Double Grammy Award Winning Artist Thundercat Wants “Peace as Opposed to Cacophony”
WORDS by JOSH JONES
PHOTOGRAPHY by JONATHAN WEINER
HAIR & GROOMING by BARBARA GUILLAUME STYLING by DAMIAN COLLINS
It’s 10am in LA and the double-Grammy winning bass genius Thundercat has only just woken up. He explains through a long and loud yawn that he’s normally an early bird but had a late one the night before. Not the kind of late night you’re thinking though, he’s tired because he went to Magic Mountain. The amusement park is north of his hometown and he went for the first time in years. “It was an epic night. Twisted Colossus is possibly one of the best rollercoasters I’ve ever gotten on in my entire life. I went on it once and the Riddler’s Revenge twice!” he enthusiastically tells me, properly awake now.
I mention the appearance of his friend and comedian Zack Fox at the tail end of “Overseas” — a track from 2020s Grammy winning album, It Is What It Is — reminds me of Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod character from The Fifth Element. He belly laughs at this and sort of agrees with me that we might actually be living in a version of the film, in the way Tucker’s character livestreams an insurrection of heavily-armed Mangalores. “Yeah, man. It’s true,” he smiles. “I think we’re somewhere between Idiocracy and The Fifth Element.”
We’re interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s a delivery of a CD he ordered: the soundtrack to the anime series, Berserk. “It’s one of the best animes ever created,” he raves. “Anime is life for me man. Anime is everything.”
Born Stephen Lee Bruner, 36-year-old Thundercat may have been a hell-raiser in the past but the last couple of years have truly changed him. From the ashes of the very public passing of his best friend Mac Miller, rose an artist who has looked inward and made wholesale changes to his lifestyle. Now sober, training hard in boxing and kickboxing, the supremely talented anime obsessive is literally a new man.
Do you feel like a phoenix, Thundercat?
[Laughs] More like a pigeon with iridescent colors.
Do you have any of that feeling of shedding your skin?
To go from drinking to not drinking. To always eating whatever I wanted, to being vegan. From never being active to doing kickboxing and boxing. There’s been a few different changes.
I saw a recent conversation between you and [legendary bassist] Stanley Clarke, where you said that you’ve found a catharsis in tattoos?
It’s something about the pain and the finished product, and how it resonates with you as a person. And the thought that has to go into what you’re doing. The whole process for me feels important. It started with Mac’s death, and I always erred on the side of caution with what words or portraits of people to put on my body. When Mac passed, it was one of those things where I needed him, I needed to see him. I needed him to be with me all the time. And you know, not a day goes by when I don’t look at this tattoo and go “Yeeeah” [pats tattoo].
What songs soundtrack your day?
My day goes between two songs: the original [Neon Genesis] Evangelion [mecha anime series] theme song — I think it’s called “Cruel Angel Thesis” or something like that. And then also “Fukai Mori” by Do As Infinity, which is the second ending theme song for the anime Inuyasha. I’m an anime nerd so I’m always hearing anime theme songs and stuff like that.
And what or who would soundtrack the film of your life?
Steve Kuhn and the song “The Meaning of Love.” It’s a bit of a darker tone of writing. You can feel his pain or his growth in life, through the choice of melody and how the song moves. You feel the ups and downs of the swaying of life. I love that song. I feel like that song has been an inspiration for me as a songwriter. And there’s one more, “It’s Raining Today” by Scott Walker. Those two songs are the soundtrack of my life. No, three! “Portrait of Tracy” by Jaco [Pastorious], Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today” and Steve Kuhn, “The Meaning of Love.” A short soundtrack. Short but straight to the point.
I wanted to get your take on three things: First, Dave Sardy was producing my friend’s album and he mentioned British bands recording in LA put reverb on everything because the sunshine confuses them. What are your views on reverb?
[Laughs] Reverb is cool. I think that it’s a very subtle way to accent things. I feel like you can definitely get out of control with reverb. Done very tastefully, it’s one of the best things ever. But sometimes, the reverb can be a way to mask or hide. There’s moments where as a beginner I’ve had moments with it where it gets a bit funny. In the sense of somebody will be playing and even if they were shredding, it just sounds like they’re in a hallway. You just can’t tell what’s going on and it sounds like, “well, whatever he’s doing down there it kind of feels like it sounds great to him.” I love reverb to be honest with you. I sing with reverb and I try to play with less effects so that way there’s a bit of clarity when I’m playing. I do play with an envelope filter, or my Whammy pedal, but it’s only for clarity of notes and stuff so people can hear what I’m playing as opposed to a muddy bass line.
Ghostface Killah told me that he kind of blacks out when he performs and that the lyrics just come to him. But you’ve said that when you can’t remember the lyrics it helps that the crowd are singing them back to you. Does that happen often?
That happens a lot of the time. I’m very interactive with the guys on stage. I was always a musician first growing up, I wasn’t always the singer and my first instinct is always to stand next to the drummer. Sometimes I wind up having to run back to the mic to try to get these lyrics out. Sometimes I’ll write stuff and I’m like, “why would I write so many words to have to sing?” It gets me sometimes if I haven’t played a song in a while, you know? But it’s all part of what makes the live experience. [Laughing] Yeah you’re gonna see me tell an awkward joke on stage like: “alright guys… errrr… does anybody here know this song? Please help me.” All kinds of little silliness happens up there. I’ll replace the words with different sounds. People in the crowd are thinking this must be a new arrangement. It’s just like, “I don’t remember the lyrics.”
And finally, Nile Rodgers famously said that playing in the Sesame Street live band was the best training he could have had. Did you find this playing with Suicidal Tendencies and Snoop Dogg’s band as a young musician?
Yeah, having to learn the tunes and stuff. Having to learn to work under or working with somebody will always keep your brain a bit sharp when it comes to things like that. I totally agree with that. With Suicidal Tendencies it was either get hit with a shoe or remember what goes where [in the song] and don’t ruin it. Or the audience is gonna let you know how much you suck. It was very, very true.
I was touching on those bands because also in this magazine, the artist Risk talks about moving to LA and getting into Suicidal Tendencies. He found the West Coast punk scene also liked hip hop. Was that your experience too?
I feel like there was a lot of openness. Mike Muir always supported my decisions in things and the different ways that I would move and stuff like that. I think that definitely was a testament to how punk really was. As opposed to this idea of isolating it by creating it as a new genre — it was more than that. Mike always supported me. Whenever I would go play with Snoop, he was always like, “yeah, tell him I said hi.” But it was a real thing. It was always a very unspoken bond between punk and hip hop, especially with Suicidal Tendencies and people like Ice-T and Snoop Dogg. All of that was real. It was a beautiful thing.
Was there a crossover in the audiences?
Yeah, they’d all come to my earlier shows. And still to this day, there’ll be people wearing Suicidal flip ups, they’d be in the front row screaming: play “Possessed To Skate!” and I’d be like, “this next song is about my cat.”
When you went solo, were you like “oh shit. I’m the frontman of me” ?
I think I was pretty prepared for it because people like Mike and Erykah Badu lowkey trained me to be the person that I am. I would go hang out with Mike after the shows out in the audience — he’d play and then just go hang out. And Erykah taught me how to carry myself.
Are Mike Muir and Erykah Badu your spirit animals?
Yeah. Sometimes I’ll call Erykah, and be like, “Erykah, I got a Grammy!” She’s just like, “of course you did.” I still talk to Mike too. He’s just like, “what’s going on? What are you doing?” I’m like “I’m just sitting around.” It’s like they’re family, they taught me and showed me the way to go.
Do you see winning a Grammy as a reward for one project or validation of you as an artist?
I look at everything in moments. For me the journey is more like, “I’ll think about that on my deathbed.” I’ll look at the Grammy’s as an acknowledgement of the moment. And I think even like the whole thing that happened with The Weeknd, and how Cardi B made it a point to call everybody’s names out and be like, “don’t sit here and be a brat about what you didn’t get when you don’t realize these are the people who’ve worked hard their whole entire lives”— that was a beautiful moment. Because the truth is you wouldn’t know what my life story is. It’s like you said, the road traveled versus the moment. Winning was not something that was expected, and it was a very bright light in a dark moment for me; that album was very painful for me. And the acknowledgement of that for me was, even within the confines of Covid, where I’ve just been sitting on the couch watching cartoons, it doesn’t feel like it was one of those moments, you know, I didn’t get a chance to see that like that. And for that moment to happen, I felt very hopeful and it made me feel like I have been working hard. It doesn’t always feel like it but that moment was real. And I still remember them, from SZA to Jhené Aiko being on stage like, “that’s my boy.” It’s one of those things where I felt my friends’ support, I really did. It’s been a wild couple of years.
Are you one of those people who, when you do something, wants to know everything about it? Does it become an obsession?
It’s funny that you notice that because that’s very much my character. If I get started on something, I’m gone forever. My parents would always try to avoid stuff like that with me because they knew like, “okay, don’t let him get too far into a relationship or he’ll be stuck in the relationship.” But it works in your favor when it’s something that becomes art or it’s something that actually becomes something — that’s a positive connotation. Even with the songwriting and singing there’s a part of it where it’s kind of like a snow ball effect for me. A lot of the time, when I’ve got friends over, I’ll sing songs, and I’ll do stuff that’s really stupid. A friend will be like, “well, that sounded like a song.” Well, yeah, that’s because I spend time writing songs. Because that’s what I’ve done with my life. It doesn’t mean that it’s meant to be something. I’ll change the lyrics and sing it all weird and jacked up. But I know that that’s part of that thing that you’re talking about. Having to try to stay in that mind frame to some degree.
Does touring feel like a holiday for you because it’s what you want to be doing?
It’s a catharsis. My life’s work has been being a touring musician. So no, not a holiday that is my job. That is what I’ve loved to do my whole life. Everybody loves to romanticize the idea of the touring artist where it’s just sex, drugs and rock and roll and all that. There’s a part of it where some people’s lives are that nature. Like Ruban from UMO [Unknown Mortal Orchestra] said on the internet one time where he was like, “we’re kind of like carnies.” It’s kind of true, but that feeling [of rock n roll excess] turns into like, this is my livelihood. The people that you work with, the people that you choose to have on tour with you can affect your happiness. What do you want around you? You might find you’re gonna have to fire somebody because of this or realize “oh, I really like the energy this person brings into the situation.” You’re going to be out with this person for months. So it’s either going to be a prison or it’s going to be a place of flourishing. I’ve seen it with different people where it can drive you mad or it can be the life of you. You want peace as opposed to cacophony, and you bring in the people around you that bring that with them. Drunk or not, crazy nights or all but you know it’s the constant. That’s where my constant lives — it’s on the road.
Have you missed looking at those unremarkable motel bedroom walls?[Laughs] Yeah, I miss the [Pilot] Flying J gas station stops and pulling over to get some crisps or pick up some weird food like pickled onions or a carrot and mayonnaise sandwich. Those good old gas station stop sandwiches and the worst type of soda like fruit punch-colored soda.
But you’re now vegan so touring will just feature loads of carrots.
Loads of carrots! It’s actually easier than we think a lot of the time. Mind you, I’m still not that perfect at it. I’m happy that I box every day. It’s keeping me from blowing back up into the snacking machine that I always was. I snack a lot. But a lot of the time it just has to do with your choice of snacking on the right things, and the whole idea of not eating late at night. Or trying to have a regimen, which does become a bit harder on tour. But if you have the right stuff with you, you’ll make better decisions. If you’re sit ting up here with a bucket of fried chicken, milk chocolate and old pizza compared to green juice, blueberries and walnuts it’s gonna be a massive difference in your choice-making. You’ll shit your brains out. That’s the one thing being vegan — being on a tour bus and not being able to poop on it. It’s one of those unspoken rules: “Do not shit on the tour bus.” Trying to drink green juice but when it’s time for it to run right through your body, you got to poop in a bag on the bus. It’s a lot.
Are you gonna take your kickboxing guy on tour?
I would like that. Pay him to hang out and kick my ass every morning when we take a stop at a gas station. Or even have him guide me if there’s stuff I could do just in confined spaces and stuff. It would just be me and him with the pads or something. Or him telling me to do certain stuff and like just do it. I need that.
Everyone would be like “don’t break your fingers!”
I wrap my hands pretty thoroughly. That was always my one concern. But Miles [Davis] was a boxer. The whole thing is like, “well, where’s the line?” The truth is that’s one of the reasons why I never did boxing because I didn’t want to injure myself. And that’ll be the end of my career. I train like I’m going to be fighting but I look at it more like it’s the training exercises for me is what makes it cool. And with that is the part where I’m having to have learned to wrap my hands right — I have to put padding on them. Somewhere between the healthy eating habits and the wrapping, it’s been okay, it hasn’t hampered or changed my playing at all. I’ve definitely injured my shoulder. I just fight through it. It’s been a year now and I’m still with it, and it’s like pain and all. Every now and again, I have a hard sharp pain from throwing that arm, but I feel like it’s a pain that has to be fought through and has to develop into constraints.
Do you play music like you fight?
I look at pictures of the way I stand when I play and the muscles that I use are very similar to what you use for fighting. If you look at my physical stance when I’m playing, it’s very similar to what you do in boxing. I’m up on stage and I’m going for blood.
When you’re touring, do your fingers get fucked up? Do you have a hand care regimen?
As I’m getting older people are giving me the whole, “Stephen you need to get more massages. Because of the way you fight and play, you’re going to jack something up and be in pain.” And the truth is yeah, at the rate that me, Justin and Dennis are playing a lot of the time, it gets a bit painful after a couple of weeks. I can’t open doors, I can’t turn knobs and I have to have somebody carry my bass. But it’s just the years of playing and even the years of drinking and stuff like that — it’s just what it is. It’s been 30 odd years of me doing a really intense physical activity. It has its pros and cons and that’s one of them. But there are ways to go about doing something to help or keep it from being so horrible. Like doing stretches and I bought one of these recently [shows an ultrasonic massager] and this feels great. I just put it on my hands in my palm and it just gets the blood flowing and wakes everything up. Stanley Clarke would—it’s his birthday today. Happy birthday, Stanley!
You and I share a birthday. I was going to lead with that but thought that might be weird.
There’s something about us Libras that’s a bit of synchronicity right there. Your path looks very similar to mine, we have minds that work a certain way. I’m not always one to believe in signs but when you see it, it’s almost like it’s outspoken for itself. Your path looks quite similar to mine, from what I can see.
Talking of paths, when people do positive affirmation supposedly your brain actually reroutes its neural pathways and starts to believe it. Do you do that?
You know, it’s funny that you mentioned that. I had this conversation with a homegirl of mine. Everybody always tells me that my cat is really pretty. And that’s because I tell my cat she’s sexy, every day. I kiss her and it hurts. It hurts because it’s a cat. It’s like getting a tattoo. But I tell her she’s beautiful. And she just stares at me for a second. Ever since she was a baby. And just like, “You’re beautiful.” And anytime somebody sees her she looks like Angelina Jolie. I’m just like, “yep, that’s my cat.”
When was the last time you got stressed over something small?
One of the changes in life that I’ve been rolling with is therapy. A lot of the time, you would never know what was the thing that would set me off — I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s more of a defense mechanism for me whatever it is. When the Grammy’s came around last time I had a full on mental breakdown. I don’t think a lot of people saw that because it brought attention to me at a very vulnerable moment in my life, where I was dealing with alcoholism and all these different emotions culminating in this crazy moment. But this time around, instead of letting myself always be triggered by stuff or feeling like the walls are closing in because everybody’s paying attention to me, I learned to just let things be what they are and not allow it to run in ruin. Think several times but at the same time think about it less. I like to see stuff simply. The ongoing joke for me this year was I’m just sitting on the couch watching anime. It’s kind of like that’s been keeping me level headed.
Are you happy?
I’ve always believed that happiness was a choice not a feeling. The feelings come and go. As we get older I’m learning that you have really great moments and you have some terrible moments, but you choose happiness through them. And regardless of all the ups and downs you know that you’re gonna have to navigate it.