Thundercat enters the spotlight: How the backstage jazz virtuoso became a pop star
In the somewhat obscure world of jazz-fusion music, Thundercat is a towering figure.
LA-based singer-songwriter and bass virtuoso – known for his dazzling solos and incredibly complex chord arrangements – worked alongside saxophonist Kamasi Washington and experimental producer Flying Lotus to reinvigorate a genre often associated with audiophiles. pretentious and strange uncles.
But behind the scenes – as a session musician for artists like Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu, and one of the creative architects behind Kendrick Lamar’s flagship album “To Pimp a Butterfly” – Thundercat has also left a significant mark. on contemporary hip hop and R&B.
Today, as one of the most requested collaborators across multiple genres, Thundercat is poised to enter mainstream audiences as a true rock star.
Since releasing his Grammy-winning 2020 Grammy for Best Progressive R&B Album, his 2020 album “It Is What It Is”, he has worked with soul-funk superduo Silk Sonic, Canadian electronic producer Kaytranada, pop-rock titans Haim, hip-hop crooner Ty Dolla $ ign and more. In the spring, he performed the theme song for the Netflix animated series “Yasuke”. Last week he released a new song for the soundtrack of the popular HBO show “Insecure”.
“It’s crazy, man, to think that I’m better known right now for my singing.” It’s not something I would have expected, ”Thundercat, real name Stephen Bruner, told The Star over the phone. “I always thought I was going to be behind my bass, you know, dodging beer bottles and making crass jokes.”
Thundercat says he’s excited to be returning to Canada for part of his North American tour, which includes a stop at History in Toronto on Saturday night.
“I’ve had some crazy times in Canada,” he said, laughing out loud, before sharing a years-old anecdote following a wild show in Toronto – at least he think it was Toronto.
“Oh my God. All I remember is waking up on a park bench and my phone was dead. And I still had all my jewelry, my shoes, my teeth and my scarf! No one! didn’t take anything away from me while I was knocked out on the park bench! Someone noticed me sitting there and they said, “Sir, are you Thundercat? Why are you here?”
“I love Canada, man,” he said, regaining his composure. “I always partied so hard up there.”
Things could be a little different this time around. After a period of “intense trauma,” including the loss of his friend Mac Miller in 2018, Thundercat says he’s made some changes in his life, including stopping drinking and starting to eat vegan.
“I feel like all the things that I’ve kind of learned over the last couple of years, I’m just sort of applying them to what’s going on in my life right now,” he said. he explained, when asked how the tour went. until now. “It’s totally different, but still feels good.
Different, but no less rowdy, as images from a recent concert in LA suggest. Perched in front of a giant cat prop shooting lasers from his eyes, wearing bright pink tops and wielding his signature six-string bass, Thundercat was joined on stage by some of his closest friends and collaborators: Steve Lacy, Louis Cole , Channel Tres, Flying Lotus, the Haim sisters and many more.
“Este (Haim) breaking her ass on stage was pretty funny,” he said, referring to a viral clip from the bassist and singer, which took a nasty facial plant after tripping over a voice monitor during a “3AM” performance (she’s fine).
“A lot of these people are just my real friends in real life. I think (playing with them) is a beautiful and important thing.
Bruner was raised in Compton and other parts of LA by an extremely musical family: his parents were both musicians and his father played drums for Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and the Temptations. In high school, he learned bass and got involved in jazz music with his brother, Ronald, and his childhood friend, Kamasi Washington.
In the early 2000s, Bruner and his brother joined Suicidal Tendencies, the “godfathers of crossover thrash,” a genre that mixes the speed of thrash metal with the sound of hardcore punk.
Eventually he went on tour with Snoop Dogg, the G-funk legend who, according to a New York Times profile, was less than impressed with Bruner’s showy skill, once cutting a Bruner bass solo during a performance, muttering, “Ain ‘Nobody tells you to play this stuff.
However, it was working with neo-soul luminary Erykah Badu – Bruner contributed bass on the Afrofuturist classic “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” – that prompted Bruner to pursue a career as a solo artist. . “Erykah is the one who really cultivated me as an artist,” he told The Times. “She would make me stand out in front and sing along with her.”
The alter ego Thundercat was born.
As a solo artist, Thundercat’s sound evolved dramatically in the decade following the release of his debut album, “The Golden Age of Apocalypse,” an original, mostly instrumental, jazz-fusion slice in equal parts. Herbie Hancock and cosmic electronica. (The album, which was re-released in November, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Dance / Electronic charts; it is the first n ° 1 of Thundercat.)
On 2013’s “Apocalypse,” Thundercat began to rely more on its aerial falsetto. On the disco-funk hit “Oh Sheit it’s X”, his voice rises above the slap bass acrobatics that channel the minds of his musical ancestors Jaco Pastorius and Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic.
But Thundercat says the most important moment of his career was helping to create Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an incredibly ambitious and politically charged project that merged hip hop with neo-soul and jazz. progressive. Although the album lists dozens of songwriters, producers and musicians, Thundercat was at the “creative epicenter” of the process (he also won a Grammy for best rap / sung performance for the track “These Walls.” ).
“It definitely changed my life in more than one way,” Thundercat said. “Not only (because it introduced me more) as an artist and singer, but also because it demonstrated the amount of work it takes to create something like this.”
Working with Lamar, he said, opened new windows in his mind, prompting him to experiment with new versions of himself and dispelling fears that creatively held him back.
“I have never felt so much energy in my life. To create something like this suddenly seemed like a possibility.
That inspiration fueled the magic of Thundercat’s 2017 album “Drunk”: an eccentric mishmash of Zappa jazz freaks, fart jokes, songs about cats and video games, and a crazy collaboration. with yacht-rock icons Michael MacDonald and Kenny Loggins.
The album was critically acclaimed: “It’s whimsical and dark, funny and meaningful, sometimes all at the same time,” wrote critic Marcus J. Moore. “Unlike his past work, which showcased his musicality, ‘Drunk’ presents Thundercat’s defining image as a person: eccentric, political, thoughtful, strange.”
A year later, tragedy struck. Beloved rapper Mac Miller and one of Thundercat’s closest friends and creative partners, has died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 26. October.)
“It Is What It Is” is dedicated to Mac and bears the distinct stamp of mourning and loss. “I’ll keep holding you back / Even if you’re not here,” Thundercat sings on “Fair Chance,” a melancholy ode to his friend.
And yet, despite its heavier themes, the album contains moments of lightness and humor, as well as some of Bruner’s best compositions to date.
“It is imperative to be able to laugh,” he said. “Even through the pain. Humor for me is, like, one of the best gifts ever.
Last month Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak released their highly anticipated debut album as the funk / R & B duo Silk Sonic. Comprised of pristine songwriting and sophisticated musicality, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” sounds like an instant classic, a classic that Thundercat has helped bring to life – though it is only “featured” on the screen. ‘one of nine tracks on the album, he played bass throughout much of the project.
After a few difficult years, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, Thundercat says the project has been a blessing.
“Having the chance to work with Bruno and Anderson gave me life,” he said. “Like I can feel them take my inspiration from life. And to be honest with you, it’s one of my favorite things I’ve done.
On the sexy comeback track “After Last Night,” which also features the vocals of Bootsy Collins, the trio’s chemistry is immediately contagious.
“I’ve always felt connected to Bruno’s music: the funny side, the serious side,” Thundercat said. “As soon as we got together it was like the Three Stooges, like crazy jokes. It was like, how are the three of us like that? We were always just always laughing at some crazy shit. It was like ‘Sister Act’.
As for his recent collaboration with Kaytranada, the groovy deep house track “Be Careful,” Thundercat said he was nervous; providing vocals for a dance floor is a new experience.
When asked how he manages to navigate such a multitude of styles and genres, Thundercat cites the importance of those early days in Los Angeles, where he learned the language of jazz alongside his brother, Kamasi Washington and from his music teacher, Reggie Andrews.
“Music takes on different shapes and forms with different artists… but it’s all part of the same language. Just shades and gradients of a similar flow and function, ”he said, a little esoterically.
“I’m just trying to be the best I can be, whatever it is, you know?” “