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Frank and Oak 2016.
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.