Futurity. It means a time to come, the quality or state of being futuristic. Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA-based bassist/songwriter/vocalist, contains heaping amounts of that quality. He's the futurity of now, housed in faculties that play with throwback homage. His music flies many planes, from jazz-funk fusion to electronic psych to a beat-spliced ambrosia made for the sound deities convened on Lando Calrissian's Cloud City. Thundercat's second full-length Brainfeeder Records release, Apocalypse, hovers majorly with technical aspects, while being governed by emotion. Bruner's voice rounds out rich as a tenor. He sings in auspicious R&B sheens and harmonies with a falsetto that's true. Enter Apocalypse's executive producer, Flying Lotus, the astrophysical one. (Speaking of sound deities.) Lotus successfully moves and morphs Apocalypse through stages of Thundercat's surgeon-like bass virtuosity. "Oh Sheit It's X" bubbles with older-schooled funk. "Seven" carves abstractly, dripping with Lotus's astral-picked beats. "Heartbreaks + Setbacks" hopes with young love from a roller rink in the year 2055. "A Message for Austin," Apocalypse's conclusion, is a solemn string-and-horn-accompanied dedication/sky march for Thundercat's friend and collaborator, Austin Peralta, who passed away almost a year ago. Thundercat spoke from a car in LA on his way to see Flying Lotus. He answered his phone by saying, "Hello, yes, this is Bell Biv Devoe."
That's not fair, I was going to say I was Bell Biv Devoe. Well, then I'll be Devoe Bell Biv.
Congrats on "Poison." The booty-clap 808 solo in there is like a steak-circus. Whap, whap-whap-whap-whap-whap WHAP! Thank you [laughs]. That song was a lotta hard work, know what I'm sayin'? The other guys didn't think it would sell. I was like, "Trust me on this one." We were actually thinking about calling the song "The Bitch Owes Me Money," but that was a little ahead of its time, so we just went with "Poison."
From "Poison" to Apocalypse. Is your music more a technical or emotional thing for you? The way you and Flying Lotus paint is technical. You have that virtuoso thing. But the album leaves me emotional. How is that? I don't know. It came from lots of dumb jokes when I was a kid. The term virtuoso freaks me out, so I don't know how to respond when someone asks me something like that. Between Lotus and I, our working relationship is a magical thing because of the fact that we don't tie each other down to anything at all. We just float off. And we try to stay there. It's like an engine. Once we get it started, man—and the rate we can generate stuff, coupled with the emotion that we're putting behind it. We're trying to make sure that it's the best we can do, every time. I feel like it's a cool bond. We may play some Grand Theft Auto as well.
Do you listen to stuff together? How do you start the engine? There's listening, but we keep it moving. We're just moving forward all the time. There's so much that gets done, even within a day, not to mention a week. There's like 15 albums' worth of stuff, already done.
What are y'all working on today? We actually just rented an RV. We'll be driving out to Bakersfield to cook crystal meth. We're starting a massive new business. Taking it day by day. We got a storage unit. We're trying to expand our business.
FlyLo-Thundercat Meth will be a fine meth. Runnin' real deep in these streets, you know? Get yourself a team, some ninja swords and guns [laughs]. Maybe I shouldn't be saying this in an interview. We're not really doing that. For the record, neither Flying Lotus nor myself are cooking crystal meth. We're working on a whole lot, though—music! I'm working on a new album. Lotus is working on an album.
And your Bell Biv Devoe covers album. Bell Biv Devoe, on crystal meth [whoever's in the car with him laughs].
You've recorded two albums with Flying Lotus now. Did you all do things differently the second time around for Apocalypse? Personally, both of those albums feel like one thing. I look at them both in the same light. To me, it's a whole story—there's not really a break in it. The names are kind of a play on that, although there are separate meanings. I actually feel like there's more emotional content on the first album, due to the fact that Austin is playing on it, so those two albums are one long story piece. The only thing that trips me out is how I'm singing more on the second one—I never really expected to be singing, things have just translated that way. I feel a little more comfortable singing now, so that's the one thing that's changed the most from the first to the second album. I was happy to find out people didn't think my voice was terrible. You know, your friends are like acting all weird, like "Somebody's gotta tell him he sucks." Luckily, that hasn't happened yet, so I'll keep singing.
Respects to Austin. Sorry for the loss. Thank you. It's still a big deal. It's coming up on a year that he's been gone. And his birthday just passed on October 25. It's getting closer to Thanksgiving, around the time he died. He was one of my closest friends on this planet, and I miss him.
"Heartbreaks + Setbacks" is such a cut. A throwback, with a future touch. Gives me memories I haven't made yet. Roller-rink love from the future. It has this hope to it. You sing, "First we'll find our hearts." How did these lyrics come about? It's a story everyone shares. "Heartbreaks, setbacks, breakups, makeups." How fast things move. Sometimes you feel like you're in this cycle that keeps repeating itself, and after a while, you look up and think, "What am I doing?" But when you're going through that process, you forget why. And it's to get to a point. I think that's the main point of the song. "Baby, we'll figure out where we're supposed to be." Are you going to stop looking for something just because you can't find it? That's what it's about. For something that's actually worth something, you keep looking.
Musically, what was that song's genesis? How'd that beat come together? There's this really crusty hobbit I know named Mono/Poly. I hate him so much. Just kidding, he's my good friend. He's also a DJ/producer/songwriter—he sent me part of that song, to see how I felt about it. Music for me doesn't always have a specific way it comes out. Sometimes it's just bass. Sometimes the whole song will finished, and I can't find lyrics for it. Like for "Heartbreaks + Setbacks," I didn't like my lyrics at first. I played to it and tried to make it feel a certain way, and I was trying my hardest not to ruin what he'd sent me by being overly musical. So I sent it back to him with the music, and he approved it. He was like, "That's exactly what it needed." I had sat with it for the longest time—listening, and listening, and listening to it. I think the lyrics for that one came out when I wasn't listening to the music, though.
Like a subconscious thing? I wouldn't say subconscious. I'm the kind of person that will always have something going on. I'll have a meeting going on, or I'll have music going on. Life's always going on. I don't even sleep lying down. I sleep sitting up. That one was from a moment I didn't have anything going on. I sat back for a second, and thought about how I was feeling.
You sleep sitting up? Do you have a bed? Yes, of course. You know, but Samurai get their heads chopped off, and they still stand up [laughs]. That's probably not even true, I don't know what that means. I just wanted to say something that sounded good. I'm used to sleeping sitting up—it comes from my whole day-to-day makeup. I travel so much, so when I come home, I still feel like I'm traveling. It's like a comfort zone. I feel comfortable sleeping sitting up.
When you were younger, before working with Suicidal Tendencies, were there any songs your father brought into the house that you remember being hooked on? Like while he was playing with the Temptations or Gladys Knight? Some song that's still housed in your playing now? [Pauses] The day my dad played me "Portrait of Tracy" by Jaco Pastorius. There are certain things you just remember in life. I remember when I lost one of my teeth. I remember every time I pooped on myself. I remember when I got bit in my foot by a cat. And I remember when my dad played me "Portrait of Tracy." I was playing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on Super Nintendo. [Person in the car laughs] When I was younger, I was kind of a space cadet. You'd talk to me, and I'd start talking to you backwards. My Dad came home that day—he'd always bring something with him, and it was partially for us, but it was his, you know? He'd been looking for the album for a while. He put it on, and it was playing in the background, but I wasn't really paying attention. And it got to that song, and I guess my ears perked up. I stopped playing the game, walked in, and asked, "What is this?" He told me what it was. I had been playing bass at that time, and he said, "This is a guy playing bass. This is one guy playing through the whole piece. It's not two different people playing." I listened and couldn't fathom in my mind melodically how this dude was doing it. After that, I'd sit up at night after everybody else went to sleep and listen to the song. I couldn't figure it out. Over the years, I learned it in pieces. That's a song that hooked me. "Portrait of Tracy" changed my life.
How is it when you play it now? I try not to rush through it. It's one of my favorites. As simple as it is, there's a certain tambour, and it still makes me feel a certain way. I try to find that tone and timbre, and I try to remember what I felt and how it felt when Jaco played it. It's funny, in a day and age where people learn things just so they can develop an ability, they'll lose sight of the fact that something is a massive, beautiful piece of music. Like listening to Ravel and learning "Pavane." So many people have played it. But there's still a way to play it where it immediately breaks you apart. That's the way it should always feel.
Does anybody ever say your music reminds them of Shuggie Otis? Vibe-wise? No, but I appreciate that, seriously. Shuggie Otis is amazing.
You're on your way to see Mr. Flying Lotus? Yes! And that's always fun. Sometimes I don't like when everybody can see what I'm doing. Sometimes I'm kinda nerdy. But with him, it's like Adventure Time. There's one shot in the video for "Walkin'" where he and I are shaking hands, or swiping each other five. It's literally like that all the time. It doesn't matter. Your car could have been set on fire, somebody could have told you there's a hit out on your life, and as soon as we see each other, it's good. It's always super fun. We refuse to let it suck ass.
What makes Flying Lotus an effective producer? What does he do, or not do, in the studio? He kicks ass [laughs]. He's a great cat. He's got a big heart. He's never shut off to ideas. He's always in tune, open-minded, and open to see where things are going. That's what he does and doesn't do.
Who's playing with you on this tour? I usually play as a trio with drummer Thomas Pridgen (the Mars Volta) and keyboardist Dennis Hamm. On this tour, both my brothers will be playing with me at one point. We're gonna get it going.