afropunk exclusive: thundercat talks new record ‘apocalypse’, playing with erykah badu, and the future of hip-hop. #soundcheck

June 3, 2013

Stephen Bruner AKA Thundercat made his name as a bass player with some of music’s biggest names. After playing with everyone from Erykah Badu to Suicidal Tendencies to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Snoop Dogg, Thundercat set off on his own in 2011 with his solo album Golden Age of Apocalpyse. With producer Flying Lotus returning behind the desk, he’s back with the sequel. Apocalypse (coming out June 4th) is a sexy, atmospheric album with Flying Lotus’ trademark synths and lopsided beats, but always anchored by Thundercat’s virtuosic bass and multi-layered vocals.

Interview by Nathan Leigh

What was behind calling the new record Apocalypse?

Kind of making fun of myself a bit, in the sense that it’s the followup to the Golden Age [of Apocalypse].

You mean that there’s a sequel to the Apocalypse?

Right, exactly. Like “you died the first time, now die twice!” I kind of see things in jokes, usually.

Like when you end the world in your first record, where do you go from there?


So what does Apocalypse mean to you?

Well speaking in the sense of the album, it was a reference to a changing of the guard in my life. So many things changing. Experiencing things like heartbreaks and setbacks. And death. All kinds of stuff. The end of an era. The end of adolescence. Also like the end of me being a sideman, almost.

Right. Cause you’ve been doing the sideman thing for almost a decade now. Was being in front of the mic a goal or was it just something that happened?

It was just something that happened.

How so?

Just support from a really close friend, you know. It kind of came naturally; organically.

Had you been writing your own material and singing stuff before then?

To some degree, I’d been writing stuff and creating. Just trying to move forward and keep creating.

Are you building off a well of old songs when you come to the studio or are you writing for the record?

Well I’m always creating, so it’s a mixture of both.

What’s it been like going from a bass player with Flying Lotus to working with him as your producer?

It’s kind of all in the same breath. It’s all mixed in there. There’s some songs where it’s fun being able to let him do his thing. He has his things that make him tick also. He looks for those things because he wants to get a chance to mold stuff sometimes, and I’m OK with that. My mind is in the creative process very heavily sometimes, and usually we share that space. In this instance it’s absolutely awesome. I think it’s great.

So you guys are collaborating pretty intensely on this material?

Yeah, I mean that and much more, you know? I did a lot of work with him on the last couple of albums Cosmogramma and Until the Quiet Comes.

How much of your stuff comes out of you guys just jamming in the studio and how much of it is material you’ve sat and worked out in advance and brought into the studio?

In a song that we’ve collaborated on, like “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph” or “MmmHmm” on Cosmogramma it’s kind of one of those things where it just happens, man, you know? You can just feel it.

So most of your stuff you’re writing in the studio then?

Yeah, we’ll just literally be sitting there together creating music.

Your last record—your first record, I mean—you had a lot of featured guests like Erykah Badu, but there aren’t really any features on this one. Was that a conscious decision?

Nope. The funny thing is I played her the album last time we were out together, and I guess she didn’t know I was that far along. And she said “so when am I singing?” And I looked up and I was like “oh that’s right, she didn’t sing on anything.” And knowing Erykah I’m sure she was like “you asshole.” But nonetheless it was like you just said. I didn’t realize that it was a factor on this one. I like to be in the thick of the creative process, you know? And whatever comes out of it I’m OK with.

That’s rad that you have that relationship with her where it’s not you pitching to her, she’s actually asking to be involved.

Oh yeah, I mean Erykah’s my girl.

How did you end up getting involved with folks like Erykah Badu and Snoop and Suicidal Tendencies? It seems like you’ve played with just about everyone.

Well, you know I’ve always been a musician. I’ve always been very open minded about things. I always want to be playing. I’d rather be recording and working. You kind of attract the things you want. You put yourself in that arena and you just do what you can to promote what you’re doing. And I’ve always been a person who was kind of behind the scenes and then this happened.

Can you go back to being a sideman, do you think?

Always. It’s all part of the bigger picture. That’s what people fail to see sometimes, I guess. There’s different things that come with doing different things, but that’s where I come from. That’s where I come from.

Do you think of your instrument differently when it’s you singing your own stuff, versus when you’re sitting in with Suicidal Tendencies?

Yeah I’ve kind of always been doing the same thing. I mean with Suicidal they kind of encouraged me to be different. They encouraged me to play more, to do more things. I find myself in moments on stage where I feel like I’m in Suicidal. Where we’ll be playing and I’ll be like “oh we’re going here now…” and here can be anywhere.

Did you listen to the records and try to figure out what Robert was doing note-for-note or did they give you the songs and let you put your own imprint on them?

Yeah. Kind of like the latter.

So I’ve seen you call hip-hop the new jazz. What do you mean by that?

As hip-hop progresses you can start to see a pattern. It’s becoming a freed-up version of itself. And the truth is that a lot of the time hip-hop is just jazz recycled. Just like jazz is something recycled. Everything has it’s cycle. And I feel like I can see that. I’ll give you a good example. There are times where I’ll walk into a session, and somebody’ll be doing something—they’ll be playing this song—and I knew where that song came from. So when I play the song and they’d be like “I don’t know how you’re playing this song like you already know it.” And it’s like because I do know what song it is. You see what I mean? It’s not like newer music is not new, but I know where it came from. And that’s where it’s at right now. I mean, look at Drake. Drake is a singer. Drake is singing and rapping now. That’s now how rap started out. It’s changed. There’s musical 808 music now. Melodic 808 music which is something that was not always the case. And you’ve got guys who are like the punk face of hip-hop like you’ve got Tyler the Creator, Joey Bada$$, you’ve got Earl Sweatshirt. You’ve got cats who are bursting at the seams with creativity when it comes to the rap, and you just hang on every word. And it feels like that’s what it would have been like to see Charley Parker or John Coltrane. It’s a different time. It translates differently, but it’s the same creative energy.

Do you think there’s anyone in hip-hop who feels like what it would be to see someone like Sun Ra?

No, but I’d love to see that.