Thundercat Blends Pain and Humor on 'It Is What It Is'

Ahead of the release of his 'Drunk' followup, the 35-year-old virtuosic bassist talks to VICE about laughing through it all and the J. Dilla collaboration that never was.
April 3, 2020, 11:00am
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Nobody rocks an address book quite like Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner. Then again, nobody has a resume like him either. He's assuredly the only bassist in existence who has recorded with both unparalleled R&B icon Erykah Badu and Cyco Miko's thrash metallers Suicidal Tendencies. He's opened tours for Herbie Hancock and Flying Lotus, played on Kamasi Washington's critically acclaimed triple-LP The Epic and Kendrick Lamar's back-to-back Billboard 200 chart-toppers To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, and reunited yacht rockers Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The guy's a legend in the making, and he's only 35.

Thundercat the Great

As such, It Is What It Is, Bruner's fourth and latest album under the Thundercat moniker dropping via Brainfeeder this Friday, feels like a major musical event in the wake of the preceding Drunk. With features from Pharrell Williams, Wiz Khalifa, and the aforementioned Loggins-McDonald vocal duo, that 2017 breakthrough LP elevated him from local favorite to the new face of American jazz fusion, with confident yet playful grooves and songs about cats and personal hygiene bringing a millennial wit that resonated far beyond the subgenre’s expected audience. Embracing fusion’s somewhat muddled legacy while updating it with a contemporary hip-hop sensibility, both Drunk and its follow-up showcase a unique talent expressing himself through his myriad influences, musical or otherwise.

A quick glance at the It Is What It Is lineup demonstrates that defiant and malleable approach to the art of collaboration continues to drive Bruner’s process. He's taken singer Steve Arrington of Slave fame and airlifted him down onto a loungey future-funk single with Childish Gambino and The Internet's Steve Lacy. Hell, Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B are on the same damn track, "Fair Chance," which is dedicated to Bruner's erstwhile collaborator and departed friend Mac Miller, who had appeared on Drunk.

"A lot of the time this isn't always available," Bruner says, a paused Sega Genesis game glowing on his hotel room TV screen. He sits on the opposite end of a couch, chomping down on snacks in lieu of a proper lunch. "I'm grateful for the moments that I've had so far."

When prompted about those he wishes he'd had a chance to play with, he cites Frank Zappa and, with some bittersweet reflection, J Dilla. Bruner's first exposure to the legendary rapper/producer's work occurred at, of all places, church. In need of sustenance to keep from dozing between sermons, the impressionable adolescent took a snack break in the cafeteria where he found his friend Richie ditching to listen to something on his Walkman. It was Slum Village's "I Don't Know," an explicit highlight off the Detroit group's 1997 Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 bootleg.

"I was at church, like, yo, you're going to hell. What are you listening to?," he recalls having reacted.

Little did Bruner know that, years later, he would end up in Dilla's orbit. In the early-to-mid 2000s, he linked with Sa-Ra Creative Partners, a Los Angeles-based musician/producer trio. They were working at the time with artists like Bilal, John Legend, Pharoahe Monch, and the aforementioned Ms. Badu, the latter of whom would later recruit him as her tourist bassist and include him on both New Amerykah albums. Given the caliber of talent and celebrity in that circle, he kept his head down and stayed humble rather than geek out and fanboy.

"I remember J Dilla would be in and out every now and again," Bruner says of those days playing with the trio between considerable XBox breaks. "He was in a wheelchair. Nobody knew he was on his way out." At one point, Dilla approached him privately with praise, expressing an interest to work together. They exchanged numbers, as is almost comical custom in LA, leaving Bruner's ego boosted but without much confidence that anything would come of it.

Still, the possibility of a collaboration was far too tempting for him to stay passive over. He phoned Dilla while driving, and much to his surprise, he picked up and assured him that he hadn't forgotten about their chat. "He said to me, when I get back from Brazil, we're going to get to it," Bruner says, referring to a 2005 trip there with Madlib and photographer Eric Coleman. Afterward, he pulled his car over to reflect, stunned that this could actually happen. Tragically, after a prolonged period of chronic illness, Dilla passed away in February of the following year, closing the door on what could've been a legendary pairing. "I'm not coattail riding. That's somebody I would've loved to spend fucking years with working."

For all of Bruner's interests in hip-hop, R&B, and hardcore punk, his musical roots came from jazz, the lens through which his unconventional music perpetually shines through. As a teen, he played in a band at Locke High organized by local mentor Reggie Andrews featuring inner-city LA classmates including saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Bruner recorded an eponymous quartet album as Young Jazz Giants for Birdman Records in 2004, with drummer older brother Ronald Bruner, pianist Cameron Graves, and Washington rounding out the lineup, all of whom would later appear on The Epic.

Though obscured somewhat by the bonkers wonkiness of It Is What It Is joints like "Black Qualls," that formative training gave Bruner his hard bop chops, and instilled within him a now-longstanding appreciation for the power of improvisation that carries over into his live performances. "We intentionally leave room for that," he says. "I'm always looking for the chance to get in."

For inspiration, Bruner regularly reaches for records by Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman, alongside contemporary players like drummer Justin Brown and percussionist Dan Weiss. Far from a purist, he's also an unabashed lover of fusion players like keyboardist George Duke and Hancock who dared to affix and adapt non-jazz forms to the jazz idiom. " I always think about the fine line between pop culture and the actual reference to musicianship," he says. "The bandmates and people that I choose to be on tour with me, it's meant to be a mashup of those worlds.

Yet even as new ideas emerge in this setting, he's reluctant to turn those automatically into new material, even with mobile studio capabilities. "I felt more comfortable recording music on tour when I was with Erykah because I wasn't the focus of what was going on," Bruner says of writing on the road. "When I'm out nowadays, by myself, I tend to find that to be a bit jarring to try to record and then get up and rehearse. It's a lot."

As such, when it comes time to make a Thundercat album, he gives it his eccentric all. Much like 2017's Drunk, his breakthrough record following two apocalypse-themed others for Brainfeeder, It Is What It Is has a sui generis quality to it, a work of deft technical performance with all the winking insularity of an Adult Swim show. A groovy melange of anime, frazzled male sexuality, and copious amounts of cat hair, "Dragonball Durag" exudes his essence with unapologetic sincerity. On the similarly freeform Mile High Club come-on "Overseas," off-kilter Internet humorist Zack Fox chimes in as a flight attendant with an eye for "sloppy toppy."

"I was a class clown when I was a kid," Bruner says, to the surprise of no one who ever heard Drunk. "I used to get in trouble for stupid shit like mooning kids and making fun of my teachers." That sensibility comes through plainly on It Is What It Is, whether he's doing dazzling fretwork on the Kanye-winking "How Sway" or crooning about palpable anxiety on "Existential Dread." The barriers between seriousness and silliness here are delightfully porous, just the way he likes it.

"Everything we know about comedy is as a way to connect to people: laugh to keep from crying," Bruner says, before letting out a loud cackle. "Laughing is better than most shit."

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