It was only a matter of time before Thundercat moved out from the shadow of key collaborators like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar and asserted himself not only as a world-renowned warlock on the six-string bass, but a visionary solo artist channeling Bootsy Collins and Jaco Pastorius in the service of his celestial blend of funk and jazz. These days, Thundercat often finds himself on airplanes, shuttling from gig to gig. He takes so many flights that he felt compelled to write “Overseas,” a 89-second bit of tuneful muzak from his new album that pays homage to jet-setting romance and plane sex. In this song, his friend Zack Fox describes him as the “shiny black man up there in first class, getting some sloppy toppy.”
Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, is not just a musical virtuoso – he is also a comic social media virtuoso. In a recent tour announcement video, he made vigorous love to a Snorlax doll and ate Fancy Feast with chopsticks while the tour dates (since “cancelled AF” due to the covid-19 pandemic) scrolled across the screen at a nearly unreadable speed. His Twitter presence can be roughly divided into four topics: farting, pooping, anime, and the dangers of riding Bird scooters. Part of the draw here is that he is not some bored teen with too much time on his hands, but rather one of the most iconic bass players on the planet, whose restless creative energy spills out chaotically onto his internet accounts.
Thundercat is 35, on the cusp of middle age. Motivated in part by the death of his close friend Mac Miller, he quit drinking last year. (“15 years of my life I was a raging alcoholic,” he wrote recently on Twitter.) On his new album It Is What It Is, he heads out on an existential journey that strikes a sharp balance between melancholic soul-searching and his potent goofball sense of humor. His soft-edged falsetto, ruminative, arpeggiated bass lines, and frenetic funk grooves allow him to straddle those two sensibilities. His heart feels heavy one moment, feather-light the next. Such is the cosmic slop of Thundercat.
One day in mid-February, Thundercat donned Chanel leopard-print cat ears, Gucci earmuffs with accompanying sunglasses and came by Highsnobiety’s New York office to break down each song on It Is What It Is. Here’s what he had to say.
1. “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26”
Space is always the place. And it does feel like we're all just floating in space alone.
2. “Innerstellar Love”
It’s very natural, it’s my older brother [Ronald Bruner Jr.] playing drums, Kamasi [Washington], [keyboardist] Brandon [Coleman], people I've grown up with my whole life. It was totally natural. Kamasi and my brother grew together in many different ways, and there were a couple of moments they would catch with each other sometimes. I recognized these moments from when I was younger and playing with them a lot.
I had to be like 13, 14, 15 or something like that, [when I first played with Kamasi]. I was just like a kid watching cartoons. I didn't have no introspective, ‘[Kamasi and I are] gonna be something one day!’ It was just watching cartoons and jacking off, bruh. Still doing the same thing.
3. “I Love Louis Cole” (feat. Louis Cole)
I never missed an opportunity to tell my friends I love them. Even before Mac passed, I always made it a point. It's kind of like with Stevie Wonder said. You got to tell your friends you love them. and you got to mean it. Love isn't just the feeling of getting in the action and all the different things that follow through with love. They're different types of love.
Louis, we've been in each other's lives at a capacity where we've seen so many crazy changes together that you hold on to each other for dear life in different respects, and sometimes you push off of each other. But it's always this weird, intertwined reality that you exist in.
Working together, we would have these little minuscule, weird moments. He'd be like, [adopts serious voice] “See. you should play more than once before you record.” It's always in love that he does it. You know, it's not some shit where he's like, looking to throw you off the edge of a cliff because YOU suck, which is always the looming fear. Like, do I suck? Like, “noo!!! Please tell me I don't!”
4. “Black Qualls” (feat. Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, & Childish Gambino)
Steve Arrington, his swag, the way he carried himself over the music, it always spoke to me. it's unmistakable. We had talked about working together for quite some time and didn't know how it was going to translate. We were supposed to do a giant funk album or something crazy. I don’t think it was that exactly, it was just trying to find the ways that can translate as newer and cool and dope.
This song started between me and Steve Lacy. I immediately invited Steve Arrington into the picture, and he was totally into it. He liked the song, I think that was the first key thing. You can feel it in the way he's singing it. You can feel that he's enjoying what he's doing with it. And that was so important. In hindsight, I'm just like, “Woah, that was an important moment, because he's doing full Steve Arrington. He’s doing all the different mannerisms, all the stuff that he does!” I was floored as it was happening, when he was sending it over. I was just like, “Good God. This is exactly what this needed.”
5. “Miguel's Happy Dance”
The song was created with Miguel [Atwood-Ferguson]. He was playing keys. I feel like a lot of the time with the names and titles of the songs, they get left what they are, because they’re almost perfect as is. Like, “Don't change it. That's what you were thinking when you created it.” There's probably an effect or a moment that happened where you had a chance to see Miguel go do some happy dance of some sort. I think that somewhere between writing the lyrics for the song and creating the actual music between me, Flying Lotus, and Miguel, that’s how it made me feel. Because even lyrically for me, it's one of those things where it’s like, “Just do the fucking happy dance.” You have to just do that sometimes.
6. “How Sway”
I just try to create with a blank slate. I kind of feel it out. I enjoy a chance to get to push myself into always having to do something dexterous or write music that would cause a challenge of playing it. I just really like this song. It's funny to me.
On Kanye’s “How Sway!” meltdown:
That’s just funny. That’s one of the funniest moments ever. Just a great argument.
On identifying as a jazz artist:
I grew up playing a lot of jazz and I do consider myself a jazz musician to a major degree. in terms of me, my playing has changed a bit. There's a few different jazz artists that I'm really into right now. Like Dana Stevens, Walter Smith, Dan Weiss, Miles Okazaki.
7. “Funny Thing”
On his lyrics-writing process:
I say what I'm thinking, Sometimes that's a bit funny. They can be funny or serious, but I don’t shy away from that. Sometimes, things come out in weird metaphors. I'm saying what I'm thinking and feeling. This is the one place where you don't have to challenge that. That's just what that is. You know, like personally with me and the music, I let it be in those moments that I find happiness. I feel like the time that I've spent doing it, it's helped me get better at it.
8. “Overseas” (feat. Zack Fox)
You ever have sex on an airplane? You should try that sometime. [Quoting Airplane] “You ever seen a grown man naked?”
I hate airplane TV. I mean, it's cool when they have new releases. Whenever the airplane has The Big Lebowski — thank god. But I am low key just trying to understand why you would only include two episodes of a TV series. I don’t get it. Like, why would you have one to two episodes of Family Guy, one to two episodes of the Looney Tunes? It’s like, what's wrong with you guys? We don't have parachutes, but then we also only get two episodes... We're living in a lie.
So, I don't know, I try to watch my shoes or I bring a lot of comic books. Stare at people while they're asleep. Try to undress them with my eyes. Threaten people's kids telepathically. Stand by the snack bar. Stand by the trashcan by the snack bar. Buy really intense Wi-Fi for no reason. Keep looking at the same things over and over. I try not to let my penis touch the rim of the toilet in the bathroom. Flush the toilet while you're sitting on it. A little bit of a rush.
9. “Dragonball Durag”
I have a whole entire Dragonball wardrobe. That's the best way to describe it. It's pretty vicious, formidable. I always have to prepare people for it. It's like, “Okay, you got a couple of Dragonball shirts,” Like, no… I have a whole entire Dragonball wardrobe. And they’re like, “this is cosplay!” This is beyond cosplay at this point.
in a second, I'm going to completely transmit to another world and be Piccolo do some hyperbolic time training. Don't know where yet.
10. “How I Feel”
I recorded that with Taylor Graves. We spent a lot of time together over the years. You can't make up for somebody you spent most of your life with, creating, being able to comprehend and understand how things work with you. Taylor is an amazing producer and musician and a singer himself. It just felt like we've always understood those moments between each other.
[I included this song on the album] because it's really how I feel. Kind of simply stated, to be honest.
11. “King of the Hill”
[BadBadNotGood and I] made this long distance. They were sending music over to Lotus. And we would go through it to find different ideas and things that resonated with me. And I feel like this song was a bit of a hybrid that Lotus put together. He really, really wanted me to do the song. I don't really like people approaching me, like, “You should write to this!” or “This is something you would like!”
But in this specific instance, we both knew that this was it. I danced around with it for a while. “What the hell am I? What is this about to be for me? The hell am gonna write about? My cat?” But it made itself clear as I opened up to the idea and didn't try to withstand or try to filter what was coming to me when I was hearing it. And it started to feel natural as I started recording it a bit. And I'm happy at what came out of that. I love the finished product.
12. “Unrequited Love”
[This song] is about the actual experience of love. Love and love lost. There's always a saying about your first love, like, “the great white buffalo” or “the one that got away.” The song ranges from that to like different shades and gradients of what you would think love is. It looks like [love]. Smells like it. This is gonna be it! And it's not it. Whatever the case may be, this is just more of an homage to the pain that comes with love.
13. “Fair Chance” (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B)
I met Ty working with Sa-ra Creative Partners and Chordz. We met at the house literally, and we were young, early 20s or something like that. Sometimes we’d play bass on some stuff at Chordz’s studio. I didn't realize who he was early on. I feel like I remember when we first met, we immediately started ripping on each other. I told him he looked like Erykah Badu. He told me my pants were too tight. I called him the Predator, it was all kind of weird stuff, but we got on immediately. There's like literally a couple tracks on the early Sa-Ra stuff where it’s like I'm singing with him.
Me and Lil B had been talking for a while about working. The reality of this song is that we were all very close friends with Mac. We were all very, very close friends. And it was a bit of a weird circumstance for us to be working in such a way. Me and B always talked about figuring out where [a collaboration] can exist. We met on the Internet, of course. Every now and again he’d shout me out on a record or something like that. I just wish it was under different circumstances. But the truth is that this is the beginning of us working on stuff. There will be more in the future, I believe, and I know he is feeling the same way. Mac’s death brought a lot of people that were already pretty close. It brought us a bit closer and made us really aware of each other.
14. “Existential Dread”
I compare [Mac’s death] to that last scene in Saving Private Ryan where the grenade goes off next to him and they’re all looking around and the captain is dead. That's what it felt like. It felt like a grenade went off by my ear, and it was like I couldn't see. I couldn't breathe for a minute. I couldn’t think. It hurt a lot, more than normal. I've had many friends die from things of the same nature. But This one hit way harder. Way harder. The feeling of what is coming, it was a reminder for sure. It was a reinforcer of like, “oh, yeah. Don't forget.”
15. ”It Is What It Is” feat. Pedro Martins
I could not have gotten any guitarist [to play on this song]. Pedro is a monster, to say the least, on his instrument and as a songwriter. He's cut from that [Antonio Carlos Jobim] mold. He's different.