Q&A: Thundercat is the Bassist With the Mostest

The musician opens up about his new album, working with Kendrick Lamar, and why the world is fucked.

Thundercat (Credit: Eddie Alcazar)

Thundercat is losing his shit over a replica of Batman’s Tumbler car when I give him a call.

“Man, I’ve been waiting for this … for over a year!” he says proudly about his latest purchase. The bassist, who counts Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus as friends, isn’t afraid to hide his excitement as he launches into a three-and-a-half minute speech about why the nearly 45-inch wide, to-scale vehicle has been worth the wait, not to mention worth the large chunk of dough he spent on it.

“It’s so majestic that I’m about to cry,” he continues. “It was expensive as hell, and fucking massive, but worth it.”

Born Stephen Bruner, the 32-year-old, who grew up in Compton, comes from a family of musicians. His father Ronald was a drummer with the Temptations, Gladys Knight, the Supremes, and jazz great Gary Bartz. His older brother Ronald Jr., also a drummer, has worked with the likes of Q-Tip, Prince, Raphael Saadiq, and more, and his younger brother, Jameel, was formerly the keyboardist for R&B outfit The Internet.

Though Thundercat has worked alongside a number of big-names, like Erykah Badu, Suicidal Tendencies, and Mac Miller, it was his input on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly that garnered him the most attention and ultimately led to his first Grammy Award.

On Feb. 24, he’ll release his third album, Drunk, a fusion of jazz, R&B, and soul, filled with features from the likes of Lamar, Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Wiz Khalifa, and even Kenny Loggins.

We spoke with the acclaimed bassist ahead of his three night stint at the Independent (which starts Sunday, Feb. 12) about why Michael McDonald and yacht rock get a bad rap, working with Lamar, and how we’re all fucked.

Catch Thundercat at 8 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 12, Monday, Feb. 13, and Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Independent. 

SF Weekly: What was the biggest difference between working with Kendrick Lamar as a session musician for his album and working with him as the maestro on your own album?

Thundercat: It was very exciting, and I was really taken by the fact that he even wanted to come back and work more. I presented it to him, but he treated it like ‘Are you kidding me?’ that I’d even ask. He wanted to tell a story with the song. It’s me and Kendrick having a conversation. That’s literally how we worked on To Pimp a Butterfly. I appreciate him for the contribution because he understood what I was saying.

SFW: It seems like there’s a reciprocated respect between you two. What are some lessons you took away from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions?

T: I learned a lot working with Kendrick. I learned how how hard you have to work. He showed me what it means to have a work ethic. He taught me to be bold with it. Every day, I’d wake up and just record and create more. Then, at night I would work with Kendrick and we’d present the things we’d been working on. I felt like he met me in a place where I was calling out to him.

SFW: How did Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins end up on the album?

T: We had started working some time last year. The weird thing is that I love when people put titles on things, like yacht rock. It’s funny because I think that music knows no bounds. That’s why people don’t realize why they love Michael McDonald and Kenny. Somewhere in your subconscious, you think you’re Michael McDonald.

SFW: How so? I’ve never felt like him.

T: Oh, but you have! You have a moment where you may be singing in passing or hanging out, but you’re doing it in a Michael McDonald voice. These guys make music that sticks to your bones.

SFW: The album art for Drunk is captivating, showing a picture of you with your head half submerged in water and a frantic expression on your face. What’s going on in the photo?

T: It’s riding a line of insanity. It’s this feeling of, ‘Am I going crazy?’ The everyday feeling of waking up in this Twilight Zone. It’s more of a stark reality. You feel like you’re on an island. It’s the feeling of what the fuck is going on?

SFW: The past few years have been a fruitful period for the Brainfeeder family, of which you are a member. It has to be pretty great to see your label mates and friends, like Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, starting to receive acclaim for their work. Was there any pressure with Drunk to keep up with what they’ve done?

T: The weird thing about it is that it felt like you could see a wave coming. Me and Lotus would be sitting in front of the computer — kind of like Beavis and Butthead — working and we’d poke our heads up [from working] every now and again and see things changing around us. I remember we both had a moment when something was about to happen, but we didn’t know what it was. Now, we look up and Kamasi has made one of the most relevant jazz albums in years, and Kendrick Lamar has done literally God’s work with his album. He gets nominated for 11 Grammys and you’re like holy crap! Then he wins five of them!

SFW: Do you think the world is going to end by the time you play San Francisco or by the time your album comes out?

T: There’s a big possibility. It depends on how fast we can find footage of Trump using the N-word. You know how Jesse Pinkman is sitting at the end of Breaking Bad in that helpless state? That’s almost what it’s like.

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