Virtuosity is one thing, but being able to package that up in a way that's both restrained, melodic – and above all, unabashedly inventive – is entirely another. For renowned bassist and composer Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, the combination of these elements have resulted in a career unlike any other.
"It comes from different places," says Bruner on the inspiration behind his music. "It's not a thing where I have a specific way I go about it. It can be anything in conversation, it could be anything I'm listening to, it could be a feeling. I find inspiration in everything; it comes and goes in different ways and I try to make myself available to it on many different levels. It kind of interweaves itself in my normal day to day life, it just comes naturally."
For Bruner, the challenge is to take that inspiration and convert it into a finished piece. Somewhat of a perfectionist, reaching a definitive end point of a composition can often be elusive. "I never feel like [the music] is finished," he says. "I'll never feel like it's that easy, but a lot of the time it's one of those things where I've learned to be okay with letting go. And a lot of the time completion is not always based on my feeling. I just go with what comes out of me and then I let it find itself."
Bruner has long worked with legendary producer Flying Lotus to bounce ideas off of, and bring his ideas to life in the studio. The pair have a relationship that stretches back years, with FlyLo's production style becoming an intrinsic part of Thundercat's sound.
"We just have a bit of a chemistry," says Bruner. "It's like me and him speak the same language. Me and him just connect in different ways, it's a bit more than just the part where everybody hears the music. It's hard to pinpoint a lot of the time, it always translates the same. So be it my music or be it his music, it tends to speak to the same views."
Listening to any Thundercat album, you'll find layers of intricate parts and subtle variations that further reveal themselves upon repeated listens. But before that point can be reached, experimentation is a must. "The goal is always to experiment and see what you can come up with that's different," he says. “One of my favourite sayings is, 'Let's get weird'. There's such a big sea of ideas that we can pull from."
While some may say Thundercat's wheelhouse is neo-soul and hip hop, he cut his teeth playing with Suicidal Tendencies – an experience that profoundly influenced his outlook on music. "I learnt a lot from Mike Muir and Mike Clark and being present," he says. "Mike Muir taught me a lot about what it meant to be a leader. To stand in front and demand respect. He had shown me many different things about what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to be a musician, what it meant to work hard – to mean what you say. He taught me how important it was to not fall into the pit traps of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It's a real thing, but it doesn't have to be your thing. Mike's always been a very positive influence for me musically and I look at him like a big brother."
On the other side of the coin, Thundercat has also worked closely with hip hop's reigning leader – both socially and musically – Kendrick Lamar. His squelchy bass lines and rock solid rhythm act as the irrefutable ground floor of Lamar's seminal record, To Pimp a Butterfly. "It was very intense, the process of To Pimp a Butterfly," says Bruner. "He's juggling and doing it all at the same time with no separation. He's pretty seamless and it's great to see if you can get a chance to see it. If we were driving, it felt like he was racing. It felt like whatever he did caused me to move faster."
While it's easy to think of Thundercat as part of a new generation of similar artists rebuilding jazz and improvised music, he disputes the notion of a singular scene or movement. "I think it has always been something that's existed. It's just, as time progresses, people grow and mature and there's something else to tag on to, but I would never call it a wave. I feel like it's really corny and clichéd to call it a wave because a wave almost feels like a business term. I've always played my bass. Kamasi [Washington] has always played saxophone. So it's not really a new wave of artists. It's just people are being able to see a bigger picture."
Thundercat is touring nationally in March including a performance at WOMAdelaide.