The Many Faces of Thundercat
Self-exploration is no small aspect to artistry, and Stephen Bruner (better known as Thundercat) is an artist’s artist. A skilled bass player, singer and songwriter brought to you in part from Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder label, Bruner has an inclination towards openness that brings a coherent chaos of rhythms. Like all aspects of his identity, his style is connected to a variety of symbols and identifiers that make up the sum of him. And so we set off to explore the many faces of Thundercat.
Entering the room with a wool shawl draped over his body, shorts, an oversized white tee, and a beanie slouched over his head, fingers draped with large silver rings detailed with turquoise stones of various sizes, Bruner’s style is immediately felt: varied and in-flux. His signature mark on stage these days interchanges between a feather and or wolf headdress, after all. His style, he says, is “kinda in the real ‘suss’ areas.”
His complex style reminds me of something I read somewhere about the behaviour of his music, and so I ask whether or not he consciously tries to mess with his sound. He shakes his head emphatically. “I would hope not – and if anyone did, that music probably sucks.” I try again. “Okay, but your sound is… I don’t want to say messy, but messy… do you know what I mean?” His face brightens. “Oh! Yeah, yeah, I definitely understand what you mean. The music is directly linked to everything about, I guess, my personal being. One thing that [Flying] Lotus told me when I started writing music was that I had to be really honest. ‘It has to be ‘you’ for it to be worth something,’ and I took that to heart. So I guess I’m pretty messy.”
With recurring themes of loss (he’s had his fair share), his mess, so to speak, is a kind of coherent chaos of rhythmic bass blended into a jazz-funk fusion. It’s work that’s had him sought out by artists who have plenty to teach themselves, from Erykah Badu, to Snoop Dogg, and Mac Miller. Game recognize game if you will. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly serves as a perfect example of this, with Bruner as a collaborator on one of the most iconic rap albums to date. “I’m happy,” he says, “but the best way to describe it is, I remember by the end of the process of the album, I kind of just broke down in tears because I realized just how much I’d put into it. It took a lot of me. I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t shy away.”
This inclination towards openness bleeds a consequent desire for collaboration. Like your best audiophile friend, he will come over, play you some stuff he thinks you’ll like and change your life in the process. I wonder, how does that work?
“When I saw [Kendrick] react to something, in my mind, it would go like, “OK, he’s in this kind of mindframe” — so I would keep playing him stuff like that. I would try to find bigger, grander versions of things. I remember one night, we were listening to Miles Davis’ “Little Church”. And he was just standing there, staring at the screen, and he just waited until it was done, and was like “What was that man?!” I said, “Oh, that’s Miles Davis, ‘Little Church’.” He was blown away. So I’d go from that to like Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and it immediately just segued, and he just went back in and started recording.”
Though a creator himself, it’s evident that his ability to see the shape of things is what’s kept the phone ringing. “It’s just different facets. I think everybody has superpowers. I never look at things as a surprise. It is about more or less, accentuating, or like accenting. Trying to find the silhouette to the things, or outline and contour certain things and then maybe colour it in differently.”
Bruner’s music paints beautifully. Unsurprisingly, Bruner also self-identifies as a visual artist. He’s the guy who sat with Shia Laboeuf in high school to draw and talk graphic novels (“He’s an artist, y’know?”). He mentions this at first in passing, but by the end of our conversation he’s pulling out a sketchbook, and scrolling through some vibrantly colored illustrations on his iPad.
Early in our conversation, a sound emits from his phone. He can tell I don’t recognize it. “Oh, that is the sound of Down+Forward+A from Street Fighter m’lady,” he chuckles. And in a voice akin to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, he adds: “the best franchise ever created.”
When I say: “let’s talk about being a geek,” he laughs. No one’s ever called him a geek before, but that’s not for lack of difference. “I was always weird. I just let it be that. Beat up vans… questionable hair… Conversations would end with like dot, dot, dot. I would just always be in a different world and stuff. If that’s defined as being a nerd or whatever, then I’m down with that.” Even then, without the Jordans, the Nautica jacket, and the curl, Bunner wasn’t afraid of standing out. Today, his singularity in sum is what makes him who he is.
Frank and Oak 2016.
Albert Hammond Jr.: “A Career is Fun”
Albert Hammond Jr. sits across from me in the back room of a tiny venue and obligingly hunches over my iPhone recorder. He’s wearing a pair of skinny blood red jeans (Maybe you’ve heard of his other band, The Strokes?), a clean white tee with rolled cuffs—both of which he’s paired with a set of black converse shoes.
The man has had his fair share of a lived life, full of some inevitable highs and lows. From uprooting a band with some friends, to having it blossom into certified rock royalty, to branching out solo — and successfully at that, to even dipping his feet in the creative world of fashion. His current approach to his career is clearly driven, and seemingly boundless. “I’m lucky to have had such variety” he says. He says lucky, but by the tone of his voice, it’s clear he also means grateful. With the release of his latest record, Momentary Masters and the launch of a tie collection with label, Jacques Elliott, he evokes a combination of both childlike eagerness as well as a headstrong commitment to the actual act of work. In short: he’s hyped about the future.
In my notes, as per the sartorial history of The Strokes, I have written down the words “indie rock swag.” It’s hard to believe that this much time has passed since the band’s first arrival onto the indie rock scene, and yet, enough time has. Enough time, that is, to really see the singular role of the band itself, and with it, the defined and unique style the boys brought to its contemporary New York rock scene. Young rock stars in suits, skinny ties, leather jackets, and masterfully skilled at making music. Indie rock swag, indeed.
Was this aesthetic a conscious move on their end? Yes and no, says Hammond Jr. “I remember telling everyone: Oh! I think we need to do it where we look like we’re on stage all the time, but at the same time, we were definitely just doing us.” he says. “I feel like it’s what you do when you’re a teenager and you have idols. You try to mimic people and then you find stuff that you like—that looks good on you.” Idols ranged from “a friend of mine in high school who I thought dressed very cool” to his fellow bandmates, to of course, Joe Strummer: “I thought he did it well. When he got older, he never really got to get super old—but still, when he was in his late 40s, in his long coat and shirt…he looked pretty cool and relaxed.”
While Hammond Jr.’s own approach to style is relaxed overall, his creative penchant keeps him a yeasayer when it comes to the right projects. He already has a line of suits in his back pocket, a collaboration with friend, stylist, and Confederacy shop owner Ilaria Urbinati. “We made beautiful suits” he says, “and it was a fun experience.” Beautiful suits that were at some point worn by Ryan Gosling in the film Crazy Stupid Love. For those who have seen the film, you may notice the light bulb flickering above your head, because damn, did Gosling look sharp.
His most recent fashion enterprise takes shape in the form of ties, at label Jacques Eilliott with Elliott Aranow at the head. He met Aranow at a press company, and when Aranow proposed this project he was more than happy to say yes. “It was just another way of creating, and it seemed fun,” he says matter of factly. You’ll notice this is a recurring theme in terms of how he comes to approach all his projects. Fun.
Still yet, never for lack of work ethic. “He [Aranow] was really passionate about ties and we spent two hours looking for fabrics and deals” Hammond Jr. tells me. He speaks thoughtfully and personably, like an embodiment of a #noregrets hashtag. As if to say both, look what I learned and isn’t it funny that happened? “It’s funny to see the different compromises you have to make in all forms of things that you do,” he reflects. Compromises? “Y’know, people have different body shapes and different styles, and I like to wear my tie quite short, but you can’t make it too short – you can’t really force that. There’s always a compromise in how you’re gonna wear it. I guess that’s why tailors exist.”
Oh, compromises. How to keep style utilitarian and democratic. It’s something that most who puts things out into the world have to be aware of. He didn’t want to design things where “people didn’t have to feel like they had to wear a suit to wear a tie. Ties you can work in, or wear out, while still having a different feel to it.” It’s terribly endearing to see someone, whose reputation undoubtedly precedes them, possess such an evident desire to make something for the people. While there is something visually dapper punk about his overall aesthetic, he describes his own style as forever changing. “My mom told me I started dressing myself since I was two-years-old. Everything I’ve ever owned I’ve had to tailor tremendously to get it to look the way I want it to look.”
His favourite tie from his collection is the Ace of Space Blue/Black tie, “the kinda 80s looking one.” I, of course, love the Bolt Tie, screen-printed with the lightning bolt from his guitar strap. “Everyone likes that one!” he says. “It’s so funny. I would have never thought that. I like the idea of it. I almost don’t even need to like it because it’s the one that’s sold out.” Even here, his preference for the latter tie is in due part to its adaptability—its versatility. The Bolt tie is, “me” as in a reflection of himself, whereas the former tie offers a stylistic flexibility adaptable to just about anyone. Forever changing, and forever adapting.
He doesn’t have any specific fashion endeavours plotted out quite yet, but like the potential for another Strokes record – never say never. Aside from a shoe collaboration with Allen Edmonds for charity, Hammond Jr. is busy enough as is on tour for Momentary Masters. I ask what it’s like to play at an intimate setting again, having played some of the biggest stages in the world. “You gotta remember, I’m starting” he says. “That thing built it’s thing, and so now I’m building my thing from the grassroots. Big festival shows are like having a nice cherry on top of things, but it’s a lot of sugar. I need to get some vegetables first to enjoy the sugar. You need to feel like you’re leaning against the crowd, and not like being pushed back by it. I feel like if The Strokes ever did anything again, my suggestion would be to go around the world and to like underplay and rebuild it up in a more interesting way. It’s fun trying to build something, you know? A career is fun.”
Albert Hammond Jr.’s third solo album, Momentary Masters, is out now on Vagrant.