When Thundercat stepped onto the main stage of this year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival, his aura resembled something out of a 1970s funk LP but styled directly from a thrift shop clearance rack. The otherworldly bassist, producer and bandleader hailing from Los Angeles appeared oddly dressed in shiny head armor with dangling tassels over his lopsided Afro, a shawl, gray sweatpants, multicolored socks and white flip flops.
The music, on the other hand, was a cosmic slop that could have soundtracked the stage’s complementing intergalactic strobe lighting. Thundercat played the bass with rapid fire dexterity, pressing his fingers against the bass guitar’s body and frets. His aggressive vibrato produced mesmerizing, rippling riffs. Once Thundercat stepped to the microphone, he delivered a soulful falsetto reminiscent of Philip Bailey, vocalist for Earth, Wind and Fire.
Sweating profusely following his energetic 90-minute performance, Thundercat, a former member of the punk band, Suicidal Tendencies, took a few minutes to assess his music and melodic style of bass playing. “It’s something different,” he says removing his Afrka Bambaataa-inspired headwear, “definitely jazz-influenced but a new perspective.”
“That’s how I grew up, so there’s no way it’s not gonna translate somehow. Sometimes I feel weird doing it, but I make myself do it.” Behind the eccentric costuming and space-aged musicianship is the soft-spoken and super cool Stephen Bruner. His father and older brother are both accomplished drummers and session players for a myriad of legendary entertainers.
Thundercat’s exceptional talent landed him a break as a teen touring with one of his musical idols, Stanley Clarke. The bassist originally wanted to attend art school, but his dad convinced him to pursue music instead.
The easygoing musician says he always knew he would do something creative as a career. “My dad was like, ‘Nah, you’re doing music,’” jokes Thundercat, adding Sun-Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Ron Carter and Jaco Pastorius to his list of influences. “It was the inevitable. I still draw and do stuff like that. It’s been my passion my whole entire life.”
The experimental artist’s jam band style of performing landed him on tours and in recording sessions with Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg and most notably, Kendrick Lamar. The humble performer paused briefly in the midst of name dropping, referring to Badu as “one of the biggest influences of his life.”
“I thank her as much as possible,” says Thundercat seated comfortably under a tent adjacent to the stage. “She means a lot to me, always has been since I was a teenager.”
Flying Lotus shares Thundercat’s passion for creating, leading them to frequently collaborate on each other’s music. Thundercat’s solo projects, The Golden Age of Apocalypse and Apocalypse, are both recorded under Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint.
“[Flying Lotus] is a bad dude,” says Thundercat. “He’s influenced by the smell of space.” As Lamar was recording his sophomore LP, To Pimp a Butterfly, it was commonplace for Thundercat to introduce the rapper to various jazz and funk albums between recording. Those in-studio chats and sessions between Thundercat and Lamar provided the backdrop for the album’s sound.
The bassist undoubtedly considers Lamar to be “carrying the torch for the definition of Hip-Hop.” Thundercat believes an album such as To Pimp a Butterfly could continue in helping younger audiences become more curious about discovering previous generations of musicians and artists. “Kids that are coming up under us are literally gonna get a chance to know where stuff came from,” says Thundercat, “and it’s a beautiful thing to see that.”
“Hip-Hop is on a big wheel. It’s turning in a very artistic and creative direction, and people are really hungry for that. It’s not going anywhere. It never died just like jazz. It’s always something new to discover.”
Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt is another young talent Thundercat acknowledged. “[Earl’s] a beautiful soul, man,” says Thundercat. “He’s got a really dope creative mind, and it’s really nice to see younger cats with that.”
“Sometimes they might not know exactly how to make it translate, but that’s the magic of it. We sit and tap out over different things. It’s interesting to watch him grow.”
Thundercat just released his “surprise” project, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, with guest appearances from Flying Lotus and jazz legend Herbie Hancock. He remains inspired to evolve and create his own lane, crediting his bandmates for being equally as adventurous and dedicated to playing music as he is.
Playing and performing music are both “fun” for Thundercat. The key, he says, is to go into music without any formula or expectations.
“Now that everybody knows what the heck I’m doing, I go with an open mind and an open slate,” says a very relaxed Thundercat. “Playing a six-string bass is already a weird thing, so I try to leave it that way.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.