Grammy-winning, multi-instrumentalist Stephen Bruner, better known as “Thundercat,” lost one of his best friends, Mac Miller, nearly two years ago.
When Miller died unexpectedly in September 2018 at 26, the loss reverberated across the hip-hop community, with tributes to the rapper pouring out on social media from industry heavyweights, including Chance the Rapper, Sza, and, of course, Thundercat.
“I think about Mac all the time,” Thundercat said. It’s a state of mind that is helping the musical savant, who has worked with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, and Flying Lotus, get through the coronavirus pandemic.
Thundercat fuses jazz with hip-hop and is perhaps best known for his affinity for bass (he can slay with vocals, keyboard, drums, and guitar). And if you know Thundercat, you know Thundercat: his kaleidoscope aesthetic of bright colours, eye-straining patterns, animal ears, and often hot pink hair is hard to forget.
It’s a shame, then, that Thundercat released his fourth studio album, It Is What It Is, earlier this month to critical acclaim—with no tour in sight.
Noisey called the album “a major musical event” in which “the barriers between seriousness and silliness are delightfully porous.”
As you read this, Thundercat is likely taking it easy at home in Los Angeles and digging deep into his anime proclivities. “Everyone who has that kind of hobby is faring well through this,” he said. More importantly, he’s applying the lessons he learned with Miller to the pandemic era.
VICE caught up with the 35-year-old artist to find out what it’s like to drop an album at the height of a generation-defining crisis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: How are you doing right now with quarantine?
Thundercat: I’m just chillin’. I feel like I’ve watched a lot of anime. A lot of Naruto. Anime nerds are really well-equipped for this moment. It’s a chance to fully watch all of this shit I’ve been meaning to watch.
I bet. So, what’s a typical day in quarantine like for you?
I wake up, kind of cry, and realize every day is the same. And then, I turn on Naruto. I think about working out and think about making music. I remember I can still order anything I want to eat—like I really think about it for a long time—and don’t order anything to eat. I then start having a full conversation with Tron and start sniffing around the house to see if there’s anywhere she’s peed to mark her territory that I can’t see.
Is that your cat?
What if I said that was my homegirl?
So, your girl pees all over the house.
I wish I had a girl to pee all over the house.
[ Laughs ] OK, so it is a cat.
Yeah, that’s my cat, (whose full name is) Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally Uzi Clip. I don’t have a girl that pees all over the house. That'd be great.
You just dropped your album It Is What It Is and you obviously can’t tour right now. What is it like dropping an album in the middle of a pandemic?
I don’t know how I feel about it. I make myself more available to my fans on the internet, you know? But the reality is I’ve been watching Naruto the whole time. It’s been like two or three weeks of straight Naruto and, like, I think I’ve eaten maybe two or three times. [ Laughs]
I’m just kinda taking it easy. I don’t know if catharsis is the right word to describe that fact that nobody can do anything right now. Personally, I just feel like we all needed this, to be honest with you. We needed a moment to step back.
The pandemic is like a big mirror.
Yeah, everybody is standing in front of a giant mirror and it’s a good thing. It’s a moment to be introspective. You just have to let the waves wash over you.
I feel like I’ve been in that over the last year, so I kind of feel like I was already emotionally prepared for this. After Mac (Miller) passed and a couple of other massive events like that happened, it forced me to sit down.
So my tour stopping feels right. I already felt previously that my tour would stop. This is all kind of like: “Ha, funny, maybe I need to sit down.” So, that’s kind of what I’m doing. Sometimes I pick my days up. Sometimes I draw. Definitely a lot of anime watching.
It’s been fun watching my friends tailspin emotionally, but also horrible. It feels like everyone is losing their minds.
How is the hip-hop industry responding to all of this?
Honestly, I’m really enjoying seeing my friends’ personalities come out in the funniest ways on everything from Instagram and elsewhere. It’s kind of like watching the person they hid from you now on the internet.
What do you hope happens after the pandemic ends?
I hope everyone will be able to laugh at it. I hate this.
Well, I don't think I hate it, to be honest. I’m enjoying it, but I just hate that we don't care about each other more.
Every generation has their different experiences that are definitive. But the thing about having the internet now is you get a front row seat to how terrible people really are sometimes. And people are literally trying to capitalize on the type of stuff we’re experiencing right now. It’s really pitiful to watch politicians just be complete and total asses. It’s humans in their worst and humans at their best during the pandemic. That’s all I can take from it.
What advice do you have for people going through this?
My advice is the same advice Mac and I used to give each other: “Sit down and let it happen.”
I miss one of my best friends in the world, so I'm thinking about him. But same as it ever was, I feel good right now. It is what it is.
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