"I want my music to be like a leather jacket," explains Stephen Bruner, AKA Thundercat. "You know, like you pass that on to your kids and be like, 'Take this jacket, and wear it!' Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, their music never ages. It sticks to your ribs. In music, some years just never happened." He is cheerful and enthusiastic, and almost more eager to talk about the state of music than he is to talk about his latest album, Apocalypse.
Bruner, who is now signed to Flying Lotus's LA-based Brainfeeder label and just served as a studio mentor for Red Bull Music Academy, might be one of few musicians qualified to make such a statement. He's worn many hats in the music industry over the years, from playing bass with thrash-punkers like Suicidal Tendencies, to backing up Erykah Badu, and producing his latest album with Fly-Lo, he has all the makings of a post-modern Renaissance man. It should come as no surprise, then, that he thinks a lot about the difference between ageless and momentary music. The man is surrounded by legends.
As a native Angelino in search of something outside the bizarre new rave culture that has spun off of the beat scene, I have to say Apocalypse is nothing short of refreshing. Bruner's soulful voice is often broken up by an exaggerated falsetto and accompanied by thumping bass lines and trance-enducing synth. It is a tribute to classic jazz and soul, N64 game soundtracks, and the dollar funk bin at the record store, all at the same time. And, in the spirit of Brainfeeder, Fly-Lo's signature rolling percussion comes through on it as well.
Whether Bruner's music will prove to be ageless is up to listeners, I suppose. But, with an all-star roster of friends and a confirmed collaboration with a Herbie Hancock (speaking of legends), it seems to me like Thundercat has a bright future ahead of him.
Noisey: Between RBMA in New York and touring it seems like you're always on the road.
Stephen: I'm one of those guys that just wakes up on the bus like "What city are we in?" By the time you tell me twice, I've forgotten. So I may call San Francisco "New Jersey." It's kind of like Spinal Tap.
How is it working with Fly Lo?
We spend a lot of time around each other. Our creative energies "level up" around each other a bit. He is definitely all over the album. I love the cats at Brainfeeder. I feel like I'm at home with them.
You've played big venues with other musicians. Does it feel different when it's just your music?
[Laughs] Before, I didn't have a problem looking people in the face because I was just on stage in the periphery. Now, they 're looking right back at me, so it's like I have to close my eyes.
Is songwriting newer to you?
Yeah. I was always used to just playing bass and singing other peoples stuff. And it makes me laugh, because I'm never in any of the pictures! I didn't care about any of that at first. I was kind of in-the-moment, singing background and playing bass. I didn't realize at the time that everything I was doing was indirectly training me to do it on my own.
So it's paying off now?
Yeah. And I just want to keep working and making music that people will love and connect to, and not look at it as some cool little thing that happened in music and just flashed by. It's funny listening to music from different points in your life and knowing you won't connect to it forever. Some years just never happened.
[Laughs] Never happened!
A lot of folks nowadays, especially on your label, produce their music on laptops, but you still work in the studio.
I have always been the cat that would rather be in the studio. I would rather be pushing towards a new sound, even if it's a little slower.
So you slow the production process down a little?
Just a little. But I have my laptop and microphone and Pro Tools on, and there is nothing going on there, but I'm looking at them now thinking, "There should be something happening." I can do work here, but I prefer to work with other people. It gives it a different energy.
Tell me about this collaboration with Herbie Hancock.
I don't want to get into it too much, but I'll say it like this: I will never forget first hearing "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" when I was a teenager. I had a moment and I had to pull the car over. It was whimsical. And now I will never forget meeting up with Herbie Hancock to play music at 3AM and Lotus and me put on J-Dilla for him.
Did Herbie like Dilla?
He had one of those moments. Lotus almost kicked over the computer and my head almost exploded. That is something I am very appreciative of. It's surreal to work with him. That's all I will say about the collaboration.
Whoa! I think I just had a moment… Anyway, you tour like crazy, you're in the studio on your days off, you are going to Australia next week… Are you going to chill out this summer or just keep moving?
Keep moving, man. It's a different day and age. You could probably sit back and hang out in the 70s—put out an album and be like, "Yeah, I'm chillin'." But nowadays, they are on it. You blink you are already behind. But it doesn't stress me out.
Apocalypse is out now and available for download on iTunes. Find out for yourself if it is 100 percent leather. You might even give it to your grandkids one day.