He’d Always Been Thundercat, Whether He Knew It or Not

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OAKLAND, Calif. — In a few hours, Stephen Bruner, the singer and bassist professionally known as Thundercat, had a sold-out show to play at the Fox Theater, a former 1920s movie palace on Telegraph Avenue. Somewhere inside the Fox, there was a dressing room with his name on it. But Bruner’s plan for the afternoon was to stay on the bus, where he feels at home.

“I’m a road dog,” Bruner said, then corrected himself. “Cat. Road cat.”

He was half-prone on a couch in the bus’s back corner, in skinny black jeans and a T-shirt proclaiming, in bumper-stickerish terms, his love of a particular excretory function; his nails were painted eggplant purple. A screen near the bus’s ceiling displayed a game of Mario Kart, on pause. Every so often, to keep from losing his place in the game, Bruner would stretch out a silver-socked toe and wake the console from sleep mode by nudging the stick of his controller, which lay at the far end of the couch, next to an Aldi shopping bag overflowing with crumpled laundry, including a silver Lurex cargo vest designed by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton.

Anything else he could have needed in this moment was close at hand — water, plastic-sleeved X-Men comics, a reference book on an obscure genus of Pokémon, or a Pikachu-shaped backpack with a miniature Pikachu hanging from the zipper and a Pikachu-yellow sweatshirt inside.

Bruner, 35, cheerfully acknowledges never having put aside his childhood obsessions. Instead, he’s become the kind of artist who invites listeners into a private and eccentric world. Since 2011, he’s made four solo albums, always in collaboration with the Los Angeles producer Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus. (The latest, “It Is What It Is,” is out April 3.) His catalog posits an alternate universe where smooth ’70s FM stalwarts like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (who both appeared on his third album, “Drunk,” in 2018) stand shoulder to shoulder with jazz icons like John Coltrane and the Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius — and where music built on those juxtapositions somehow resonates as pop.

McDonald, who got his big break as a backup singer on Steely Dan’s “Katy Lied,” suggests that Bruner is pulling off something similar to what Walter Becker and Donald Fagen accomplished with their band decades ago. “From the ’70s to the ’80s, those guys were Top 40 radio darlings,” McDonald said. “And I’m going, How did that happen? Their songs are so strange, and so sophisticated. It just goes to show you — there’s that audience out there, that’s waiting for something really good.”

On record, Bruner’s songs split the difference between thumping pop-funk, emotive swells of melody and jazz fusion’s heady cosmic undertow. Live at the Fox that March night, he and his touring band — the keyboardist Dennis Hamm and the drummer Justin Brown — would surrender to that undertow, turning once-concise tunes into pretexts for extended, stormy jams. But they also played “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” a song about Bruner’s cat, with most of the audience providing meow-along backup vocals on the hook. No matter how interstellar Bruner’s music gets, his goofy sense of humor always anchors it in the day-to-day.

“He’s the coolest bass player that ever walked the Earth, period, point blank,” said the singer and guitarist Steve Lacy, who’s featured on one of the new album’s singles, “Black Qualls.”

Lacy, 21, said that Bruner and Ellison “are the reason I’m doing this — they just opened my mind up to all the possibilities in music. Even though my music sounds nothing like theirs — they inspired me to try.”

Bruner grew up in Compton and other regions of Los Angeles. His mother, Pam Bruner, plays flute and percussion. His father, Ronald Bruner Sr., is a drummer who’s played and recorded with Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and the Temptations. Bruner remembers accompanying him to performances as a child and dozing off during his father’s drum solos.

At Locke High School in Watts, Bruner played in the Multi-School Jazz Band, run by a music teacher named Reggie Andrews. Andrews, who taught at Locke on and off for 40 years, is probably best known for co-writing the Dazz Band’s immortal “Let It Whip.” In the course of his tenure at Locke, he nurtured artists like Patrice Rushen, Tyrese Gibson, members of the Pharcyde, the jazz drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. — Bruner’s older brother — and Bruner himself, who refers to Andrews as his “second dad.”

Through Andrews and the Jazz Band, Bruner reconnected with a tenor saxophonist named Kamasi Washington, who’d grown up in nearby Inglewood but attended Alexander Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles. Washington and Bruner had met as children, when their fathers played together in what Washington called a “gospel-fusion band.”

“Stephen was always who he is, way before it was cool to be that way,” Washington said. “He’s always been a completely unique individual. I’ll never forget, we had a gig one time, and we were supposed to wear all black. I came to pick him up, and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t think I have any black pants.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to have a pair of black pants.’ He went in his closet. Purple, green, orange, canary yellow, but no black.”

Bruner’s parents were strict about curfews, but being musicians, they saw Washington as a positive influence, Bruner said. “They didn’t have to worry if we were out trolling and being idiots,” Bruner said. “They almost didn’t have to worry about chicks — because we were nerds.”

Although they were underage — and Bruner is four years younger than Washington — they’d sneak into jazz clubs and other concert venues, first as spectators and then as performers. Eventually Washington acquired a 1982 Ford Mustang; the hatchback didn’t close, and parts of the interior were held together with duct tape. But it allowed Bruner, Washington and their compatriots to play anywhere in Los Angeles that would have them.

“It was insanely horrible,” Bruner said. “Sardine can. It was hilarious — we’d try to fit all my brother’s drums and my bass amp in this two-seater.”

Between gigs, Bruner, Washington and a small circle of like-minded young jazz musicians would jam in Washington’s father’s Leimert Park garage, which became known as “The Shack.” Bruner, Washington and the fellow Locke alum Terrace Martin — along with Flying Lotus — would one day contribute extensively to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” on which Bruner’s bass is often as prominent a lead instrument as Lamar’s vocals.

By the early 2000s Bruner was touring the world as a sideman, first as a member of what he called “a little German-signed multicultural pop group” called No Curfew, which released one album on Polydor in 2001; the following year, Bruner joined the L.A. thrash-punk stalwarts Suicidal Tendencies, where his breakneck-speed bass playing was put to better use.

Not every employer whose road band Bruner passed through was interested in the full Thundercat experience. Snoop Dogg — whose nickname for the fresh-faced Bruner was “Baby Bass”— once cut short a Bruner bass solo during a show, grumbling, “Ain’t nobody tell you to play all that.”

“Raphael Saadiq once told me, ‘Man, play the record,’” Bruner said, laughing. “Nobody wants to hear what you have to say. Play the record.”

It was good advice to give a bass player; Bruner said he didn’t begin to think of himself as something more than that until the mid-2000s. He became close to the hip-hop production unit Sa-Ra Creative Partners; at their Silver Lake studio/clubhouse, he’d meet artists like Ty Dolla Sign and J Dilla, as well as Erykah Badu, who took him on tour.

“Erykah was the one that genuinely cultivated me as an artist,” Bruner said, gathering his bleached dreads into a Gucci hair clip. “She taught me what it means to be Thundercat, and what that entailed for me as an artist. More than playing bass in her band — she would hold my hand through stuff. She would make me stand out in front and sing with her.”

Badu may have given Bruner the courage to step forward as a frontman, but according to Ellison, he’d always been Thundercat, whether he knew it or not.

“He was always the craziest-dressed person in the room,” Ellison said. “That ain’t nothing new. Somewhere in there was a latent superstar.”

“All I ever wanted to be was funky and funny. That’s it,” Bruner said. He never imagined he’d be a lead vocalist, let alone the kind of artist who processes painful experiences in song. But like his 2013 album “Apocalypse” informed by the drug-related death of a close friend, the jazz pianist Austin Peralta — “It Is What It Is” finds Bruner once again working through personal loss. It’s funky and funny, but its funk and fun feel more hard-won than ever — the title, Bruner said, refers less to resignation than to acceptance.

In September 2018, the rapper Mac Miller died of an accidental drug overdose. “That was my ace, my best friend,” Bruner said. His voice became quiet; the bus’s air conditioning seemed suddenly loud.

Miller’s death was the first of a string of difficult losses and transitions, Bruner said. He was in a serious relationship — “I was on the edge of getting married”— which went south not long after Miller died. There was also the death of the rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed in South Los Angeles, not far from where Bruner’s family lives.

But it’s Miller who haunts “It Is What It Is,” which begins with a song about being metaphorically lost in space and ends with Bruner calling out “Hey, Mac” into the void.

“It’s like, he’s not really here anymore,” Bruner said. “He’s not going to pull up and park wrong in front of my spot, get a ticket and show up and knock at the door.” (That was Miller’s signature parking style, Bruner said: “He’d just park on the wrong side of the street, and get out of the car and some girl would faint.”)

Miller, Bruner said, was the person in his life “who I would call when stuff got weird. Talk to Mac.” After he died, Bruner said, he found it difficult to write music, or even to pick up a video-game controller. He quit drinking for a while.

“I had to sit with it,” he said. “I had to let the pain in. I had to cry, a lot.”

Then he made “It Is What It Is,” an album that’s ultimately less about overcoming uncertainty, fear, decay and heartbreak as it is about learning to live with those things as constants — conditions of staying alive. It’s the kind of cultural product that will inevitably feel eerily right-on-time when it drops amid the chaos unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. On March 12, almost a week after the Oakland show, Bruner tweeted the title phrase; the following day, he canceled the remaining dates of his North American tour.

“I think the existential dread set in when Mac disappeared,” Bruner said. “Things became a bit realer to me. I was faced with a choice — to either follow suit or figure it out. And I guess this is me trying to figure it out.”

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