In less than a decade, Thundercat has progressed from being an in-demand bassist for the likes of Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus and the crossover thrash-metal band Suicidal Tendencies to a headlining superstar. In early March, he brought his instrumental virtuosity, charming stage persona and nearly unclassifiable songs to Washington, D.C.’s U Street Music Hall, performing for a vivacious crowd in support of his newly released third full-length, Drunk (Brainfeeder). The 32-year-old player, singer and producer, born Stephen Bruner, reconfigured his songs into hyperkinetic yet focused exploratory vehicles that blended influences from late-’70s jazz-fusion, funk, punk, electronica and confessional soul.
Still, the fiery musicianship didn’t get in the way of the songs, as Thundercat’s vaporous falsetto delivered favorites like the angst-ridden “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” the equally emotive “Them Changes” and the daffily escapist “Lotus and the Jondy.” Thundercat, drummer Justin Brown and keyboardist Dennis Hamm had the packed club under their cosmic spell. Many concertgoers sang along to Thundercat’s personal, even quizzical lyrics, on new material like the vengeful “Friend Zone” and “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” a loopy ode to his cat.
After delivering an exhilarating extended encore, Thundercat talked backstage about the brooding themes lurking underneath Drunk, reflected on his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and explained how he lured Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald into his artistic world.
JazzTimes: Talk about the experience of performing in front of a huge crowd and seeing so many people know all the lyrics to your songs.
Thundercat: It’s funny as shit. [laughs] And it’s the sweetest thing ever. It’s always funny because some of my lyrics are silly as hell. When I get to the certain part of “O Sheit It’s X!” and everybody screams, “Oh shit, I’m fucked up!” It’s never not funny. Even on the recorded version, I laugh at the lyrics because I had nothing else to say. But overall it makes me feel like the people really listen to my music. The music becomes part of them. [Here in D.C.] was the first time I heard someone harmonizing with me in the front row. That shit was really intense. I was like, “Whoa! This is insane.” But I really appreciated it.
Discuss the inspiration and underlying theme of Drunk.
In one respect it started for me at an early age, [with] me coming to terms with how rough the world really is. I’ve lost a lot of friends. My best friend, [keyboardist and composer] Austin Peralta, passed away not too long ago. I remember the night that he passed away. We’d decided to hang out, and this particular night I decided not to drink. But I remember him drinking so much in such a short time. I didn’t think anything about it. The next day, he passed away. That put life in perspective for me in a very big way. After that I lost a lot more friends; it went from that to [saxophonist] Zane Musa and Tim Williams, the bassist who replaced me in Suicidal Tendencies. I was just watching all these darker sides of things come out of my friends. That started becoming my story. That’s one way to look at this album. It’s sort of an observation and report of life.
One of the things I notice in your lyrics—even going back to The golden age of apocalypse—is your tendency to hide dark themes of isolation and romantic betrayal inside seemingly carefree melodies. Is that a very conscientious tactic, or does your music just naturally unfold that way?
A lot of times I don’t have a rhyme or reason for how my music comes out. Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, but without lyrics. Sometimes I would start with the drums or some chords, then put words to them. Everybody who plays an instrument has a sense of melody and harmony, even if it translates in the weirdest ways. It’s there for you to explore if you can.
One of the more surprising tracks on Drunk is the funk ballad “Show You the Way,” which features Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. How did that come about?
That was a crazy moment. There was a radio interview I did, someone asked me a question, kinda jokingly: “Who would you take on a boat with you, or who would you [want to] be stranded on an island with?” I can’t exactly remember the question, but without hesitation, I said, “Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.”
It was funny, at first. But the guy said, “You answered that really quickly.” I responded, “Those guys seem like they’ve gone through everything, and they know so much. I want to just hear Kenny and Michael talk about life.” From there, it became serious. When I finally met Kenny, he didn’t know if I was joking or not. He didn’t know if he should have been offended or not. From there, I got Michael involved.
Kendrick Lamar also makes a guest appearance on Drunk. During some of your recent concerts you’ve been playing his song “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” from his 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly, to which you contributed greatly. Did you realize during those sessions that that album would become an instant classic?
I didn’t realize it was going to be such a masterpiece of an album. I do remember having that overwhelming feeling of questioning, [like], “What are we doing?” [During the sessions], every now and then, I would poke my head above the sand, look up and hear how bright the music sounded. Still, I didn’t know what it was. Sometimes, I would hear different shades of stuff that would be breathtaking. I would have to go to the bathroom because I would almost be choked up in tears from just listening to what [Kendrick] was talking about. I had a couple of moments in which I thought, “This dude is really going for it. He’s not pulling any punches.” Watching his inspiration and watching his freedom was so intense. It was overwhelming.
Your music draws from such a wide range of idioms, from sci-fi-leaning jazz-fusion to Yacht rock to early-’80s electronica to hip-hop to funk. Talk about your process of assimilating all of that and more into a strong, identifiable artistic voice that is your own.
In L.A., growing up with Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Cameron Graves and my brother Ronald, we all grew up under Reggie Andrews [a now-retired music teacher at Locke High School in South L.A.]. He made sure that we would play with people like Horace Tapscott, Gerald Wilson and Billy Higgins. He made sure that that was a part of our [creative] processing, because it grounded us. With that being the root of my music making, I believe that [foundation] also came with a sort of freedom. Everything from recording to conversation to what we spent time meditating on was totally driven by that foundation.
There was a time when I sounded like Jaco. People used to hate hearing my bass playing. But I wasn’t scared when someone said, “I don’t like the way your bass sounds,” because I knew that there were people who didn’t like the way Jaco sounded. I knew people who didn’t like the way Marcus Miller sounded. I knew people who didn’t like the way Anthony Jackson sounded. It’s like you just had to have some balls about it. I just couldn’t care anymore. That’s the school we all came from. We just grew up with the “Fuck y’all” attitude. [laughs]