ll tell you that much.

BYT: Have you had a chance to go to the Blacksonian yet? The National Museum of African American History and Culture? They’ve got one of Stanley Clarke’s basses there.

Bruner: Oh, man – no, but I’ve heard about it! Every time I get out here my girl is supposed to take me to go see the joint. Shit is just always is hit and miss. I get here right when I have to play and there’s never any time to chill. But one of these days I really would love to get a chance to see it, I’ve heard they’ve got all kinds of cool stuff. They’ve got Dilla’s MP, some Prince stuff.

BYT: They have James Brown’s black jumpsuit with ‘SEX’ across the belt in rhinestones.

Bruner: Yeah! Yeah.

BYT: I know you’re big Gino Vannelli fan, and his record Brother to Brother particularly. I was listening to this interview you did with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the other day and you talked about your love for him, and this album.

Bruner: Yeah, man! I love Gino.

BYT: I recently put together that the Jimmy Castor Bunch covered “I Just Wanna Stop” from that record, and then Kanye sampled their version of that song for “We Don’t Care” off of College Dropout.

Bruner: There we go. That’s it. The music doesn’t leave – it just changes, man. The funny thing is that if Kanye West were to say he’s a Gino Vannelli fan, that would freak EVERYBODY out. But there you go. He didn’t pull that sample out of nowhere. You gotta know about Gino Vannelli to get the sample.

BYT: Do you have a preference between the two versions of the song?

Bruner: Dog, you know I’m Gino all the way. Don’t even play with me, man. Gino is a songwriting beast.

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