Before meeting Stephen Bruner Jr. — aka Thundercat — for the first time, I naturally assume he's a really, really cool dude. Not a "chill bro," and not cool in the Kerouac definition of being able to score drugs in any city. But just comfortable and serene in a way I imagine someone would be who's played bass with Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, and lent his vocals to Flying Lotus' wildly acclaimed Cosmogramma album. It simply has to be part of the job description, right?
More weight is given to my assumption after I listen to Golden Age of Apocalypse, Thundercat's just-released debut LP melding astral jazz and forward-thinking electronic music. His falsetto is soulful, but what really stands out is his bass playing, which is the most virtuosic most of us will hear all year, and probably next. It's laid-back but never passive; in its own zone but hardly stoned. It's the sort of music that makes you wonder if anything can rattle the guy. An otherwise lovely Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles feels like a good test case.
Mostly due to miscommunication on my end — and a complete inability to navigate the throng of confusingly decorated taco shops in the Crenshaw/Pico region — we're already nearly an hour behind schedule. And there's confusion on his end as well. He's preparing for a couple weeks out of the States for a brief tour to promote Golden Age, all the while running around with a crew consisting of his nieces, his daughter and what appears to be his bodyguard, though the latter is actually his brother, Ron, a Grammy-winning drummer who looks like he could have given some traumatizing noogies as a youth.
When we finally meet up at his apartment, I see that it's as sparsely furnished as you might expect from someone who's 25 and does things like fly out to Brazil for something other than a vacation. Yet he has everything he needs — his family over for a visit, a stack of unopened DVDs ("for that hour I might get to myself one day") and his mother's cooking on the stove. Okra.
It's a casual get-together for a family whose lineage in the worlds of jazz, pop and punk rock runs deep. His father, Ronald Bruner Sr., drummed for the Temptations, while his brother received a Grammy this year for his work with Stanley Clarke and manned the drum stool for Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner started on bass at age 4; Ron first played drums at 2.
Still, what of that name, Thundercat? While new bands commonly reference goofy '80s ephemera in their monikers as attention-grabbing ploys — see: Mickey Mickey Rourke and Police Academy VI — you can rest assured that Bruner has intensely personal and legit reasons for adopting his nickname. As a 5-year-old, he found so much inspiration from the ThunderCats cartoon that his mother refused to buy him any of the action figures, fearing he'd worship them like gods.
Fortunately, then, nothing on Golden Age comes off like a grasp at arrested development. Co-produced by Flying Lotus, it's a record that avoids sounding like a throwback, but nonetheless has a heft and timelessness. "Is It Love?" is almost intimidating in its maturity and inquisitiveness, while "Daylight" recalls Joe Jackson's proto-synth-pop classic "Steppin' Out." Lead single "For Love I Come" is a remake of the George Duke tune from 1975. (Bruner says he played it for Duke, who was impressed to find it almost totally unrecognizable except for the lyrics.) Does this make him feel like an old soul? Maybe so, "especially with my hairline," he says. "Someone was telling me that me and my dad look like brothers — that's good for my dad."
Any semblance of a normal teenhood for Bruner stopped around the age of 15. Like Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, his first experience with the music industry was a passing role in manufactured, ultimately failed pop act No Curfew, assembled during the boy-band craze of the late 1990s. So, was Bruner the "cute one" or the "bad boy"? Not so much, he says, but rather "the black one." His press clippings claim No Curfew had a hit in Germany, even if YouTube contains absolutely no evidence of the band's existence.
Still, Bruner's rep as a bass virtuoso preceded him, and familial connections led to a gig with Venice thrash-punk legends Suicidal Tendencies, which he keeps to this day.
More crucially, he'd hook up with Steven Ellison, the groundbreaking electronic artist and owner of the Brainfeeder label, better known as Flying Lotus. Despite both living in L.A., they were introduced at South by Southwest by J*Davey's Brook D'Leau. Explains Bruner, "It was one of those moments like in Clerks, like, 'Hey, you two should hang out sometime.' "
Though Cosmogramma was intended as a unified piece (early promo copies were sent out as one track) and featured a rare and highly publicized guest vocal from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the Thundercat feature "MmmHmmm" was considered "the single." Though Bruner's bass skills were predictably compelling, his airy and lilting vocals came totally without training. "It was just, 'Well, let's just do it. If you can sing it, then sing it.' "
Bass frontmen, however, are a rare breed. You've got Geddy Lee and Les Claypool — "All weirdos!" Bruner says with a degree of empathy. Indeed, the one way to get a rise out of him is to bring up the academic connotations of jazz. It's a fair concern; Cosmogramma and Golden Age might be the closest things to jazz LPs that many indie-rock or hip-hop fans own. "That's the thing, guys like Stanley Clarke, they were clowning, having fun! Those jazz-fusion cats were the punks of jazz in my mind. When did people all of a sudden start thinking it was all serious?"
So, what does he hope listeners use Golden Age as a gateway to? "Sonic the Hedgehog," he says, "but listen to it as music."
Turns out the guy who composed the video game's theme was from Japanese pop act Dreams Come True.
Sounds strange, but that overlap of childhood and teen memories makes sense with regard to Golden Age. Bruner calls it a culmination of everything that's been bubbling up for him emotionally since he was a kid; not just the music but the life experiences as well. "At the time we were recording [Golden Age track] 'Jamboree,' we were all in a house picking boogers and eating Top Ramen. That song came out of that aura and way of functioning," he recalls.
He says it with a tinge of nostalgia, but I imagine he's still plenty inspired these days, despite having his own place to sleep and the occasional hot plate of okra.