L.A. bassist Thundercat: From sideman to Brainfeeder breakout act

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At first listen, the tone of Thundercat’s fast-fingered, spectral bass playing sounds like an import from a galaxy far, far away. Powered by space-aged synths, smooth chords and star dust, his debut album, ‘The Golden Age of the Apocalypse,’ is a ball of celestial frequencies made funky. But try calibrating your ears to the experimental, jazz-literate beat makers at local label Brainfeeder; then it seems plausible that this 26-year-old wiz kid from South L.A. has his sonic spaceship parked in his own backyard.

As a bassist, producer and Flying Lotus protégé, the artist born Stephen Bruner is the latest of the Brainfeeder clique to release an album (out Aug, 30). Aside from his chance to garner some well deserved attention, ‘Golden Age’ walks a step further into the boundless psychedelic shift going on in the L.A. beat scene, mutating in L.A. meeting grounds like Low End Theory, Dub Lab and Funkmosphere.


“I’m happy there’s not a coined term to define what’s going on in L.A. right now,” Bruner said in a recent phone conversation. “People need that undefined, beautiful feeling of ‘Whoa! What is this?’'

His moniker, taken from the sword-wielding ‘80s cartoon series of the same name, is only a sliver of the fantasy comprising Bruner’s creative aura. Plucking alongside monster musicians of all pedigrees plays a big part.

He was born into a musical family. His father, drummer Ronald Bruner Sr., pounded the beat for acts like the Temptations and Diana Ross. His brother, Grammy-Award winning drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., plays in the Stanley Clarke band. In his own right, Thundercat’s abilities have been landing him a mix of sweaty and sultry gigs since picking up the bass at age 4. How many other bassists can go from a stint in a German boy band (the short-lived No Curfew) to tours with Snoop Dogg, Eric Benet, soul goddess Erykah Badu and punk legends Suicidal Tendencies? Not to mention his recent homegrown collaborations with Austin Peralta and J*DaVeY

His collaborations with Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steve Ellison) on his 2010 album ‘Cosmogramma’ and various other projects offer a taste of Bruner’s solo sound. But when he embarked on the Lotus-produced ‘Golden Age,’ it was an opportunity to express his perspective, a job at odds with that of a touring sideman. It was also a chance to showcase his vocals, a tender falsetto that soars inside lofty delay effects during his cover of George Duke’s “For Love (I Come Your Friend)” from the 1974 album ‘The Aura Will Prevail.’

“My goal in recording this album was to be as open-minded as possible,” Bruner said. “A lot of the music that I write I try to capture whatever emotion I’m feeling dead-on. Most importantly, I want this to feel like a collage of different emotions.”

Sonically, his mosaic motif rings loud and clear. Songs like “Daylight” and “Fleer Ultra” (like the trading cards) demonstrate Bruner’s self-described diet of video game music, funk, classical and a flotsam of melodic ribbons from here and there that catch his attention. The latter track delivers a feeling that he says is representative of a feeling he gets being able to connect to someone or something from his youth.

And while there’s no shortage of cerebral bass chops nestled in his song structures, his appeal to melody and pop sensibility aren’t lost on the audience with jazz-slathered tracks like “Is It Love?” No matter who you’re playing them for.

‘I remember one time I was on the tour bus with Suicidal Tendencies and I played them ‘Is It Love?’' said Bruner, who joined the band with his brother Ronald in 2002 at the age of 16 and has remained a touring member. ‘The guys were like ‘Wow man, that sounds exactly like the title, it’s like the sound you think of when you’re going through something that’s hard to deal with.’' For as much as his playing gets him noticed, it’s evident that Bruner’s stage attire--tufts of feathers, bejeweled knuckle dusters, Gundam shoulder pads and billowing scarves--are as much of a hat tip to friend and designer Taz Arnold as they are to forebearers like Parliament and Afrika Bambaata.

Bruner says his aspirations to reach the echelons of U2 and Sting have never felt more possible than right now. “It’s definitely not my last solo record,” Bruner said. “This is a moment in my life where I feel it’s very nice. I don’t see it just in the moment. I see the solo thing as a whole new path of life for me.”


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--Nate Jackson