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To step into Thundercat’s hotel room on the Lower East side is to experience sensory overload. It’s a kaleidoscopic vision of anime and video game toys and trinkets: Pokémon branded socks nestled next to a retro Sega Mega Drive console, suitcases overflowing with vibrantly coloured clothes. At the centre of all this, the bassist and singer born Stephen Bruner is sitting on a couch, talking about how he keeps his Grammy next to his copy of the inaugural Iron Man comic book at his Los Angeles home. “I think one time I took a shot out of it,” he says, referring to the award earned for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s These Walls. “And I think I jacked off into it one time!” He cackles, laughing at the absurdity of it.

Right now, Bruner – hoodie pulled up, patent sneakers flashing Pikachu socks – is in jovial spirits, but the 35-year-old has a tendency to flit between humorous anecdotes and moments of soul searching. It’s a duality that defines his music in general, but is especially pronounced on his new album It Is What It Is. For every ebullient, bass-propelled Dragonball Durag, with its playful-amorous lyrics (“I may be covered in cat hair but I still smell good”) there are stark moments of loss and loneliness. “Hello, is anybody there?/ Let me know if you can hear me/ It feels so cold and so alone,” he sings mournfully on the very first lines of the album.

“There was a real feeling, at one point in time, where I was very much by myself,” he says, when asked about the desolate quality that threads through his fourth album. Bruner has acknowledged that the making of It Is What It Is was affected by the death of Bruner’s close friend, the Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, in September 2018 – a loss that left him reeling. “Even though there were a lot of people around me and lots of moving parts, there was a part that felt very alone. Sometimes the energy around you is not always matching.”

 

© Denzel Golatt

“You get to know there’s a big world out there, from the bass"

In interviews, Bruner has talked about music as being a kind of therapy. Born into a family of musicians, he began playing bass at an early age. His relationship to music deepened when his father turned him onto Jaco Pastorius – best known for his work with Weather Report – as a teenager. “You come into the knowledge of a Jaco Pastorius song and it just changes you and makes you hungry for more,” he remembers warmly. “You get to know there’s a big world out there, from this instrument.” Bruner graduated from playing bass with the Young Jazz Giants – a contemporary jazz crew whose ranks also included future breakout star, saxophonist Kamasi Washington – to securing a role in thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies. Establishing himself as an irrepressibly funky low end bass stylist, he notched spells backing Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu and Sa-Ra Creative Partners.

However, his life would change forever when he was introduced to Brainfeeder label boss Flying Lotus at South By Southwest around a decade ago. Bruner told the producer that he’d often play his track Massage Situation to “calm me down about everything” whenever he started to feel the world around him was getting too much to handle. They connected, and – thanks to the guidance of FlyLo – Bruner became a key figure in LA’s revered beat scene. It was FlyLo who actually suggested Bruner add his now-staple falsetto to his repertoire, a tip that prompted Bruner to step out as a solo artist with 2011 studio debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse. “Thundercat has this buttery voice and he didn’t shy away from singing when I suggested it,” Flying Lotus tells me over the phone from his Los Angeles home. “He knew he was always gonna do this.”

Since his debut, Bruner has cultivated a vault of music that includes 2013’s Apocalypse, where he shot space jazz and electro-soul influences through a funk prism, and 2015’s The Beyond, a mini-album partly cast as a tribute to his friend, jazz pianist Austin Peralta, who passed away in 2012. Two years after successfully snagging that Grammy for his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, the critically adored Drunk completed his rise. The sprawling album highlighted better than ever his unique sense of internet-adjacent humour. See, for example, the song dedicated to his cat Tron – who he happily calls his “very pretty housewife” – and accompanied by a video featuring Bruner frolicking in an oversized litter box, directed by his friend, comedian Eric Andre.

It Is What It Is, like Drunk, is a bittersweet record. Bruner’s lyrics, which bounce between the sublime and the comical, are backed by buoyant basslines and rich layers of guitar that recall vintage 70s funk groups like the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang and The Gap Band. Co-produced by Flying Lotus, the album also furthers Bruner’s ability to link musical generations, pairing revered singer and drummer Steve Arrington, who’s best known for his role in the 70s funk outfit Slave, with Steve Lacy from The Internet. Bruner is effusive about Arrington, explaining how much he loved the music he sent him for the project, before qualifying that “even if he farted on the song it would have been a very special fart, like put some bass to it, some reverb, you know?”

For the title track, the first music recorded for the project, Bruner collaborated with Brazilian guitarist and singer Pedro Martins. It is Martins who provides revealing insight into the making of the record, recalling how he and Bruner spent the evening of the recording session, “talking about how life can be so unpredictable sometimes. As much as it is unpredictable in bringing challenges all of a sudden, it brings the cure too.” The song they were working on was one of the album’s tributes to Mac Miller.

There’s no escaping that the loss of Mac Miller in 2018 profoundly affected Bruner, and shapes It Is What It Is. “There was a period where I felt I could still hear his voice and mannerisms,” he says, tears forming in his eyes. “It would haunt me. I felt like there was nobody there.” Bruner pauses and, after taking a moment to gaze around the room blankly, his tone switches. The conversation turns to happier memories. “[Miller] was very focused and driven, always balancing so many things. If it wasn’t a girlfriend, it was recording 17 albums at once or throwing some crazy party.” At one soirée held at Miller’s house, the rapper decided to group text his phone’s entire contact list: “He had everybody in there, A$AP [Rocky], Tyler [the Creator], Justin Bieber, it was a couple of hundred people, it was a full-on cacophony!” Miller, Bruner explains, shared his affinity for pranks and mischief. “We always used to have this ‘extreme’ joke,” he recalls, smiling. “Every time we’d see each other, you had to extremely do whatever you were doing, so you’d just walk in, yell extreme and do whatever faster and louder. He was very silly like that.”

I ask Bruner if he ever uses humour as a coping mechanism. In response, he shrugs it off and says he mostly just likes to make people laugh. “[With this album] I just allowed the pain to be what it was and I didn’t try to run from it, I didn’t try to mask it, I didn’t try to overcompensate,” he says, The Powerpuff Girls playing on a muted hotel TV across from him. “I think there’s always a story to be told about the funny part. In general, it’s necessary to find the humour and find it quickly – otherwise you’ll get eaten alive.”

Photography: Denzel Golatt
Photography assistant: Amandla Baraka
Stylist: Ian McRae
Hairstylist: Susy
Set design: Cristina Wright