As an Australian-based journalist, it’s a little rare to interview an American artist on the verge of an album release. But not as rare as it used to be: independent musicians now make the majority of their money touring, and that includes touring internationally. Sometimes the timing gets a little awkward.
I caught up with Thundercat last week, as he prepared to board the plane for a clutch of dates down under. It was a nice opportunity to chat about his new record, Apocalypse – an early contender for the year’s best – as well as his time touring with a variety of artists, including Suicidal Tendencies, Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg Lion.
But the centerpiece of the interview turned out to be a discussion regarding Austin Peralta. The young jazz maestro’s tragic death last year hit Thundercat hard, and subsequently influenced the direction of Apocalypse. Listening to him talk in such forthright and emotional terms about a lost friend still registers a week and a half later.
I know you were nervous before the release of your first record. How are you this time around? Better or worse?
I’m feeling pretty cool, man. I’m kinda settled into whatever this is and I’m ready for whatever’s coming. At first I was like, “What the hell’s going on?” But now I’m not as confused.
Were there particular things you wanted to move forward on this record compared to your debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse?
Well, not so much that in terms of expectations or goals. But the one thing that did surprise me more – even as I was going along – was that I was singing more. That was really interesting, because before I was never really interested in singing. I’d be fine singing background on somebody’s album, or even singing to get an idea out. But from the first album I never thought to do that, so on this one I’m singing way more, which is pretty interesting. To this day I’m like, “I dunno? Is my voice cool?” (laughs)
You co-produced with Lotus last time, as I understand it simply because you had so much material pre-written. This time you were working both with Flying Lotus and Mono/Poly, right? Were you all working together to generate song ideas?
That’s a very interesting question to ask. I spent more time with the music. But at the same time, me and Mono/Poly have been working for a little while anyway. I asked him to send me a couple of tracks and a couple of things to work on, and he sent over a couple of unfinished pieces, and what I would do is finish them and send them back to him. Say, ‘Oh Sheit, It’s X!’: Mono/Poly sent that and when I sent it back to him – and this is before the lyrics – with all this different stuff that had been done to it and he was like, “That was exactly what was supposed to go on the song,” and I was like, “Cool!” From there, I still didn’t have the lyrics or anything. The lyrics didn’t come until a little bit later and to make a song about ecstasy – I would have never fathomed that I would write a song about ecstasy.
And then me and Lotus: our process for working, when he decides to put his hand into something, he really gets involved and it doesn’t become a thing of who’s working more than the other, it’s kinda one of those things where he’ll say, “I had an idea for this.” He’ll present a certain idea or he’ll hear something in a certain way and it’ll be like, “OK, we’ll just explore the ideas as they go along.” Overall, it’s one of those things where at the end of the day it’s worth it all the time to hear what Lotus thinks what something should be. That’s just the relationship we share, creatively.
I think there’s this idea that your music is very much a meeting place between analogue and digital. Is that how you see it?
A lot of people don’t know that I’m also a beatmaker. I make beats and stuff like that, that’s how I started out also. But it’s also the fact that I’ve been playing bass since I was a kid and I never stopped doing that. I never let that disappear. I had a few friends who allowed that to disappear when they were growing up. If that’s how people perceive it, that’s beautiful. But more so I’m just trying to find the place where people aren’t so far off from each other. I don’t see a digital instrument as being far away from an electric or analogue intstrument.
The song about Austin Peralta – ‘A Message For Austin’ – that’s a beautiful moment. I’m guessing his death hit you hard.
Yeah. I was actually with him a few hours before he died. And it was actually a really traumatic experience for me. It was very difficult. It’s still very difficult for me to talk about a lot of the time, whenever people bring it up. It’s actually a bit hard to listen to the album straight through, also. I still have my moments onstage where I feel like he’s sitting next to me playing and singing. He’d be singing without a mic. It was like he was trying to sing too, like, “Yeah! Let’s sing!” And it’s like, “You don’t need a mic while you’re playing. You’ve got too much to say on your instrument!” (laughs) He would literally be singing ‘Daylight’ while we’d be playing, but without the mic. He’d just be screaming ‘Daylight’ while he was playing. So time-to-time I still feel that familiarity. And on that right side, because he’d always be on the right side. And every now and then it still gets me, y’know.
Did it help mold the album beyond that song?
Absolutely. A lot of the lyrics didn’t come to me until after he died. And they would usually come when there wasn’t music on, when I’d be sitting – and I rarely sit in silence (laughs). I don’t like dark or silence; it freaks me out. I can’t function unless there’s a TV and lights on – but there would be times when he passed that I would sit in silence. And “Message to Austin” was kinda like me saying, “Bye”. It’s like I wished I could have gotten a chance to say bye.
Austin passed before his time. Does it frustrate you, in a sense, that a lot of people missed out on witnessing his talent?
No. Not at all. It’s there for people to witness. It’s there for people to know that he existed. He left his stamp on this world the best he could. He was a virtuoso. People could recognize that immediately. It’s almost one of those situations where it’s shoulda-coulda-woulda, but he did what he was supposed to do.
Taking it back a little bit: playing with Suicidal Tendencies, Erykah Badu, Snoop – was that a valuable apprenticeship, covering so many different styles? Did it really contribute to what you’ve now become, as a bass player?
Yeah, absolutely! There’s nothing cooler than playing with people who allow you to be yourself and want you to be more of yourself. I’d be ecstatic. [Suicidal frontman] Mike Muir: as much of a punk as he is and a speed metal cat (laughs), the one thing that always made me happy was that he would always wanna see me go further. He’d be like, “You’ve gotta step out there!” He wouldn’t give me the Robert Trujillo talk too much, y’know, because he knew that people were going to do that already. Like every time we’d play there’d always be some super fan who’d be like, “I dunno, man. I kinda like Robert Trujillo better.” Or, “You kinda fill Robert Trujillo’s shoes pretty well.”
There would be those moments (laughs), but Mike would always be saying, “Dude. Do more. You gonna have to step out front.” If I was taking a solo or something he’d just stand there and wait for me to play more. I’d be like, “I’m done,” and he’d be like, “Nope. You still got more to say.” He put me out there.
Same with Erykah. Erykah put me right out front with her, and she would make me walk out: “You stand out front.” You don’t have situations like that every time where people are that supportive of your character and who they see you to be, or even more so who you see yourself to be. So a lot of those times that’s what it would feel like with the playing. As far as the playing, there was no such thing as, “You’re playing too much,” or, “You need to play less.” If it was something they saw that I was feeling, it was always, “Oh, that’s how you feel.” It was always encouragement, and they still encourage me to this day.
You’ve got perfect pitch, right?
Ahhhh (laughs). It’s a bold statement (laughs). I feel more comfortable saying I have relative pitch. But it’s something when I was younger, I was very strong with perfect pitch. And I still have that sensibility and I practice it as often as I can – trying to sharpen it up every now and again. If I hear a song and it’s in the wrong key and somebody’s singing it in the wrong key, afterwards I’ll sing it to myself in my mind just to make sure I’m not tripping. Or I hear a tone that’s off by a bit, I’ll sing the tone after it and try to make sure I hit the right tone from what I was hearing. I try to keep it sharpened a little bit, but maybe I could do better. I dunno.
Does that make it harder to work with other musicians, having that skill?
No, not at all. It actually makes it easier. I’m one of those guys who’s a firm believer in, “People hear what they hear.” And if they’re hearing something that you’re not hearing, it doesn’t mean that you’re messing up. You could be messing up by trying to act like you don’t understand what they’re hearing. I’ve been in sessions where people are like, “What key is this in?” And the guy who’s writing the music can’t tell you what key the song’s in. So are you going to literally hold the guy hostage to his own music because you don’t know what key the song is in? Nah, man! You figure it out really quick (laughs). You tune that instrument to where they’re at. So I try to use it as a tool to help me connect and communicate with people more, as compared to being difficult.
Because I have a couple of friends who are like that. I have one friend who might actually break a tooth when eating if you play a bunch of dissonant notes that are a hair out of tune. If he’s practicing the piano – and I’ve seen the guy do this, he practices maybe nine hours a day – but he’ll be playing the piano and if there’s one note out he’ll keep touching it like he’s autistic (laughs). “Stop touching that note, Cameron!” And he’s like, “This is outta tune.” “Well stop touching it! Just skip that key and go to the next one, please.” It’s like a comedy, man.
We’re talking because you’re coming down south to play some shows. How do you go about converting these songs to the live environment? Is it difficult?
No. Not at all. It’s actually really fun. I remember the first time I went to New York somebody thought I was a DJ. “I’m here to see Thundercat! Wait. It’s a band?!?” I didn’t know what to do: “What, are you leaving?” He was like, “Nah. Nah.” Nonetheless, it has a sensibility that will hopefully go between those two, digital and analogue. I hope that’s what people can take from it. Onstage, it comes naturally to play all the time. I feel like I’m in my element: “Yeah, I’m playin’. Yeah! Cool.” (laughs)
Will this be your first time in Australia?
Generally, because I’m thinking you’ve probably made it down this way with Suicidal, perhaps.
Oh yeah. I’ve been to Australia several times. I’ve come a number of times with Suicidal and Erykah. The last time I was at the Sydney Opera House I set my amp on fire. That’s something I wanna be able to remember in life and I wish somebody got a picture of it. It’d probably be the stupidest picture ever: me grinning and sweating and playing bass and not realising my amp is on fire. It was a surreal moment. The Sydney Opera House is this beautiful spot and my bass is so loud that it’s literally made the amp explode. And I think everyone is clapping because it’s really cool but then it’s like, “No, dude. There’s a guy with a towel behind the amp trying to knock the flames out.” (laughs) Crazy.
When your kids get shown pictures of the Sydney Opera House at school you can tell them, “I nearly burned that place down.”
(laughs) Yeah, man. But I’ll always have fun in Australia. I love the coast and eating in Australia. Australia’s awesome, man. Hopefully I’ll never get bitten by anything every. I don’t wanna get bit by a pigeon. I don’t wanna get bit by a turkey. I don’t wanna get bit by a spider. I don’t wanna get hit by a car. Everything’s just bigger in Australia. It’s unreal. It doesn’t make any sense.