In Conversation: Thundercat Has a Thunderchat About “Drunk,” Yacht Rock

Plus: You’ve been calling Kenny Loggins by the wrong name all these years.
In Conversation: Thundercat Has a Thunderchat About “Drunk,” Yacht Rock

Plus: You’ve been calling Kenny Loggins by the wrong name all these years.

Words: Jason P. Woodbury

photo by Eddie Alcazar

March 02, 2017

It’s not easy to keep up with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner.

As a session player, the bassist’s put together one of of the most impressive resumes in modern music. His elastic, soulful six-string bass work is elemental on albums by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Kamasi Washington, and his credits include a wide range of artists scattered across the fields of jazz, pop, hip-hop, and punk (one of his early steady gigs was a stint in Suicidal Tendencies).

These diverse associations make sense when listening to Drunk, his third full-length album for FlyLo’s Brainfeeder record label. It’s a dazzling listen, jumping from Zappa-esque jokes about jerking off and farting to thoughtful meditations on the nature of existence and racial discrimination, from mellow, jazz-inflected R&B fusion to chiptune pop, from lush soul ballads to dexterous prog-rock workouts. Despite the superstar guests—including Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Pharrell, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins—Thundercat’s presence defines the album, his breathy lyrics heavy on his obsessions: cats (with accompanying feline sounds and quotes from The Lion King), ’80s cartoons, video games, sex, and anime.

Speaking with Bruner is a lot like listening to Drunk. While shopping for jewelry in Salt Lake City, he jumped from topic to topic, discussing effects pedals, Twitter, the G-funk/yacht rock connection, and the thematic construct of drunkenness.

Drunk is a simple but evocative title. What led you there?

Why not name your album Drunk? [Laughs.] I guess I felt like, over the last couple years, I’ve experienced so much. Especially after the [2016] Grammys, [where I saw] my friends heightened, experiencing moments that were a bit bigger than usual. I feel like there was a lot more to those moments. This is just my version of observing and reporting how crazy things have been the last few years among my musician friends. It’s part of life for me.

You’re talking about disorienting feelings.

Yeah, the feeling of now. The feeling of “drunk,” you know?

Lyrically, you often talk about it being difficult to know how to react or know what to do in a given situation. There’s a sense of being too intoxicated—metaphorically, at least—to process what’s going on around you. Is that how it feels?

Absolutely. Everything’s very wide open, vivid. [It’s about] the conversations you have with people, and how fast they can take off in the wrong direction—or the right direction. It’s a bit dizzying.

Is the album cover some reflection of that? I viewed it as you rising out of the water, ready to attack, but when Snapchat released a special “drunk” filter for the album, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the images you retweeted from fans looked to me like someone in rising water, potentially about to drown.

Yeah, I think you identify with the feeling of it being over your head. It’s overwhelming.

A song like “DUI” expresses both sides of that feeling—about how things can feel very good or very bad. Did you want to show both sides of how it feels to be overwhelmed?

Absolutely. The complexity of how you process something is sometimes beyond your natural state. The dizziness you feel inside those moments psychologically… It can be hard to see your way out of them.

Bus in These Streets” talks a lot being on your phone, tweeting, watching the world go insane. Do you feel like the act of simply keeping up with our Twitter feeds can inspire that sense of drunk-ness?

“The complexity of how you process something is sometimes beyond your natural state.”

For sure! The pressure to try and be socially relevant, to have any semblance or hold, to acknowledge anything—it’s pretty intense. Even with my Twitter, I try and just fire from the brain. That’s why I pretty much only talk to Zack Fox. He’s a guy that gets it. Everything is terrible.

Is it difficult for you to balance keeping yourself informed and not driving yourself batty?

No, it’s become part of the norm. In the process of finding things, you just go crazy. Then you step back from it and it’s like, what’s going on in the world is dismal. You take deep breaths and try not to get overwhelmed. Then you get to heavy breathing and you almost pass out.

The Internet can feel claustrophobic, but your feed is hilarious. Your fans utilize a lot of hilarious GIFs and memes to express their enthusiasm. It feels like their own unique language.

I feel like that’s one thing Twitter is absolutely amazing for—letting you know you’re not by yourself. There’s other people out there like you.

You’ve got some incredible guests on this record. Do you look for a specific quality when you look for vocalists on an album?

I try to look at things in a very simple state; I try to find the “natural” state of things. Someone like Wiz [Khalifa], he and I have been writing together for years. That’s how a lot of these collaborations came about—they’re people I love and have a genuine appreciation for and work with on a consistent basis.

You’ve worked extensively with people like Wiz Khalifa, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick Lamar, but with someone like Pharrell, had you met him before working on this?

Before working on this, I had never really met Pharrell. I’d met Chad [Hugo, also of N.E.R.D.,] but not Pharrell. The dynamic was really intense when I met him. I was like, “How do I tell this guy how important he is to me without sounding like a complete idiot, while at the same time trying to express to him that there’s more to what I do than just play bass?” I had to let him know that he changed the way my brain worked as a teenager.

How did it feel to hear Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald sing “Show You the Way?”

That was very intense.

Was it a similar situation as it was with Pharrell? Did you want to convey to them what they meant to you as a musician?

Their contributions to my open-mindedness about songwriting is massive. I guess the way they ended up on the record was I said something in jest on the radio and it took flight from there. The more time we worked together, the more I saw why these guys are who they are to everybody. They’re fantastic. The prowess and understanding of the vastness of music—I’m happy I got to experience that.

There’s a sonic connection between G-funk and yacht rock—which isn’t what their music was called at the time—

I always look at things like, if someone is going to make fun of something, the fact that they paid that much attention to you is a beautiful and valuable thing.

And that show, the web series Yacht Rock, the creators really loved that kind of music.

It was pretty funny. But you have to know the context from which that music came—and if you were rich enough to have a party on a yacht, I mean, I don’t see what’s funny about that.

Even beyond the samples, there’s a shared lushness and sophistication in G-funk and yacht rock. Was your exposure to that stuff first through hip-hop, or did you hear stuff like The Doobie Brothers growing up?

“He’s Kenny Fucking Loggins. That’s how you say his name.”

I feel like it was a combination of everything at once. The Internet was slowly becoming part of our regular existence. Everything was happening at once—hip-hop, jazz, funk, you could immediately recognize [them] and find them quicker. But yeah, I remember hearing Warren G growing up. I knew that was connected to Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Steely Dan. It was just a matter of time before I put together how important that music was.

Kenny Loggins, he’s a massive force. You learn about him by himself. He’s Kenny Fucking Loggins. That’s how you say his name. I’ve always had this idea of Kenny being through everything you could ever experience as a guy, and he’s so open to share it all with you.

Were you trying to emulate that with your own music? It’s an open hearted—and funny—record.

I would try to. I couldn’t emulate his singing, but I’d have moments of trying to connect to what he’d say. I’d see the honesty in his music and try and figure out ways to make my music more honest, too.

This is a kind of nerdy question, but what pedal are you using for “Friend Zone” and “Them Changes?”

That’s a Moogerfooger, an envelope filter.

It sounds incredible, but you use it sparingly. Do you have to resist the urge to toss too much in the mix?

There’s a fine line between cheesy and actually cool, and you wind up riding that line really hard; I could feel the weight, like, “Lord, please don’t let this be corny.”

How do you know that it’s not corny?

You know that when you feel good about it. While recording it I felt like I was doing the right thing with the sound; it made me want to dance. I was dancing around the living room while recording it. It sounds silly but I was genuinely feeling every emotion I could feel recording it: it was funny, terrible, and serious, and I was dancing all at once. FL