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Thundercat's Cosmic Bass Odyssey

The L.A. bassist on his far-out new album and why Flying Lotus is like Batman

Thundercat
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May 24, 2013 11:35 AM ET

"Wow, this is beautiful," says Thundercat. The West Coast bass wizard (born Stephen Bruner) looks out on Toronto's Lake Ontario, sparkling in the late-afternoon spring sunshine, during a brief break before an opening set for his friend, label boss and frequent musical co-conspirator Flying Lotus. He hasn't exactly had a ton of time lately to slow down and enjoy the view: After this tour ends on May 25th, he'll head straight into the release of his second LP, Apocalypse, due out on June 4th. Besides plenty of fleet-fingered six-string solos from the man nicknamed "Bass God" by fans on Twitter, you can expect to hear a lot more of Thundercat's voice on songs like the melancholic "Heartbreaks + Setbacks" and the wildly catchy funk-pop summer jam "Oh Sheit It's X."

"I'm doing a lot more singing," says the bassist, wearing dark shades and a varsity jacket emblazoned with the logo of Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus' indie label. "That's something that I didn't expect to do necessarily – I'm not like Anita Baker or Trey Songz. But I was inspired by events that allowed me to connect more with the writer side."

One turning point was the loss of pianist Austin Peralta, a close friend who died at the age of 22 last fall. (A coroner's report identified viral pneumonia, combined with drugs and alcohol, as the likely cause.) "It was one of the most difficult things I've ever dealt with," says Thundercat, who channeled his grief into a song on the new album called "A Message for Austin." "He was at my house every day – I'd leave my door unlocked for him because I knew he would kick the door down if I didn't unlock it. We were always together, and he made me a better musician. I was with him right before he passed, so it was completely mind-blowing to me what happened. But it made it easier for me to pour out a little more."

Thundercat comes from a deep musical background. His father, Ronald Bruner Sr., was a session drummer who worked with Diana Ross, the Temptations and Gladys Knight; his brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., also a drummer, brought him into a latter-day lineup of L.A. hardcore crew Suicidal Tendencies. Over the years, the bassist has also recorded and toured with major acts including Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg and soul veteran Leon Ware. But his 2011 debut album, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse, was Bruner's first real taste of solo success. "They say the first one is basically your life's work," he says. "The second one you see clearer. It came a bit easier."

He also credits Flying Lotus, who contributed production to the new disc, for helping him achieve his vision. "I look at the guy like he's Bruce Wayne," says the bassist. "He's a man of mystery – he doesn't like to let you know everything off top – but we share the same mental space a lot of the time."

Onstage in Toronto later that night, FlyLo brings out Thundercat to close out his encore with an enthusiastic rendition of "Oh Sheit It's X." "Thundercat's a rare breed of musician because he never runs out of ideas – he's always on, no matter what," the DJ-producer tells Rolling Stone. "He's like my little brother."

FlyLo recently let slip that he's working on a jazz project with Thundercat and Herbie Hancock, among others. There's also been talk of a compilation to mark Brainfeeder's fifth anniversary. "It's very free-spirited and a very fertile ground for creativity," Thundercat says of the label's vibe. "There's been a lot of life lived with those guys."

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