Thundercat Is Looking on the Bright Side of Life

L.A.’s most in-demand bassist and singer finds light and laughter in dark times.

Over the course of his prolific career, Los Angeles bassist and singer Thundercat (born Stephen Bruner) has never stopped moving.

In the past decade, he’s released three critically-acclaimed albums, collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, and Kenny Loggins (winning a Grammy for his work on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly), and toured around the world. He had no immediate plans of slowing down, until a tragic death in late 2018 forced him to reconsider. Bruner was scheduled to open for frequent collaborator, and close friend, Mac Miller on his North American tour shortly before the Pittsburgh rapper died of an accidental drug overdose.

“That was my best friend,” Bruner says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It was one of those moments that was hard for me to process. I had to sit down and let that in — that was nobody else’s weight to carry, it was mine. As much as I wanted to try, and push through, and go wherever I wanted to go, mentally about it, life took precedent.”

It Is What It Is, his fourth album on Brainfeeder Records, finds Bruner waxing philosophical about love (“At this point, I’m definitely starting to feel more like Future than Drake,” he jokes), loss, and navigating life’s many ups and downs. The 15 songs on the album are honest, sometimes heartbreaking, and frequently very, very hilarious. There’s a song about wearing a Dragon Ball Z durag (“Dragonball Durag”) and another about joining the mile-high club featuring comedian (and occasional rapper) Zack Fox (“Overseas”).

This tongue-in-cheek humour is nothing less than what you’d expect from the man who self-describes himself as an “internet troll,” and who shared his North American tour dates in a short video showing him “working out” in Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill outfit, eating cat food, and pretending to hump a stuffed Pokemon.

“I prefer to laugh at most things, I guess,” he admits when asked if comedy helps him process these personal experiences that feel like being stuck in a never-ending dark tunnel. “There’s always the old saying ‘Every musician wants to be a comedian and every comedian wants to be a musician.’”

Similar to his 2017 album, Drunk, It Is What It Is brings a laundry list of collaborators into Bruner’s intergalactic world. But rather than falling victim to the streaming era’s tendency to encourage overstuffed, feature-heavy albums, It Is What It Is weaves in its supporting cast — like saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington, Canadian jazz outfit BADBADNOTGOOD, and enigmatic rapper Lil B (“He’s got a really big heart and he really wants stuff to be dope, but he’s also about his business, and I fuck with that”) — naturally.

“Black Qualls,” which he’s described as a meditation on what it means to be a young black American, sees him trading vocals with Steve Lacey, Childish Gambino, and Steve Arrington of 70s funk group, Slave.

For Bruner, whose upbringing in an incredibly musical family (both of his brothers are musicians, and his father was a drummer who played with Diana Ross, the Temptations, and Gladys Knight) gave him the chance to meet many LA jazz greats, he welcomes the opportunity to learn from his forebears and give them their flowers while they’re able to smell them.

“If you get a chance to connect those dots on any level, it’s amazing, because you don’t always get to do that,” he says. “Having Steve Arrington and Steve Lacey and Donald Glover on a track, I feel like if we would’ve been a band back when the Ohio Players was popping, they would have had some competition.”

Now at 35 years old, Bruner’s armed himself with collected wisdom, like recognizing the pitfalls of social media. There’s a repeated line on “Black Qualls,” where he’s embroiled in conflict: “Wanna post this on the Gram, but don’t think I should.” It’s a statement that reads like a 21st century parable. Though Bruner insists that he doesn’t take his internet presence too seriously, he’s still self aware. “I don’t want to be the guy that’s oblivious to where they’re at, I still pay attention.”

He’s not alone in his ability to split his attention between a cheeky remark, and a sincere response. Is there another way to navigate timelines where we can expect to be fed a dank meme right before a eulogy?

Bruner’s quick to point out that while the mediums may have changed, outrage and grief are not new phenomena to humankind. In the past year, Los Angeles abruptly and shockingly lost two cultural icons, rapper Nipsey Hussle and NBA player Kobe Bryant. “I think what was surprising was that Nipsey got killed in broad daylight, the disregard for him not just as a rising star, but as a person,” he says. Bruner also paid tribute to Bryant by sharing a photo on Twitter of his cat wearing a #24 purple and gold Lakers jersey. “You can feel the broken heart of Los Angeles right now,” he says. “It put things into perspective I think for everybody out here, how important the time is you have with each other, and how fragile life is.”

“My music teacher — he was kind of like a second dad to me — he always said things like ‘Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,’” he continues. “Those moments when he said stuff like that to me have never meant more than they do right now in these moments when we’re experiencing some of the gnarliest stuff in our generation. You just try to find the good in these moments, that’s all you can do.”

*This article was originally published in the print edition of BeatRoute in March 2019