It’s as good a time as ever to be Thundercat. Born Stephen Bruner, the Los Angeles artist has been described as a prodigy by the likes of Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Erykah Badu, all of whom have collaborated with the genre-blurring bassist/producer/keyboardist/guitarist/singer. Thundercat’s currently touring behind an otherworldly, justly celebrated new album titled Drunk, but we managed to get him on the phone to discuss his central passions: music, video games, anime, and death.
Do you think genre is a useful thing for you, as a musician? It might still be useful for consumers, but when I listen to Drunk, it seems like you’re well past that.
I’ve never really been one to give things titles like that. It can be helpful in some ways, but a lot of the time I try to stick out of the box that it can be put in.
It seems like with the album cover, you’re calling back to a certain ’70s vibe. The album feels very mellow, very generous, like it comes out of a different time. At the same time you have all of these technological themes and content.
I try to mix things up, that’s the whole idea.
When you compose music, do you think visually? Is there any synesthesia?
I would imagine, to some degree. A lot of the time, it’s definitely a part of how the processing unit works. Sometimes, anything from watching a movie or something playing in the background may be affecting what you’re doing, something being right up in front with you taking up as much mental space as what you’re doing. I feel like it all goes together. There’s no weird way to go about it, I just think it’s a natural progression.
One of the highlights for me on the album was “Tokyo,” where you’re going back through memories of zipping through that city with a friend of yours. You’re talking about blowing all your money on anime, and so on. I’m curious what your top three anime and anime music soundtracks would be.
Golly. Three of my favorite animes of all time, Fist of the North Star (the movie, not the series). Street Fighter II, the animated movie, and if I had to go with just straight movies, the next one would be Mind Game, a movie by Studio 4°C. The soundtracks are always beautiful, the original Dragon Ball Z soundtrack is amazing. It’s a different place for me, Japanese anime music. A lot of times there’s a big hidden message in it.
I’m curious what that kind of Asian culture means for you, as a black dude. I have friends who are really into anime, and I’m wondering if they see it as a place kind of outside of the usual black/white stuff that goes on in this country. Is that part of the appeal, or is it something else?
Well, I think that if it’s a good anime, it will speak to all those different things like that. That’s what makes a good animation. I do enjoy a bit of the fantasy world that anime provides, but at the same time I need the reality in it. I’m very much a stickler about the actual animation. I’m not into the cutesy stereotypical animation with big eyes and a small chin. That annoys the hell out of me. As a black dude, I definitely think that what it does is take you out of the part where you’re black. It does take you to a fantasy place: You have to put yourself into a scenario you normally wouldn’t be in. You try to wrap your mind around it. But at the same time, there is a thing where I do wish there was something that denoted more … I mean, of course there’s The Boondocks, but it is just one of those things that, you know … I think it’s something that’s to be … Over time, the dots will connect like that, ’cause, you know, it always did offend me to see like Mr. Popo in Dragon Ball Z. [Laughs.] How they draw black characters. But at the same time, it’s from a different era. The pop references are so dark. You love Dragon Ball Z for what it is, but when you really start to look at it, you’re like, What the hell am I watching? sometimes. [Laughs.] Nonetheless, as a black dude, I guess it is one of those things where anything that connects people, you tend to enjoy it more than most things. And cartoons tend to do that, make people come out of their, normal, day to day … if a person watches cartoons, it means they’re in a different place. You have people who are like, Oh, that’s a child’s thing. But cartoons aren’t just made for children, they’re made for adults. Looney Tunes was not a children’s cartoon. I don’t care what anybody says. It was very politically charged, very racial. And then they tried to soften it up for kids later. But it was for the adults. I dunno, I’m always looking for the finer points in the animation.
I’ve seen a lot better social commentary in certain anime than I see in books.
Exactly, exactly. You can stretch the boundaries of reality with animation. People are more open, more receptive, if you were to tell that racist joke, if you put it behind the cartoon. Because it takes a lot of effort just to animate something. You can’t just slop it off, you have to care to some degree for you to even be able to do that. So it’s a very forgiving place. I think it’s a very important and awesome thing.
You could say the same about video games, right? You mentioned Street Fighter, you mention Mortal Kombat in a song on the album. It feels like a neutral ground where people can meet on terms slightly different from what society sets for them.
Do you prefer fighting games? Is there any kind of specific taste for you? It’s such a wide world.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Street Fighter over the last decade or so. The new format sucks balls, I’m just going to say it, I don’t care. I hate the new Street Fighter, it can eat a rotten bag of dicks. It’s just not good. I was always waiting for the Tekken version of Street Fighter, I was waiting for it, it never happened. Besides that, I love Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat has always pushed those boundaries.
You fuck with Mortal Kombat X?
Oh, that is the one, dude! That is the one. I couldn’t believe how far they went, I was so happy that they did it the way that they did. For real. That’s the one.
They had the thing with the variants of the characters, but I don’t think they polished it before. Like you can stick with your character, but there’s some variety within the character, which is nice.
Yeah! I love Mortal Kombat for that, man, I love them for that. Mortal Kombat X is like, you know, they hooked us up. More blood, more violence, more gore.
I recently did a piece where I was interviewing a lot of dudes in New York who play fighting games professionally, or used to, and there’s not a lot of love for Street Fighter V out there. It’s kind of sad.
It’s just annoying! That timing thing, the way characters look all weird, not dope. What the hell, man? You miss that old, violent punch-kill a dude, shake the stick until you break the computer, like, you can’t do that anymore. Now it’s like playing chess, and that’s annoying.
You know the Street Fighter game that gets kind of underrated, is Street Fighter III: Third Strike. The soundtrack on that? It’s fucking insane.
Yeah! That was the changeover right there. That’s a milestone for them. We all know that one. We loved that one.
For the record, there’s also Tekken, which I am also waiting for. Watch everybody love Tekken, watch everybody love playing Tekken with Akuma. Everyone’s gonna love it. And then they’re gonna be like Maybe we should have done that Street Fighter vs. Tekken.
Well they did Street Fighter x Tekken and no one liked it …
But they didn’t do Tekken x Street Fighter, which is what everyone really wanted.
That’s true. So in terms of video games, are there any composers you really respect? It really is kind of a lost paradise, like, people don’t understand how much great composition has gone on in that field.
Yeah, man, it is, it is. There’s been a couple things in the past I’ve done where I’ve talked about that, the importance of the gaming music and how it is not a gimmick. There’s one specifically that I’ve always loved throughout the years that I still listen to just to remind myself of the better and finer points in the video-gaming stuff, is Masato Nakamura, that’s the guy that did Sonic the Hedgehog. That being the first experience that I had with gaming, being a musician that molded the stuff I heard from then on. Mortal Kombat, the first arcade one, that soundtrack sounds like a Chick Corea album. [Laughs.] Of course, it goes without saying, Super Mario, Streets of Rage, the older video games like that. A lot of these newer video games haven’t explored that. Halo did. Halo soundtrack is absurdly amazing. And The Last of Us? Fantastic. I think it’s because it’s hard to equate melody and harmony now into some of these platforms, but at the same time I think these platforms like to slack off where they like to slack off. They want to make all the money and they won’t want to pay to make it amazing like it should be. So they just budget it out, and it’s like, you know, get what you can for $200. Nah, man. I’m more a fan of the older compositions.
What about RPG soundtracks?
Oh, Final Fantasy! Good Lord. Yes sir. There’s whole other genres of video games. Even now, still, listening to Zelda … between Final Fantasy VIII to Final Fantasy X the music was very intense. I think I did a tribute to Final Fantasy X, a track with a friend of mine, Dennis Hamm. There’s been a few different tributes I’ve done for video games, there was one called “Bowzer’s Ballads of Death of the Neutron Star,” that was when the president of Nintendo died, I wrote a track for him. There’s one I wrote called “Final Fantasy.”
You ever play Xenogears? It’s from Squaresoft too, it’s similar but it’s …
No, I’ve checked it out. They did one on the last WiiU, right?
That’s Xenoblade. It’s a different property. The music on Xenogears is definitely worth looking into.
I feel like Nintendo’s always had that side of it sewn up. They’ve always have the music side of it sewn up.
Have you had a chance to check out the new Zelda yet?
I’ve been really thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about ordering the Switch, I haven’t gotten it yet because I’m on tour. I’ve heard about it, I’ve heard good things about Zelda. It seems like it could be fun, though. I’ll give it a try. Because it’s not too expensive I’ll give it a try.
When you compose lyrics, do you compose ahead of time, or do you groove out and find the words to fit it later?
It comes different ways. There’s no specific way I do it. Sometimes it comes that way, sometimes it’s just music, sometimes it’s just the way I’m saying stuff. It just becomes interweaved in the process of my day to day.
The lyrics on this album aren’t as directly elegaic as some of your earlier stuff, but they’re still clearly focused on states of being between waking and sleeping. What do you believe happens to consciousness after death?
I don’t know, man. That’s the thing. I don’t know. Unless you’re dead, you don’t really know. There’s so many things, people like to think about astral traveling, astral projection, and try to get into the meditative states to bring it about, but at the end of the day, you don’t know until you’re actually gone. Until you’re actually dead, you have no clue.
When you chose the album cover, were you thinking of all the liquid elements in the album?
I think that the picture wound up being a bit symbolic, people could see things in it. It comes out of experimentation.
You got a song called “Friend Zone.” I didn’t expect a track like that to be made by a musician, really. I always assumed musicians didn’t have those kinds of problems, of being trapped in this liminal space where you’re not happy and you’re not totally dissatisfied either.
Yeah, well, we’re all human, you know.
We are all human, that is a problem. I’m curious what the symptoms of being there are. It’s not always clear if you’re in that zone or not.
A lot of the time I like to joke with my buddies, if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re there. [Laughs.] If you can’t tell what it is, then you’re in the friend zone. If you’re friends, and you don’t want to be friends and for some reason they keep trying to force the friendship — friend zone. If you’ve had sex with someone and you don’t want it anymore, put them in the friend zone. It’s like purgatory.
There a large community (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, others) that’s been building for a while … it seems like you have something really special going on in Los Angeles.
There is a lot going on. A lot of things going on at once.
Do you feel like it’s a little similar to what the Soulquarian collective had going 15 years ago?
Nope. Not at all.
So it’s just a bunch of people who dig each other’s music.
There’s stories that go behind some of it, but you never know who knows who, that’s a better way to look at things.
You have some really great guest turns here: Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Kendrick, Wiz. But at the very end you have Pharrell, and he’s speaking quite seriously. Can you talk about how you first met with Pharrell and how he’s influenced your work?
I vaguely remember the first time I met Pharrell. One thing I had in my mind when I met him — for sure, something that I always wanted to do for Pharrell was to let him know how influential he was on my music and to me as an artist. How serious that was for me. I’m pretty sure the first time I met him, I definitely let him know that he meant the world to me, and how much I appreciated the work he had done. I kind of geeked out a bit, you know. I talked to Pharrell, I let him know how I feel about what he contributed to my world, to the world. And at the same time I wanted to share my music with him. One thing I knew was that Pharrell was a fan of “Them Changes” [track 15 on Drunk] and he really loved the song. Once I asked him if he wanted to hear more of my music, and he was absolutely up for it. So I play him a bunch of the new album, and the fact that I could play the music just meant … it was everything. I can’t believe I’m playing Pharrell my music, out of my home. I’m playing it for him. And watching him sit there and take it all in was really deep for me. I remember watching him mouth words to “The Turn Down” on the first listen and I was just like, Whoa, I’ve never seen anyone do something like that. I’m like, are you hearing something to this song? He was, and so that’s how that came about.