Before His First Headlining Date In Dallas, Thundercat Tells Us How Erykah Badu Shaped His Career.
It’s not exactly a surprise that Stephen Bruner and his brothers turned out to be musicians. After all, their father, Ronald, was a world-class musician in his own right, performing as the drummer for Diana Ross, The Temptations and Gladys Knight. And their mother, too, performed — mostly in churches — as a flutist.
But the fact that the Bruner boys turned out to be such successful musicians — and at such young ages — well, that is something of a marvel.
Take Ronald Jr., Stephen’s eldest brother, who kicked off his own career as one of the world’s top jazz drummers at the tender age of 15, paving the path for him to work alongside such greats as George Duke, Stanley Clarke and even Dallas’ own Roy Hargrove. Or look at Stephen’s youngest brother, Jameel, who works these days as an affiliate of Los Angeles’ Odd Future crew, where he serves as part of the soul collective known as The Internet.
That’s enough to make any musically inclined parent proud, surely. And then, still, there’s Stephen.
As a teen, Stephen performed in the boy band No Curfew before joining the legendary Los Angeles thrash outfit Suicidal Tendencies alongside his brother Ronald in 2002. In more recent years, he’s carved out yet another musical lane for himself, performing with countless acts as an in-demand bassist for hire and collaborating with everyone from Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg and Dallas’ own Erykah Badu. And then there’s his own solo efforts under the name of Thundercat, for which he’s similarly earned an abundance of acclaim thanks to his alluring and experimental brand of electronic- and R&B-influenced jazz fusion.
Needless to say, Bruner’s a skilled musician — one who, perhaps due to his upbringing in such an obscenely talented family, has consistently found ways to stand out from the pack. That, in no small part, is why we’re so excited to be hosting him tonight as he comes to town to play Three Links for this month’s Red Bull Sound Select showcase — a performance that doubles as his first-ever solo, headlining gig in Dallas as Thundercat.
Additionally, it’s why we were super stoked to be able to catch up with the man himself over the phone earlier this week to chat about the show, about his upbringing and about his relationship with other musicians, including Badu in particular.
So, I’ve got to start off with this: On a whim, I sent you a pretty obnoxious tweet from the Central Track account a little while back to ask if you were excited for the show. Much to my surprise, you not only responded, but you said in your reply that the idea of the show was giving you gas.
That was a joke, right? You don’t still get nervous about shows at this point, do you?
There’s parts of it that I don’t get nervous about — like anything having to do with the actual playing, y’know? But there are other parts. Like, sometimes I do get nervous singing in front of everybody. It’s still really new to me. I mean, I’ve been playing bass for, like, almost 30 years. But singing while playing in front of everybody is still totally new. So I’m still always learning and growing as I’m standing on stage. It really makes me nervous, too, to play in front of people that know me and have for a long time. Because they just stare at you and smile and look all weird! It’s just so weird.
That’s probably going to be true of this Dallas show, right? I mean, you have a lot of connections out here. You play with Erykah Badu and her band a ton. And I know a lot of those guys are planning to come out to the show.
Oh yeah! Those guys are all like family for me. That’s why I’m so happy to be coming to Dallas, really. I have a lot of friends and family out there — friends I haven’t seen in a while.
In addition to playing in Erykah’s live band, I know you played on her last couple of records — the New Amerykah releases in particular. Can you explain how you guys got linked up?
Well, I met Erykah through Sa-Ra Creative Partners. It was this group out of L.A.; they were artists themselves and also a production team. And there was Taz Arnold, who we all know now as TI$A the famous fashion designer, and Shafiq Husayn, who has basically been at the center of hip-hop production throughout his career, and Om’Mas Keith, who also is another very credible cat. And I just did a lot of work with them growing up, from my teenage years and basically into my early 20s — a lot of writing and a lot of bass-playing also. I remember the very first time [I met Erykah]. I remember playing Xbox, and she was there, listening to music. And there was one song that she just responded to really heavily — it was “The Cell” – and she was just like, “Who’s playing the bass on that?!?!” and Shafiq pointed at me and I’m just sitting there playing Xbox. And she came over and just said, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you. My name’s Erykah.” I’ll never forget that.
So were you specifically playing on music meant for her before you two ever met?
Well, a lot of times in the studio, you’re not specifically working for somebody. You’re just working. And sometimes these things become something and then go along. So if I was working on Erykah’s music, I certainly didn’t know that I was.
But now you definitely have. You were on each of her last two albums.
And you tour with her, too.
Oh yeah! I’ve been all over with her! I think, for all my life, I will definitely say till the day I die that I am Erykah Badu’s bass player.
I mean, you’ve played with a ton of people, though. You’ve played with Snoop Dogg, you were in Suicidal Tendencies as a teenager, you’ve collaborated with Badu, and you just recently played with Kendrick Lamar on that memorable final Colbert Report performance. I imagine there’s got to be some sonic connection between playing with one act versus another, but how much does your own mindset change when hopping back and forth?
Part of me and my perspective in my involvement with each of those artists is that I’ve always looked at music in that it’s all connected. It’s a language, a language we speak. It’s something that you contribute to or that you take away from. And I’ve learned just by being around people that love to communicate via this art. It’s also just the way I was raised. You watch other people’s stories and experiences and you learn from it. It’s almost like it’s its own evolving, creative energy. It’s one of those things, on so many levels, where they all do have a similar energy. So, seeing that, it makes it easier to mix on it. Because I really love what I do. I appreciate playing the bass. I’m happy my parents kicked my butt and made me stick with my instrument. I have tons of friends that played instruments at different parts in their careers and then that kind of fell to the wayside or became a weird, contrived thing for them. But the way my parents raised me, it was more that I had a love affair with my instrument when I was a kid.
How do you mean?
Just getting a real perspective on how to have respect for the music, and your role in that. If you take this seriously and say this is what you do, then this is what you do. This is the way you show it. And I had both of my parents in my house that were very much like that, very strict, very much supportive and at the same time strict where, if this is what you say you do, then you do it. And through that, I developed a genuine love for my instrument. My dad plays drums. My mom plays flute. My mom played in church and still plays in church. My dad played with numerous artists and has been involved in various things over time. It’s always been in my family. My older brother’s a drummer. He’s like one of the most amazing musician in the world, really. And my younger brother, too, he’s one part of The Internet. My whole family is just a whole bunch of musicians. We’re like the bizarro Jackson family, without the strain and shenanigans.
So no TV movie on your family.
No, not exactly!
But you would definitely say that your family shaped your collaborative spirit?
Of course! It was just the reality of music being taken seriously in my house. Like, if you call yourself a musician, act like it. Y’know, like a lot of kids, I was involved in a jazz band as a kid, but it was getting a chance to hear it and being exposed to certain things younger than most. It definitely helped. Like, my parents, they exposed me to some seriously spiritual music. And we’d just be at this young age, listening to it.
You’ve certainly got great acclaim as a solo artist. But I don’t know that many musicians necessarily so publicly collaborate as you do. I mean, that’s a massive part of your identity.
I would definitely say so, yeah.
Was that intentional?
[Laughs] Um, no. Not exactly. It’s one of those things where I just enjoy making music with other people that enjoy making music also. But it’s all depending on where you’re at. Like, I wouldn’t say I collaborated with Suicidal Tendencies, but I was definitely there.
Yeah. That’s so crazy to me that you were in Suicidal Tendencies at a young age. I like to think that my musical taste is pretty broad. But yours just must be all over the board.
[Laughs] Yeah! I mean, hearing differently things, I do enjoy that very much. I love the practice of being exposed to different music and sharing it. I love when people come up and are like, “Check this out!” because I love doing that to my friends.
So how does that come to pass through your own solo material? Your stuff has an experimental bent to it, but there’s certainly a unified aesthetic. How has all that other stuff contributed to that?
Well, it definitely all shaped me. It’s all contributed to my broader experience as an artist, from playing with Suicidal Tendencies to playing with Erykah. But, I mean, Erykah taught me everything. She was just always there for me — from playing with her band through now. She’s the one person that supports me and says something about my playing. She’s just always been there, and I’ll always appreciate that.
Your last solo album, Apocalypse, came out in 2013. You’ve released some singles since then, including “Tron Song,” for which you and comedian Eric Andre made an incredible video. And I know you’ve been working on with Flying Lotus on some new Captain Murphy stuff. What can you tell us about the status of any new solo material?
I’m definitely working. I’m definitely writing and creating. I’ve been working a lot. It’s the same dynamic. But it’s just, like, this never-ending process. Because even when I was working on an album, quote-unquote, and first doing the music with Lotus and everything, I didn’t necessarily realize I was working on an album. It was just, “Hey, do you want to do an album? Because this is kind of what this is now.” And so it’s just like, “OK, yeah. Let’s absolutely do that.” I guess I’ve just never really stopped working. I’ve been working with Kendrick right now, but even that’s just part of the same process. It’s always just consistently changing. And it all depends on where it’s at. You just never know how it’s going to translate.
What’s cool is that it really sounds like you just let the music come to you in many regards, whereas so many young and hungry musicians just really go after and try to attack it.
I know exactly what you mean — like this whole I’ve-got-to-make-this-happen mentality.
Yeah. But that doesn’t really sound like your perspective all.
No. And I try to encourage my friends to just be where they’re at and to not be afraid of the fact that they don’t know what’s going on. Something Lotus told me that I always hang onto very closely and seriously is that it’s supposed to be weird. And it is, y’know? It’s supposed to be weird. It’s not supposed to be easy. And if it is, you should be scared of that. I mean, if it’s easy, be very afraid of what comes after that. Because that‘s intimidating. Like, you just blew up out of nowhere? OK, but it’s never that. Music is this never-ending process. And all the weirdness that comes with it is OK. I mean, you want to be successful, you want to do that. But that’s why some people never attain that. You can want it so bad, but because you’re looking so hard for it, it can just go right on past you. I don’t know. I’ve just learned to let go and be free with how I feel.
So it’s a good thing that you’re still getting gas before shows, I guess.
[Laughs] Exactly! It’s like, “Alright!” Any time there’s a crowd there to see me play, I’m just very grateful for that. It’s awesome. It’s a good feeling.
Thundercat performs with -topic and Roger Sellers at Three Links tonight. Tickets to the show are $10 — or $3 with an RSVP right here. An RSVP does not guarantee admission, just a discounted ticket. Space at the show is extremely limited; admission will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached.