Interview Thundercat: ‘Everybody Has Different Elements That Make Them Tick’

Martyn Young speaks to Stephen Bruner about loss, despair and the approaching ‘Apocalypse’.

‘Apocalypse’, the second album by virtuoso musician and bassist Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, is one of 2013’s outstanding triumphs. Again collaborating with producer and Brainfeeder label boss Flying Lotus, the two have created an extremely emotive and musically progressive album. ‘Apocalypse’ sees Thundercat dealing with deeper and more emotional themes, including the death of his close friend and label mate, pianist Austin Parelta. This experience of loss and despair is channelled into his music as Thundercat develops beyond a mere bass maestro into a supremely gifted songwriter. DIY spoke to Thundercat at home in LA to find out a bit more about ‘Apocalypse’, his relationship with Flying Lotus and allowing his voice to blossom as another creative instrument.

How did you find the creative process for this album? What did you want to achieve specifically on this record?
The creative process for this album was very bittersweet. There were a lot of emotional things attached to it, from the death of one of my friends to relationships with people growing and changing in different forms. These things were all factors in the process of writing and recording the album. As I was going along in the process of making the album, it just translated the way it did.

It strikes me that ‘Apocalypse’ is a special place that your music inhabits or aspires to reach. A sort of mythical quality. How does Apocalypse carry on and develop the themes introduced in your debut ‘The Golden Age Of Apocalypse’?
When we finished the album the first thing Lotus said to me was, “Man, you’ve grown.” He wanted me to sing more on this, at the same time as wanting me to sing more though he didn’t want to force the movement of it too much. It actually came out really naturally. I actually found that it was easier to write the words than the music because it wasn’t just the music that was inspiring the album. In terms of growth from the first album to the second album, well I’m singing more! In itself that’s weird for me because I’ve never really been one to consider myself a singer like that. I’m happy that people are receptive to that. It puts the finishing piece on the album.

What different possibilities does using your voice as a key instrument open up?
It created another avenue for the music to sonically match up. It completed the ideas of the songs.

I’m interested in ‘Oh Sheit It’s X’ it’s essentially a euphoric party jam, how important a role does that song play in the album?
Again, it’s part of the process. The ecstasy song is actually a story that happened. It’s one of those things where at first I didn’t feel too comfortable about sharing that with everybody. It’s not something that you want everybody knowing. At the same time though, one thing that Lotus told me was: “You’ve got to be honest, man. That’s the way that people are going to connect to your music.” It took me a while to become comfortable with it, but once I was able to roll with it I just let it happen.

It seems a deeper and more personal album. That side especially comes out on a track like ‘A Message For Austin’, a song about the loss of your close friend Austin Peralta. How did that experience inform the songs and did the album change in any way?
It was very difficult listening to that song. It’s difficult to talk about as well. I couldn’t really listen to it at first because it’s me saying goodbye to one of my friends. As time progresses it gets easier to listen to. I’m happy I did it. I don’t think it’s ever going to not affect me hearing that song. In all honesty, it’s just part of the process.

The album was once again produced by Flying Lotus. What is about the dynamic that you both share that makes your musical relationship so special?
Well, it could be that both of us are called Steve, or it could be that both of us like Dragonball Z! We literally share a lot of the same sentiment about things. We’re really good friends. We share the same mental space and that translates creatively when we’re working together. I’m happy that I can share something that close with somebody. For lack of a better explanation, it’s one of those situations where we are literally in each other’s minds. We try to stay there.

Could you ever see yourself working with another producer after forming such a close bond with Flying Lotus?
Everybody’s different y’know? The connection you share with everybody is different. I would absolutely love to work with other producers but the funny thing about it is that it’s not even about that. It’s all part of it. In all honesty, I look at it as if everybody has different elements that make them tick. It’s up to us to find them out. I love working with other people. That’s what I do. Lotus and I share a relationship creatively and socially, we just share a lot of space together.

You have a long and diverse background of playing with a range of different musicians. How does that feed into your own music?
They were all there with me through the process of recording these albums. People that I’ve spent my whole life growing up with and playing music. They’ve been there. All we had was each other growing up creatively. We would be playing all the time. The first album I recorded with Kamasi Washington (LA jazz bandleader/saxophonist) where it was me, my brother Ronald Jr and Cameron Graves, we were teenagers y’know? A bunch of kids. We weren’t really thinking about playing together for 20/30 years. Lo and behold, there’s that but the experience of playing with them allowed me to connect with other people. Being so secure with my instrument allowed me to connect with other people that I hadn’t been playing with my whole life.

How well are the new songs going down in your live performances? How many shows have you played since you completed the album?
A lot! I can’t even tell you, we’ve played a lot of shows. The new songs are really fun to play. There’s been a couple of moments where I’ve got a little choked up on stage, though. Some of the emotional content is a bit heavy for me. It’s always fun to be able to play. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, playing bass. Anytime I can pick up my bass and play I’m thankful to god that I can. We’ll be back in the UK later this summer.

Finally, You’re a constantly expressive and creative musician. Do you have any projects you’re working on right now or would like to start in the future?
Yeah, Lotus and I are working on another album right now. Also, I’ve been doing a bit of work with Kimbra, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa. All kinds of things are in the works. I love collaborating and working with other artists. That’s what makes it all fun.

Thundercat’s ‘Apocalypse’ is out now via Brainfeeder.

Thundercat plays London’s XOYO, 10th July. Tickets here.

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