Thundercat Talks It Is What It Is, and Raising His Teenage Daughter

Stephen Lee Bruner—who has fans in Ariana Grande, Brad Pitt— discusses his upcoming album while surrounded by piles of his belongings.

26.3.2020

'It gave me a bit of grit to who I am. It's part of why I stopped caring so much about what people think.” Thundercat opens up about his personal style, plus more.

Stephen Lee Bruner—who has fans in Ariana Grande, Brad Pitt— discusses his upcoming album while surrounded by piles of his belongings.

Haim sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana. The video and track encapsulate his songwriting style, which he says he flexes much harder on the upcoming album than in his past work. It’s funny and peculiar, specific only to him. Growing up, Bruner’s mother, father, and brothers were all artistically and musically inclined—his father was in the band Cephas and collaborated with the Temptations and Michael Henderson, who famously worked on Davis’s Bitches Brew. He compares his relationship with his two brothers to “ Malcolm in the Middle .” They’d fight with each other over the TV, the remote, they’d hold contests to see who could finish their meals the fastest.“But in the background, there would be, like, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham,” Bruner says. When he was 18 years old in 2002, Bruner joined his brother Ron in the band Suicidal Tendencies, replacing their former bassist Josh Paul. For 13 years, Bruner toured and made music with the band. It ended up shaping the way he approaches making tunes today. He isn’t content to let his musical stylings fade into the background—a support act, as bass players tend to be typecast. “It made me want to change everything from the roll of the instrument to what people would always be used to hearing,” he says. “Any time you think of a bass player, there's always this weird dirt-nothing portrayed. ‘You're not supposed to play anything, lay down the groove.’ It's the laziest shit to me, sometimes. It's a means to have no perspective." Thundercat photographed by Lea Winkler for W Magazine. Suicidal Tendencies members Mike Muir and Dean Pleasents encouraged him to be himself and play. His time in the band is one he describes as “informal training” and as one of the most joyous moments in his life. “I would get made fun of a lot because I was always the guy wearing stuff like this,” Bruner added, pointing to his earmuffs. “A couple times, I've been hit with beer bottles at shows. I didn't care. It gave me a bit of grit to who I am. It's part of why I stopped caring so much about what people think.” Thundercat is often compared in style and approach to Jaco Pastorius, another bassist with an identifiable sound who circumvents the typical bassist-in-the-background narrative. Bruner counts Pastorius as an influence, and said the 1978 song Punk Jazz in particular summed up the entirety of Thundercat’s musical existence—playing with Washington, a family friend and “cousin” of his, making jazz early on, then spending years with one of the most influential punk bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s—finding a line between those sounds and making it fit. Thundercat's backpack and various accessories photographed by Lea Winkler for W Magazine. His varying interests, music tastes, references (a bassline in one song being played over the speakers in the studio reminds Bruner of an In Living Color sketch), and the sheer amount of stuff strewn around the room might lead one to believe that Thundercat is flighty and chaotic. But he’s the opposite. He’s thoughtful and down to earth. And when it comes to fatherhood, he practices patience with his teenage daughter—who he says is “starting to become a woman.” “She's basically turning into that one moment in ‘Twilight,’ in the opening scene, where it's just like, I don't know who that person is anymore,” he says. “I don't know what the hell's going on. I don’t think her mom knows what the hell’s going on, either. She’s got a fucking phone and YouTube. We’re lost.” When she was younger, Bruner would play all kinds of music for her, the keyboardist George Duke among artists he’d blast in the home. “I'd be like ‘Sanaa, this is it, this is the thing.’ She'd be like, ‘This sucks,’" he says. But now, she’s expressing a new interest. She likes the Atlanta rapper JID, (when Thundercat found out about this, he was impressed). And she’s written some music. “She told her mom, she wouldn’t tell me for nothing,” Bruner laughs. “She would never share it with me. It's just because I'm her dad. ‘You're not cool, Dad.’ I’m like, ‘I'm fucking cool.’ I'm always looking at her like, ‘Look, see, he thinks I'm cool.’ She's like, ‘So?’ “Every now and again, my mom will catch a video of her singing. She can sing in pitch, in key. And has vibrato,” he adds. “Maybe one day she will share it. You got to be there whenever they're ready. If she so chooses to share, I'm here for it.” Bruner changes into a new Kapital vest and switches out his earmuffs for the very durag featured in his latest music video. It’s orange and purple, covered in a planetary print. He tries on a pair of gold-plated Gucci ear cuffs and decides they don’t go. His pile of clothing grows as he discards pieces he feels aren’t right for the look he has in mind. And once it’s all put together—skinny jeans, blue painted nails, a long velvet shirt, Gucci glasses—it makes sense. The blend of ideas, styles, and influences fits him. The mess of tchotchkes is another story. (Bruner, for what it’s worth, says he’s fine with it. He just has a lot of stuff.) It used to bother not only Flying Lotus, but also his Suicidal Tendencies bandmate Pleasents, with whom he shared a room. “He was always so pissed because I would have the TV on and the radio on at the same time,” Bruner says. “You see how everything just gets splayed out here? That's what would happen when I got in the room. He'd be like ‘Clean this shit up!’ I was like, ‘No, Dean. What about this is rock-and-roll if I have to clean it up?’" Related: Read more: W magazine

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