From Suicidal Tendencies to Pharrell: tracking Thundercat’s unbelievable musical journey
In 2017, Thundercat released one of the year’s best albums in Drunk. It’s a brilliant showcase of the compositional and musical skills of the artist, real name Stephen Bruner, and a welcome embracement of jazz, R&B and soft rock in all its different historical forms.
As well as working as a genius solo artist, Bruner is perhaps the most highly sought-after bassist in music of any genre right now. His list of credits stretches across wildly different genres – from punk rock to chart-topping pop – and the artists who’ve called him in are among some of the most revered in history.
Bruner played bass for legendary thrash band Suicidal Tendencies for a decade through the early part of the 2000s. Listening to the smooth, spacey take on funk and jazz that he makes under his Thundercat nom de plume, it’s hard to imagine Bruner cutting his teeth in the world of hardcore.
“I knew who Suicidal was growing up,” he told Double J’s Zan Rowe. “There was always references to them in pop culture in some form or another. Mike Muir with the Pepsi, people in comic books wearing Suicidal Tendencies shirts drawn in the background, Beavis and Butt-Head, it's just a kind of thing.”
Playing in a thrash band served as a powerful education for the young Bruner. There’s a certain pressure that comes with playing in a band with such a devoted, rusted-on fanbase. That pressure intensifies when the music, and the crowds, are as intense as those of Suicidal Tendencies.
You had these hardcore fans, everything from Neo-Nazis to these little emo kids...Thundercat — Double J, 2018
“It taught me how to dodge glass bottles and shoes,” Bruner laughed. “I felt like Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run the whole time. It was fantastic.
“You had these hardcore fans - everything from Neo-Nazis to these little emo kids - they'd be staring you right in the mouth. It made me feel comfortable with that level of energy.
“Seeing people screaming the lyrics, or somebody might get on the stage and rip my bass off me and throw it in the audience - these were likely things. Being spit at, having dirt and coins thrown at you.
“Somebody getting on stage completely naked. That happened once, somebody got on stage and did a handstand right behind me, butt-naked. I turned around and there was a full set of balls right next to my ear.”
Muir – the band’s iconic frontman, known to many as Cyco Miko – also served as an important mentor during a formative time for Bruner.
“Mike Muir pushed me,” he said. “From the day I joined the band Mike Muir always pushed me to do better. There'd be a bass solo in ‘Send Me Your Money’ or the intro line to ‘Possessed To Skate’, he'd say, 'If you don't play it right, someone's gonna pelt you with a full bottle of beer'. And I'd be like, 'I'd better play that bassline right...'
“He'd kick me in the butt and make me stand out the front. I was a kid. I was a bit nervous about it.”
Another important figure in Bruner’s artistic development was the incomparable genius that is Erykah Badu. He has played with her both live and on record for many years, and the two artists remain close to this day.
Me and [Erykah Badu] are very, very, very close. She was actually my girlfriend. We dated for a little while.Thundercat — Double J, 2018
RELATED: The J Files: Erykah Badu
Bruner says there can be no overstating how important Badu was to his development.
“I feel like Erykah is the reason why I'm Thundercat,” Bruner said. “She was very hands on in moulding me into becoming my own artist.
“I'm not even able to vocalise most of [what she taught me], because it's not just making smart moves or the right decisions, it's something internal that she seeded in me. It just stuck with me.
"Me and her are very, very, very close. She was actually my girlfriend. We dated for a little while. But that was further down the road."
Badu was another artist, like Muir, who came into Bruner's life at an age where he was still establishing his voice and identity as a musician.
But Badu brought out something deeper in the young artist and made sure that he was following a path that would be uniquely his own.
“I was around the age of 19 when I joined her band. It felt like she was grooming me, it was really intense.
"She was encouraging me to be more myself, she allowed me to play my bass the way I do without getting weird about it. She taught me a lot.”
But the most high-profile collaboration of Bruner’s career thus far is his ongoing work with hip hop kingpin Kendrick Lamar. Bruner first worked with Lamar on the hugely acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, which became something of a turning point for the musician.
“I remember at the end of the mastering of this album I kinda broke down in tears a bit, because I didn't realise how much I had been working,” he reflected. “At the end of it, it was 8 o'clock in the morning, we all shook hands and that was it. I went home and just cried like a baby. Straight up. It was intense.”
When in the midst of working on a project, an artist doesn’t know how the general public will receive what they’ve produced. To Pimp A Butterfly became an immediate smash, garnering immediate universal acclaim and its songs became omnipresent in mainstream media.
This was a weird feeling for Bruner, who’d helped make some of that magic in his humble Los Angeles apartment.
“It was trippy. The apartment I was living in at the time, I would just blast their ears out every day,” he remembered. “People would tell me to shut up.
“'King Kunta' was recorded on my couch. I remember a moment where it went from being on my couch, to hearing it on the radio, and I remember freaking out. I came home one time and my neighbours came out and clapped. It tripped me out. They remember hearing it in my apartment.”
Even a musician as in-demand as Bruner has his dream collaborators, and on his latest album Drunk, he was able to tick a very big one off that list.
He was kinda weird about it. He's like, 'I called you here to play bass, I didn't ask for a collaboration'.Thundercat — Double J, 2018
“One of the things I remember saying at a younger age was 'I want to work with Pharrell',” he said. “I remember the first N.E.R.D album [2001’s In Search Of] and just falling in love with his music, genuinely.
“I never thought I'd meet him, but, lo and behold, he called me to play bass. At first, I didn't know what to say. I was at a very interesting point emotionally. I was writing the album Drunk, it was a pretty intense moment in life.”
Bruner saw his chance, and took an enormous leap of faith.
“I showed up and I said to him, 'I don't want to be paid to play bass on your album.' I told him, 'I want to write with you, I want to get a chance to work with you',” he said.
“At first he was kinda weird about it. He's like, 'I called you here to play bass, I didn't ask for a collaboration'.
"I knew, in that moment, if I didn't do it, I would regret it. So, I told him. 'I've wanted nothing else but to get to write with you, from my teenage years til now'.
“He asked to hear all the music I was working on, he listened to it for a bit and I didn't hear from him for a long time. I was like, 'Well, you know, there it is. I did it. I made myself a weird creep to Pharrell'.
But this story has a happy ending
“He called me at like 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning some months later,” Bruner remembered.
“He had been listening to a song I had worked on, 'The Turn Down', and he sent over a rough of what his idea was for the song. I almost fainted. Literally. I think I was in a club somewhere and I had to leave to go outside and use the phone and Pharrell was like 'I'm sending over a file right now for you to check out'.
“I just internalised it and sat there. I went back in the club, did a little dance, then went home and listened to it. And there was 'The Turn Down'.”
There aren’t many people in music today who could proclaim to know more about successful collaboration than Stephen Bruner. But there is no secret to getting it right.
“You can just feel the passion behind what somebody's doing,” he said. “You can see if their heart's in the right place. I tend to try to feel things out, because that's all I could do myself. I never know how it's going to translate.
“There are things you want to do and people you want to work with. But I feel like I don't look so much, it just has a bit of a magnetism at times. I just try to follow my heart about things and that could lead you anywhere. It could lead you into a brick wall, it could shoot you off into space. It's just what it is.”
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