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Thundercat: Making Jazz Fusion Cool Again

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First of all, there’s his instrument. It’s ostensibly a bass, but it’s got six strings, and it’s running through a couple different effects that make it sound like a guitar. Also, Thundercat ( Stephen Bruner) is playing it so fast that he makes the thing sound like a Metallica guitar solo, but instead of thrash metal, he and his band are pumping out a strange mix of extremely adept jazz, funk and R&B, all of which anchor his silky falsetto. (And on one of his recent singles, the equally silky voices of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.)

He might also be wearing a coyote pelt and singing a song about his cat.

If all of this sounds kind of strange, that’s because on paper, it definitely is. But for Bruner, an instrumental phenom and longtime L.A. music scene veteran, who’s breaking through under his Thundercat moniker for his recent work — which includes his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and his own third solo album, this year’s Drunk — it’s just the progression of a life spent in music.

Bruner grew up in an extremely musical family and has worked with everyone from L.A. thrash veterans Suicidal Tendencies to Erykah Badu. After a recent sold-out show in New York, he talked to PEOPLE about how he got where he is today.

Is it fair to say that your success seems a little strange in today’s music landscape? You’re basically playing high-concept jazz-fusion funk, and people were singing along to every word at that show.
It makes no sense at all. It blows my mind, too. [Laughs]

You write really good hooks — that’s as much a part of a composition as a crazy bass solo.
Well thank you, I appreciate that.

You started playing super-young. And your family is very musical — can you tell me a little about growing up with music like that?
Well, to be honest with you, sometimes I wish I was a child again, just so I could pay more attention to what was going on. [Laughs] But, it was beautiful man. I appreciate my parents for everything they instilled in me and my brothers. I felt nicely disconnected from everything. My parents were very encouraging in having us get into the arts, whereas I have a lot of friends that didn’t have that. And my friends would be vocal about it growing up — like every now and again I’d have someone over and they’d be like, “You guys are different! You guys have parents that support what you’re doing!” And I couldn’t understand why a parent wouldn’t do that, but I would hear it so often that I have to pay attention to the fact that it was a big deal growing up in a household like that.

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Did you grow up playing in church?
Yeah. The church we grew up playing at was not one of those churches known for its music, but it was just this all-around energy that would be happening, because at the same time we’d be playing in church, we’d be playing in the city jazz band under Reggie Edwards. Having an older brother [Grammy-winning drummer Ronald Bruner Jr.] that was a complete beast-monster … people still fear my brother on the drums. People look at my brother like … Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death, or like someone you have to defeat, like the Highlander or something.

And I grew up with that. It’s funny thinking about the little things you grow up with … my brother and I fighting over the TV. But the undercurrent was that we were each fighting to listen to something — he would get so bothered with me playing video games and put on some kind of music video and then we’d have like, a full-on fistfight. But I was listening to Sonic the Hedgehog and the music as I was playing. My ears were just in a different place. I would practice to Sonic the Hedgehog, practice to X-Men … practice to the Ninja Turtles soundtrack.

And then you joined Suicidal Tendencies as a teen.
Well, my brother started out with their side project, Infectious Grooves, and then moved over. There’s this ongoing joke with Suicidal Tendencies about how you play bass for them and leave, and then something happens with your life — like how Robert Trujillo went from them to Metallica. I came in replacing Trujillo, and I remember Dean [Pleasants, guitarist] — how we met. I was like, sitting on my porch crying about my first girlfriend or something and Dean came by and was like, “Shut up, man!” and told me to come to rehearsal. And me and my brother played together in that band for maybe a year or so and then my brother left, and I stayed … for like 13 years.

What was it like coming in as the young guy with this band of like, older thrash metal dudes?
Oh, man. It was definitely one of those things that scared people. Like, “What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m on tour with Suicidal Tendencies. “Wait, where are you going?” A lot of those like, hardcore, thrash fans … they don’t like change. People would throw beer bottles at me and every now and again I’d stop for a solo and they’d be like, “YOU’RE NOT ROBERT!” Somebody thought I was [former Suicidal Tendencies guitarist] Rocky George, just because I was black. Like, “Great job, Rocky!” And I was like, “Rocky George doesn’t play bass, jackass.” And eventually after going to hang out with fans a few times the reaction changed: “You’re not so much of a d***!” I wore the Suicidal headband with pride — that’s L.A. history for me.

You had put out a few solo records before “Them Changes” really broke through — was that when things started to change for you?
It was actually working with Kendrick Lamar that pushed me further into the act of songwriting, specifically. I had been working with Kendrick for like, two and a half years before To Pimp a Butterfly. I was learning from him. How to songwrite, the emotions, the stuff that goes into that — I was picking up some really intense stuff from him. Lo and behold, the album got all this attention at the Grammys, and that’s a big deal, and once that happened, that’s when everything got weird.

How does Drunk represent a progression from your previous albums?
Well, there’s a bit more of me trying to be open and honest in the music. Something that I learned from Erykah Badu and Kendrick and Flying Lotus — how you have to be honest in the music. You can go anywhere you want with the music, but you have to be specific and true to yourself.

About wanting to be a cat.
[Laughs] Haha, well, yeah. But there’s a couple of ways to look at it — what do you call musicians? Cats. Everybody wants to be a cat. I always wanted to be one of the cool kids, one of the cats.

When you play live, it’s just a trio — everything’s a lot more stripped-down than on your studio stuff. Any plans for a live album?
Every now and again somebody asks about that, but I feel like there’s something really special about the live show that I don’t want to document. It is a different thing — that stripped-down approach — and so I think it’s really special when people say “Oh, you have to see them live. You have to be there.” Like, my dad made this pilgrimage to go see Mahavishnu Orchestra in New York and he always talks about this one time that [guitarist] John McLaughlin “played this one note that went into space.” And he only had a couple of friends who he shared that with. And sometimes people will bootleg … but it’s one of those things where I think you have to be there. [A live album] would be giving away a piece of something that’s made for the people that were there.

What’s next for you?
Lotta tour. Lotta travel. Everybody’s out here smelling. We’ve accumulated a lot of knives and books and video games, random jewelry. And I also can’t talk about it too much — I don’t want to spoil anything — but me and Anderson Paak have been working a bit, and me and Flying Lotus are still working, and that’s about all I feel like I can say.