As a child, Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, experienced a similar upbringing to most 80’s babies. He dug cartoons, video games and music — “kid stuff” as Dave Chappelle once put it. Those hobbies become obsessions as his adolescence extended.
In any other family, they might have incited a Ritalin prescription. Thankfully, Thundercat grew up amongst a close-knit circle of musically gifted parents and siblings; by his freshman year in high school, he was already touring abroad with a pop group signed to Universal.
By the time he was an upperclassmen, he’d joined the legendary punk group Suicidal Tendencies, before returning to his jazz and funk roots while collaborating with madcap visionaries Sa-Ra and J*DaVeY. On a trip to SXSW with the latter, he met Flying Lotus, whom he later collaborated with on Cosmogramma, lending a highly evolved avant-garde feel to the composition and arrangement of the project.
Shortly thereafter, Lotus returned the favor, producing Thundercat’s first solo album, “The Golden Age of Apocalypse,” and releasing it on his Brainfeeder label this summer to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Taking breaks to admire his new kitten and curse the obnoxious neighborhood landscaper, Thundercat recently opened up about the making of the album, his deep-rooted inspirations, and what it was like to tour with a punk band as a teenager. —Aaron Frank
I read that you had started training around age 4 and I know several members of your family were musicians as well. Do you remember anything specifically drawing to the bass as a child?
Well I had a creative household, but nobody else in the house played bass, so it wasn’t about that. My house was kind of like it is now to some degree. I had a cat and Thundercats and paintings. Nobody else in the house really painted, so it was more so records. It just kind of felt right in line with what was going on at my house. Picking up an instrument like that didn’t feel weird to me.
What made you decide to take Thundercat on as your artist name?
I think Erykah was the one that started calling me that when she first met me, but in Sa-Ra my name was Thundercat also. It was around that time of working with J*Davey, Erykah and Sa-Ra. We were all in the same house a lot. I mean, I had it tattooed on my hand and usually I’d have a Thundercat shirt on. That would be the joke, “Why do they call you Thundercat?” and I’d open up my jacket and the logo would be right there.
Both of your parents were professional musicians, and I know your father played drums with The Temptations. What type of music was your mother involved in?
My mom was a flautist and percussionist. She’s been playing in church her whole life also. I remember her playing in the Philharmonic when I was a kid. She’d be doing that every once in a while, and yeah my mom was an artist. If you were wondering where I get all of this weird creative energy like that, it’s from my mom. She makes jewelry, and she’s just a total hippie mom. They were “Hippie Christians”.
Your father and your brother were both drummers though. Did you pretty much have to teach yourself?
There were people outside the house too. We were kind of like NAMM show kids. Every year we went to the NAMM show and I guess throughout the years some people were able to watch us grow. Stanley Clarke used to watch my brother all the time, and it was just one of those things that was in the house. I guess it was just having the opportunity to even be exposed to it. Sometimes just letting your child being exposed to something can totally change their life.
So it was just something that kind of stood out to you?
Right, strings stood out to me all along. At one point I played violin also.
With your parents both working as musicians, did they ever bring you out on the road for any shows when you were younger?
Not when I was a kid. I started traveling around maybe 14, 15, right out of middle school. I played in the high school jazz band in middle school, and we played at Laker games and all that stuff. Suicidal hit around the same time too when I got to high school. I was actually traveling with a band called No Curfew at the time too. We were signed to Universal/Polydor in Germany, so my first year of high school was the first time I went to Germany.
With most of your background based in jazz, how did you initially get involved with a pop group?
It was just part of what comes with the territory. You get all sorts of things thrown your way as a child and it just seemed like something that was a good thing to do, creatively and experience-wise.
So you were signed to a major label when you were pretty young then. Did that experience have any impact on you?
It’s whatever. Nowadays a major label doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s probably cool to have that experience though now that you’re older.
I would absolutely agree with you on that. Not everybody gets to experience that in such a manner, as far as being in control of what’s going on, making money, and traveling.
So around the time you got picked up for Suicidal Tendencies, what were some of the things you were listening to in high school?
Korn, Pharoah Sanders, Parliament, Rage Against the Machine, John Scofield, Billy Cobham. I think it was in high school when we discovered the Max Morgan Band. Like I said, it was like a melting pot in my house musically, so I had my brother, the greatest drummer in the world, and everything he was listening to. My brother was playing with like Kenny Garrett and Billy Childs when he was younger. Stanley Clarke and Allan Holdsworth, all that stuff was going on. They were in the house.
It was almost like the music we were listening to was prepping us in a way.
It’s weird how it works too because playing those instruments ourselves, I’m sure it doesn’t translate the same way to other people. But sometimes you just have to let a child know that there’s more than what’s right in front of them that they should be listening to, so I do that with my daughter. I play her Stanley Clarke and George Duke and all that stuff, and she listens to music and can tell the difference between good music and bad music. It’s just good to have references like that.
Joining Suicidal Tendencies at such a young age, what do you think is the important thing you’ve been able to take away from that experience?
Well I still work with them. It’s definitely one of the more amazing experiences in my life, and since they were like family, it was more of like a brotherly experience. I learned a lot. I’m still learning a lot.
So how did that opportunity initially come about for you?
My brother was playing drums for them and this was around the time when they had slowed down releasing albums, and Robert Trujillo had moved on to Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica. They were kind of looking for a bass player and my brother just kind of recommended me to them. I was just a little lanky kid tagging along to rehearsals and I just picked the stuff up really quick, and it literally just took off.
What was it like touring with them while you were still in high school?
I was only about 16, missing classes and coming in to classes just knocked out. It was funny, like that could be part of a sitcom or something. People would ask what I had done the night before, and I would tell them I was about playing for 60,000 people. It was like the real life “Hannah Montana”. I’d do a concert at night and then come to class and just lay my head on the desk.
So how did you get involved in all of the different side projects with people like J*Davey and Sa-Ra?
It was actually all around the same time. Working with Sa-Ra just kind of came from being close to home. I would always be at the Sa-Ra house hanging out, and with J*Davey, I was kind of there for the inception of their first album. It wasn’t like I was looking for something to do. It was just all happening around the same time. I was also traveling around with people like Eric Benet at the time.
It wasn’t that I was looking for something, but these people are more like my family. Taz lives right down the street from my parents’ house. With J*Davey, it’s all family and friends, and even with Flying Lotus, I didn’t even realize he lived right down the street from me. I was like “Where have you been this whole time? We could’ve been making music.”
How did you two originally meet then?
It was at South by Southwest. I was out with J*Davey at SXSW doing a few shows and I just ran in to him randomly on the street. He had heard of me and I had heard of him, and we just started hanging out. It was like “Where have you been all my life?” It was great to have someone that thinks the same creatively.
You clearly had a big influence on his album Cosmogramma stylistically. What was the process like in the studio for that project?
It was fun. I’d show up at the house, get wasted, and create. There were ideas there already, but he would just ask what I heard, and I’d play whatever I was thinking. It was just very free-spirited.
Getting the chance to work with Sa-Ra who are so experimental and creatively outside those traditional boundaries, was that sort of a defining moment for you?
Yeah, that was a defining point for me. People got a chance to partially see me as an entity or like a piece of something. In a very interesting way, I was a behind the scenes kind of guy. I’d never be in any of the pictures or anything. It was kind of like Billy Preston with The Rolling Stones. It was like, “What’s that weird black guy back there doing? Is he picking up cables?” No, he’s playing with The Rolling Stones. It was kind of like that for me with them, but I still had a pretty major role.
So I’d imagine with you having such a free and open process with Sa-Ra that it sort of naturally transferred over when you started making the record with Flying Lotus.
Yeah, it was totally from the heart. That’s how I try to do things usually.
You had also been touring with Erykah Badu for a while before that as well. How did that come about?
I had been touring with Erykah for years by that time, maybe three or four years. I met her at the Sa-Ra house when we were working on The Nuclear Age of Evolution and Dark Matter and Pornography. I think we started working on The Hollywood Recordings around the same time too.
So when you started working on your own record, was there a specific theme or direction you wanted to take?
No. I just literally decided what sounded good and what didn’t. There wasn’t really much of a direction per se.
Would you bring an idea to the studio and FlyLo would help flesh it out or was it more collaborative?
It was a mixture of that and just creating going on. It wasn’t just me bringing him stuff. Like “For Love” was definitely created by the both of us
You tend to have these extended jams during your live performances. Do you ever get any ideas from that or is it totally separate from the concepts you build upon in the studio?
No, it’s its own separate thing. It all has its place. I want to actually get in to freestyling more on stage live, but people want to hear these tunes. Improvisation is where I come from though. I’m a jazz musician.
The vocals were really great on this record too. Was this one of the first projects you had sung on?
I’ve sung on other people’s records. I’ve sung on J*Davey’s records. I’ve sung on Sa-Ra’s records. Me and Erykah are singing on the next album. So here and there, but I had never really thought I’d be singing on my album like that. There’s another one of those things that just comes from the territory I guess. I’m not saying I’m a singer but the way I look at it, if Tony Williams can sing on his albums, I’ll definitely sing on my albums if that’s what I want to do. So I guess hearing those songs, it kind of felt like something I could sing and write lyrics to.
You mentioned Tony Williams. Were there any other artists you sought inspiration from while making the record?
Mr. Oizo, Gino Vanelli maybe.
Mostly non-traditional composers and arrangers though.
All time favorite artists?
That’s not fair. Give me a second. Paul Jackson, Stanley Clarke. One of my favorite artists of all time is Leon Ware. Larry Graham, I love that guy. Naturally Bootsy and all the bass players. Adrian Ferrada, Tony Williams.
Mostly jazz musicians or people influenced by jazz. Most of the time when it’s even influenced by jazz it seems a little smarter.
People don’t even have a clue nowadays about jazz. I feel like it’s always been ahead of its time. Even my favorite electronic producer other than Lotus, Mr. Oizo, I’m sure if you asked him he’d say the same thing. He’s a jazz musician at heart.
What’s the meaning behind the title of the album?
My mother actually named the album. She got the name from the Bible. It’s exactly what it says though. It’s just like watching the days go by and waiting for the earth to explode. (laughs) Like, I don’t know what’s going on but it feels like it’s about to explode.
At the same time though, I think that fear of the unknown is driving a lot of people creatively and people seem to be opening up more as well.
Yeah, I can definitely agree with you on that. It’s kind of put a different feeling in the air. People’s energy is different right now. It’s the same with how they function with each other and just across the board. At the same time, The Golden Age of Apocalypse could just mean change. It doesn’t mean that anything’s over. It’s just a changing of the guard.
Having all that creative energy to harness from other projects, did you pretty much see this as the perfect time for you to release a solo album?
Absolutely, looking at it in that respect. I wasn’t expecting to do it like this, but I would definitely agree that it’s the right time. It would see as if it is, and I’m definitely a person that’s for the flow of things sometimes. It feels like that too though. I can’t really make up for it.
Having this first album released to such positive feedback, are you already thinking about other ideas or at least concepts you’d like to pursue on your own?
Definitely. It’s still time to be creative, still time to do a million things at once. It’s just part of the process. I don’t really look like it as “Ahh. I’ve done an album. I can chill.” It’s not time for that. It’s more time to stay focused and get better and just practice more.
Who designs all of your costumes and things you wear on stage?
I have friend named Danny Persod and he has a company called Lavish. He’s my personal designer and makes a lot of the different things I wear. I’m definitely in to fashion like that though.
What do you think it is that’s making not only artists but audiences get so involved in the visual aspect of live shows?
We live in a very fast-paced world. It’s not just saying, “Look at me.” For me personally, I’ve always worn things like that. I mean, you’re lucky you didn’t catch me walking around the house with a cape right now, swinging one of my swords around or something. But for me, fashion is another extension of creativity and I do things like that for myself because it makes me feel good and it kind of comes natural. I just think when you’re giving somebody a show, you need to give them a show though. That’s just what it is.
The word “jazz” scares people, but they don’t realize everything they’re listening to is just a chopped up form of jazz. With the visual thing, it just kind of goes like that. People want to be able to see something that hits all the senses. They’re lucky I don’t just start putting DMT in smoke machines and letting those go off on the audience like a Batman scene. Everyone would come out of the concert completely changed.
Do you have plans to do an actual tour for the album?
Yeah, I plan to next year. It’d be nice to get out there and do some things. New York, LA, I’m actually getting ready to go to Tokyo and Japan. Me and Austin Peralta are doing a couple shows out there.
How have the collaborations with Austin Peralta been coming along?
Crazy. Check out how small the world is. I’ve been playing with Suicidal Tendencies since I was a kid and I know his dad Stacy and stuff. I knew Austin when he was a kid, but I didn’t know his last name, and I just remember him being kind of a little jerk when he was younger. He walks up to a bunch of Black musicians and he’s like “I really don’t like Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter because they don’t really play well in this setting.” And everybody was just like who is this little guy? My brother played with him though, and years later I still didn’t know his dad was Stacy Peralta, who used to come and hang out at all the Suicidal Tendencies shows. And now his son is like the most talented piano player in Los Angeles.
Well you guys are definitely two of the best jazz musicians in LA right now. Any plans for an album together in the future?
Hell yeah. I would love to do that. Right now we’re just kind of floating around and making music, beating each other up, getting wasted and acting silly.
MP3: Thundercat-”Shenanigans Pt. 1″