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Go, Thundercat, Go!
On his new album, ‘Apocalypse,’ bass guitar virtuoso Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat reflects on life after loss with new maturity.
“At heart, I’m like negative 18 years old,” laughs Stephen Bruner, the 28-year-old bass guitar virtuoso better known as Thundercat. “I act like a kid. Immaturity would be an understatement for me.”
On the surface, such a self-assessment might seem accurate. After all, Bruner takes his stage name from a 1980s cartoon, gushes about comic books, and when it tickles his fancy, performs wearing a massive feathered headdress. That sort of playfulness abounds on his second album Apocalypse, physical copies of which went on sale Monday. A follow-up to 2011’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse, it samples Sonic the Hedgehog and boasts goofy lyrics about ecstasy trips and his pet cat.
At its core, however, Bruner’s second solo offering is a manifestation of something deeper. Recorded after the sudden death of one of his best friends, Austin Peralta, Apocalypse is a deeply personal musing set to a sprawling electro-funk soundtrack. Bruner, who has backed everyone from Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu to thrash-punk band Suicidal Tendencies, reflects on life after loss with lyrical and musical maturity. In the midst of touring with some of his Brainfeeder labelmates, he took a little time to discuss growing up in L.A., becoming an artist in his own right, and his thoughts on the new album.
So Los Angeles is home for you.
Yeah, I was born and raised in L.A. I went to school with [porn star] Savannah Ginger and Shia LaBoeuf. I used to trade Marvel cards with Shia. We don’t talk anymore, but I still have some of his cards at my house. Then I went to Locke High School in Watts. I grew up all around here from North Hollywood to Koreatown to South Central. I’m an L.A. baby. I know where I’m at when I’m here.
You’ve been on the road a lot lately: Australia and now you’re headed to Japan.
I get antsy when I’m home too often. If I’m home for a couple weeks, it’s like, “Something’s wrong.” It’s been like that since I was teenager.
Is it the familiarity that makes you antsy?
There was a point [in my life] where I’d just be all over the place, trying to record, trying to do stuff. Now I can pick and choose what I do. Now that I’ve started putting my own music out, I’m home more often, so I’m freaking out. I said to my friend the other day, “I feel useless!” and he was like, “It’s okay to have nothing to do, Stephen.” It would behoove me to literally just sit at home for a while. I need to rest. I’d probably bleed from the eyes if I tried to play bass right now, but I do feel the need to be working all the time. I feel weird when I’m not working.
How’s it been going with the new album?
I’m taking it all in stride. I still have a hard time listening to the album straight through. It’s nice to see the album itself, the artwork, but I don’t feel comfortable with it. I’m happy it came out but it’s still a very emotional trip for me. Anytime somebody mentions the album and what they can hear and feel behind it, that always brings me back to late last November [when Peralta passed away]. It puts me in a weird place. When somebody can feel the emotion that went into the album, it weirds me out a bit.
Apocalypse definitely feels more contemplative and personal than your first album.
It is. It absolutely is. It’s more personal. I’m singing more on this album and because I’m being more vocal on the album, it’s connected with my emotions more. I never thought I would be that much more vocal, but it just translated the way that it did. I’m happy people can connect with it, and because of that I feel more comfortable just letting things go.
I remember when I played Coachella last year, I was kind of in this daze, like, “Did I just get up and sing and play bass? Did that just happen?” I’d done it before, but always with other people. Now I’m more comfortable in my skin, getting up and singing and playing. I still have those moments where I may crack or be off-key and someone may laugh, but I’ve become way more comfortable as an artist.
Much of your career has been spent playing bass for other artists. How do you define yourself?
I’ve been learning to think of myself more as an artist, that’s what I’ve been wrapping my head around. But I’m always going to be a bass player first; that’s the root of everything I’ve spent my time doing. It’s definitely the fuel behind my being an artist.
How does that shape your music?
I can always pull an idea out of my brain because of my ability to communicate through an instrument. If I can hear something in my mind, I can play it, and if I can play it, then I can create it. It’s all a continuous process. If I picked my bass up I could write a song, but I also like hearing ideas from my friends. The guys I collaborated with on this album, Mono/Poly and [Flying Lotus], I like hearing the ideas that they have. The music might change based on what they hear. It makes it fun.
Was this a very collaborative album?
In every way. Lotus co-produced, no, executive produced the album. He and I could give each other any title we want; we just work on each other’s pieces. The album was definitely my emotions, but it was my friends helping me magnify that emotion.
Did it help to have Lotus around as someone who also knew Austin well?
[Lotus] shared a lot of the same sentiment. He could connect to it a little bit more. He felt every inflection and understood where it was coming from. He could sympathize; he could completely connect and relate.
Why did you start putting out your own music in the first place?
The first person who suggested me putting out an album was actually Shafiq Husayn from Sa-Ra. Back then, the younger version of me, I’d kinda just be like, “Yeah, cool, whatever!” But I didn’t know the process it would take to do that. When me and Lotus got together working, the intricate work we did together on [his album] Cosmogramma was what allowed Lotus to see what would’ve come from me doing an album, and he helped me put beats to that.
What do you want people to take away from your solo music?
I want people to connect to it and be able to draw their own conclusion to how they feel about it. Hopefully it can relate to people’s lives, it can relate to things bigger than the immediate satisfaction of life. It’s not all about partying, not all about being wasted all the time. That happens, but there’s a bigger picture to it, and I hope people can take that message from the album.