By James Olson
VANCOUVER — Stephen Bruner’s last year and a half of activity has been prolific to say the least. The virtuoso bassist, singer, and producer flying under the moniker Thundercat just released his latest EP, performed on Kamasi Washington’s staggering debut on Brainfeeder Records, and co-produced Kendrick Lamar’s game changing To Pimp a Butterfly. Indeed, Bruner’s past, present, and likely future have been coloured by collaborations with a plethora of vital and diverse talents.
Music has always been part of Bruner’s life growing up with his father and his brother Ronald Jr. playing the drums, but it was hearing “Portrait of Tracy” by Jaco Pastorius that turned a young, impressionable “Thundercub” on to the bass guitar. “Hearing that I just knew that this was definitely what I was going to do,” Bruner says. From there, Bruner and his brother would play together in legendary punk-thrash crossover act Suicidal Tendencies for whom Bruner would play with for just over a decade.
With three solo releases under his belt and his well publicized creative partnership with electronic maverick Flying Lotus (a.k.a Steven Ellison) taking off since leaving Suicidal Tendencies, one has to wonder what Bruner’s relationship is like with the heavier music he used to make. “Well, I feel at heart I’m always gonna be a punk,” Bruner says. “I remember there was one time in Serbia, this festival they have up there had Suicidal Tendencies and Erykah Badu playing back to back and it was like ‘You can’t be serious?’ seeing as how I was playing with Suicidal and Erykah at the time.” Bruner admits that some of his friends from the metal world don’t even know that he is Thundercat, citing a time when he met Lamb of God’s vocalist Randy Blythe after their performance at The Palladium in LA where Blythe complimented Bruner’s production on To Pimp a Butterfly without knowledge of Bruner’s origins in punk and metal. “With Suicidal, they’re part of my family and I don’t put anything too far away,”
Meeting at SXSE after the release of Flying Lotus’ debut LP Los Angeles, Bruner and Ellison’s creative union served as the impetus for not only triumphant sonic achievements like Cosmogramma, but for the beginning of Bruner’s solo career. “It was actually Flying Lotus’ suggestion that I start doing my own music and I wasn’t opposed to it. There’s always this thing where you can feel scared but I just said ‘Yeah’ and started walking towards it.”
Thundercat and FlyLo’s partnership can be traced to solving what Bruner calls “the genuine quandary” of how far one can shape, change, and push things in different directions musically. “Sometimes you can’t explain what draws you to different people. But sometimes I like to call it magic a lot because it’s inexplicable. It’s like a natural occurrence sometimes,” Bruner says.
Of all the projects that Bruner has lent his talents to recently, none of them have had such an impact on the face of popular music as Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling, challenging third album To Pimp a Butterfly. As a primary collaborator and co-producer on the Compton based rapper’s bonafide hip hop masterpiece, Bruner can only describe the project as “intense.” “That’s kind of a blanket statement but it was very very intense” Bruner reports, at times sounding very hesitant to put into words such an experience. “It was very pulling and pushing. I put myself in the line of fire for it. To say the least it was beautiful. It was very very nurtured, I felt that about every last aspect of it. I was very happy about it. I had to take a step back and take a deep breath about it and just appreciate how hard we worked and know that blood, sweat, and tears was poured into it.” Above anything else, Bruner relays his gratitude for being allowed to enter Kendrick’s world and be given the opportunity to actively participate in the construction of such a massive piece of sonic architecture.
With his hand in so many different projects, Bruner highlights the importance of adaptability when it comes to working with so many diverse and talented collaborators. “It’s kind of one of those things where I go where the music takes me and if my ability can get me there it’s awesome. It can be a stretch for me too,” Bruner says. “I kind of look at it like you try to connect with the best you can and hopefully you can get to a place where people will understand. As far as playing style, I feel more or less like you just have to find where it fits. There’s different types of playing that resonate with different types of people and you try to meet them where they are at with that.”
Making connections, exploring uncharted musical terrain, and being the best player he can possibly be are all just part of a day’s work for Bruner.
Thundercat performs at Alexander Gastown on October 4.Alexander Gastown, BC, British Columbia, Thundercat