In an exclusive interview, Thundercat speaks candidly about the trauma of his past album, George Clinton's birthday party, his love of comics and much more.
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In a recent Youtube conversation with bass legend Stanley Clarke and Stephen Lee Bruner aka Thundercat, the duo spoke about how the bass guitar drives songs using both melodic and rhythmic elements. There is a relentless quality to the instrument that will push something from multiple angles as long as it will go sonically. As a modern-day aficionado of the bass himself, Thundercat has had to channel its vivacity in order to make it through a few moments of intense grief as well as the world looking as apocalyptic as it ever has.
One of those extended moments of vigor translated into a Grammy award-winning funk/soul album, ‘It Is What It Is,’ which was released amidst the early days of the pandemic last year. The substance – musically and thematically – of the project has remained poignant and carried Thundercat into his first set of live shows in 2021 including the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. I spoke with him right before he was about to venture out to Glanusk Park to reflect on the past year and to look ahead.
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Though everything feels like it is still lingering, as it does in life, Thundercat has garnered some earned relief and accomplishment in pushing and playing through. When he needs an escape, he dives into animated worlds of various assortments which has even resulted in him voicing a character named “Grune the Destroyer,” for Cartoon Network’s ‘Thundercats Roar’ series. Balancing healing the reality and venturing into the make-believe feels like a recipe for coping that works best. The free-flowing dialogue we had that resulted from weaving in and out of those two spaces seemed possible by natural growth and a lack of a need to promote anything.
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How’s London treating you?
I love London. I feel like this has always been a bit of my second home. I’ve just been hanging out at Forbidden Planet. It’s one of the best comic stores ever in the world.
What have you picked up so far since you’ve been there?
A couple of Mangas. The last Gundam Thunderbolt. A couple of new Marvel Comics and a Hello Kitty Tamagotchi. Hopefully, it doesn’t die on my shoulder from me not paying it attention.
On the show Hot Ones, you said you like feeling like it’s the end of the world. How’s it been sort of coming out of that?
It definitely feels like we’re still in it, like just in another piece of it. I feel like the whole time it’s felt like that. Coronavirus didn’t feel like the end times. Ever since I had to start paying bills it’s felt like the end times.
That said, ‘It Is What It Is’ actually sounded like how lockdown felt to me. Now listening back I feel like I can listen with more of a rounded perspective. How is it for you?
To be honest, my album was a bit of a traumatic experience. I think it takes me a while to go back and listen to my albums with objective ears because it’s a really emotional process. It’s like snapshots. There are actual photos for me when I hear some of the music so I don’t wanna go back and relive some moments that happened. Give it a few years and I’ll probably be able to listen to it and laugh a bit.
That must be wild performing that stuff now for the first time.
Well, performing is what I enjoy doing so there’s a part of it where I feel joy being on stage. The funniness of not being able to hear or the weird feedback in the in-ears. When I’m playing with Dennis (Hamm) and Justin (Brown) we end up laughing at each other a lot.
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What have been some recent funny moments?
We only just got back on stage so it’s like being shot out of a cannon every time no matter what it is, especially playing at festivals. But I think one of the funniest moments on stage is when you spend all this time sound checking, dialing everything in, and getting your ears together so everyone can hear. Then you get on stage and you do nothing of the sort at all. You just hear feedback and your deaf, dumb, and blind onstage and just like, “What is going on? Why is the smoke machine going so heavily?” You go tone-deaf in the middle of a song ’cause there’s so much bass onstage. It’s all of those moments that make it really fun.
Since you talked about Manga earlier, I wanted to ask about that Asuka bass you posted about. When is that gonna make its debut?
It’s still in production right now. The lovely guys at Ibanez I’ve been endorsing for quite some time and I appreciate that they just allowed me to just run with my imagination. Everybody thought the giant bass, at first, was too loud, complicated, heavy, and it was gonna break my spine. Which, it kinda has. But it’s one of those things where they (Ibanez) encourage my creative imagination with my instrument. I’m a huge Evangelion fan and the end of the movies happened a few days ago. There’s a couple characters I really really love and have a lot of respect for and Asuka is one of them. I was sitting and mulling about putting Evangelion stickers on my bass and then was like, “You know what? What if we made a whole entire bass as a tribute?” Mike Orrigo at Ibanez was like, “Let’s see what we can do!” It’s also a newer designed bass for me so when people see it, it’s gonna be a totally new instrument.
To stay in the animated realm, one of my favorite deep cut tracks on ‘It Is What It Is’ is “King of the Hill.” What was the circumstance around making that one?
I always feel like in the music I’m making fun of myself to some degree. Like I have this thing where I call myself “King of Poopies.” It’s this whole idea of the patriarchal asshole that we all tend to somewhat title or deem at any given time. There’s a part where I’m like, “What exactly am I the king of here?” Like my cat? I just got a car. What are we talking about here? It’s a joke like, “Don’t you know who I think I am?” It’s a stab at the idea of who you think you are.
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Are you a big Mike Judge fan and do you watch ‘Tales From The Tour Bus’?
Hell yeah! That shit is amazing, dude! The James Brown episode and the Rick James episode are pure comedy man.
I feel like they gotta bring it back and you gotta get on there.
I would love to be on an episode. To talk to Snoop and Terrace Martin, that would be a good one, a Snoop Dogg one.
What would be the Snoop tour story you would tell?
Oh my god, the day he got arrested for weed in Switzerland when we were all there. That was one of the best moments ever ’cause it was so surreal. My mom called me and was like, “Are you there right now?” She could see me in the background on CNN. That was amazing.
I wanted to ask about another thing from the album. Was the opening line from the song “Existential Dread” inspired by Incubus’ “Drive”?
You know, Mike Einzinger is one of my good friends, and fuck yeah! It’s all in my playing man. ‘Make Yourself’ changed my life and I consider him a dear friend. If that’s what that comes across as, yeah man.
He said in an interview with Entertainment voice about your first meeting, “The first time I met him, I was working with Sonny on the Superjam, and I came into the room and Thundercat was playing “Nowhere Fast” on his six-string bass.” Do you remember that?
Yeah, man. I had a giant display bottle of Jameson. You know the ones they put in the window that aren’t really for sale? I was going turbo like, “This is my sooooooong.” I think he was a little freaked out at first but then I was like, “We can keep going and play the whole album.” And he was like, “Nah this is fine, this is good.” I love those guys.
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We have an equal love for Marcus Miller’s bass lines. I’ve heard you talk about his bass slapping but I’m an even bigger fan of his smoother compositions for Luther Vandross. Do you like that stuff too?
I love his work with Dave Grusin. I have a specific song I love called “Tick Tock,” but I also love his work with Bernard Wright. That’s what he’s known for, you know, actually being able to apply it (slap bass) to pop culture and music. That’s not something most people can do. I love Marcus.
The other one we both love is Larry Graham. Since he’s Drake’s uncle would you ever do a funk/soul album with him as a sort of homage?
Are you kidding me? Shoot me into space like (General) Zod on Superman after that. I could die a happy man if I ever got to work on a funk album or tribute if that was even something that could ever happen. I actually just met Drake for the first time and I turned into a little fangirl man. I’m not even gonna lie, I was like, “Drake drake drake drake drake!” We connected and I would love to and really appreciate the chance to work with him at all.
I would love to hear what that would sound like.
I think that he does that naturally anyway. Between Drake’s dad and his uncle, he was destined to be as funky as he is.
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Speaking of cool collaborations, how was it doing the adult swim performance of “Them Changes” with Ariana Grande?
Mac’s death was extremely traumatic for both of us. I don’t feel like she got a chance to express that because of the public, you could say bullying. The reality is, that woman [Ariana] was very traumatised by that happening also. We shared a bond because not too many people knew that I was one of Mac’s best friends. She expressed on many different occasions that she really liked that song. There was something about it where it made sense and it felt right. It was a part of a lot of the healing for both of us. We both needed that for each other. I feel like she’s grown from experiencing Mac a lot, and I’ve grown from experiencing Mac a lot. We both recognise that in each other.
It was a very beautiful and organic homage to me. I could see it through the screen.
Between us, we were really excited to do it. All the different things came to mind, “What are people gonna say? How are people gonna process this?” But the reality is if you knew Mac and were a fan of Mac you knew where his heart was. The love was real. To this day we still check on each other to make sure we’re okay.
That’s great. About a seemingly super fun thing, I wanted to ask about George Clinton’s 80th birthday – how that was?
(Laughs) Man the part where this dude is 80 and looks 50 is some other shit man, number one! Number two, I just danced man. It was one of those moments where it was like you look up and you’re watching people feel outta here. Old and young with living legends sitting on the couch. Getting a chance to give someone their flowers and not having to do it through a computer screen. I look at him like he’s a survivor and I’m thankful that he’s still alive so I can say something to him. Getting to dance with him and talk trash, he’s really one of the dopest cats. He has the energy like he just began again. It’s insane to witness.
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Speaking more about legacy, where do you see the legacy of your label Brainfeeder and how do you view your place within it?
I see Brainfeeder as an awesome entity. We are doing what we set out to do which is to change people’s minds about stuff. As long as (Flying) Lotus always has a vision, which he always does, it will keep forging ahead and pushing into different stuff. I’m happy to be a part of that legacy. Lotus is another one of those people that are from another planet. I feel blessed to have been working with him for so long. The energy changes when you get older and life happens then there’s more conversation to be had. I’m always excited to see who comes next. I think something that was also really dope and a newer crazy moment was signing Hiatus Kaiyote. Where they belong is on Brainfeeder.
Any future Hiatus Thundercat collaborations on the way?
If we can get on the phone at the right time. If I can stop calling them at 3 o’clock in the morning and they can stop calling at 5 am. But yeah I would love to work with Nai (Palm).
How do you think you’ve grown most as an artist and person from the making and release of ‘It Is What It Is’ to now?
A lot of life changes happened very rapidly in the last couple years for me. I think that adapting, changing, and growing was kind of imminent. I’m happy that I changed a bit. It’s been intense and a lot to process in a quick amount of time, but I’m still here and I’m alive.