Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting newsstands on November 2nd.
Flying Lotus and Thundercat know that what they have is precious. The creative partnership between the visionary producer and the eccentric singer-slash-bass-virtuoso — born, respectively, Steven Ellison and Stephen Bruner — spans more than a decade and a stack of era-defining albums, including Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (on which both worked), Flying Lotus’ heady 2010 beat-collage masterpiece Cosmogramma, and Thundercat’s Grammy-winning, Lotus-produced 2020 prog-funk opus It Is What It Is (his fourth solo album on Ellison’s Brainfeeder label). Through all that activity, various outside projects, and massive jumps in profile for both along the way, they say little has changed.
“Even though months can go by, or whatever, it doesn’t really feel like anything’s lost on us when it’s time to get back together,” Ellison says on a Zoom with Bruner. “I’m in the flow of making stuff and you’ve been out playing bass. It’s just like, bam. … It’s just funny because there’s always people around us stressing [about] getting us together. But at the end of the day, we know …”
“Yeah, we know,” Bruner chimes in. “We be knowing. They don’t be thinking it’s like it is when we say it is, but it do be like it is.”
“Yeah, it do be like it is,” Ellison says, and both crack up.
The two discussed keeping sharp during the pandemic (Ellison at the keyboard, and Bruner via an intense boxing regimen), their surreal “couch Grammys,” and how they knew right away that they were musical soulmates.
As artists, you’re both hyperproductive, always collaborating and launching new projects. How have you both been adapting to the pandemic?
Flying Lotus: I’ve just been digging deeper into piano and studying classical music. Trying to draw more. Just expanding my stuff. I want to feel like I’ll emerge from this and be a better artist than I was before it. There’s no excuse not to be learning stuff and not to be pushing things forward. That’s really it. Just all the things that I do already, just trying to be better. … [Yasuke, the Netflix anime series] was nice to work on, and the Grammy was nice to get because we were all …
Thundercat: Couch Grammys. [Laughs.]
Flying Lotus: Yeah, the morale was low, so it was nice to get some Grammys and stuff.
The Best Progressive R&B Album win for It Is What It Is was your first Grammy as a creative team, and the first for Brainfeeder as a label. What was it like having a milestone like that come around during a time like this?
Thundercat: It was interestingly polarizing. … It was really trippy, because, like, I’m happy that I got to celebrate with my family in close quarters — Brainfeeder and my family. That was tight, because usually you’re separated from everybody at the Grammys, right?
Flying Lotus: Yeah, that was the beautiful part of it.
Thundercat: I’m with the people that I’m supposed to be with. So that was cool. I still didn’t get my gift bag, and I don’t appreciate that one bit, because they have the best skin creams and snacks and I didn’t get any of those.
Flying Lotus: I’m down for some snacks.
Thundercat: I’m going to try to not get hung up on that, because I really do want some Grammy snacks. No, but it was cool, man. I’m very grateful and thankful for it. It didn’t feel like that was indicative of what happened when the album happened, because it was very silent when the album came out. It was kind of like, “And … [announcer voice] here’s the album! And, sit down.” [It Is What It Is] came out right after everything [shut down].
Flying Lotus: Yeah, it was kind of right around the same time everything dropped. … Then his tour was canceled. So it put a hold on everything and made things feel like it didn’t even happen in a way, so it was nice to get the recognition in that moment.
What kind of stuff are you practicing, Cat? Are you playing right now?
Thundercat: I’ve been literally just boxing five days a week, Lotus. [Laughs.]
Flying Lotus: You’re not playing bass no more?
Thundercat: Yeah, I think I’m going to go into Bloodsport. … No., I don’t know. The funny thing for me is, a lot of my learning comes from being onstage. Learning tunes and playing through stuff, that’s a constant. But there’s nothing that makes up for playing onstage and performing.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, it’s two different worlds. I can imagine practicing boxing is a similar thing: You can learn all the moves all day, but nothing makes up for actually being in the fight.
Thundercat: Yeah, getting punched in the face. That’s what my life has always been since I was frickin’ 10 years old: It’s always been performing. That’s how I’ve always learned; that’s how I’ve always had something to output.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, you’re having a conversation with yourself and the audience, and it’s almost like a synergistic thing to be able to grow in that.
You two have done an incredible amount of work together during the past 10-plus years. When did you first know you were going to click on such a deep level?
Flying Lotus: I think he just came over to my house and looked around and then that was it. He was like, “Ohhh … Yeah.”
Thundercat: It was just like, “Oh, you got the vinyl?!“
Flying Lotus: Yeah, the Fist of the North Star [anime soundtrack] vinyl. That was huge.
Thundercat: Bruh, I was done when I saw that. I was like, “OK, [mock-intense] I know what time it is.”
Flying Lotus: We started working on stuff around Cosmogramma. While we were working on that, he was looking at me, and he was like, “Yo, man, I want to be your artist.” “Oh, word?” That was a huge turning point in my life because I was like, “OK, where do we begin?” Then it was just the deep dive, and we’ve just been going ever since.
Thundercat: We both saw that; it wasn’t just me. To try to explain, to try to break it down … I’m not that analytical about stuff sometimes. There’s a part of it where I just —
Flying Lotus: It’s magic. But I think that is the trippy part about it for people. Everyone around [us] tries to quantify what’s happening sometimes. It’s just two dudes who are super connected and understand each other.
Thundercat: Yeah, it’s continuous. There are [standout] moments, but there are so many of them. Straight up. It all feels like one continuous long line.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, and I feel like every project, there’s that moment where we step back and be like, “Wow, how did we get here? How did it all come down to this?” … Cosmogramma is the one that brought us together; It Is What It Is is the one that got us the statue.
Thundercat: [Laughs] There you go. That’s it, bro. Everything, it’s been one big-ass album.