Thundercat’s Adventurous Musicality Is a Testament to Artistic Freedom

Most studio musicians pine for the kind of streak that bassist Stephen Bruner is on. In 2014, Bruner — best known by his alias “Thundercat” — contributed to Flying Lotus’ avant-garde electronic album You're Dead!; in 2015, he’s an essential player on two of the most lauded albums of the year: Kamasi Washington’s sprawling jazz album The Epic, and Kendrick Lamar’s experimental, politically-charged To Pimp a Butterfly, which reached number one on the Billboard charts.

Then there’s The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, Bruner’s third solo album, a mini-LP featuring some of the most realized songs of his solo career. The beautiful “Hard Times” transmutes the themes of ‘80s animated series ThunderCats (from which he derived his name) into cosmic poetry, intentionally or unintentionally referencing the Weeknd’s hit “I Can’t Feel My Face.” On the album’s best song, “Them Changes,” he crafts a classic funk song, riding an Isley Brothers sample, layering a smooth, heartbreaking lead vocal over a liquid bass line. The album was partially inspired by his time with Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Washington, all of whom crisscross on each other’s records.

“Everything was kind of symbiotic a bit,” Bruner says from his apartment in Los Angeles.“I feel like [the albums] worked and played off of each other. When I wasn’t working on my album, I was working on Kendrick’s, or Kamasi’s, or Flying Lotus’, you know?” The resulting albums, centered around the Lotus’s Brainfeeder Records and the South Central collective the West Coast Get Down, are “all brainchildren of similar minds,” Bruner says. 

But while the record was inspired by Bruner’s close friendships, it was also informed by solitude. “I spent a lot of time sitting, staring at my cat and looking out the window,” Bruner laughs. “It’s nice when you get a chance to go inside yourself and think a little more than you usually would…It felt like a hyperbolic time chamber from Dragon Ball Z. You kind of lock yourself away and build on that.”

Bruner was drawn to the bass as a toddler, and studied the upright at the Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angles. His father, renowned soul drummer Ronald Bruner, Sr., furthered his musical education. In the early 2000s, along with this brother, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., he joined trash punk band Suicidal Tendencies, playing with the group until 2011, and his virtuosic playing quickly made him in-demand in studios, where he worked as a bassist and producer with Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kimbra, Miguel, and more. He found the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, soul, and punk “very congruent.”

“It all works the same,” Bruner says. While working with others and on his own, his goal is never to simply display his technical prowess, as often as the work does just that. “[I ask] ‘How can you make this sound better, what could we do to push things further, make them sound more intense?”

Bruner’s approach has resonated with artists like Lamar, and his playing is a foundational element of To Pimp a Butterfly, a hit album that’s as challenging musically as it is lyrically.“I’m happy people have been shocked by it,” Bruner says. “Other than that, what are you gonna hear? Trap music all day? You’re gonna hear trap music till your teeth fall out?” Bruner cites his friend, the late keyboardist Austin Peralta, and his album tile, Endless Planets, saying he and his musical contemporaries are driven by the idea of endless musical expression.

“It’s a sea,” Bruner says. “It’s a sea, and I’m so happy to be swimming. That’s what the music has felt like to me.”

Thundercat is scheduled to perform Friday, September 18, at Valley Bar. 

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.