Even if the name Thundercat is unfamiliar, chances are if you’ve recently fallen in love with a bassline on the radio recently it came from the fingers of Stephen Bruner.
From his work on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp A Butterfly to his own eccentrically creative solo releases, Bruner’s been quietly inserting his versatile bass skills and beautiful weirdness into the most interesting contemporary music emerging today.
“A lot changed, my hair changed, the size of my dick changed!,” he jokes of the aftermath of To Pimp A Butterfly. “So many things changed, from the way people talked to me to what people saw me as. It was like an open door.”
It was a moment of mainstream recognition for a prodigious talent whose early career was already feted celebrated for stints with Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington. As one of Lamar’s key collaborators for the 2015 album, the sessions saw Bruner dole out perhaps the most played bassline of the year on Lamar’s earworm single King Kunta. Racking up a Grammy and the number two spot in triple j’s Hottest 100, the album was a watershed moment for the rapper, and at the heart of its blend of jazz and hip hop were Thundercat’s distinctive fingerprints.
“From the get go it was very intense,” he says of his relationship with Lamar .“I feel like I didn’t realise how [important] the album was gonna be until completion of the mastering, and I remember I went home and cried about it because I felt like I just exuded so much into it,” he says. “The feeling of ‘wow, I couldn’t describe what happened’. But I remember going home at like 8 o’clock in the morning at the end of the mastering sessions, and it was more like this feeling of, ‘what did I just sit witness to?'”
While a fascinating solo artist in his own right, the opportunity to embark on such collaborations, whether with Lamar or other regular foils like Washington or Flying Lotus, unlocks something else in him.
“I always wanted to do the best I could with the music, and I always wanted to contribute,” he says. “I did always want to be part of something bigger. And experiencing that with Kendrick… was rather intense to say the least.”
That period of heightened creativity also gave birth to his latest solo album Drunk, a 23 track odyssey of sprawling funk jams, tantalisingly short musical thought bubbles and cameos from the likes of Pharrell Williams and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. With lyrics that reference everything from popular anime Dragonball Z to his beloved cat Tron, the various tangents of the album are held together by his unique bass playing.
Equally likely to feed a gently arpeggiated chord through a wah pedal as hold down a groove, Thundercat’s approach to the rhythm section staple frequently defies categorisation. More often than not, it resembles a fingerpicked nylon string guitar pitched down an octave, forming an otherworldly melodic core of most of his songs.
“It aided in the process in the sense that it made me put more out creatively, it sped up my process,” he says of the effect of one album on the other. “I feel like more stuff was coming out of me, I didn’t complete Drunk based on Pimp A Butterfly, they existed in the same time frame but they kinda worked off each other a bit.”
With a father who played drums with Diana Ross and The Temptations and a brother who played with seminal Californian thrash group punk group Suicidal Tendencies, it wasn’t long before a young Bruner was onstage as well.
“I was pretty young, maybe 15/16?” he says of his early appearances with Suicidal Tendencies. “It was fantastic, it was very intense for me. But I was very excited by it, excited to play the music because I felt like any chance to play like that was new and different for me. [So] I embraced it and loved it very much.”
While Thundercat’s reputation for studio wizardry is legendary, that love of performing onstage is clearly a big part of Bruner’s life, and makes his upcoming appearance at WOMADelaide an intriguing prospect. “It’s a totally different vibe — sometimes on my albums there’s electronic instrumentation, but definitely translated differently live,” he says, keeping details tantalisingly vague.
“It’s a neverending story, so to speak.”
Thundercat will perform at WOMADelaide on Monday, March 12