Interview: Thundercat, Brainfeeder's Bass Master General
When L.A.'s world-class beat/electronica crew Brainfeeder takes over the Fonda later this week, you'll spot one guy up there making music the (comparatively) old-fashioned way. Him with the extraterrestrial sense of style and supernatural ability on the bass? That's Thundercat, a.k.a. Steve Bruner, who you've heard on Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma where he held down the low end on the track "Mmmhmmm". He's also played with Bootsy Collins, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg--which he actually forgot!--and he'll be releasing his own solo album on Brainfeeder this summer. He talked via Skype about perfect pitch, Jaco Pastorius, and ESP.
So what's it like to have perfect pitch?
Ha--yeah, I do have perfect pitch. I'm a guy where my perfect pitch has been altered by the fact that I usually tune up to what's going on. When I was a kid, it was horrible! If two notes were playing right next to each other and they were dissonant, it would drive me nuts. If it was something that sounded like it was in between notes, it'd make me cringe.
You said in another interview that when you worked with Erykah Badu, she'd ask you to play something in red or green. How do you play something in red?
Sometimes people can't pinpoint exactly how they want you to play, but it's your duty to figure out what they want to hear. So you listen to what's going on in the song and you play everything you can. It's almost like you go through a rolodex in your mind of what you'd consider red -- could be anything from an Allan Holdsworth lick to Bootsy Collins -- or it could be just to be more active in playing. Whatever something 'red' is to you, it's all about where your mind's at. You culd be the guy that says 'How the heck do you play something red?' Or you could say, 'lemme try to figure where that's at.'
You said you started wanting to play the bass when you heard a Jaco Pastorius song.
I started taking the bass more seriously when I heard Jaco Pastorius. I went through different kinds of string intstruments and my dad played me "Portrait of Tracy' and that freaked me out. Sonically. And I couldn't believe that, like, you could do that. Emotionally for me, it was a really big deal. There was another incident where my brother told me I sucked. My brother's a great musician, but once me and my brother were playing and my brother was like, 'Gee, you suck!' Later I remember my brother said 'I don't know what happened, but you changed.'
Did you work harder?
Do you still play together?
Oh yeah! Everyone once in a blue moon, we'll actually wind up on a gig together. Once I was on tour with Erykah Badu and he was playing with George Duke and we ran into each other at the Montreal Jazz Festival and we played on the same stage one right after the other.
What was it like the first time you listened to the radio and heard a song you played on?
Pretty crazy! I completely forgot that I played on Snoop Dogg's last album until one of my friends said, 'That thing you did on Snoop Dogg's album was nuts!' 'Oh my gosh, I did do that! I forgot I did that!' It's Snoop, Bootsy, and I'm playing bass.
Can you sing and play the bass?
My theory is if Tony Williams can sing, and if Kanye West can sing, so can I! So I try! I think about that old type of Americans--like William Shatner and Bert Williams, who'd go sing on TV shows. That stuff used to have a valuable place. It used to be valued to connect to something that much just to want to do that. It'd be respected to a certain degree. But some of those things to me are precious.
How do you know when you're satisfied with a song?
I just try to get as emotionally involved as I can with it. And a lot of times, I'm also working with someone. I do a lot of work with my friends and it's more than one opinion going on, so we both can usually balance each other out somehow.
What have you learned from working with Flying Lotus?
I've learned that there are people who can speak without speaking. That's why Wayne Shorter wrote "E.S.P." There's something special about me and Lotus, in all honesty. There's only a couple people I know like that. It's like talking without talking and we've had many conversations sonically where we both think so closely and in the same vein. And it comes across like that. Songs are just symbiotic. They started finished. That's happened a lot with me and Lotus, even on stage. It's rare when you can find something like that. You don't always get to reach that level with people. It's almost like--I'm one of three brothers but Lotus is like the other brother. He would be a Bruner.
Thundercat plays with Teebs, Austin Peralta, Strangeloop, and Flying Lotus this Thursday June 23 at the Music Box. Thundercat's upcoming release, The Golden Age of Apocalypse", will be available on Brainfeeder on 8/30/11.