Them Changes: A Conversation with Thundercat

He's the go-to bass mastermind who's anchored already-iconic albums by Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington. For his latest mini-album, Thundercat gets both sad and weird, taking us on a true emotional journey.
The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam

At the core of Thundercat‘s newest release, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, is “Them Changes”. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking cut of funk and soul, filled with jittering bass and Thundercat’s signature crystal clear voice. But, unlike his previous, more light-hearted songs, “Them Changes” has a deep emotional potency. It, along with the rest of the record, reflects on strife and grief on a personal level and from a worldwide view.

Thundercat, also known as Stephen Bruner, has had a weird, wild journey to his current place as a bass prodigy working with everyone from Erykah Badu to Suicidal Tendencies. Currently, he’s the go-to man for Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, helping shape both 2014’s You’re Dead! and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly (respectively), but his solo work sheds an occasionally harsh light on problems in the macro and the micro.

We talked to Bruner and discussed the emotional shifts in his music, the strange numbness that accompanied the record, and laughing to stave off grief.

* * *

I’ve been listening to a lot of Brainfeeder stuff over the last few years, but it feels like, in the last two or three years, some of the emotional direction of the albums has changed. Like Flying Lotus going from Cosmogramma to You’re Dead!. And Teeb’s last album, E S T A R A was really melancholy, and, obviously, your new record is really, really depressing at some points. I was wondering about that emotional shift. Where did all this come from? Was it from [Brainfeeder collaborator] Austin Peralta’s passing?

Well, I think the emotional content on the records that have been coming out is a derivative or like directly to what’s going on in society and the real world right now. It’s one of those things that’s [like an] art imitates life kind of thing. It’s a direct seed into the art. It’s definitely caused different emotions to come out in the music. There’s levels of life that would effect a lot of the music. Everything from what people know like Austin Peralta dying to just genuinely seeing pure racism as a reality, or pure hatred more so than pure racism or intolerance. It’s almost surreal. It’s possible that that’s been a thing that’s pushed along this really, really interesting emotional state behind the music: social issues, social matters, the economy, you know, your real life experience, your day to day reality, the part that you don’t talk about.

I was thinking about that while I was watching a video with you and Flying Lotus called “Over/Under” and there’s a certain playful nature to a lot of your music, “Oh Sheit it’s X” and then, again, there was this emotional change. From an outside perspective, it was a view of a merry prankster going into a more emotionally conscious and downtempo phase which really hit me hard.

A lot of joking stems from a very dark place a bit. It’s like the truth being told in jest, or you laugh to keep from crying, these are the things that go along with these things. And it’s a byproduct of the reality. It’s a pretty dark, twisted reality we live in when it comes to certain things. Your ability to cope and handle it … it’s within your hands and what you do spiritually that will allow you to deal with these things a little bit better. A lot of the time for me, it comes out in jokes a lot.

Yeah, there was a Cracked article about why sometimes comedians are some of the saddest people on earth …

Yeah! [laughs] … sorry.

Yeah, as like depressing and ironic as all that is, it felt like there were some kind of funny moments on The Beyond, like you say “god give me sight beyond sight,” and you mention “Mumm-ra” if I heard you right. It’s funny, because you’re referencing your name and all, but, still, “Hard Times” is a really, really, really sad song. It feels like this weird congestive dissonance between the lyrics and how rough life is.

Absolutely. I don’t know. I kind of find humor in everything, even to the point where it’s awkward, like the worst scenarios are the funniest things ever. I always picture Indian Jones rolling up and telling me to jump in the car and give me a gun and being like “Hold them off!” It’s like this weird adventure of terrible. [laughs]

[laughs] that’s a really good way to put it. You’re Dead!, E S T A R A, and this new record all feel like journeys, or quests to go on, like Kamasi Washington’s new one, The Epic. These are all really big, emotional, potent journeys, The Epic is a little less sad, but it does have its more meditative, tranquil moments. It feels like all of y’all, in this collective, are trying to figure out these huge, monumental issues.

Right, it’s a bit overwhelming. Growing up with Kamasi, that’s kind of how we grew up playing, being involved in jazz, having Kamasi through the majority of my life, it was definitely the right connection to emotions, playing with somebody who would make you tap into that more. Every open opportunity was like ‘play more, pay attention, be inside your head, be out here with us too though.’ A lot of its been from the region we grew up and where we came from, its jazz. I can’t downplay that statement, it’s a real thing.

I interviewed Kamasi recently, and he talked about, on The Epic, there were a lot of tributes to heroes for him, like “Henrietta Our Hero” for his grandmother, “Magnificent 7”, “Malcom’s Theme”, and trying to give tribute to people that were important to him in his musical and personal life. I thought that was an interesting sentiment, especially because his album, a lot of it is instrumental, but still trying to paint these pictures or murals to people through his saxophone and through his sound.

Yeah man, he’s pretty amazing. I was very fortunate to grow up with him and still be friends with him. That’s a real thing, again I feel like, with Kamasi, I feel very fortunate to have him in my life. If you don’t have a friend like that, you would never know.

He also talked about the studio sessions for The Epic being completely insane, he said just hundreds or thousands of hours going into it. I’d like to assume the sessions for The Beyond were a little less hectic. What was it like?

Well, it’s not that it wasn’t hectic, it was just hectic emotionally [laughs], like you keep saying. The process literally spans between the albums Until the Quiet Comes to To Pimp a Butterfly. It was kind of the in-betweens of that. The best way to describe it honestly, I have a bit of a volatile mind state, like outputting a lot of creativity at one time, exuding a lot of energy to keep up with everything going on. And, at the same time, not growing faint of heart by how much I’m getting pulled on or all of the above. By the time I got to The Beyond, the first lyrics state exactly how I felt: “I can’t feel my face”. [laughs] I was like “Where the hell am I at right now dude”? I felt like it was a good thing to have, a good problem to have, a good place to be even though I can’t feel my face or “What’s going on!?!”

That makes more sense now, I remember watching a video of you playing “Them Changes” a couple months before the album came out; that’s a really long gestation period for this mini-album, makes sense with the emotional content and it all flows together. This felt like a cohesive whole.

I have to credit that to the likes of Flying Lotus, that’s one reason why me and him have always been on point with each other because he brings something out of me that I can’t explain a lot of the time. It’s one of those things where we say, just sit us in a room next to each other and it’s a space where you naturally flourish. I’ve always known that sitting beside him. We’ve always pushed each other in different manors. You’re Dead! … I remember a statement he said where he was like, “I’ve never heard everything played out in my head like that.” Things would just drop off there in different ways, to sit there and to be there for the whole process and hear him say that, I was just happy to be a part of it. Sitting next to him brings that out sometimes. It brings the genuine part of my character out a lot of the time.

When you were doing this record was it like Flying Lotus said when it was all out in front of him? Did some of it seem to come from another place rather than yourself?

Oh of course! Like I said, if we’re sitting next to each other it’s a whole different dynamic. It’s one of those real genuinely intimate moments that you share with somebody.

Little off topic, but I read that you have perfect pitch right?

Yeah, or I try to keep it there. Due to my age, sometimes it’s relative now. I’m definitely still trying to keep that up, practice that every day.

I have a friend who has perfect pitch and whenever he tries to record stuff he can get really frustrated, really easily, especially when he’s working with people who don’t have perfect pitch. I was wondering if that comes into play for you.

Well, something that’s affected my perfect pitch is that I’m actually quite the opposite. I have moments where stuff bugs me, but then there’s part of me, based on recording with people and how people hear things; I have friends who record songs in-between tunings. So there’s like regular 400 and then there’s like 442 Hz or something like that, like there’s an in-between the notes kind of thing. And I literally have friends that only write in that tuning. And it’ll be a hair off of the actual tone, like in-between C and B, and I’ll be like “Oh my god what note is it?!” It’s in-between them. When people sample records and stuff like that, that’s definitely directly affected.

It depends on how rough it is. If somebodies not even close, I may have to stop. “OK stop.” [laughs] “Take a breather man and we can try to record it later.” For the most part I just try to meet people where they’re at, I would try to adapt, sing flat or sharp to get it.

Do you have synesthesia then? Seeing colors when you hear music? It’s sometimes correlated to perfect pitch.

Sometimes yeah. Based on people describing things to me like, play a little more red or a little more blue. Every now and again it’s definitely been a thing. I don’t really close my eyes and say I see colors when I hear music. I feel like that’s something that happens in Disney movies. I have been told to play a little more red or a little more green. Like “won’t you play a little more blue, put a little more blue in there” and then I have to figure out what blue means. [laughs]

I wanted to ask about “Lone Wolf and Cub”. It’s simple in the lyrics, but one of the more expansive tracks musically. You’re singing “where you go” and “on your own” over and over again over bass solos and violin interjections; what made that balance?

It’s a very eerie stab into the dark of what’s to come not knowing. The journey that comes about with that song, it’s something that everyone’s experiencing to some degree at the same time. There’s a bit of not knowing what’s going on that everybody; that’s an underlining feeling of not knowing what’s going on and where everything’s going to end up. It brings up a lot of weird, interesting emotions. That’s a real feeling and I feel like that song speaks to it a bit.

That’s a theme that pops up a lot, not knowing what’s next. Like the opening lyric being “I can’t feel my face / Where’s this cold dark place”? And I also felt like the question of what happens after you die comes up as well.

I feel like I try to write from an honest of a place as I can. Without scaring people off too much I guess. [laughs] That’s the only way I can describe that. I feel like it is weird for everybody right now, even if it ends up like me stating the obvious, that’s the harsh reality.

“Them Changes” seems to have a lot of anger in it as compared to some of the other songs like, “Why in the world would I give my heart to you, just to watch you throw it in the trash.” Where is that coming from?

[laughs] Heartbreak is a real thing. [laughs]

It’s interesting that “Them Changes” was talking about heartbreak after “Song for the Dead” where I was imagining guiding spirits in the afterlife … or maybe I’m just reading into it too much.

I feel like a lot of it was a genuine outpouring from the realization that I’ve been experiencing, watching a lot of people close to me die. It’s almost like absurd. [laughs] You just go “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” [laughs] What is this shit? My best friend dies then it’s like a chain of events afterwards. That was the first of a few of my friends that passed on. Then a friend of mine that I called to play for Suicidal Tendencies named Tim Williams and he pass in a very violent manner. And also another friend of mine, a very important musician in Los Angeles amongst other musicians and amongst people who knew him, and he committed suicide, a young cat by the name of Zane Musa.

These are guys that I’ve known for the majority of my profession career, even as a teenager. Those kinds of things happening, literally back to back, it’s so intense that it’s like “You can’t be serious.” It’s the whole thing of everything being slightly overwhelming.

Was The Beyond a coping mechanism?

A bit. Again, music is therapy. Music helps you get through, it’s the reality. It helped me get through a lot of it, this mind-numbing, face-numbing, grueling, insane ocean. You work real hard to think you’re doing something just to do something — it’s such a weird dynamic.

It felt like the album had a bit of a cyclical nature. Because you start the first song and the last song with “I can’t feel …” It feels like you can repeat this album, because the last song seems to end mid-thought.

I hear what you mean and actually the last lyric is “I can feel”.

Oh, my bad!

It definitely applies though. What I can’t feel and what I can feel, feeling the overwhelming sensation of things, the other side of life, you can see it right on your heels.

When Hiroshi Yamauchi [former President of Nintendo] died you wrote a song for him, and Saturo Iwata died yesterday …

Yeah literally yesterday. We played Mario Kart all day in his honor.

I just remembered watching you and Flying Lotus on Digging in the Carts talking about how video game music influenced your own playing, it’s a totally silly question but would you ever make a song for Iwata?

[laughs] Be the designated dead guy song writer?


No it’s fine, it’s fine. Again there’s the humor in it. It’s one of those things, back to what we were talking about, “You got to be kidding me,” no one dies from bile duct cancer. Like what the fuck is bile duct cancer? [laughs] What the hell is it? It doesn’t even exist, that’s not a real thing. It’s kind of terrible, what kind of shit is that to go out on? You can’t be serious!It’s like so absurd if it wasn’t sad, or so sad that it’s absurd, I can’t tell.

It’s almost like corny. It’s like that last scene in Burn After Reading with John Malkovich being livid, saying “What the fuck is going on?” It’s like, nothing anybody says makes sense, nothing that’s sensible is worth a damn [laughs], and which way is up? I feel like Richard Pryor got that.

It’s an interesting thing to capture personal loss and worldwide confusion: racism and hatred and trying to put that all into music, or at least coping with everything. Like you said earlier, music is therapy.

Yeah, that’s part of the properties it has. It’s a healing thing, it can tear things down, but it’s also a therapeutic thing and that’s what it’s translating like for me now.