“Everybody knows me as a bass player,” says Thundercat. It’s true, or close. The product of a musical family steeped in Los Angeles jazz history, and a onetime member of long-running thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, the artist born Stephen Bruner has become omnipresent lately, the crucial figure holding down the low end on marquee projects by Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, or his old friends Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus. “Everybody knows that part of me. But songwriting is a whole different set of legs.”
With Drunk, his new album released February 24, it’s Thundercat the songwriter who asserts himself — along with Thundercat the producer, the vocalist, and still very much the prodigious bass player whose fluency and groove have earned him free range across the jazz, rock, and r&b landscape. But the progression on his solo projects, from his debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011) through Apocalypse (2013) and the 2015 EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, has been in songcraft, revealing a lyricist with increasing thematic range — romantic, meditative, absurdist, goofy — and investment in singing.
“It’s become a part of my everyday, songwriting,” Thundercat says. He’s speaking from some pit stop on tour — “I don’t know where I am; I’m on a bus sitting in a parking lot somewhere.” His conversational voice is a warm, friendly tenor. It contrasts with the singing voice he found in himself and has worked hard to shape: an upper-range signature that gives his songs a plangent, yearning feel and echoes some of the reedy quasi-falsetto specialists of bygone days. As it happens, two of these appear on the smooth, instantly seductive “Show You the Way,” a standout on Drunk: Kenny Loggins — he of 1980s gems like “Footloose” and “Heart to Heart” — and Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame. On Drunk, they share guest honors with more contemporary invitees Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell — testifying at once to Thundercat’s convening power and tastes.
The generation gap between Thundercat, 32, and his elder collaborators is such that some of his younger listeners might barely know of McDonald and Loggins. It popped up at times in the studio too, Thundercat says. “At one moment, Michael told me how he found out about me — it was his daughter who told him about me.” But mostly the connection was smooth, enhanced by Thundercat’s admiration for Loggins, in particular, as a songwriter, which prompted him to seek out the collaboration, and his cratedigger’s encyclopedic knowledge of both men’s discographies.
“I was one of those old-school musicians-slash-producers, I’d go digging for records, that’s part of my upbringing,” Thundercat says, citing fellow record geeks Madlib and the late J Dilla. “And at some point I found Kenny Loggins. Eventually, listening to his catalog, I felt like I’m living this guy’s life with him. There’s nothing left unturned, he’s documenting the way his life has moved. And it spoke to me in a manner that I understood something about songwriting, about how it had to be my story.”
On Drunk, honest songwriting can mean the recognition of loss and loneliness, as on “Walk on By,” where Thundercat sings, “At the end of it all, no one wants to drink alone…. Don’t walk away from me,” before Lamar comes in with an incisive rap on social dislocation and violence that recalls their work on To Pimp a Butterfly. “Friend Zone” is a sardonic lament on that notorious emotional dead end, expressed as a plump-grooved funk anthem; “Tokyo” is a googly-eyed journey into the night amid the taverns and neon of the Japanese metropolis. As for “Bus in These Streets,” it bemoans a problem listeners will recognize: “From the minute I wake up, I’m staring at the screen, watching the world go insane,” Thundercat sings. “Won’t you leave some things to mystery?”
In keeping with Thundercat’s past albums, the sound of Drunk is textured, shaped by lush synth chords and landscaped electronic effects that proffer a modern homage to the 1970s world of fusion and rock that continues to fascinate him. (Jaco Pastorius is a special hero.) But there’s a welcome tension, too, and disruptions in the form of ultra-short songs, some the length of skits, and absurdist touches in the meowing, snoring, and assorted other body-humor noises that punctuate the proceedings. Prone to relatively concise songs, Thundercat trims many here to punk rock length, jamming 23 tracks into just under an hour of music. “This album was a bit of a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I tried to say what I mean and mean what I say, and it will translate in these outbursts sometimes.”
Thundercat doesn’t drink, so anything literal in Drunk (and alcohol comes up a number of times) reflects activities he’s witnessed around him. But the theme is also cultural. “It’s kind of observing and reporting,” he says. “The thing that happens with drunkenness, how it weaves into our life and becomes a coping mechanism — yeah, it can relate to the feeling of now in society.” There’s a metaphor here as well, for information overload and the saturation of bad news. “It can be intense, man. It’s like a bombardment with insanity.”
Honesty, his cardinal principle as a songwriter, has navigational value in this broader world, too. And with his longtime Los Angeles posse — including his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and childhood friends Washington and pianist Cameron Graves, among others — in the midst of a creative blast that has earned them national attention after years in the L.A. underground, it’s a good principle for handling celebrity as well. “You get random calls from friends you haven’t talked to in so long, you wonder if it could be because they heard you on the radio.” Thundercat says. “And that’s cool. But I just try not to look at it. I try to protect the music at all costs.”