Interview: Thundercat on J Dilla, Kendrick Lamar, and Eating Your Musical Vegetables

The LA bassist talks to us about his collaborations, why comedy is important, and why music is magic.

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Stephen Bruner was raised in a musical family. It was a creative atmosphere that birthed his love of art, and drove him to embrace the unknown. Armed with a creative gene and a desire for discovery, Bruner began his path of artistic transformation. The process eventually produced the artist known today as, Thundercat. The bass guitarist has risen to become one of the most well-respected players in the field, having collaborated with acts l​ike Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, and Flying Lotus. In March of last year, Bruner entered a new arena via his work on the critically acclaimed Kendrick Lamar album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The project garnered him a Grammy Award, and propelled the already respected musician, into public consciousness. Now in his early thirties, Thundercat looks to continue his recent string of success, with a multitude of exciting projects in the works.

We managed to catch up with the busy musician at Montreal's Red Bull Music Academy. It was a forum Thundercat is familiar with - an event that he admires, and been a part of for the last four years. Climbing the stairs to a relatively quiet rooftop, we chatted with Bruner about his collaborations, why comedy is important, and why music is magic.

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This is first my interview outside. It's surprisingly quiet! I guess it’s because we’re elevated. Montreal doesn’t seem to be a loud city, by any means.

Well, it’s Canada. Certain frequencies are constant here. The buzzing on top of the roofs, you can just hear it all…it’s pretty cool.

Are you always in tune with the natural ambience outdoors?

Well, I’m always aware of it. I’m not one to make something of it every time. Like Dev Hynes was here a couple of days ago, and he said that he records everything outside. I’m just more of an observer.

Yeah RP Boo was saying earlier today that he consciously tries to incorporate things that he hears outside. I suppose that’s a product of being cooped indoors - looking for organic inspiration. Do you feel that way?

I feel like music itself is inspirational enough. Especially with the internet. Not to sound like a shut-in. Music itself is an entity. You can find music in anything, but it’s still a very literal term. How ever you come across it is great, though. I feel like there are things that inspire the music, and then there’s the music itself. I don’t feel like I always need to force them together.

You were mentioning that you’ve been involved with Red Bull Music Academy for four years now? How did that partnership materialize?

I think it stems from a couple of different places. Flying Lotus was a participant back in the day, and he’s been involved since then. It felt natural based on the types of things that they’ve got going on. I would never consider myself a teacher, because there are people that go to school for that. But I know my experience has been unique and that there’s something there to offer. They’ve always tried to bring that out of me. It’s been inspirational throughout the years to be here, because you get to see that it’s a proper environment for creative energy. RBMA cultivates this idea of “getting to the good part”. I’m just happy to always be here for the good part.

One of the things that I love about the academy, is seeing all of these artists from different walks of life and different countries, getting out there and collaborating. The way I discovered you, was through your collaborations. How have these contributed to your growth as an artist?

My collaborations have been absolutely natural. There was a time, where I was working with Sa-Ra and I remember Erykah Badu came to the house. She was listening to our music, and she started to understand what I did. Then I started touring with her, and I still play with her. I mean, these collaborations were very organic, and were also key to my development. I wasn’t always the guy that you would consider an artist. I was always “your bass player”. I call myself that, because that’s what I am. It’s a tool that allows me to communicate with other people musically. The things you’ve been given in order to collaborate, are in fact tools. Growing up, I always loved working with people. I love playing with people and having that moment of discovering something different. I believe in the magic of what music is.

Greg Phillinganes was lecturing here the other day, and that was such an emotional moment for me, because he’s an older cat that was around for some pretty serious things. You know, every time he plays Thriller, he says “that’s me playing this”. I love that he’s excited to share everything that he’s contributed to music. Greg worked on the most massive record on the planet. I’m going to be telling my kids about his work with Michael Jackson. The excitement that he exuded was inspirational.

Yeah, after all of these years he still gets it. He understands the scale of his work, and who he has collaborated with. Is that something you are aware of?

Growing up in LA, I would have never imagined talking with Greg Phillinganes so closely. He was mentioning working with Michael McDonald, and I was lucky enough to bring out Michael McDonald at the Hollywood Bowl. Getting to show Michael what I was working on, was totally crazy. Like, “I don’t know if you know who I am, but this is something that recently happened to me,” and he was like “oh ok”. Then we watched new trailers for Godzilla and stuff. I think the excitement of collaboration is necessary. I think there needs to be a distinction though. Like my playing bass is not collaborating. Me writing is collaborating.

Greg was saying in his lecture that he’s had a number of “full circle” moments. Is there a specific “full circle” moment for you, that really sticks out?

There’s one that I rarely tell people about, because it’s sort of taboo to talk about J DIlla. There’s a moment that I had with him, and I couldn’t really share it with people. It’s hard to convey, because any encounter with Dilla, is sort of washed in the way people convey him. But there was a period where I was working around Bilal, Erykah, Mos Def. There was this air around everyone at that time, and I’ll never forget when J DIlla visited us. I’ve been listening to Dilla since middle school. I remember the first song I fell in love with  - and I remember it was on the radio, was “Stakes Is High”. For me it was the realization of what that song was about - the severity of life. I remember hearing that song on a car radio outside, and understanding it. Then I listened to Pharcyde. Then a little bit later in middle school, my cousin and I came across Slum Village. We were playing in the school’s jazz band.

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During practice and shows, we would squeeze together and listen to Slum Village. I thought I was going to go to hell, because I listened to Dilla in church. I thought I was going to burst into flames [laughs]. Soon after, I realized who Dilla was to me. Fast forward to where I’m working with all of these cool people, and J Dilla came in to work with Sa-Ra. I was in the corner playing X-Box and I didn’t know what to say. He was pretty sick at the time. I was introduced to him, and he was like “what’s up man”. He knew the role I was playing in the music, and he asked me for my number, and said he wanted to work together. I was close to fainting. That was a full circle moment. I was so excited that I could call him, and he would answer the phone. When I did, I had no idea what to say! I was like, “is this Dilla Dog? J? Dilla?”. He laughed, but I tried to express what he meant to me. His last words to me were literally, “when I come back from Brazil, you and me are going to get to work”. I just had to pull my car over. I felt like I had done something right. I forget a lot of things, but I’ll never forget that moment.

You’ve managed to have a hand in some of the most prominent albums of the last few years. Are you consciously pursuing a legacy, or is it all simply music to you?

It’s kind of a double-edged sword. In one respect, it’s all about leaving a legacy, and the other part is that I just make music because that’s all I’ve done. It’s cool that people are paying attention, but I was always doing it. I know things come in waves. Sometimes you’re on top of the wave and other times you’re under it. It’s like with Kamasi Washington. He started to get recognition, and it was as if jazz was a thing again. But jazz was always a thing. People don’t realize that this is Kamasi’s fourth album. We shouldn’t be mad that people weren’t paying attention back is what it is.

It is strange to see Kamasi and Kendrick sort of popularize jazz again?

I mean, you can’t even call it a second wind. I think younger people have this void sometimes, and it’s easy to lose touch with the nutritious part of music. Jazz has always been the vegetables of music. Nobody wants to eat their vegetables, but if you cook them the right way you can get anyone to be vegan[laughs]. I wouldn’t call this a second wind, but people are definitely reminded. I think people get intimidated by the term “jazz”, because it’s associated with intelligence. But really, a lot of the times it comes from a subconscious place. We just happened to attach theory to it, but music doesn’t belong to us.

You came from a musical family. Was an instrument put into your hands early on?

When you grow up in a creative environment, you find yourself creating. The truth is, no matter what instrument was put into my hands, I was going to make music. If I was given a kazoo, I was going to be the best kazoo player ever. The music at home was so prominent that it dominated everything, but I also was able to do visual art as well.

Was your family supportive at every stage of your musical career?

Some things would scare my mom when I was a kid. I always say that when I was into Thundercats, I would sit in the garage and eat cat food. That stuff scared her, because she thought I was worshipping these creatures. We grew up in a Christian household. Then my mom sees me at 30 years old, and now knows that people identify me as Thundercat. She gets it all now. Growing up, there was always the want of the unknown. That became the mentality behind things I would want to do. Even playing an instrument for people. The act of learning an instrument to any degree, takes an incredible amount of patience. That helps focus, and also it’s important to laugh. I’ve been laughing a lot lately.

What’s been making you laugh?

Man, just everything is funny. Like if you don’t vote, you’re literally voting for Trump.

Have you been watching the election closely?

I’d rather just watch the fucked up videos people make, than the entire thing itself. The level of creativity that’s happening with these memes is incredible. But I think comedy is beyond important. That’s why every now and then, you’ll see me work with Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, or Reggie Watts.

Eric Andre’s humour shares a parallel with jazz in the sense that it can be chaotic and freeform.

Yeah, it’s improvisation. A lot of people don’t know that Eric went to school to play bass. I have a few friends that remember him playing too. Eric and I connect on so many levels. We both share the fundamentals of “fuck this shit”. Comedy is a coping mechanism, and it helps us stay alive.

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Are you planning to release any new music? Anything we should be on the lookout for?

I may have to wear sunglasses permanently next year, because I have so much going on. It’ll be like Weekend at Bernie’s. People will need to drag me around all over the place. I can’t reveal too much, but there’s a lot of cool stuff to expect. I’m working with Flying Lotus, and helping him with his movie. I’m still working with Kendrick. It’s very different now, because after his moment happened, it was completely explosive. People were very vocal about his Grammy nominations and wins.

Do you think he got snubbed?

They did their best to honour the dude, and he did his best on that album.

Is Kendrick still hungry after all of his success with TPAB? Was he disappointed by the Grammys?

Oh hell yeah he’s hungry. And as far as the Grammys, you have to be careful with that system. I mean, sometimes it can be weird to make artists aware of what they’re doing. I’m not sure of where his whole mind has been since then, but he’s definitely driven. I’ll Face Time him and send him some music. With Kendrick, he’s wearing his insides out, and I’ll never leave him out here by himself.

Is he already in the beginning stages of new music?

Imagine he never stopped. [laughs] The music that didn’t even make Untitled Unmastered is amazing. It’s all quality. I was like, you’re really not going to release that stuff? Really? Damn. I listen to his music everyday almost, because it’s a reminder. The snapshot that was taken of our culture as a whole - that’s more important to me than any awards. The whole world heard To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s the black experience, but he made it for everyone. There’s a fire in him, and I’m excited to contribute to whatever he has next.

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