Thundercat: “I just want to connect to that overwhelmingness”

As he prepares to tour Japan, we speak to the superstar bassist about his interests in cartoons and anime

When I meet Stephen Bruner AKA Thundercat in London, it’s obvious he's worn out. Bruner is on a world tour for his latest album Drunk, which features an extraordinary array of collaborators – among them Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Pharrell Williams and Flying Lotus.

Everybody has things that they lock away and grow out of; me, I never let go

While all these artists were there in the studio, he's touring with just two other musicians – Dennis Hamm on keys and drummer Justin Brown. Replicating the record's rich interlacing of sounds as a trio, set after set, has proved exhausting.

What does peak Bruner’s interest is a discussion about his favourite subjects: cartoons and video games. Ever since he was a young kid, watching TV with his brother Ronald and childhood friend Kamasi, Bruner has been immersed in stories and characters from animations. It started with American cartoons like Tobin “Ted” Wolf’s ThunderCats and Roger Sweet’s He-Man but, after discovering Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z, his interests reached the shores of Japan and never left. He tours the country this April.

Bruner got his stage name after being introduced to Erykah Badu in a studio in Los Angeles, when he was working with a group called Sa-Ra. “I would be in the other room playing Xbox or something, you know, picking my nose,” he said in an interview with NPR. “And I remember she asked, ‘What does he do?' And Shafiq [Husayn, Sa-Ra's producer] was like, 'Oh, that's Thundercat, playing bass on all this stuff.' And she literally was like, 'Yup, you're coming with me.' That's one of my best friends.” The name Thundercat stuck from then on.

Alongside the nods Bruner makes to his love of animation on Drunk, there are also heavy emotional references. On his choice of title, he said “[drinking] has its ups and downs, but I felt like it showed the human side of what goes on behind things, something that I see with all of my friends.” I spoke to Bruner to learn more.

What was going through your mind when you wrote this album?

Well, there was a lot going through my mind. Life takes precedent over everything. You have to observe and report as an artist, along with fantasising and creating a reality around what you do. Every part of my experience is in this album. That's the whole thing. It's a live journal, from the moments that I've shared with other artists to the dark quiet places. I would like to think that's how all my albums are.

In regards to getting drunk, I think that a lot of this is a bit of a fantasy world that I have been in for some time. It just translates musically. There's always the literal terms of being drunk, which everybody's experienced before, from throwing up to being being blacked out and doing the most amazing thing you'll never know you did. Or that loopiness which comes after, or the pain during.

I feel like a lot of these things are the emotions that everybody is going through right now, which are a bit overwhelming. I just want to connect to that overwhelmingness.

So you're saying that a lot of people are in bubble, as if they're drunk all the time?

Basically. It's rough times man. We don't know what is real and what's not. In this lucid state of reality, you might as well be seeing a pig fly. When you analyse what people are doing, you're just like, 'what is this' and 'why does this keep happening?'

Do you feel your love of cartoons relates to that escapism?

Absolutely. A fantasy world is exactly what it is. You don't have to sugar coat that at all. That's one of the reasons why I love cartoons. They take you up and out the place you're in. You have to go to another place mentally to see what that is. I've always been a fan of cartoons.

Could you speak about your interests in Japan?

I’m like an otaku but not in a negative way. It's just a very vast infatuation for somebody's culture. Everybody gets so hung up on cultural reappropriation and how it's wrong. But, whatever you call it, if somebody can appreciate someone else's culture, why not. Just not to a psycho degree.

When did Japanese culture first interest you?

As a kid. I talk about it on the record. I remember going to the dentist and the guy gave me one of those slap bracelets to keep me from crying. It was a Dragon Ball Z one. I'd never seen the cartoon. It wasn't on American TV.

But I remember seeing the characters and thinking they were cool. We didn't have things like that on TV. I mean there was He-Man and the Thundercats, and some Japanese animation, but these characters had cool hair. It was like, what is this?

When I saw it for the first time on a Saturday morning as a pre-teen, it came on at 5am or 6am on Channel 9. I was like, ohhh. And that was the end of it. 

It's like your childhood memories get tied to the cartoons you watched.

Yeah, they stick with you. Even if you grow up, there will be those days where you want to be Ultraman, so you wear an Ultraman shirt. It just translates differently but you never grow out of it. You just act like you do to make everybody feel good. But deep down you’re like, if Ultraman were here he'd fuck this shit up.

From a musical perspective, how do you think videogame soundtracks trigger childhood memories? Personally, hearing tracks from Final Fantasy reminds me of being a certain age.

Everybody has things that they lock away and grow out of. Me, I never let go. I love Final Fantasy VIII and X. That music is just so beautiful.

Do the people you grew up with, like Kamasi and Ronald, still have this interest?

Yeah. Even if, over time, stuff changes and things translate differently. But when me and Kamasi hang out, we just sit and vegetate, watching kung fu movies or anime. We'd do the whole Berserk series in one sitting, then try and talk about it at 4am.

I used to like the manga Vagabond. It was quite violent though.

I like that stuff, like Basilisk – blood frenzy.

It's funny because Japanese people are generally the nicest. You wonder where that stuff comes from.

Yeah, it's like, what's with all this desolation? I had this dark realisation with Dragonball Z. Why is Goku's final form a white dude with blue eyes and blonde hair? His final human form is a friggin' Arian. It's like, does anybody see what's going on here.

It seems all the guys from the LA scene had mentors who passed away – Kamasi with Gerald Wilson, Ronald with George Duke. Has this happened to you too?

Yeah man. After Austin [Peralta] died, it let me know that the time frame we think things exist in doesn’t. It was unreal when he passed. He was not necessarily a mentor but was one of my peers. When he died, and he was so much younger than me, it set the tone for how I would look at stuff. This fleeting moment, always fleeting.

We all know this but it doesn't hit until something immediately changes. A lot of the time, whoever I look at as mentors, I try to reach out to them as often as possible. Stanley Clarke, he's still here; Herbie Hancock, still here.

One just passed, Leon Ware. I would try and call him every now and then, just to let him know I was alive. I visited him a few times. The sad part was I meant to go see him before I went on tour. He died the second week in. I remember I was with a friend of mine and was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I was just going to go say hi to him, and now he's gone’. So now, I just have to know he existed.