wax Poetics
Photo by Theo Jemison.

Thundercat

Bassist moves fluidly from Suicidal Tendencies gigs to slinky George Duke covers

published online
Originally published in Issue 52
By Marisa Aveling

    The child inside bass beast Thundercat, the interchangeable name for Stephen Bruner, has very much stayed with him. The twenty-seven-year-old Los Angeleno holds up his phone so that it can capture the full picture of his animated face over Skype, which occasionally breaks into a cheesy beam. Bruner’s calling from Brazil, where he explains he’s been eating as much steak as he can while on tour with punk band Suicidal Tendencies, an unrelenting outfit he’s been playing with since he was a teenager. They’re performing in two hours, and he’s dressed for the occasion. Taking sartorial cues from the Tin Man, he wears a bucket on his head.

    It’s not entirely unexpected. Extravagant accessories and costumes have accompanied Bruner to any show he’s played, from cosmic soul with Erykah Badu, thrash with Suicidal, or the freedom-focused jazz explorations featuring himself as front man. “To me, it’s all reference points. Talismans,” Bruner says about his oftentimes-feathery embellishments. “Sometimes, people have photo books, like, ‘Oh yeah, I used to be crazy.’ These things remind me, ‘Oh yeah, that’s who you are.’”

    The playful and childlike side of Bruner contrasts with the way he speaks through music with maturity that indicates his knowledge of where he fits in the aural constellation. This depth is aided by his launch into the arms of an exceptionally creative and musical family straight out of the womb—his father, Ronald Bruner Sr., is a drummer who worked with the likes of the Temptations, Diana Ross, and Gary Bartz, and his mother is what he describes as a “creative cluster.” Just like many sibling relationships, Bruner looked up with adoration to his now Grammy-winning older brother Ronald Jr., who took to the drum kit at two and probably knew that he wanted to be a musician soon after. Bruner didn’t have that same focus, instead spending time “floating around the house.”

    By his own admission, he used to weird out his family a bit. “I remember one time, I was sitting in the garage eating cat food,” he chuckles. He would constantly be elsewhere, drawing in his art books and/or sprawled out in front of the TV, watching cartoons. His favorite, obviously, was Thundercats. “It did something to me emotionally,” Bruner says. “It feels as if that has defined where I am right now. Like, what I’ve become, basically, is a Thundercat.”

    Years later, after Bruner had stopped eating cat food, grown enough to join and quit a boy band that was famous in Germany, and have bass chops good enough to take on tour with Leon Ware, it was Erykah and Sa-Ra Creative Partners’ Shafiq Husayn who acknowledged his Thundercats obsession and bestowed it upon him as a name. By this time, he was hanging out at Sa-Ra’s creative hub and contributing his bubbling bass tinkerings to the records of other artists, but it wasn’t until meeting Flying Lotus that Bruner realized he could be in front of the band too. 

    “Me and Lotus have a mental connection that’s a little bit bigger than the fact that we both do music—we just think on the same wavelength,” Bruner explains. The two were also working on FlyLo’s Cosmogramma at the time, and it took some encouragement and help from the producer to sort through Thundercat’s own compositions for The Golden Age of Apocalypse to finally show itself.

    Bruner’s thirteen-track debut LP was released last year on Lotus’s digital imprint, Brainfeeder, into an electronic canon comprised of works from L.A.-based luminaries like Daedelus, Samiyam, Teebs, and the Gaslamp Killer. As Flying Lotus describes, “It’s got a vintage feel, but with forward thought,” referencing elders Stanley Clarke and George Duke and mixing their jazz intricacies with sweeps of electronic inspiration.

    It’s largely marked by a sense of freedom—freedom to experiment, not over-think things, and just do what feels right. Bruner explains that he’s used this notion to trace out his career path, along with making sure that be it thrash or jazz, his contributions always offer a direct line from the instrument to the heart. “I’ve never changed how I’m playing,” he says. “It’s always just been my emotional connection to what I’m doing.”

    The conversation veers to Bruner’s recent video for “Walkin’,” featuring visual cameos from the elder Bruner, J*Davey, Brainfeeder pianist Austin Peralta, Sa-Ra’s Taz Arnold, and Flying Lotus. They play a cast of friendly ghouls that color Bruner’s leisurely neighborhood stroll that ends in an explosive high five between the two Golden Age collaborators. “Did you see the ultimate high five?” Bruner asks excitedly. “Sure did. Is that what you call ‘Over 9000’?” I ask, referencing the meme used in the video. “Nah,” he replies. “Over 9000 is just basically a term for when stuff is getting way out of hand. It can be awesome or terrible. It’s from [the anime series] Dragon Ball Z.” References like this are a mark of Thundercat that will never be erased. “Some people would call it immaturity,” Bruner says, “but I call it just trying to stay connected to who you are, as opposed to having somebody dictate who you’re supposed to be.”