We’ve Got A File On You: Thundercat
The bass virtuoso on video games, anime, Kendrick, Kenny Loggins, and more
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
At the end of the week, Stephen Bruner will release his latest album as Thundercat, It Is What It Is. He’s once again crafted an LP that, at times, feels like one long continuous piece — a 43-minute liquefied opus that exists in some unknown territory crossroads between soul, jazz, funk, and electronic. As ever, it’s the sound of a hungry, adventurous mind, one with years and years of musical knowledge and experience; it’s the sound of a virtuosic musician following a muse wherever it leads, then weaving all of those disparate threads into something deeply idiosyncratic.
Though It Is What It Is boasts the usual Thundercat quirkiness, you can tell it emerged from a particularly heavy period in Bruner’s life. While he was in the process of making it, he lost one of his best friends, Mac Miller; at least one song on the album, “Fair Chance,” directly reckons with that. And then last year, he opened up about his struggles with alcoholism and the fact that he’d managed to quit drinking. There is a lot of pain informing It Is What It Is, but between the warm welcome of all of its textures and the far-seeing space voyage of Bruner’s music overall, there’s a sense that perhaps some catharsis can be had.
The album is the anticipated followup to 2017’s Drunk, which maintained the intricate instrumentation of Thundercat’s preceding solo outings but with a greater focus on a more pop-leaning strain of songwriting. As a result, Drunk brought Thundercat a greater level of acclaim and notoriety than ever before. It Is What It Is could be the next step in his ascent.
But of course, Thundercat’s one of those names that’s been hanging around for years already. This is a guy who started playing in Suicidal Tendencies when he was a teenager, and later joined Snoop Dogg’s touring band, all before really embarking on his own trajectory as Thundercat. Since then, he’s worked with a wild array of artists, from close collaborators like Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, to monolithic names like Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, to less-expected turns linking up with old-school progenitors like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.
On the occasion of It Is What It Is, we caught up with Thundercat about his new album, and about all those disparate corners of his career. Newly in quarantine at the time of our conversation, Bruner was a bit reticent at first — perhaps not eager to dig into Miller’s death and how it effected the album. But as soon as I mentioned Grand Theft Auto, he audibly brightened, and our conversation went in all kinds of random directions from there.
“Black Qualls,” “Fair Chance,” And It Is What It Is (2020)
STEREOGUM: Drunk brought you a lot more attention. You’d already been playing with people for years, but I remember you talking around that time how you weren’t really expecting that kind of reaction. When you started working on a followup to that breakthrough, did you have a specific set of ideas or goals? Were you reacting to it at all?
THUNDERCAT: I feel like there is something symbiotic to the flow of how the albums go. They parallel real life a bit for me.
STEREOGUM: How so?
THUNDERCAT: From Drunk, to losing my best friend… not too long ago, I kinda talked about my problems with alcohol.
STEREOGUM: How does the lighter material like “Dragonball Durag” fit in? Was it you sort of trying to bring yourself back a little?
THUNDERCAT: I feel like, to some degree… it isn’t always bad times and stuff like that. I don’t know, with “Dragonball Durag,” sometimes… I always have this saying, it’s kinda true to life for me, “The truth is told in jest.” That’s kind of what that is for me. Sometimes life can be a bit funny, too.
STEREOGUM: I know this is sort of an impossible question, and maybe it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t resolve but more so moves in cycles: Once you finished the whole thing, and saw it begin to come out in the world, did that give you any kind of help in processing what you’d recently been through?
THUNDERCAT: Finishing the album? Well… in this specific situation, I think it felt like a bit of a whirlwind for me personally. I felt pretty weak emotionally throughout it. And if it wasn’t for Flying Lotus, I don’t think it would have been finished.
STEREOGUM: He pushed you to keep going?
THUNDERCAT: Yeah. I kinda feel like Mac’s death overtook everything for me, and it became difficult to sit and think straight, it became hard to process. If it wasn’t for Flying Lotus being there to help, as he always has been…
10 Years Of Flying Lotus Collabs, From Cosmogramma On (2010-Present)
STEREOGUM: Your relationship has been long and symbiotic — not only are you very present on his albums, but in some ways your albums have flowed in and out of each other. Do you remember the first time you two met?
THUNDERCAT: We met about a decade ago at SXSW. In the middle of the street, just completely faded. Bumped into each other through a mutual friend.
STEREOGUM: And you were fast friends?
THUNDERCAT: It didn’t immediately happen like that. It was one of those things where we knew of each other’s work a bit, and it was exciting to get a chance to work together.
STEREOGUM: He first approached you about playing on Cosmogramma.
THUNDERCAT: The first thing ever was definitely Cosmogramma, and it wasn’t formed as Cosmogramma yet. It was him working a bit. He sent over the song “Zodiac Shit,” and it was kind of the first thing we started to pick at and work on.
STEREOGUM: You’ve played on all his albums since, he’s produced you, you’ve worked on other things together. That’s a longterm, really intertwined partnership. Was that an immediate spark 10 years ago?
THUNDERCAT: It was very immediate. Me and Lotus have been speaking the same language for a long time.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned the personal role he played in this one. What about musically/aesthetically, did he encourage you at all there?
THUNDERCAT: Flying Lotus… it’s not that simple. I feel like Lotus treats my music like it’s his music also. There’s a lot of trust. I feel like he knows how to push me in directions that he sees, that I don’t always see. For me personally, there’s a lot of trust when it comes to these moments.
“Oh Sheit It’s X” In Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
STEREOGUM: FlyLo also had his own station in Grand Theft Auto V, and you had some songs featured. This is a pretty beloved game franchise. I don’t know if you’re a fan, but were you excited about it?
THUNDERCAT: I mean, do you play video games?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I love that game.
THUNDERCAT: Exactly. [Laughs] You know the answer to that one. I think that is damn near one of the best Grand Theft Autos, if not the best — you know what, now that you got me thinking about it, that’s what I’m going to play right now. That is, you know, that is a way to vibe out. For somebody to go so thoroughly through Los Angeles and give it a certain type of feel in the way that you can actually feel Los Angeles — I think that game really did that. Yeah man, that shit was awesome!
STEREOGUM: I guess it is a good quarantine game, still feel like you’re out and about.
THUNDERCAT: Hell yeah! Roll around LA and fuck people up and then blast your favorite shit. You can play my music? That shit was dope.
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask what your quarantine video game choices were going to be, but I guess we just stumbled upon it.
THUNDERCAT: Yeah I may give Grand Theft Auto a run-through. I’ve been playing Dragon Ball FighterZ but my tour just got cancelled. I’m just… I’m getting used to being home by myself again for a minute. I haven’t even put my clothes and stuff up yet. I’m slowly moving towards that. I don’t know what my game is right now. I’ve been on my Switch for a cool minute. I might pick up that new DOOM bruh, you see that new DOOM on Steam? Low-key, this shit might really kick off. It just took a second for me to feel it, because this stuff — this moment is unseen by anyone in our generation. We always heard about the Great Depression, the war, but our generations have never seen something this grand and terrible. I think the world needed this right now.
STEREOGUM: You mean like, as a wake-up call?
THUNDERCAT: This coronavirus thing, everyone’s hella stir crazy and everyone feels like they have to be doing something all the time. Truth is, life takes precedent. This is a good thing and a terrible thing. For every moment that happens like that, you just gotta go, “OK.” Of course I always say it is what it is, but … it’s a good thing. I’m looking around my house, I look like a giant child. I’m low-key chilling.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been trying to figure out –
THUNDERCAT: You’ll find it, for sure, you’ll find it. The ones that have been the internet dorks… this is what we do. Stay in the house and play music and play video games. The truth is, I’m also a musician, the other part of it is I’ve been playing and stuff, but yeah, it’s slowly coming to me that like, yeah, this is what I’m doing. I’m actually about to enjoy it.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you talk about this a bit. People talk about Thundercat albums and say it’s jazz, soul, electronic colliding, but within that I feel like I’ve also heard a lot of video game music. Like “How Sway” specifically, on the new album. Is that a conscious thing for you, certain video game soundtracks you go back to, or it’s just in the bloodstream a bit?
THUNDERCAT: That’s all I listen to is video game music! No, that’s not all I listen to, but what else is it there for. To be honest with you, I low-key hate a lot of these newer games and the way cats make games now, they skimp on the composition because everything’s cheaper and more convenient. I hate that. If you got guys like Masato Nakamura, who worked on Sonic The Hedgehog — like, classically trained musicians. There’s so much thought to the stuff they used to give us as kids. A lot of the time now, they almost look at it like, oh, we not that smart. If you make it for a person to be dumb, then of course they’re going to be dumb. But now we’re the people shaping this stuff. In a weird way, man, computer and video game music… I stay true to the stuff that molded or shaped my brain.
STEREOGUM: You said you were playing the Switch — did you get into the music for Super Mario Odyssey?
THUNDERCAT: [Starts singing Mario music] The thing is, we always know. That’s why Mario gets respect. The Nintendo company has always treated its gamers with love and respect. They don’t dumb it down, they keep it challenging and fun. That’s why we love Nintendo. Mario will never fade, because every time they do it, they have your best interest at heart. It was lit! I’m about to turn all the way up in my house, I’m about to be sitting here with a boner just playing Mario.
Anime And “Dragonball Durag” Video (2020)
STEREOGUM: I dug up this video of you doing this anime food explainer with Zack Fox. Obviously you’ve talked about anime a lot over the years, and now you have a song called “Dragonball Durag.” Similar to the video games, how much does anime music still impact you?
THUNDERCAT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, man. That’s a huge part of the processing.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything in particular you’ve been watching a lot recently?
THUNDERCAT: Oh, man, absolutely. I’ve been watching a lot of Inuyasha, Naruto, and Evangelion. Relating to these stories for me, it’s like life a bit. As far as soundtracks go, absolutely, these are what I’ve been into.
STEREOGUM: You and I aren’t too far apart in age. We grew up with Dragon Ball, it was always on. It’s in the title, it’s in the drawing for the single, you once played a late-night appearance in a Dragon Ball costume. Why is that the one that keeps coming back for you? Just that iconic, nostalgic aspect, or something specific about it that inspires you?
THUNDERCAT: Well, not only is Dragon Ball Z life, which we always say, it’s also because, when you come from an era of cartoons where people — like I was saying about Nintendo — when somebody makes something, and they really give a shit about what they’re making, you can’t deny it. It stands the test of time, because it’s so much more… I don’t know, you almost can’t figure out why it sticks to your bones like that. By the time you get older, you look up and realize you can’t find more of something that’s been given so much thought and care. There ain’t nothin’ to really compare it to. Because you can’t find anything in that manner, it tends to be a standalone kinda thing.
That’s why I feel like Dragon Ball stands out the way it does, because it’s really amazing. When I look at the interviews and stuff with Akira Toriyama, his views of it… these stories that come out in later years, how amazing it was for the cats that were creating it, it makes it so much more valuable. You realize they poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this stuff. It wasn’t some sort of joke to them.
That’s what inspires me when I make music. It makes me happy to know, it keeps me inspired, it reminds me to keep pushing. It’s not about the stuck at home coronavirus shit. It’s about the art. And remember that it’s always about the art. It reminds me there are no boundaries if you don’t want there to be any. That’s why I love anime, and that’s why I love Dragon Ball. It reminds you there are things so golden and so beautiful about this experience while you’re here, and you can be a part of it. Or create it. But you have to remind yourself of that, and that’s what anime does for me.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
STEREOGUM: You’ve had a lot of big collabs over the years, but one of your most involved was with Kendrick on To Pimp A Butterfly. What was your impression of him when you first met him? It seemed like he could’ve been a little intimidating even back then.
THUNDERCAT: Well, not so intimidating. I’m from Compton too. There’s a part of it like, especially with the different eras we’ve experienced in LA, from the riots to Rodney King to Latasha Harlins, the different ups and downs, or even now while we’re watching everything shut down… I understood Kendrick. As compared to intimidated, as compared to being put off by what he was exuding. I felt like I was with him. I felt like it was also me.
STEREOGUM: That album obviously has so much going on. You turned him on to some Miles Davis. When that whole thing started up, was it like you and FlyLo, everyone just making music and seeing how it develops, or were you trying to bring him specific ideas?
THUNDERCAT: I feel like Kendrick knew what he wanted. He had ideas. He was like, “OK, I want to see where I can take this.” I was more shocked… again, as I was saying with the music, it takes shape and form and you don’t always know which way things are going to bend. As I saw the shaping of this album and saw it come to fruition, I was actually blown away at that. That part to me was like, “Whoa, Kendrick’s on one right now.”
“Show You The Way” With Kenny Loggins And Michael McDonald (2017)
STEREOGUM: There’s been this whole interconnected LA scene in your career, which To Pimp A Butterfly helped crystallize, but along the way you’ve also had some collabs that were, at least at the time, more unexpected. One of those was with Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald for “Show You The Way” on Drunk. This started because you talked about being a fan of Loggins?
THUNDERCAT: It was actually my piano player, Dennis [Hamm]. He had done a bit of touring with Kenny. He would see me and how I took it seriously, it started like, I’d be talking about Kenny’s music. I feel like maybe he held it off, but he was like, “You know, I used to play with Kenny Loggins a bit,” and I was like “Oh, that’s dope.” It’s great when you can have moments where you can connect. There was no expectation, it wasn’t like, “Oh, OK, and now you will call him for me!” [Laughs]
There was nothing that was traded back and forth at that point, it was like, “Oh, cool.” As time progressed, Kenny, he got serious as to what that meant. I said it on a radio interview one time, how big of an influence he was to me, and I think he actually heard that. When he heard that I think there was part of him that was like… he was intrigued a bit. By the time he reached out to me it was more like an, “Are you serious?” I’m always joking about stuff, so I guess he thought I was being silly, but I was like, “I’m dead serious. I can sing you five of your songs right now.”
It was his suggestion that Michael McDonald get involved. I had no expectations. But I think he just knew exactly what needed to happen, and when he knew that I think that’s when he got excited. I don’t get a chance to talk about it a lot but that was a really special moment because they hadn’t worked together since the late ’80s. He said it in passing while we were working. I mean, they talked all the time, they’re friends and stuff, but the stuff they used to create together, like anything else in life, it’s always changing and morphing and becoming other things.
And so in passing while we were working, I heard Kenny and Mike chatting like, “When’s the last time we sat down together to write like this?” And I’m not joking, he said, “Maybe late ’80s, early ’90s?” To me, I was immediately like, holy shit. It was one of those moments, I could’ve just cried. For me personally, it was a really special moment: “Oh my gosh, this is coming together over my music.” That’s a really, really wild moment.
Meeting Joni Mitchell (2019)
STEREOGUM: My boss is obsessed with this Instagram. He told me I had to ask you what you talked to Joni Mitchell about.
THUNDERCAT: [Laughs]. Oh man. If you’re not into Joni Mitchell, you’re a piece of shit. We can’t be friends if you’re not into Joni Mitchell. Well, of course one of the first things I spent time talking to her about was Jaco [Pastorius]. It was a cool moment too because I have a portrait of Jaco tattooed on the back of my leg, and I was all super excited. I’m happy I got a chance to meet Ms. Mitchell, and seeing as she’s from a generation that’s slowly leaving… but Joni, I show her the tattoo, and the first thing she says to me is, “Yeah, I loved the guy too but I wouldn’t get him tattooed on me.”
It was a good laugh for sure. That was, even for her, at the time that his passing happened, that had to be difficult for her. I’ve read so much about how close they were and things like that. I feel like it maybe made her happy to see the music would translate the way it did. You know, I just asked her a few questions about what it was like working with him. I wish I had a chance to spend a little bit more time with her, it was kind of in passing. She’s good friends with Herbie [Hancock], and I think it was through Herbie that she found out about my music. And she wanted to see me play. That was a very important and beautiful milestone for me.
“Them Changes” (2015) And JoJo And Ariana Grande Covering It (2016/2018)
STEREOGUM: It almost feels like “Them Changes” has become a standard in the last couple years. I hear it all the time, it’s gotta be your most recognized solo song. When you wrote that one, did you think like, this is more of a pop single than I’ve done before? Did you feel something there or did it happen randomly?
THUNDERCAT: A lot of the time… I won’t be thinking, “This is a specific type of omen.” It’s something that gets written based on feelings. I just know I felt at the end of writing that song, and I remember… in the moment that it happened, it was a weird place, as it always is, but more than anything, I just personally felt happy with it. I just personally felt happy with being able to convey how I felt in such a manner.
STEREOGUM: So do you like Jojo’s cover or Ariana Grande’s cover better?
THUNDERCAT: [Laughs] It’s an interesting moment, to be honest with you. Ariana and I have become closer in light of recent events of course. I didn’t know how to feel about it at first. She broke up with my homeboy, and you know how we get about these types of things. Even for Mac, cuz he was alive at the time it happened, his reaction was pure shock. And I was also very, very much shocked about that moment. Again, it’s one of those things… I’m happy she did it. I’m very appreciative, and I’m happy she appreciates my music like that. And along with that, Jo is a friend. It’s unexpected for me, to be honest with you, it’s very unexpected.
Playing In Suicidal Tendencies (’00s)
STEREOGUM: You’ve played a bunch of different kinds of music over the years, and you’ve also spoken about how FlyLo was one of the people who encouraged you to sing, be more of a leading man and build this solo career. Back when you were first playing in Suicidal Tendencies, were any of these possibilities of a broad future in music percolating in your head? Or was it just kinda like, “OK, cool, I’m in a thrash band, this is my job.”
THUNDERCAT: I had no prior notion. I had no frame of reference like, someday I’ll be standing up here doing it by myself. I’m the kind of person that is usually in the moment of stuff. And I was very happy to be in the band.
STEREOGUM: You were really young then right?
THUNDERCAT: Yeah, I was having fun man. I was out there being crazy, you know?
STEREOGUM: Obviously your own music touches on a lot of different aesthetics, but do you ever get tempted to have a project where you play really heavy music again?
THUNDERCAT: I mean, I’m not opposed to it. I’m not opposed to it at all. Worlds are so crossed that sometimes I do wish that some friends would reach out. I think even for the people I grew up with around Suicidal — like Death By Stereo, Sworn Enemy, all those cats, Madball, Agnostic Front — all of the people I spent a lot of time around growing up, sometimes I wish those dots would connect more often. But sometimes my friends in that world don’t even recognize me. I’m a whole different person. I was a skinny, lanky kid running around. But I’m always looking for chances to connect the dots. Hopefully it’ll happen more often in the future.
Playing “Go Robot” With Red Hot Chili Peppers (2016)
STEREOGUM: Given that you were a kid in California in the ’90s, were the Chili Peppers important to you growing up?
THUNDERCAT: Oh hell yeah man. We loved the bands that forge ahead and stuff like that. That’s a home team, you feel me?
STEREOGUM: Had you met them before this performance?
THUNDERCAT: I had met Flea before, we always talked about trying to figure out ways to do something. I’m very grateful for Flea and the guys finding a place for me.
Scoring An Atlanta Episode With Flying Lotus (2018)
STEREOGUM: You had worked with Donald Glover before on Because The Internet.
THUNDERCAT: When he hit me to do [Atlanta], I could tell he was really inspired for something different. At first, that would be a moment that was overwhelming for me, but it was also one of those things. He reached out, and it immediately was like, “Oh, OK, let’s do something that can be very special for this moment.” And that’s what happened. We had worked together on many different occasions prior, but this was a special moment.
STEREOGUM: Is it something you’ve thought about trying to do more, scoring movies or TV?
THUNDERCAT: Eh, not — again, I tend to think in the moment. If an opportunity presents itself, of course.
Playing With Kamasi Washington
STEREOGUM: There was this whole community you came up around, including Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin, this group of friends playing jazz growing up and then kind of getting this wider recognition for this intersectional, boundary-breaking stuff in adulthood. You know, you and Kamasi have played together since, you’ve been on his albums, he’s joined you onstage. Is it ever surreal, thinking about knowing each other back then and now everyone’s playing on each other’s albums?
THUNDERCAT: It’s not far-fetched. It feels like it’s just what happened next. The part where our lives have spread out a bit is pretty trippy, where we used to spend so much time together. Now we’re individually doing our own things and stuff, that’s more of a trip.
STEREOGUM: Like you said, you live in the moment. But did you ever think about the idea of a bigger collab between all of you, like doing one whole record all together?
THUNDERCAT: I feel like … it’ll happen. Naturally, I would imagine, at some point.
A Predictably Strange Appearance On The Eric Andre Show(2016)
STEREOGUM: I mean…
STEREOGUM:… like, how did they pitch this to you? Or, did they not pitch it, exactly?
THUNDERCAT: I wasn’t really told about the naked dude that came out. I don’t know, I’m just about half-expecting to get shot out of a cannon at any time.
It Is What It Is is out 4/3 via Brainfeeder. Pre-order it here.