Stephen Bruner is not one to get starstruck. The virtuoso L.A. bassist, who performs as Thundercat, has worked with A-listers for years: He practically lived in the studio with Kendrick Lamar when helping the rapper shape the sound of To Pimp a Butterfly; he toured and recorded with Erykah Badu for 2008’s New Amerykah; he backed up Snoop Dogg; and, when speaking to Rolling Stone on a recent afternoon, Thundercat casually references how he’s been known to go bowling with friend and collaborator Wiz Khalifa on a random weekday evening.
Still, last year, when Kenny Loggins rang up the South Central–raised Bruner to inform him that he and fellow yacht-rock icon Michael McDonald would be honored to write with him, the bassist nearly lost it. “I seriously almost shit myself,” Bruner says, breaking into uproarious laughter. “No joke! I was like, ‘Oh, shit – these guys are fucking titans!'”
The unlikely trio soon convened in a Southern California studio and, with only the song’s hook previously sketched out, together cooked up “Show You the Way” – the jazzy and psychedelic lead single off the bassist’s cosmic trip of a new album, Drunk. The smooth, R&B-indebted track finds Loggins and McDonald trading slinky verses with Thundercat but in a larger sense represents a passing of the funky-soul baton to a new generation’s maestro of the weird, wild and outré. “I sometime forget that we all stand on each other’s shoulders,” says Loggins, who was turned on to Thundercat by his 22-year-old son and became an instant convert after hearing 2015’s “Them Changes.” Loggins says he was shocked to see “Show You the Way” appear as the first single on an album that also includes guest appearances from major hip-hop artists including Lamar, Pharrell Williams and Khalifa. “But Thundercat is very bold,” he continues. “He likes to freak people out.”
For McDonald, working with Thundercat brought him back to his younger days. “It’s nice to revisit that excitement for this kind of music through a young cat’s eyes who in some ways reminds you of yourself at that age,” he says. “He’s a monstrous talent.” The feeling was mutual. “That dude is more Lebowski than anybody,” Thundercat says of McDonald. “Quote me on this: ‘Michael McDonald is fucking Lebowski!'”
The past few years have been monumental ones for Thundercat. For more than a decade he’d been making a name for himself in the underground L.A. music scene – first alongside his drummer brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., as the bassist in Suicidal Tendencies, and then as one of the most promising talents on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder record label. But his stunning work with Lamar, to whom he introduced the music of jazz legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, has elevated the fast-talking musician to a level of solo success previously unimaginable. “It’s fucking weird, man,” says the 32-year-old of working with his idols like Pharrell, who joins him on Drunk‘s “The Turn Down.” “It’s cool that people can relate to or understand my music,” he notes in a rare moment of seriousness. “But honestly even if people hated it I would still be doing it.”
If Thundercat has noticed a change in his career, it’s that the unconventional sounds he’s been cooking up for years are finally being accepted and even desired by others. “He was being weird when it wasn’t cool,” notes saxophonist Kamasi Washington, Bruner’s longtime friend and collaborator. Washington says “it’s inspiring” that mainstream musicians have finally come around to accepting Thundercat’s genius. “We used to joke that somehow he made the world conform to him. Because he’d been our favorite for a long time. It’s like if Kobe Bryant was on your local YMCA basketball team and then all of a sudden he got drafted in the NBA. It’s like, ‘We already knew!'”
Thundercat’s outside-the-box creativity has endeared him to rappers in particular. “I like the fact that he is a bass player but he plays the bass totally different than anyone else,” says Khalifa, who previously worked with Thundercat on his 28 Grams mixtape and appears on Drunk‘s swampy “Drink Dat.” Ask Thundercat about his connection to MCs and he’ll tell you that working with hip-hop artists is a natural extension of his ongoing musical exploration. “A lot of the time people think rappers just live inside this bubble,” he says. “No, the reality is there is conversation that happens. It’s not this one-dimensional thing. There’s reality that takes place. The moments I’ve shared with Wiz, the moments I’ve shared with Kendrick … it’s all conversation. It’s not some foreign language.” In fact, Thundercat says, he believes rappers face the same discrimination about their jazz influence as heavy metal artists did back in the day. “You gotta realize Ozzy [Osbourne] was influenced by jazz. He was probably fucking black chicks,” Thundercat says with a laugh. “You listen to Black Sabbath and you think, ‘Man, this shit is funky.'”
Drunk, a 23-track funk odyssey of concept album filled with interstitial conversations, winding grooves and Thundercat singing in a freaky falsetto, might be the musician’s boldest move yet. “He just has a whole other planet that he brings to the art of making albums,” says McDonald. “It’s kind of a lost art in today’s record business, but the album concept is alive and well in his kind of approach.”
“You just want people to think outside the box for a second,” Thundercat says. “If people can go somewhere different for a second that’s cool.” The idea of escape, he says, is more important now than ever. “Because everything is terrible,” he deadpans. “Are we really watching what’s happening? Yeah, we are. All of the sudden the fried chicken does not taste as good. When you can’t eat fried chicken and actually enjoy it, that’s not good.
“I think one thing that playing an instrument has provided me is having a conversation,” he continues. “And have it not be contrived as shit. That’s always what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to communicate. But at the end of the day it’s still for you to understand something. Understand that the world is bigger than you. And that shit is weird.”