ACL Artist Spotlight: Thundercat

Stephen Bruner AKA Thundercat has been making waves as an electric bassist since joining legendary thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies at age 16. His idiosyncratic six-string style has delivered him to the likes of Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, with whom he won a Grammy for the track “These Walls.” One gets the sense, though, that the music Bruner makes under his solo moniker is closer to who he is as a creator. The output of Thundercat is one clearly inspired by a lot of sources, taking notes from a list of influences spanning Miles Davis to Kenny Loggins. This amalgamation shines clear in his work, though the result is not some Frankenstein creation. Rather, a long history of crate-digging at record stores synthesizes in Bruner’s mind something unique–something distinctly Thundercat.

Thundercat’s musical development was a strong one. He picked up the bass at age 4, and his father was a professional drummer for the like of The Temptations and Diana Ross. Virtuosity is on constant display throughout all of his work, not just on a technical level, but on a musical level as well. He easily runs laps around “shredders,” not just by “playing fast,” but by navigating effortlessly through chord changes while still providing the traditional role of a bassist. His soulful falsetto vocals evoke those of Michael McDonald, and his melodic solo sections imply post-Coltrane harmony with ease.

Production for Thundercat releases since 2011’s The Golden Age of Apocolypse has been handled chiefly by Brainfeeder label-head Flying Lotus. The Dilla-esque MIDI percussion has become a signature in Brainfeeder’s releases, with its lop-sided lilt interspersing offbeats freely between booming kick drum samples. The duo’s collaborations date back to 2010 for Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma. Thundercat has provided both bass and vocals on every Flying Lotus LP since that project. In 2015 he also lended his talents to fellow Brainfeeder label-mate Kamasi Washington on his three hour 21st century jazz manifesto The Epic. The electric bass work in the Washington ensemble display Thundercat as a superb sideman and soloist, rivaling any upright bass OR horn player in any jazz combo.

His latest album, Drunk, is his third studio full-length. The album is 23 tracks long, though just over 50 minutes. Drunk is packed with short vignettes, windows into the mind of its auteur. Chromatic vocal melodies mix with hypnotic bass lines send the listener on a whirling journey with tinges of jazz and afrofuturism, Adult Swim and Family Matters.

You can catch Thundercat performing at Austin City Limits on Saturday, October 7 from 4 PM to 5 PM at Tito’s Handmade Vodka Stage. Purchase tickets here.

Purchase/stream Drunk from his official website

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