Ronald Bruner Jr. may be one of the best young drummers in the world, but he's not even the most famous musician in his family. That distinction goes to his younger brother, Stephen, better known by his stage name Thundercat. While Stephen has changed the landscape of bass playing—both through his acclaimed solo work and his contributions to albums from artists such as Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar—Ronald has very quietly become a generational talent in his own right on the kit.
Bruner Jr. takes after his father, who spent time playing drums with Diana Ross, The Temptations, and Gladys Knight, and he didn't take long to catch up, picking up the sticks at two years old. By the time he was eight, Bruner Jr. was playing with Wayne Shorter. A few years later, he was a member of both Kenny Garrett's band and hardcore heroes Suicidal Tendencies, whom Stephen also joined.
Though he may not yet be a household name, you've probably heard him play: Bruner Jr. helms the drums on To Pimp a Butterfly, and helps give Kamasi Washington's group its dynamic rhythmic edge. At 34, his resume also includes Prince, Stevie Wonder, Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip, and Erykah Badu. Most recently, he's returned from touring with Chaka Khan. On March 3, Bruner Jr. finally steps out from his kit's shadow—while remaining planted firmly behind it—to make his solo debut with Triumph.
The project sees Bruner Jr. leading his band of brothers—that is, Stephen, and younger brother Jameel, who records as Kintaro and also played with The Internet—across its 11 tracks, while also taking to the mic as a vocalist. The album's pedigree of contributors is almost as impressive as Bruner Jr.'s own contributions: Alongside Thundercat and Kintaro, features include Mac Miller, the late George Duke, and Washington, during whose Epic sessions Triumph was made. The result is an intricate blend of jazz, prog, rap, soul, and R&B. We gave Bruner Jr. a call in LA to discuss the album's eight year process, the coldest show he's ever played, and being able to share this experience with his brothers.
Noisey: How was the tour with Chaka Khan?
Ronald Bruner Jr.: It was something unique, something different. It was this thing called Art on Ice. Basically it was Olympians and famous ice skaters doing a big, big show. We were part of the show—us and James Morrison. It was pretty interesting. I've never done anything quite like that.
I'd imagine that's the coldest venue you've ever played in.
No. The coldest thing I ever played was with my brother Stephen and his band. We played in Colorado and opened for Outkast. It was zero degrees fahrenheit when the show started and it got down to four below. It was in Vail. We were completely LA [Laughs]. We were totally unprepared. My brother had on Chucks with no socks on. I was wearing slip-on Vans. It was—oh my God.
Speaking of your brother, he's all over your album. What was it like being able to share so much of the recording process of Triumph with Stephen?
My two brothers are some of the most important human beings to me. Growing up in my family, our second nature was to start playing a song, whenever. We have music created for our emotions when certain things happen, that's how we express ourselves. We're so close that we want to be apart, you know? We can think out each other's thoughts, we really know each other—all three of us. With Stephen, Stephen has always been there for me. When I was young and traveling, creating who I am as a drummer, I would always take Stephen with me. He just played with me on this album because that's what we do. We just play music. It's second nature. I was like, "Hey man, I've got ideas for some rhythms. Let's get together and write some tunes. Let's go out and play." It feels beautiful to represent my family and our great God0given talent. I'm so happy to give this music to the people. Especially because I'm working with my brothers. It's a beautiful thing. It was an honor.
The album is coming out soon, but some of the tracks are pretty old. George Duke is on the record, and he passed away in 2013. How long have you been working on this album?
I started working on this record in 2008. I was working with Stanley Clarke at the time. He was pushing me and inspiring me to write my own stuff. He told me I had a serious voice that people needed to hear independently. He said people needed to hear me sing and play. He believed in me so much that he thought I was the guy that would lead the next generation of musicians. George was there, too. He told me to just be me, and to be real.
The idea came from Stanley and George and Stephen and I decided to put a band together and just get playing. This was before the whole Thundercat thing, it was just me in my living room. Me and a buddy of mine got together and we just started writing tunes. I took my gig money, put everybody in a studio, and said, 'Let's play.'
What was it like playing with a legend like George Duke?
Man. Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Kenny Garrett. They're the men that had serious hands on my development as a musician and as a man, understanding responsibility as a man and taking care of people. They taught me how to be a bandleader, too. It was so beautiful. Stanley Clarke taught me to embrace who I am as a person and translate that into music. Everyone has ups and downs, but he encouraged me to take those shortcomings and create a wrecking ball, focusing and turning that energy into music that I can give the people, but he made me realize I had to make sure I was doing me; that I was representing exactly who I am through my music.
I use George as an example for a lot of my music because he would do anything he felt like at the expense of acclaim. That was so commendable and respectable because he had freedom. He wasn't worried about submitting a record that was in the genre people expected. 'I feel like playing jazz fusion, I feel like playing R & B groove. I feel like playing funk.' He just did it. That was the beauty of my relationship with George. Simply, George just liked me. And I liked him. We enjoyed making each other laugh. When we did the song on my record, George came in the studio and destroyed this little, mini, broken keyboard. That whole song, George found all of the broken notes on this messed up Moog and played around the broken notes. It was unbelievable.
Talking about the way Duke approached music, I can definitely hear that reflected in your album. There's prog, jazz fusion, metal, funk, and a straight up rap track.
Is it convincing?
It flows really well. How did you find cohesion from track to track while spanning so many styles?
Most people try to find a line in a record. For me, I just thought to myself, 'What's the point of each one of these songs?' I just made that point valid. Because of my father, I had an unfair advantage as a kid. Thundercat did too. My father played a different record everyday. From childhood until I was 14 or 15. My father would go buy the brand new records and play all of it in the house. I asked my dad, 'How do I do it? How do I play like this?' His answer was simple. 'Just play like it! You want to play fast? Play fast! You want to write a song like that? Write a song like that!' The influence from my father led me to believe that I can do anything I want musically. I put that into my music.
It's not to confuse people, it's just to give people an opportunity to see that right now, us as musicians and artists are free. Just do what you want to do! Do what makes you happy! Because there ain't no market for us to be worrying about record companies. You take your money that you earned from doing your job, and you do exactly what makes you happy with it. Because the people you give the music to will hear that. That's what it's all about. Me exploring so many genres? It just comes from the heavy influence. I grew up playing jazz and R & B, funk and Zeppelin. I was in Suicidal Tendencies. I was four years old listening to Fishbone one day, the next I'm listening to Bobby Brown, after that the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That was my life every day! People in my life were always turning me onto records. In high school, Terrace Martin and I would drive from the crib to school picking up the new records. He had the cool Honda and he had two or three new records. We'd drive through the hood playing these records. I've never known one style of music.
Is that you rapping on "To You / For You?"
Why would I have someone else do it? I write my songs, my lyrics, and my raps.
Terrace's name gets dropped a lot by LA musicians. It seems like he's involved with just about everything new coming out. What's your relationship with him like?
Terrace Martin is like my brother. His impact…he doesn't have any brothers or sisters. He has me, Stephen, and a few other folks. We went to high school together, we were in jazz band together, we're brothers. He would always be turning me onto new shit. We had the same drive as kids, too. We wanted to be the best at our instruments. We both realized that to accomplish that, we had to listen to the best, and realize not only what they were playing, but why they were playing it. We had the same belief in understanding why, not what. His influence on me is really heavy. In 9th grade he introduced me to really heavy, really serious bebop. As soon as we'd finish that progressive bebop, he'd put on another record that would have an unbelievable groove.
When you're writing, do you approach it from the drum kit?
Most times I start from the drums. I start from creating a rhythm I want to move to. I start from the drums and I can play a little piano, too. I create the melodic structure of the song by creating the skeletal base of the harmonies on the piano. Once I have the structure of what I want for the song, I get all my friends—I get all the cats to come touch it and it becomes beautiful.
Do you sketch out all the parts and let the other players flesh them out?
I set up what everyone is gonna play to. I come in there with everything created from the foundation structure. Whenever I get in the room after that, they hear the melodic structure of the song whether that be chords, a line—I create the parts, I create the canvas for everybody. I learned that from being on the drums, driving so many ships as the drummer.
Do you ever have a problem overplaying? I imagine someone who can do anything on the drums may do too much from time to time.
I do what I wanna do. I don't have any parameters. If I go crazy on a track, it's because I feel like it. I look at music as either good or bad, and that's all somebody's opinion. In some bands, the drummer overplays and it works. I just wanna play the best song I can play. If that includes me going crazy then I'll go crazy. But for me it's more about making the song feel good. And it took me years to get to this place because I went through that. I was trying to prove to everybody that I was the dude. I got to the point where I realized that all of the dudes don't say it. They don't say they're the dude. They just show up and they're the dude. It took years to figure that out. So now, I just show up [Laughs].
Some of this album was recorded during the crazy 30 day sessions that spawned Kamasi Washington's The Epic. What was it like participating in that?
We all came together. When you get money involved, that's when things get serious. We all threw dollars into this idea. We scrapped together our gig money. We all wanted to finish the music we had been hearing in our heads. The West Coast Get Down crew, we wanted everyone in the group to play on each others' album. So we spent that month, every day. I was the night owl. I'm the night owl dude that does everything at night. That's when I function. I had all of the nights. We alternated schedules and by the end of it, New Year's Eve, we got into a room around 10 PM and played our records. It was absolutely beautiful, man. We had a little bit of champagne. Miles [Mosley] recorded 20 or 30 songs, Kamasi recorded 30 songs, I finished my record. It was a beautiful thing.
What was it like seeing Kamasi's album blow up and jazz re-emerge thanks to that record? You spent years playing small gigs with the West Coast Get Down, and all of a sudden, there's a huge interest in what you're doing.
The reality of why it is what it is, is because it's real. It's truth. Every song works when it's real. Everything works when it's honest. Kamasi has been my best friend since I was born. We struggled from hot dogs and saltines to steak dinners and Gucci flip flops. We've been doing this. One thing about Kamasi that is honored by people and their response to this jazz thing, is that it's honest. Just like Sonny Rollins was honest, just like Pharaoh Sanders is honest, just like Kenny Garrett was honest, just like John Coltrane was honest. It's honesty. Honesty is what makes the music real to people.
It's different putting out an honest jazz record now than it was in 1965. It must have surprised you a little bit, the way people responded to The Epic .
No, man! It didn't surprise me because we were the ones in LA doing music like that. We were the only ones! That clique of musicians, the West Coast Get Down—including Thundercat—we were the ones. It wasn't even West Coast Get Down. It started in the 8th grade. Kamasi, Stephen Bruner, Cameron Graves, and I were the ones that started it. We decided then that we were gonna play what we felt like and how we felt like playing it. Those were my homeboys. We're a family. This is real life.
Do you call your brother Stephen or Thundercat?
I call him Stephen. I call him Thundercat for your writing purposes [Laughs].
You've played with so many musicians. Do you have an all-time favorite experience serving as somebody's drummer?
Man, I have way too many. We can go all the way back to when I was 15 playing with Wayne Shorter, we can go all the way up to me playing with Prince a few years back. I have to say, Prince… One of his other band members called my relationship with Prince "the honeymoon." I was like his little new toy [Laughs]. We could literally play anything. We were able to express ourselves rhythmically in a way he hadn't before. It was beautiful, man. I had so much fun. He was very nice to me, very kind to me, very respectful. I just love being around honest people; people that mean what they say.
That shines through on your record—the lyrics are pretty vulnerable and raw.
That's what I'm about. I'm about love. It brings a freedom to you. You don't have to worry about what others think. I just do me. I take chances and I express myself. I don't worry about what anyone thinks. I just move, man. With my record, it took me a while to finish because I'm a bit of a perfectionist. My goal is just to let people know that there are people making music that are saying something heavy. I'm about that life. Everything you hear on my record is something that's a part of me. Soul, prog rock, indie rock, jazz—that's all me. It's just honest. It's life. I'm very heavily influenced by what's around me. I don't take chances. I don't wait. I just go. Especially in this particular structure of life with everything that's happening politically, you just gotta follow your heart and go. Bless the people and give it to 'em.
In terms of the West Coast Get Down, how did playing with that group help influence the way you approached Triumph?
Being in that group, everybody is different. We all listen to different music. We're always around everybody's different version of musical happiness. So when you're a person like me, you hear something, and you incorporate it. It's freedom because everybody has a different version of happiness. I just tap into it. That comes from starting my drumming as a jazz player. Playing jazz, you're taught to be free. Playing gigs at eight years old, swinging. I started gigging when I was 8 and my dad was like, "If you're gonna play swing, you better sound like Tony Williams! If you're gonna play funk, you better sound like Jerome Brailey!" It's just second nature, man. It's just freedom.
It's refreshing to hear somebody speak so honestly about how proud they are of their work.
I just love it. I'm just so happy to give this to you. It took 8 years man! I'm so happy. I'm giving you guys my child, and I hope you hold him the right way.
Ronald Bruner Jr.'s Triumph is out March 3 via World Galaxy/Alpha Pup.
Will Schube is a writer and filmmaker based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter.