Thundercat on Drunk & finding humour in tension
Ahead of a run of shows in the UK, we speak to Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, about the instinctual inception of his acclaimed third album Drunk, and finding humour in racial tension
"It’s always weird when you get a bunch of musicians to do something in front of a green screen," Stephen Bruner – better known as bass maestro Thundercat – muses on the video for his Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald collaboration, Show You the Way. "But it turned out fantastic because that off-guardedness created the action that it needed."
That unguarded nature – with Bruner, Loggins and McDonald performing in the clouds, as a former samurai finds redemption and a new lease of life at a health retreat – is something of a microcosm of his latest album as Thundercat, Drunk. "It still had to have that playfulness, and it had to have the reality of the music," he explains of the video, launched a matter of hours before our chat. Similarly, Drunk finds the balance between ecstatic, playful passages and existential contemplation.
That combination can be traced back to the album’s genesis, stemming partly from Bruner’s extensive collaborations with other artists after the release of his 2013 album Apocalypse; he recollects his time working alongside Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar and others between 2014 and 2015. "A lot of Drunk is interweaved between You’re Dead! and To Pimp a Butterfly and the few albums I’d worked on in-between those," he reflects. Indeed, the same year Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, Bruner released his own EP, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. "I feel like it was the same train of thought that The Beyond... came from," he explains. "If you really listen to those albums in the same breath you can feel the same energy around them. I feel like it was all one giant story."
Bruner reflects that Drunk could have been a very different album altogether. "It could have gone so many different ways," he says, "it was figuring out how to portray the actual process and not downplay it." Despite the myriad of ideas, there was one part of the process that was absolute, inspired by some sage advice his friend FlyLo had given him: be honest with yourself. "The advice, it kind of just hit me heavy. I’ve tried to stay true to that ever since," Bruner says. He acknowledges that "it’s a really vulnerable place to have to express yourself through melody, harmony and lyrics," but that doing so enabled him to make Drunk a testament to his true feelings. "It helped me to be comfortable, it made me comfortable to go with exactly what I’m thinking or feeling and not just to live up to an expectation," he explains. "This is what I’m really, really thinking, compared to trying to make a story."
Running on instinct, pure feeling and honesty has resulted in Drunk being a much deeper dive into Bruner’s psyche than any album he’s released previously as Thundercat. It’s a sprawling, chameleonic 23-track odyssey that captures his breadth of influences, from jazz and hip-hop to R'n'B and electronica. He references anime (Tokyo alone cites characters and concepts from Dragon Ball Z numerous times) and, like on some of his previous works, video games, which pop up relatively regularly both in his lyrics and as 16-bit soundbites. "Every now and again you forget how much you play video games!" he laughs. "We were having a Mortal Kombat tournament and we just beat the hell out of everyone and then it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I play video games a lot, I just forgot there for a second!'" It’s unsurprising then that video games continue to pepper his work. "It’s kind of interweaved for me, it’s part of the conversation."
Thematically, Bruner touches on subjects that are just as wide-ranging. He veers from wondering what it’d be like to be a cat like his own to leaving your wallet in the club, heartbreak, and, on the shimmering, uplifting Bus in These Streets, contemplating our increasing attachment to technology. "It’s a bit of a utopia but also a bit dystopian," he muses on the latter. "You can have a great world, you can live in your little bubble, you can do make-up all day and watch this that or the third, or you can try and use it to destroy another country, like we see our President doing!" he laughs. He concludes that it wouldn’t hurt to log off occasionally: "You don’t need to be bombarded with everyone else’s bullshit, you can just deal with your own. That’s a lot by itself!"
It is a lot, and indeed Bus in These Streets is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social and political commentary on Drunk, an album that often delves into the US’s racial tensions. "The things that we’re experiencing politically, you can see it! It’s everything that’s causing a divide and when you’re sitting you can’t help but observe it," he says. "There’s no way it can’t translate into your day-to-day processing." Indeed, for Bruner – having grown up in Los Angeles, attending a high school built on the site where the city’s 1965 riots started – it’s an issue that’s embedded into his psyche. "Even if it’s not outright, it’s internal. You have an eternal struggle," he explains.
On one of Drunk's most soul-searching tracks, The Turn Down, guest vocalist Pharrell Williams states: 'Black, white, gay, straight human beings all pee and want some ass'. It’s a line that draws stark attention to the fact that humans are the same at a fundamental, biological level, something Bruner wholeheartedly believes in. "I’m still walking and breathing. As a person, that’s what qualifies you to be a human," he states. "I don’t have to be told that I’m a human, I know I’m a human. I can take a shit, all I gotta do is go to the toilet; I get boners, I watch cartoons, I eat food. It’s the literal consistency of what it means to be human. A lot of the time I think people lose sight of that." Rightly, he’s entirely sure of his own sense of self-worth: "I don’t need to be told that I’m less than anything else. I know I’m not."
While it sometimes has its contemplative moments though, like Bruner himself, Drunk is also often a funny record, interwoven with wit. For him, humour is another way of telling a truthful, insightful story. "They have that saying: the truth is told in jest," he comments. Sometimes, he weaves his humour and playfulness alongside his social commentaries, the shiny, synth-led Jameel’s Space Ride forming a perfect example. In it, Bruner just wants to ride his bike ('Although it seems like it’s all crashing down'), but worries that the police might harass him purely because of his skin colour. "As silly as that lyric is, it’s meant to be still a bit serious. Like, 'Yeah, it is 'cause you’re black', absolutely it’s 'cause you’re black!" he laughs.
He finds something absurdist in the nature of racism, something that can be laughed at. "It’s not a thing of being rich or poor, it’s just a thing that it’s funny! It’s very funny. If you watch National Geographic and you watch hippos having sex, that’s pretty funny," he chuckles. "It’s the same to me."
Since it was released in February, Drunk has received much critical acclaim, and Bruner’s still taking it all in. "I never would have thought that this was something that would happen," he says. "It’s far away from just playing bass for people and every day there’s a different surprise, something new." Although he’s still processing the reception to Drunk, he’s already looking ahead to his next project, ready to explore even more avenues. "I’m really excited about being able to record again, throwing stuff out there and feeling different feels," he says. "I’m excited for whatever’s coming next."
Drunk is out now via Brainfeeder
Thundercat plays O2 ABC, Glasgow, 14 Nov