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Thundercat On Making Music Outside The Lines

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Thundercat On Making Music Outside The Lines

Music Articles

Thundercat On Making Music Outside The Lines

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


LYDEN: Session musician Stephen Bruner has played bass in other people's bands for more than a decade. He can play metal, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, and he's been folding all of that into his own music which he puts out under the name Thundercat. NPR's Frannie Kelley says now, with his second album, Thundercat is stepping to the front of the stage.

FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Stephen Bruner knows everybody. Just ask him about Metallica's bassist, Robert Trujillo...


KELLY: ...and the otherworldly soul singer Erykah Badu...



KELLY: ...and original G-funk rapper Snoop Dogg.




KELLY: He has stories for days.

THUNDERCAT: I remember playing Billy Cobham's "Total Eclipse" for Snoop Dogg. And I also played him Frank Zappa, "Apostrophe." And I played him, like, "Saint Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast."


THUNDERCAT: And Snoop was sitting there with a blunt in his mouth and just listening to Frank Zappa go off. He loved it. He was like, this is fly, you know? He was like, this is some cool stuff.


FRANK ZAPPA: At St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast, where I stole the margarine.

KELLY: Bruno calls Snoop his uncle.

THUNDERCAT: He was actually one of the first people to call me when my album came out. He called me singing "Daylight," just straight out, just (singing) daylight. Yeah, what's up cuz? I was like, hey.


KELLY: Daylight is a song from Thundercat's first album as a front man, which he put out two years ago. A little before that, he turned up on an album by another Steve, playing bass and singing.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) It's plain to see, for you and me, love...

KELLY: That's Thundercat on the 2010 album "Cosmogramma" made by Steve Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, who produced Thundercat's new album.


KELLY: One song is about an epic, two-day long New Year's party.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) The globe is spinning, and I'm not winning 'cause I thought before it too. And I don't know where the bathroom is, my friends saying you should be something.

KELLY: So is that a true story?



THUNDERCAT: That's literally - it absolutely is. That's a story that actually happened.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I just wanna party, you should be in here and in this ecstasy...

KELLY: Flying Lotus was out of town.

THUNDERCAT: It was so epic. If you ask Lotus, to this day, he will still get mad.

FLYING LOTUS: Oh, yeah. Hell, yeah, I'm mad. It just sounded like the best party ever.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Oh (bleep) I'm (bleep) up...

KELLY: Even though Flying Lotus missed the party, he's the one who pushed Thundercat to include the line in the song that says, essentially: Oh, shoot. I messed up. Thundercat comes from a Christian background and Lotus remembers the bassist's older brother telling him he was worried about that song.

LOTUS: You really going to do that? You know, mom's going to hear that. You know she ain't going to like that. I was like, look, when people hear the song, that's going to be their favorite part of the whole thing. He's like, really? You think so? I was like, yes.

KELLY: The new album, "Apocalypse," isn't only funny songs about parties.


KELLY: "A Message for Austin" is about jazz pianist Austin Peralta who died suddenly of pneumonia when he was just 22 years old. He was a dear friend of Thundercat and Flying Lotus, and his death stunned them both.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I know I'll see you again in another life. Thank you for sharing your love and your life...

KELLY: Thundercat wrote the song and recorded a demo of it. But when they went to record it for the album, Lotus says neither of them could do their jobs.

LOTUS: Every time he would try to record the vocals, he would just, you know, he told me he would think about Austin. You could just hear him falling apart every take that he did. I'd say, all right, we'll take a break. And we come back, he gets some courage and then he starts doing it, and I can't do what I'm supposed to do. So it was like, all right, you know what? We're just going to have to try and make the demo vocals work.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Though you traveled beyond, your legacy lies on. Now enter the void forever look on me.

KELLY: One of the things Peralta and Thundercat had in common was a refusal to abide by the restrictions of genre.

THUNDERCAT: Austin said this in an interview one time. He says there's only good music and bad music. And the truth is it's for you to decide what's good and bad to you.

KELLY: The very idea of making only one style of music is perplexing to Thundercat. He says people ask him about it sometimes.

THUNDERCAT: It's like, how are you doing all that? I'm like, what do you mean how am I doing all that? It's what we're supposed to do. I'm connected to all of it in a very major way. You know, it's all coming from here, you know?

KELLY: He points at his heart. Music is in his blood. Both his parents are musicians, and his older brother. He played in church, was mentored by Reggie Andrews, a legendary teacher at Locke High School in L.A. But Thundercat says he learned bass when he was a little kid by listening to three musicians.

THUNDERCAT: Jaco and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller.

KELLY: All three of those bassists - Jaco Pastorius, Clarke and Miller - have also played all kinds of music: jazz, funk, rock, folk, fusion, pop and R&B. And it was Stanley Clarke who long ago told Thundercat something about music that stuck with him.

THUNDERCAT: What is it for? It's for me to give to people. Stanley Clarke told me one time that we're servants. That's what our duty is. This art is a service.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Constantly, it's perpetual. Try to do your best...

KELLY: Thundercat says he grew up spoiled by hearing all the music he did. Now, he wants to share it all. He feels a responsibility to remind people of how much they miss if they don't stay open to everything. Frannie Kelley, NPR News.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I always come back to you. Don't you worry about me...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on Programs and scroll down.

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