Foundations: Thundercat

Turbo-fingered bassist on some essential discs…

The Brainfeeder-signed solo star and collaborator with the likes of Flying Lotus and Thom Yorke opens up to Clash about the albums that made him the musician he is today…

Thundercat is the record-releasing moniker of Los Angeles artist Stephen Bruner. An absolute demon of a bassist, his music connects the dots from inspired jazz motifs to floor-filling disco, via chattering electro and cerebral hip-hop. His new solo LP, ‘Apocalypse’, is out now and reviewed here

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Jaco Pastorious – ‘Jaco Pastorius’ (1976)

So this came out in ’76. How old were you when you heard it?

I had to be in my teens. I had to be maybe 13, or maybe 12. Actually… I might have been even younger! I might’ve been 10.

And you were playing yourself at the time? As, considering the type of bassist Pastorius was, I can’t imagine he didn’t have a considerable effect on the fledgling Thundercat…

Yeah. This definitely left an impression on me. I was playing bass when I was turned onto this by my father, and this album blew me away when I first heard it.

He apparently approached Weather Report by claiming he was the greatest bassist in the world, says Wikipedia. Do you think that attitude came through in how he actually played?

Definitely. I mean, I don’t think he was the greatest bassist of all time, but he definitely did know his music, and his ability, and was very confident and outspoken. He wasn’t afraid of other people’s opinions, and I think he really changed how people played bass.

Also, his ability to compose became more attractive to me as the years passed – you get to understand more about Jaco through his compositions, his ability to put together pieces that were just absolutely beautiful.

One of my favourite pieces off this album is ‘Forgotten Love’, and it’s really just him playing the piano. It’s so beautiful. At the end of the day, bass was his first choice of instrument, but you could tell that his music stretched so much further than the fact that he was a great bassist.

Jaco collaborated with a great many artists – and you’ve not been shy of getting together with peers to work together. What draws you into someone else’s project?

I’m very attracted to melody and progression, and a lot of the time that’s what I go for. That’s what’s bonded me to people in the past – be that Sa-Ra, or Mac Miller. Mac Miller has a great sense of melody. And Kimbra, too, is a powerhouse. Literally, she’s a monstrosity, creatively. A lot of the time I’m sitting working with her, my heart’s beating fast and my eyes are dilated because she’s just there, y’know. She gets it, which is a rarity sometimes.

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Herbie Hancock – ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’ (1969)

Now, Hancock played on the Pastorius album we’ve just discussed. Was it through that record that you first heard Herbie?

Oh, I was already listening to Herbie, but sometimes knowing about someone and being turned onto their music doesn’t mean that you know about every last part of what they’ve done. Some artists compile massive catalogues, and you discover them in different ways.

But I remember the day I came across ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’. I was sitting in a car with a guy who was – and still is – one of my closest friends. We literally had to pull the car over when this came on, because we couldn’t keep driving while listening to the stuff these guys were playing. So we sat there, pulled over, and listened to the whole album. We both turned and looked at each other, and it was clear that this record had immediately changed our lives. I’ll never forget that.

‘Fat Albert…’ is an evolutionary album for its maker – it marked a move from a more ‘straightforward’ brand of jazz to a real fusion sound, encompassing soul and funk beside the jazz…

Yeah, I think that, on ‘Fat Albert…’, nothing feels contrived, and so much was so out there, but without disconnecting itself from the listener. But it’s one of those albums that you can ‘get’, that you can listen to; but it’s full of progression, too. You’ve got a song like ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’, which set a new standard for Herbie and actually became one of his standards. It’s just… a very lovely album.

And it’s an album that you frequently return to, today?

Yeah, absolutely. I put it on and vibe out. And depending on who is there with me, I can share the moments I’ve previously had with this album with them. Those moments are mine – but I love to relive them.

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Gino Vannelli – ‘The Gist Of The Gemini’ (1976)

This is another album that finds its maker trying new things – it’s sort of pop, but clearly with prog veins running through it. You don’t view prog as a dirty word at all?

Oh, absolutely! I’m just a fan of good music, whatever it is. Pop, prog, whatever… Good music transcends names, and the era it’s made in. Sometimes we need these names to help describe the feeling a certain type of music gives you, but good music stands the test of time, whatever it is. Like, take Stevie Wonder: what type of music is that, now? What do you call his music? It’s covered every era of R&B and pop.

I mean, happens when sounds change? What happens when jazz isn’t jazz anymore, it’s pop? You see what I mean? And with Gino Vannelli, his music is very experimental, you can hear that. The elements that are all going on at the time, they suggest that. But you can also hear that these songs that Gino, and his brother, would write… they can be so, so pretty. And ‘The Gist Of The Gemini’ is a very, very funky album.

To be honest, there was one point where I wanted to play keybass, like Gino’s brother Joe, back when I was starting on the bass. I wanted to sound like Joe. It felt like when those brothers would play, there was a real connection between the keybass and Gino’s singing – but as he was singing, there’d be these psychedelic lines, and they’d always trip me out. I’d be like: that’s how this is supposed to sound.

Gino was the second white artist on Soul Train, and opened for Stevie Wonder, which seemed groundbreaking back then. It’s weird to think that race was ever a dividing line in music, whatever the genre…

No, you don’t see those divisions now, between ‘black’ music and ‘white’ music. The segregation comes in a different form. Now I see everybody greedy to make a hit, to sell a million copies. Music is sacrificed in the pursuit of money. You see these guys throwing loads of things against a wall to see what sticks. I’d say that, with hip-hop, you don’t see that so much in someone like Mac Miller’s music. But there are bigger things happening every day. I mean, the day Busta Rhymes hooked up with Linkin Park… hmm. Did that need to happen?  

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Stanley Clarke – ‘Journey To Love’ (1975)

Now I guess Stanley’s music is close to you partly because of your touring work with him, when you were a teenager?

Yeah man, this record was life changing in so many ways, in so many ways. From the time I was a child, I think that ‘Journey To Love’ was one of the first records I listened to. Across the years, this has stuck with me for so long, but I still get excited to hear it. Seeing Stanley Clarke’s afro against that big window pane, and that first song, ‘Silly Putty’… it’s like an introduction to life.  Life is silly, y’know? And it feels like this album takes you through a whole life cycle. When I say this has stuck with me, I mean genuinely… It’s one of the best moments ever in music, for me.

My older brother first started playing with Stanley. I was kinda quiet growing up, and Mr Clarke didn’t realise that I was a bass player, with ambition, I guess. My brother would always play with him… I’m trying to remember how the connection happened. I think my brother introduced me to Stanley, and then he brought me over to his house one time. Now, Stanley is a really cool cat, because he’s a serious animal, and he’ll ask: “So what do you do?”

So I played him my music, my first album… and the fact that he could receive it, and not take it like a joke, and give me an honest opinion, spoke miles to me about Stanley Clarke.

To see that sort of mentality nowadays, is so removed. You see people nowadays, walking around like they want to be the greatest thing ever to happen to music. But Stanley sees it as bigger than all of us, that music doesn’t belong to any of us. So seeing this guy connecting to that? I thought he’d be like, “Oh, this is weird”. But Stanley… he understood my kind of music. He gave me an honest opinion. And I was like, “Stanley Clarke is talking to me about my music? Oh my gosh…”

I’ve looked up to Stanley my whole, entire life.

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Every Album Ever

So I guess you’re a fan of the album format, then…

Absolutely. I’ve spent my whole life listening to albums. I mean, you’re always going to like songs from an album; but you need the full scope of the album to really get into what that artist was thinking. I prefer to listen to an album a few times straight through before making a decision on how I feel about it. Being able to hear music like that is really beneficial. I’d say, eight times out of ten, spending the right amount of time with a record is going to help me like it.

I’m a real advocate, when making music, of not sitting on songs too long. The ideas are often right the first time they came out! I’ll play bass with someone, and they’ll use a take where I wasn’t sure about the piece I was playing, instead of one where I was more practised. So sometimes it’s done, and you don’t know it.

I’m okay now with how fast this can work. You may miss a note, or not hit it dead on, but sometimes that’s right and how it should be. I’ve told friends, frequently, to leave songs alone, because they’re done, they’re over! Don’t do any more or you’ll ruin it! Even with the mess-up, that’s the right sound… You don’t always want the ‘I know what I’m doing’ sound. Otherwise you can end up with a machine sound, rather than something organic.

You wanna hear something? ‘Lotus And The Jondy’, on ‘Apocalypse’, that’s one take. There’s another version of it, and (Flying) Lotus would call the one on the album the demo. But I quickly let go of that other, more electronic version. It’s one of those things, and I’m happy it happened – it happened so quick, that I could see the entire idea, the entire process. I felt happy at the end.

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Photo: Theo Jemison

‘Apocalypse’ is out now on Brainfeeder, and reviewed here. Find Thundercat online here.

Previously on Foundations…
Jimmy Eat World 
Sinden

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