Like heterochromia and male-pattern baldness, aptitude for music, apparently, is a genetic predisposition.
Virtuoso bass player Thundercat—or Stephen Bruner, to his family—comes from excellent stock. His mother a flutist and father a drummer with artists such as the Temptations, Gladys Knight, and the Supremes, Bruner had two impressive role models. In fact, those looking for a place to nurture their children’s musical talents could do a lot worse than Bruner’s parents’ front room.
Not just laying the foundation for Stephen’s talent, Ronald Sr. and Pam Bruner raised Grammy Award–winning jazz drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., performer in the Stanley Clarke Band, and Grammy-nominated keyboardist Jameel “Kintaro” Bruner, former member of R&B group the Internet.
The bassist’s brothers helped catapult Stephen into the spotlight. At 15, Bruner had a minor hit in Germany as a member of the boy band No Curfew. A year later, the musician joined seminal crossover-thrash group Suicidal Tendencies with Ronald Jr., playing with them for nearly a decade. Now in heavy demand for session work, Bruner credits his focus on the bass guitar to his family environment.
“It just kind of came natural in the house I grew up in,” he tells the Straight on the line from Los Angeles. “Because everyone around me was a musician, everybody was very creative and open to artistic stuff. So we would always be listening to different music. Ultimately, because my dad and older brother played drums, I feel like it just came natural to pick the bass. It wasn’t a super conscious decision. Every time I look at old pictures, I see images of me holding a guitar of some sort, or a stringed instrument, you know? It’s really weird.”
Cutting his teeth by playing on records for stars like Erykah Badu and Bilal, Bruner soon gravitated towards production, earning credits on Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, Ty Dolla Sign’s debut offering, Free TC, and Mac Miller’s GO:OD AM. In 2016, Bruner became the third member of his family to be nominated for a Grammy, for working with Kendrick Lamar on his award-winning To Pimp a Butterfly.
Despite having a wealth of talent in the studio and behind the sound desk, however, it wasn’t until Bruner met Flying Lotus that he even entertained the idea of making his own records.
“It was Lotus’s suggestion that I sing,” the bassist recalls. “It was him being like, ‘You have to sing in front of people, man. You can do it.’ And he introduced me to the idea of me being an artist like that. I took it very serious. It wasn’t my goal before to sing in front of people—it’s not something I set out to do. But it just became part of the package of me.”
Bruner’s solo records are nothing if not eccentric. Building on his densely layered debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse—an album that weaves an eclectic collection of electronic, pop, and jazz tropes, produced by Flying Lotus—Bruner next created 2013’s jazz- and R&B–infused Apocalypse, and 2015’s unusual The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam. Drunk, Bruner’s fourth individual offering, is even more unconventional.
A shining example of a record that is both experimental and highly listenable, Drunk was inspired, the artist mischievously quips, by drinking.
“Alcohol is an undercurrent of what exists in music, or the entertainment industry,” said Bruner of the record’s moniker. “It’s something that everyone experiences and it touches you in different ways. This record is just me observing and reporting, so to speak.”
Showcasing Bruner’s tendency to intersperse short pieces with fuller songs, Drunk is a meandering journey through a huge range of genres, emotions, and thoughts. Featuring 23 tracks—each of which runs for an average time of just over two minutes—the record represents the musician’s aim to create an honest representation of the intersection between his mind and recording process.
“The whole idea behind the album is to create a train of thought,” Bruner says. “I was trying hard to create a stream of consciousness. I would dance back and forth about what kind of album to make, because it easily could have gone so many other ways. Every sound is so different from song to song, and it’s consistently changing in very weird manners. I wanted people to see how this stuff comes out of my brain, rather than trying to make the perfect album where it’s all hit records.
“I always say this quote that Flying Lotus told me,” he continues. “ ‘You have to be honest in your music, and that’s your job as a person who creates this stuff.’ That’s what I’ve used as a pillar for how I write. I don’t try to play off of certain people’s emotions. Sometimes you can feel that when someone makes pop music, they’re just manufacturing a feeling—and that’s part of the business. So I’ve tried to step outside that and look at how I’m influenced by the world. That’s the true beauty about writing music.”
Thundercat plays the Rickshaw on Friday (February 17).
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