[Cover image credit to Zack Fox]
Thundercat, aka Stephen Lee Bruner, recently released his fourth studio album, It Is What It Is, from Braindfeeder, and by speaking to his own experiences, spoke rather pointedly about the times we now find ourselves facing. Times that needs a certain amount of perspective, and ideally a large dose of humor, to survive.
The composer, recording artist, and performer is casting a wider and wider musical net these days, far beyond the constraints of early genre influences on his music, which include Punk, Alternative R&B, Electric Jazz, and more. On the new album, you're going to find a sampling of musical possibilities, all with Thundercat's trademark directness and self-awareness in the lyrics. But if music is a place where you can find yourself, maybe through encountering new music you can find out more about yourself, too.
Thundercat joins us today for an extensive interview about It Is What It Is, but also about his collaborations with Flying Lotus, his approach to technology and live performance, and more general ruminations on the value of music to us, right here, right now.
[Photo credit to The 1Point8]
Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you have any stories or memories of visiting Tower Records?
Thundercat: Yeah, there used to be a Tower Records off of Sunset Boulevard. It was awesome. My Dad used to take me there all the time. And we used to go and vegetate in the store. It’s nice to hear that you guys are coming back.
HMS: Oh, yes, a lot of people have some great memories from that location. At the moment, we’re digital, but a lot of people want to see some brick and mortar locations coming back..
Thundercat: Yeah! That would be dope!
HMS: Are you someone who collects physical media for music, like records, cassettes, or cds?
Thundercat: Yes. Yes, I do.
HMS: Are you a vinyl person?
Thundercat: I love vinyl. Some albums, it’s still rather a rarity to get them on vinyl. And it’s still so important, in my opinion. I literally just bought a Steve Kuhn album from 1972 or 1976. It’s very hard to find. You can find it on Spotify, but I think there is still something special about owning it as physical.
HMS: I’ve heard you talk a little bit on other platforms about the older generation of musicians and how important they have been to you. Is that the main way that you encounter them, through finding the vinyl?
Thundercat: Yeah, you know, with vinyl it’s a physical thing where you can take an album and put it on. And you know that you have to listen to it with intent. And if you find songs that you like, you can rewind it, but you know you need to listen to the whole thing when you get the physical copy of it, you know?
HMS: Oh, definitely. You do feel like you better actually listen to that whole side. That you better pay attention.
HMS: Are there any of those older musicians who you think are underappreciated, who you think people should listen to more and put more stock in?
HMS: Are you someone who listens and collects across different genres, too?
Thundercat: Oh, I definitely cross genres for sure. I tend to like a lot of video game soundtracks and anime soundtracks, too. There are a few things that are actually really hard to come across, like the Sonic R racing soundtrack. Finding that on CD. The Evangelion soundtracks. Those are rarities and stuff like that. I like finding those rare pieces.
HMS: You’re definitely heading into the pop culture collecting with those. You’re getting into modern media forms.
Thundercat: Oh, yes, I like to vacillate between them.
HMS: Is that because you compose for anime, too?
[Photo credit to The 1Point8]
HMS: Do you have a specific approach when you’re going to compose for something like that, whether it’s anime or a short film, or is it similar for you to when you’re working on an album in the studio?
Thundercat: Well, no. It’s very similar. It’s not something where I separate the maturation process on that. If there’s something like a theme that they are trying to convey in the anime, that’s one thing. But I don’t try to separate the creative process at all.
HMS: And do you have the same amount of creative freedom, whether you’re working on an anime or film, or on a studio album?
Thundercat: Yes, music is an all-encompassing thing for me. There’s not so much of that stuff behind it, no.
HMS: You just released a new album, It Is What It Is, very recently. And I’m probably saying what everyone else is noticing, which is that it’s weirdly appropriate for our times right now. Considering it was composed beforehand. Does it seem different to you now, now that it’s out and you can see its relevance?
Thundercat: In an interesting way, it’s trippy to see that it’s become what it’s become, but it’s definitely one of those things that delves into life right now as it seems to me. I’m happy that it connects the way it does. Because I feel, to some degree, that that’s where art is imitating life. It’s got to be in there somewhere. It may not be as pronounced as in the name of the album, but that’s the way life is right now.
HMS: It really is. Now, in your earlier albums that you put out, you used some themes of apocalypse. Do you think we’re in a kind of apocalypse now, or do you see apocalypse differently now?
Thundercat: It feels like it, really. This is the suckiest time that I have ever experienced as a human. But the truth is that it can always be worse. The reality is that, as bad as it can be, there’s also some good in there, and I’m not blind to that. At the same time that’s the case, it feels like everyone’s trying to figure it out. That’s all. And it’s always worth the time it takes.
HMS: Absolutely. I think as long as humans are around, there’s always hope for finding new truths.
Thundercat: Yeah. If we had it all figured out, that would suck! If we knew everything. If we had arrived, you don’t really want that. It’s one of those things where the pain is the only way you know you’re alive. You’re experiencing the wear and tear of what it means to be here. There’s something to be said for experience as pain. You have to experience the pain to know the good times.
HMS: I can definitely see that. Your work is interesting to me because you seem in many ways to be an old-school musician in the physicality of your playing and performing, but you also engage a lot with technology. Have you become more engaged with the tech side of making music over time? How do you see yourself in that context?
Thundercat: There’s a funny thing about that. I guess I’m in the generation of growing up watching the telephone become more of a real thing. It’s become embedded in a person’s DNA to have some sort of technical savvy, a degree of it, now. Even if someone is not so well versed, it’s become embedded in our DNA.
I don’t separate the different types of music. It’s an organic thing for me. I used to work on Pro Tools, learning to record as a musician, using software like that. It’s inevitable. It’s something to learn from. And even if you don’t know much about it, there’s still a lot you can learn from it. It’s one of those things. It’s only in a person’s favor to know a bit of both worlds, I think. I try to vacillate between the two.
HMS: Is there a point where you feel like you can go too far down the tech road and you circle back instead to older elements?
Thundercat: I feel like it’s all there for the taking. It’s all there for us to take what we need. So no, I don’t rule anything out.
HMS: Would you like to tell us a little bit about your relationship and collaborations with Flying Lotus and why that’s been such a productive thing for you two over time?
Thundercat: Me and Steve [Ellison] are very much always in each others’ mind. It’s the craziest thing that it’s been a decade of us working together. It doesn’t feel like it at all. There’s a bit of magic in him and in me that makes us work together. I love him. He always makes me think. I appreciate him for that.
HMS: Could you tell us a little more about your new album and how the songs relate to each other? What was on your mind?
Thundercat: I feel like a lot of the lyrics in the songs are pretty straightforward, and like what we talked about earlier, the pain of life. Trying to be okay and stuff like that. I feel like each song individually says what it needs to say. Nothing is hidden behind a metaphor.
HMS: Yes, they are very direct.
Thundercat: So, my feelings over the course of the songs are exactly what I am expressing in the songs.
HMS: I think some people are surprised by the new album because of how wide-ranging the styles and genres are between the different songs. Does that seem unusual to you at all? Or is that a goal of yours, to do a lot of different things on the same album?
Thundercat: I love being able to do it all, bring influences, bring the different things that influence me into the music. I think I have a weird tendency. It’s how I am on social media, talking, or sharing anything. People are like, ‘Wow! It’s a big difference every time.’ So, I think that I am always trying to interject things into music, too.
HMS: Now I have to check out your social media more!
Do you like the experience of doing live performances, or do you, personally, prefer working in a studio more?
Thundercat: Yeah! I grew up playing live performance, so it’s a part of me. I’m very married to that. It’s the essence of me as a musician. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get away from that. I love being out and getting a chance to play. Blowing stuff on my instrument. I do love that. If there’s a choice between live and studio work, I love live. Don’t get me wrong, I love studio work, but there’s a difference. Live’s intense, and I think because of that I appreciate live more. The chance to get out of your head.
HMS: Do you like seeing the audience's reaction to things?
Thundercat: It’s not necessarily that. I don’t think it’s about the shallowness or the vainglory of it. Trying to get attention. It just has to do with being out. People always act like they can’t process music if it’s a little bit too loud, or it’s something that’s abrasive sonically. Sometimes people really, genuinely, don’t know how to process it. In a live setting, people are more open. People are less likely to act as if they can’t comprehend something like that. So, it’s less about peoples’ reactions than to do with getting a chance to grow with my friends on an instrument.
HMS: So, it’s both good for you, and it’s good for people to be in that live setting, you think?
HMS: How does that compare to playing on camera, like Livestreaming, as a lot of people are having to do now. Have you done any of that yet?
Thundercat: I haven’t really done any of that. I’m not really into it.
HMS: It’s a strange situation to be in. Everyone reacts differently to that technology. I’ve heard others musicians say that they don’t want to do it.
Thundercat: Well, it’s just like you were saying, that I’m more of an old-school musician, because I do prefer that. There’s something sacred about live music. When you take it out of context so quickly, it downplays it a little bit. I may wind up doing something streaming eventually but it’s never really been my thing.
HMS: Yes, it’s just a different creature.
Thundercat: I have friends who have whole careers built around that. But I think that’s it’s just—to each his own. I know that it exists, and it’s something to possibly tap into. As I was saying earlier, I don’t rule things out.
[Photo credit to Parker Day 2]
HMS: I was wondering how you got to the point where you’re so brave and out there in making your lyrics so autobiographical. Being so direct. Many musicians are a lot more private in what they talk about in their music.
Thundercat: I think one of the biggest lessons I learned as a song writer came from Erykah Badu. Trying to be honest in the music. I think that’s an important part of it. I don’t try to dance around that. I embrace it. You know, I do.
HMS: Do you ever look back on your younger self in your lyrics and say, ‘Oh, why’d I say that?’
Thundercat: That’s the thing. The growing in front of people is part of the process. I don’t shy away from that. I invite it. I think it’s some that I learned from Erykah, from Flying Lotus. I learned to embrace that. The growth is there. Some people like to take picture, some people like to diary. I think of music as kind of—that--also.
HMS: That’s a great comparison. Music as diary. I hadn’t really thought about that, but you can look back on a lot of musicians’ work, even in personal recordings, and see the development in their work.
Thundercat: As life changes, yes. It’s something special. I don’t take it for granted. I take it more like, ‘This is where you can be who you are.’
HMS: It’s special that you share that with other people, too, since you’re creating your own diary, but you are letting other people be part of that.
Here’s another weird question for you: People tend to talk about the fact that you like fashion and you are very aware of your presentation of yourself.
Has that changed at all, being in quarantine? Do you still wake up in the morning and think about what you are going to wear that day? Does it influence how you feel about yourself?
Thundercat: I think that the way you dress is exactly how you feel about yourself, sometimes. You have a chance to do that. I love being creative with that. Sometimes, I may walk out of the house and look exactly like a kickboxer. Who’s to say that I don’t really kickbox? It’s expression. It’s all expression. And I love to explore that sometimes.
HMS: Is it still a part of how you see yourself at home right now?
Thundercat: I love doing it at home. I love being able to dress up! It’s a fun part of life.
[Photo credit to The 1Point8]
HMS: I forgot to ask you earlier about the role of bringing a sense of humor into your work. It’s possible to approach music from a really serious angle, but you don’t do that. What do you think the value of humor is?
Thundercat: I think that there’s a big marriage between comedy and music. Some people know about that somewhat, and some people don’t. How do I describe how important comedy is? You gotta be able to laugh. It’s so important. I take stuff seriously, too, but you need to be able to see things differently, or you’ll get destroyed.
Thundercat: Everything is leaning up against you, a lot of the time, and sometimes you gotta lean into it. Try to understand it. Try to see different aspects of it. So, comedy—I love laughing. Who doesn’t love laughing? But some people aren’t fans of laughing. Some people want to act like there’s a splinter underneath their fingernail. I tend to like laughter.
HMS: I’ve known a few people in my life for whom comedy is not their thing, and I don’t try to force them. But it does seem like for the majority of the population, it has a benefit.
Thundercat: It’s emotionally uplifting. It’s a good thing.
HMS: There’s an interesting relationship between tragedy and comedy that people have commented on over time. Like the more you’re posed with the potential for tragedy, the more you need comedy to reinterpret things. It does seem like a medicine of sorts.
Thundercat: Yeah. You see it. It’s never that things stop being difficult. It’s just that we get better at processing things. It’s kind of like David Byrne said: ‘Same as it ever was.’ You choose to do with it what you do, but, ‘Same as it ever was’.
HMS: We have our Tower records motto, ‘No Music/No Life’ and it’s actually also…
Thundercat: …Know Music/Know Life, too.
HMS: What does that sort of statement mean to you, in your life?
Thundercat: Music calms the savage beast. Life is the savage beast. It helps you process. It’s a gateway. It can be translation. It can be transmogrification. It’s got so many different things to it.
HMS: It definitely can adapt with us in a way that few things can.
Thundercat: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s a special place. It’s a special thing. The more we let music in, the more it makes things better. That’s all.
HMS: That’s all. But the simplicity is part of it.
Thundercat: There’s so many different ways to describe it, but I feel like it’s how it makes you feel. There are so many different aspects to it. As Austin Peralta said one time, there’s only good and bad music. It’s for a person to decide what that is. And when he says that, along with phrases like ‘Know Music/Know Life’, this is the truth.
They used to send the musicians out before a war. They used to send the drummers out. It’s everything. It’s rhythm. It’s melody. Harmony. It’s freakin’ special, man!
HMS: Is that part of why you listen to so many different kinds of music, that you don’t see a distinction? It’s all ‘Music’ with a capital ‘M’?
Thundercat: Yeah. There’s different influences and all that stuff, but it’s all Music.
HMS: Maybe as access to different types of music grows, people will become more wide-ranging in the music they listen to, like you. Maybe you’re the future!
Thundercat: That would make things more fun.