Stephen Bruner Jr., known as bassist Thundercat, isn't afraid to wear whatever the fuck he deems appropriate. Tonight, he's in a colorful poncho over what appears to be a chain-mail jumpsuit — King Arthur meets The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
It's the sold-out release show for Bruner's new album Apocalypse, which comes out today. (See also our review of the show.) Executive produced by Flying Lotus, Apocalypse is a trip through the Brainfeeder cosmos on the back of a phoenix that still hasn't fully emerged from the ashes of a tragedy, with song-titles like “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” and “We'll Die.”
If Apocalypse is a somewhat grimmer record than Thundercat's 2011 debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse — indeed, “The Golden Age” seems to have passed — it's because a lot has happened since then. Most importantly, Bruner lost one of his best friends and label-mate, young jazz virtuoso Austin Peralta, who died in November due to a combination of viral pneumonia and narcotics.
See also: The Life and Death of Austin Peralta
In coversation with Bruner at Red Bull Music Academy in New York City several weeks ago, Peralta's name comes up almost immediately. Sipping red wine in the academy's massive lobby next to slowly rotating sculptures, Bruner is wearing a wide-brimmed hat matched with boots and spurs. He is also soft-spoken and clearly still grieving for his friend.
“It pains me to listen to this album straight through,” he says. “Because there's so much that went behind it.” He stops talking, nearly choked up, searching for the right words, starts, then stops again. “I don't know, I couldn't make up for it. One of my closest friends died, and I was with him within a couple hours of him dying. It freaked me out. It genuinely freaked me out.”
Bruner was with Peralta the night of his death, though the exact details of when they parted ways that night remain a bit murky. (His management isn't eager for the topic to be discussed.) “I haven't said this to anybody,” he says, “but it scared me and made me really sad. I've never experienced anyone that close to me, that I would send so much time with, just disappear like that.”
When Bruner was told his friend was gone, the day before Thanksgiving, he and Flying Lotus skipped town for Japan, where the latter had shows scheduled.
“My whole family gets together for Thanksgiving and I literally got up and left,” he says. “I couldn't do it, you know?”
It was an insane time: Flying Lotus' Until the Quiet Comes had just come out and the Brainfeeder collective's star had never been brighter, and he played a series of packed shows in Japan. “For everything to be going on at one time…it was a barrage of all this stuff,” says Bruner. “Emotions and things that were over the top.”
The weight of Peralta's death resonates all over Apocalypse; the last track is called, “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void.” Bruner says making the record was a difficult and emotional ride: sometimes he'd have to track the lyrics multiple times because he just couldn't sing them. Still, he doesn't think the process was necessarily therapeutic for him. Just that afternoon he had listened to one of the songs in the subway and couldn't help but cry. “It's like, you gotta be kidding me,” he says.
Though Bruner thinks it will be a while before he can easily listen to the album, to a listener with a little more distance from the events it doesn't seem wholly dreary. Rather, a quiet resilience is at work. I know I'll see you again in another life, he whispers on the album's final track.
It's a strange confluence of emotion: personal tragedy juxtaposed against public success. Fellow Brainfeederian Teebs experienced a similar clash of emotions when his father died while he was finishing his debut album. It's a quintessential musician's paradigm — the loss that is so often essential for creating great art is real and must be dealt with, even as the world demands you. And all the legions of faces in the crowd can't replace old friends.
Back in New York, Bruner is talking about rapper Earl Sweatshirt; Bruner plays bass on his album Doris, on a track called “Fuck These Hos.” It's his cabbie from last night, returning a pair of gold-plated Louis Vuitton slash Marc Jacobs sunglasses Bruner left in the backseat. (Above.) It's already 8 pm and he had given them up for lost when the cab driver called him out of the blue. It's a small example of the good in the world, and Bruner seems grateful for it.