Those paying attention to the sound of contemporary Los Angeles as imagined by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, nominated for an album of the year Grammy, might have noted a mysterious musician named Thundercat lurking in the background.
In late 2014 and 2015, he seemed to be everywhere. There he was, his head and torso covered with a long fur hat, playing bass during Lamar’s performance as the last musical guest on The Colbert Report. At the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles, Thundercat backed saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington during an album-length performance of his aptly titled three-disc jazz album, The Epic. In August, the bassist performed his funky track Them Changes on the Comedy Central show Why? With Hannibal Buress.
Born Stephen Bruner, the bassist was one of Lamar’s secret weapons on To Pimp a Butterfly. He guided the lower frequencies, contributed backing vocals and is credited as co-producer on three tracks. Speaking to The Times while on a solo tour of Australia, the bassist discussed his participation on To Pimp a Butterfly.
How did you come to work on To Pimp a Butterfly?
The way it came about was pretty organic. It started with Kendrick calling to play bass on a couple of things, and I feel like it was a very new territory for him, even to try to call somebody to work in that capacity. But I don’t think he was totally aware of what I was capable of bringing to the table until he started hearing the stuff that me and (album co-producer) Sounwave were creating. I would always send Kendrick (music) as I would be creating it, period, just to try and keep him inspired throughout the day.
How were you and Sounwave collaborating?
The way the music works, I feel like there’s sometimes a gravitational pull toward things. Me and him started to find a bit of the magnetism in the music. We would sit and watch cartoons, eat, talk about life. We would also be creating music in the process, which is the best feeling ever when you can actually sit and be productive and still be in a comfortable environment.
Were you a regular presence in the studio while Kendrick was working or did you come and go as needed?
It was definitely a day-to-day process. There would be moments where it would start out at my apartment, where me and Sounwave would get lunch, sit down and eat, develop ideas and then later on go to the studio. Or we’d start out in the studio early in the day. It changed a bit throughout the days, consistently lending to the sound, trying to shape-shift the music and get into a wave with it.
Were you improvising on the bass?
Yeah, and experimenting, listening to different music, pulling from influences — deep down emotion coming across in the music based on things going on at the time. Everybody would share space a lot. It was a consistent stream of creativity, you know?
Do you recall the first time you listened to the finished album from start to finish?
Yeah, it was in mastering, right when the album was being completed. I just broke down in tears when I got home after hearing it. So much information was passed and conveyed. And not mistakenly. There wasn’t a misfire. Everybody put their best work forward, and you could feel it, I think.
When I talked to you last year you said you were working on To Pimp a Butterfly but that you didn’t feel comfortable discussing the process while you were inside of it.
Yeah, it was one of those rare moments in life, like when your teacher gives you an assignment that you are really, really good at. I was very excited about every last step of it, from the content of what he was saying to the little eccentricities — Lalah Hathaway getting involved, and Rapsody. Even seeing good friends like Robert Glasper, when he got involved.
It was a funny role that everybody played. It was nice to see everybody take their armor off, set it by the door and literally get to working on a new machine.
Would you agree that there’s a Los Angeles vibe to To Pimp a Butterfly?
It’s that feeling I’m describing. And the only reason I feel it’s deemed an L.A. sound is because of the unity that happens in the music, (which) people can hear. A lot of it stems from everybody wanting things to go to a higher level, and if that’s what’s being considered an L.A. thing, I can appreciate that. But I feel like that’s something for everybody to pull from.
Still, the record features Kendrick, you, Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus, Sounwave and Kamasi Washington. That’s a lot of musical power. All of you were raised in the Los Angeles area but come from distinct musical communities. Maybe I’m overanalyzing?
No, you’re absolutely right. But I feel like these microcosms, the things that we draw from, the experience that Flying Lotus walks with, or Terrace walks with, you bring all of that to the table, which makes it all bigger. Terrace Martin, in his repertoire of who he’s worked with and what he’s done, it reaches out further than L.A. He tried to bottle up all that he could to throw into the album.
I think that’s more the feeling, to me, of what happened. Everybody brought everything they had in their fingertips.
If Kendrick takes home the album of the year Grammy, what will that mean to you?
Oh, man. Honestly, I want to see the man get his just due for what he embarked on. I always wanted to be involved with music that would stand the test of time, being on one of those definitive things that you have to have listened to at some point. This is one of those albums. I’m very excited about the Grammys and being able to see it and see that it’s worth something.
I want to see the dude go into space, you know? I want to see Kendrick be the bring him home guy — get him off of Mars. When you lay a lot of yourself on the line like that to be judged, a lot of the time people can’t take it, even as an artist. Putting yourself out there for people to judge you — that can go any way. For it to resonate with people — it’s like the world was a sponge with the album. It was a really needed album for now. And it hit everybody like that.
For it to do what it was meant to do, to me, is so beautiful.