Thundercat, AKA Stephen Bruner, has never been one to drop names, although he could easily be forgiven for doing so.
The 32-year-old musician won a Grammy last year for his role as producer and featured performer on Kendrick Lamar's revered To Pimp a Butterfly. He's collaborated with neo-soul chanteuse Erykah Badu and rapper Childish Gambino. He's also been a member of Suicidal Tendencies since high school.
The son of Motown drummer Ronald Bruner and older brother of Odd Futurist keyboardist Jameel "Kintaro" Bruner, Thundercat was first championed as a bass prodigy by fellow LA native Flying Lotus, with whom he continues to work closely. But while his mentor favors avant-garde instrumental hip-hop, Thundercat's solo efforts are more reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire and Miles Davis.
Thundercat's fourth album, Drunk, will be released next week on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label. Its first single is an unlikely collaboration with '80s yacht-rock icons Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, which may be even weirder than you think.
And that, friends, is where our story begins...
Indy: Kenny Loggins' "Welcome to the Heartlight" and Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'" were huge hit singles the year before you were born. Do you think there's a connection there?
Thundercat: I was born that same year?
The year after.
You know, there could be a possibility that Kenny Loggins vicariously slept with my mom through my dad, yes. And somewhere in my dad's subconscious he thought he was Kenny Loggins. And Kenny Loggins was like, "I'm inside of you inside of her."
Thanks, I was hoping you'd go there. What was Michael McDonald's role in all that? Where was he?
He was just holding the camera. [Laughs.]
So moving ahead a few decades, I'm curious about collaborating with those two on "Show You the Way." Whenever songs feature guest vocalists, I assume their parts were recorded in some distant studio and just kind of phoned in. But I understand you worked closely with both of them on songwriting and arrangements.
Yes, it was very up close and personal with Kenny and Michael; I'd go meet them at the studio all the time, and we had already started writing other things before we hit on that song. At first, I didn't know how it was going to translate, because my recording processes are different than theirs. These guys are hitmakers, and I write music out of my bedroom.
So I'd play them an idea, and we'd kind of vamp on it for a bit. We'd listen back to it, and joke around, and talk about what it could become. And then Michael would write different changes. And with Kenny, he's the kind of guy who wants you to spitball the ideas at him, and then he'll choose what he wants it to be. So he wanted his part to be very simple, without straining or over-extending the vocals and being like "Ladies and gentlemen, it's Kenny fuckin' Loggins!" I actually wanted to say that on the record, but he's in a different place now.
And then there's "Walk on By" with Kendrick Lamar, whom you've obviously worked with before. Tell me about that.
Well, I like to consider the songs on this album to be like a conversation. You know, like we're having right now, where we're sitting here and conversing back and forth and analyzing different aspects of things, And the conversation that me and Kendrick are having is, you know, two different people that have been to very dark places, and seen different terrible things. But at the end of the day it's about NOT just walking by. It's about not feeling alone, not feeling like you're by yourself.
So about that Kendrick Lamar record you won a Grammy for...
I just had to give a little "Woo-hoo."
Oh, sure. Anyway, critics have talked a lot about the jazz influences on To Pimp a Butterfly. Is it true that you played a Miles Davis recording for Kendrick in the studio during the sessions?
Yeah, man. That was a cool moment. I played him "Little Church." It's one of those songs you can play for somebody that makes them close their eyes and have to go to another place, you know? And that's what happened; he just stood there for a minute and kind of went into that space which Miles was trying to create.
Was there any particular album that did that for you early on?
Oh man, I will always point to Jaco Pastorius' self-titled album. My dad got that for me, and it did exactly what he thought it would do. I was like freaked out, man, I was like, "That's a bass? That's how a bass can sound?" And I literally felt like, "This is what I want to do. You know, I want to be like Jaco." So that, for me, was the album, for sure.
And do you think that, with each new album, you get closer to that?
I don't know, you know? I mean, I don't hold a candle to a Jaco Pastorius, but he's the inspiration behind why I was unafraid to take different roles as a bass player. It's like whenever somebody would say how things should sound, or should feel, he's the guy who would put a backspin on it and cause it to curve. I would hope that at some point, maybe one day, something in my career would show that.