12:03pm

Sat July 20, 2013
The Record

Thundercat On Making Music Outside The Lines

Originally published on Mon February 24, 2014 7:41 pm

Session musician Stephen Bruner has played bass in other people's bands for more than a decade. He can play metal, R&B, hip-hop, jazz. And he's been folding all that into his own music, which he puts out under the name Thundercat.

Now, with his second album, he's stepping to the front of the stage.

Bruner knows everybody. He calls Robert Trujillo, who he replaced in the thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and who now plays bass for Metallica, his big uncle. It was as he was being introduced to the otherworldly soul singer Erykah Badu in a Los Angeles studio that Bruner, a little bit obsessed with the Thundercat cartoon, and usually wearing Thundercat T-shirts, got his stage name.

"I would be in the other room playing Xbox or something, you know, picking my nose," says Bruner, who was that day working with a group called Sa-Ra. "And I remember she asked — she was like, 'What does he do?' And Shafiq [Husayn, Sa-Ra's producer] was like, 'Oh, that's Thundercat.'" Nobody had ever called him that before.

"'That's Thundercat playing bass on all this stuff.' And she literally was like, 'Yup, you're coming with me.' That's one of my best friends." He calls her his ace.

In the mid-2000s he toured with original G-funk rapper Snoop Dogg. "It was so much fun," Thundercat says. "So much craziness. I would say it like: It was one of the biggest, blackest, bestest experiences I've ever had creatively, musically."

He was the youngest member of the band, and he got bagged on all the time. But, he says, every minute of it was amazing.

"I remember playing Billy Cobham's Total Eclipse for Snoop Dogg. I also played him Frank Zappa, Apostrophe. And I played him 'Saint Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast.' Snoop was sitting there with a blunt in his mouth and just listening to Frank Zappa go off. I'm running around doing cartwheels in my boxers in Snoop's room, spazzing out. I'm like, 'Snoop wants to hang out, yeah!' He loved it. He was like, 'This is fly. This is some cool stuff.'"

Thundercat calls Snoop his uncle too. "He was actually one of the first people to call me when my album came out. Called me just singing 'Daylight.' Just straight out — 'Dayliiiight ... yeah, what up cuz?' I was like, 'Hey!'"

"Daylight" is a song from Thundercat's first album of his own, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, which he put out two years ago on Brainfeeder, a label with multi-genre focus run by electronic musician Flying Lotus. Lotus says he and Thundercat, who met just four years ago, are kindred spirits. The bass player was all over Lotus' 2010 album Cosmogramma, and especially present on the song "Mmmhmm," where Thundercat sings, too.

Lotus executive produced Thundercat's second album, and he's had a front row view of his growth from sideman to frontman. This has meant a change in standard operating procedure. "It was a real shock for him to start making sure people gonna turn up for rehearsals and stuff. He's the guy who doesn't even think about that." Lotus says he's watched Thundercat grow into his own skin and become the guy who thinks, "I'm the boss now. I've got to make sure everyone's tight."

And, Lotus says, he can hear the results. "It's such a huge progression, just in terms of musicianship, his singing, the workflow. It's a lot tighter — the album is tighter. He's been singing live so his voice is stronger. We didn't use any kind of pitch correction or anything with his voice."

One of the new songs, "Oh Sheit It's X," is about a New Year's party that went on for two days. I asked Thundercat if it's a true story. "Yeah. It absolutely is. That's a story that actually happened," he says.

Flying Lotus was out of town. "It was so epic," says Thundercat. "And if you ask Lotus, to this day, he will still get mad."

"Oh yeah! Hell yeah I'm mad," says Lotus. "It just sounded like the best party ever."

The song would have been perfect for Soul Train. The bass is rubbery and sticky and weighs a ton. Though the lyrics are practical — "My friends say, 'You should eat something'" — the sound is delirious, like a sugar high.

Lotus missed the party, but he's the one who pushed Thundercat to include the line in the song that goes "Oh, s---, I'm f---ed up." Thundercat comes from a Christian background, and he wasn't the only one expressing doubts about the lyric. The bassist's older brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., told Lotus he was worried about that song.

"'You really gonna do that? You know Mom's gonna hear that. You know she ain't gonna like that,'" says Lotus, imitating Ronald. "I was like, 'Look look look. When people hear the song that's gonna be their favorite part of the whole thing.' He was like, 'Really? You think so?' I was like, 'Yes.'"

I asked Lotus if that's what executive producing means. "I am there to encourage him and discourage him," he says. There's a little more to it — sequencing, giving feedback and mixing. Lotus says it was easy to work with his friend. "There's no games. There's no games at all about the intensity and the passion that he has for it. Just give him a bunch of Red Bulls and some water. Maybe some water. And then some magic will happen."

And the new album, Apocalypse, isn't only funny songs about parties. "A Message For Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void" is about jazz pianist Austin Peralta, who died suddenly of pneumonia when he was just 22. He was a dear friend of Thundercat and Flying Lotus, and his death stunned them both. Thundercat wrote the song and recorded a demo of it, but when they went to record it for the album, Lotus says neither of them could do their jobs.

"Every time he would try to record the vocals he told me he would think about Austin. You could just hear him falling apart every take that he did. I say, 'Alright, we'll take a break.' And we come back, he gets some courage and then he starts doing it and I can't do what I'm supposed to do. So it was like, 'Alright, you know what? We're just gonna have to try and make the demo vocals work.'"

One of the things Peralta and Thundercat had in common was a refusal to abide by the restrictions of genre. "Austin said this in an interview one time," says Thundercat. "He says, 'There's only good music and bad music, and the truth is it's for you to decide what's good and bad for you.'"

The very idea of making only one style of music is perplexing to Thundercat. He says people ask him about it sometimes. "'How are you doing all that?' And I'm like, 'What do you mean how am I doing all that?' It's what we're supposed to do. I'm connected to all of it in a very major way. It's all coming from here, you know?"

He's pointing at his heart when he says that. Thundercat says he grew up spoiled by hearing all the music he did — both his parents are musicians. So is his older brother. "I would be listening to Manhattan Transfer and Cream. Mahavishnu and Jan Hammer, Andraé Crouch — and there's gospel music," he says. "I would listen to all kinds of stuff. Joe Henderson and John Coltrane. Half of the time I wouldn't be playing video games to play them — I'd be playing them to listen to the music." He was in church groups and mentored by Reggie Andrews, a legendary teacher at Locke High School in Los Angeles.

But Thundercat says he learned how to play bass when he was a little kid by listening to three musicians: "I learned by listening to Jaco and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller."

All three bassists — Jaco Pastorius, Clarke and Miller — have also played all kinds of music: jazz, funk, rock, folk, fusion, pop and R&B. Thundercat feels a responsibility to remind people — musicians and listeners alike — of how much they miss if they don't stay open to everything. It was Clarke who long ago told him something about music that's stuck with him.

"What is it for? It's for me to give to people. Stanley Clarke told me one time that we're servants — that's what our duty is," he says. "This art is a service."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Session musician Stephen Bruner has played bass in other people's bands for more than a decade. He can play metal, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, and he's been folding all of that into his own music which he puts out under the name Thundercat. NPR's Frannie Kelley says now, with his second album, Thundercat is stepping to the front of the stage.

FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Stephen Bruner knows everybody. Just ask him about Metallica's bassist, Robert Trujillo...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...and the otherworldly soul singer Erykah Badu...

THUNDERCAT: Ah.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...and original G-funk rapper Snoop Dogg.

THUNDERCAT: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

THUNDERCAT: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: He has stories for days.

THUNDERCAT: I remember playing Billy Cobham's "Total Eclipse" for Snoop Dogg. And I also played him Frank Zappa, "Apostrophe." And I played him, like, "Saint Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAINT ALFONZO'S PANCAKE BREAKFAST")

THUNDERCAT: And Snoop was sitting there with a blunt in his mouth and just listening to Frank Zappa go off. He loved it. He was like, this is fly, you know? He was like, this is some cool stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAINT ALFONZO'S PANCAKE BREAKFAST")

FRANK ZAPPA: At St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast, where I stole the margarine.

KELLY: Bruno calls Snoop his uncle.

THUNDERCAT: He was actually one of the first people to call me when my album came out. He called me singing "Daylight," just straight out, just (singing) daylight. Yeah, what's up cuz? I was like, hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYLIGHT")

KELLY: Daylight is a song from Thundercat's first album as a front man, which he put out two years ago. A little before that, he turned up on an album by another Steve, playing bass and singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, MMMHMM")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) It's plain to see, for you and me, love...

KELLY: That's Thundercat on the 2010 album "Cosmogramma" made by Steve Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, who produced Thundercat's new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH SHEIT")

KELLY: One song is about an epic, two-day long New Year's party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH SHEIT")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) The globe is spinning, and I'm not winning 'cause I thought before it too. And I don't know where the bathroom is, my friends saying you should be something.

KELLY: So is that a true story?

THUNDERCAT: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

THUNDERCAT: That's literally - it absolutely is. That's a story that actually happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH SHEIT")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I just wanna party, you should be in here and in this ecstasy...

KELLY: Flying Lotus was out of town.

THUNDERCAT: It was so epic. If you ask Lotus, to this day, he will still get mad.

FLYING LOTUS: Oh, yeah. Hell, yeah, I'm mad. It just sounded like the best party ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH SHEIT")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Oh (bleep) I'm (bleep) up...

KELLY: Even though Flying Lotus missed the party, he's the one who pushed Thundercat to include the line in the song that says, essentially: Oh, shoot. I messed up. Thundercat comes from a Christian background and Lotus remembers the bassist's older brother telling him he was worried about that song.

LOTUS: You really going to do that? You know, mom's going to hear that. You know she ain't going to like that. I was like, look, when people hear the song, that's going to be their favorite part of the whole thing. He's like, really? You think so? I was like, yes.

KELLY: The new album, "Apocalypse," isn't only funny songs about parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE FOR AUSTIN")

KELLY: "A Message for Austin" is about jazz pianist Austin Peralta who died suddenly of pneumonia when he was just 22 years old. He was a dear friend of Thundercat and Flying Lotus, and his death stunned them both.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE FOR AUSTIN")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I know I'll see you again in another life. Thank you for sharing your love and your life...

KELLY: Thundercat wrote the song and recorded a demo of it. But when they went to record it for the album, Lotus says neither of them could do their jobs.

LOTUS: Every time he would try to record the vocals, he would just, you know, he told me he would think about Austin. You could just hear him falling apart every take that he did. I'd say, all right, we'll take a break. And we come back, he gets some courage and then he starts doing it, and I can't do what I'm supposed to do. So it was like, all right, you know what? We're just going to have to try and make the demo vocals work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE FOR AUSTIN")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Though you traveled beyond, your legacy lies on. Now enter the void forever look on me.

KELLY: One of the things Peralta and Thundercat had in common was a refusal to abide by the restrictions of genre.

THUNDERCAT: Austin said this in an interview one time. He says there's only good music and bad music. And the truth is it's for you to decide what's good and bad to you.

KELLY: The very idea of making only one style of music is perplexing to Thundercat. He says people ask him about it sometimes.

THUNDERCAT: It's like, how are you doing all that? I'm like, what do you mean how am I doing all that? It's what we're supposed to do. I'm connected to all of it in a very major way. You know, it's all coming from here, you know?

KELLY: He points at his heart. Music is in his blood. Both his parents are musicians, and his older brother. He played in church, was mentored by Reggie Andrews, a legendary teacher at Locke High School in L.A. But Thundercat says he learned bass when he was a little kid by listening to three musicians.

THUNDERCAT: Jaco and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller.

KELLY: All three of those bassists - Jaco Pastorius, Clarke and Miller - have also played all kinds of music: jazz, funk, rock, folk, fusion, pop and R&B. And it was Stanley Clarke who long ago told Thundercat something about music that stuck with him.

THUNDERCAT: What is it for? It's for me to give to people. Stanley Clarke told me one time that we're servants. That's what our duty is. This art is a service.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'LL DIE")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Constantly, it's perpetual. Try to do your best...

KELLY: Thundercat says he grew up spoiled by hearing all the music he did. Now, he wants to share it all. He feels a responsibility to remind people of how much they miss if they don't stay open to everything. Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRON SONG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I always come back to you. Don't you worry about me...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on Programs and scroll down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.