Bass God Thundercat Gives the Lowdown on Sonic the Hedgehog and Singing Like Tiny Tim
The FlyLo-approved virtuoso shares the secrets behind his jaw-dropping sounds
Before striking out on his own as Thundercat, singer and bass-master Stephen Bruner spent plenty of time in the sideman shadows, lending his virtuosic low-end skills to the likes of Suicidal Tendencies, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg. His funky, experimential 2011 debut, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse, released on Flying Lotus‘s Brainfeeder label suggested that Bruner deserved a spotlight of his own — a feeling that the fusion-y, soulful follow-up, the more simply named Apocalypse, does nothing to dispel.
Bruner called from Los Angeles to talk through the musicianship, vocalists, and harsh loss that influenced the recently-released new album.
“[Sly and the Family Stone bassist] Larry Graham is the king of falsetto. That’s where Prince got his falsetto. Sometimes when you’re a kid it’s funny to you, seeing a grown man sing and sound like Tiny Tim, but when you get of age it makes sense. Without him, I would have never thought to do falsetto beforehand, in my entire life. I remember one time I had Larry Graham on and my brother goes, ‘Man, this song sucks!’ I explained to him, ‘No Ronald, it doesn’t suck, you just don’t know who this is.’ Sure enough, I told my brother everything about Larry Graham, and he came back to me way later, ‘Yo man, Larry Graham was killin’ it!'”
“When I heard [A$AP Rocky’s] Live.Love.A$AP [which featured Clams Casino production work] — sonically and melodically it directly communicated with me. Sometimes I don’t exactly connect with the lyrics, but at the same time I’m listening to their rhythm, and the placement of their accents. Before I met Clams, me and [Flying] Lotus were sitting in the car listening to this stuff and we were talking about Clams’ production. I said, ‘I bet you his dad plays guitar. There’s no way to make beats with that sense of melody with nobody around you that plays an instrument.’ When I met Clams I asked him, ‘Does your dad play guitar?’ He said ‘Yup,’ so I turned to [Flying] Lotus and said, ‘See, I told you, I told you!'”
Pianist-composer Robert Glasper
“The first time I went to New York by myself, I stayed with Robert Glasper. I stayed at Rob’s house literally sitting all day, completely inebriated, watching Eastbound and Down. Then we would go out at night to just play with Mos Def or whoever, but we were kind of just chilling. That was one of the coolest things I ever experienced creatively, with somebody being so open. We were over there just being some regular hoodrats, but it was my introduction to contemporary jazz cats. I felt that this is jazz now. What Robert Glasper did with [his 2012 album] Black Radio: It’s straight jazz, but it’s made for people to connect to.”
I remember the day my parents got me a Sega Genesis and I started playing Sonic. It wasn’t the excitement of the video game, but the music that drove me into Sonic the Hedgehog. They would write dynamic music that changed well with the levels. I would be comfortable sitting down and playing without blinking — but I’d still be feeding myself music. [Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack composer] Masato Nakamura made music that was so emotionally attaching. If you died in Sonic, you felt that you were genuinely going to die. With a game like Shaq Fu, the intro to it was so jazzy. To be honest, I would just put the game on to let the intro play and walk away. Having an older brother who would eat, sleep, and breath drums, if I walked away from the TV for one second, he would turn on a drum video. But he didn’t realize that I had the game on to listen to its music.”
“When I was a kid, I did not understand why my dad would listen to Cream. Sometimes he would be really hokey. He’d be dancing to Cream and singing it. He’d be looking at me, and I would say, ‘Dad, this is corny. Stop it. It’s only us here and you’re embarrassing me. How do you embarrass me, by myself?’ Later on in life, as I was playing my instrument, I would see the purpose of a Ginger Baker or an Eric Clapton. I’d understand their dynamic more. Then I would come back to my dad and say, ‘Yeah man, I just picked up the whole Cream catalogue and I’m stuck.’ He would laugh: ‘Now you see it.'”
Pianist-composer Austin Peralta
“Flying’ Lotus gave me as a gift that kind of tripped me out: He gave me a take of one of my songs with Austin actually playing on it. I just broke out in tears, because it feels like the guy gave what he could to me. Losing a best friend definitely still affects me to this day. [Peralta died in 2012] That specific part of [Apocalypse] where it says ‘We’ll die’ — that was me honestly reacting to the harshness that was right in front of me. I was sitting there playing and I was messing up the harmonics a bit while making up lyrics. At the end of the day, we’re all going to die; it’s just a reality, as a human. I could imagine that being a little weird, but for me it was comforting, because it means you have to try and do your best as a human. That’s all you have.”