STEPHEN “THUNDERCAT” BRUNER – The future of bass?
He’s Flying Lotus’ protégé, tours as Robert Trujillo’s replacement with Suicidal Tendencies and records with Erykah Badu. It would be quite an impressive resume for any bass player already, but I sense that bigger things are yet to come for Steve Bruner (aka Thundercat), 26, as he’s putting the final touch to his debut album, a jazz slash IDM slash dubstep slash whatever record, obviously produced by Steve Ellison, the self-styled “hip-hop’s fucking weird step-child”, on his label Brainfeeder.
It’s a bit of a specialist post at odds with what I’ve been blogging about until now, but as a *bass player* (alas a very average one I must admit), I feel the need to share : this man is absolutely killing the competition right now. Just listen to Flying Lotus’ critically acclaimed Cosmogramma and you’ll see what I mean. In the last couple of years, Steve Bruner’s flawless bass flourishes have been standing out on Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums and Sa-Ra creative partners’ productions. Unbound by music genres, he has also kept busy blowing people’s minds during Suicidal Tendencies’ reunion shows and late jam sessions in prestigious jazz venues. Last week, Steve “Flying Lotus” Ellison was tweeting about the “amazing momentum in the studio” while recording Thundercat’s much-anticipated debut LP.
So how come there’s almost nothing on the web about this Thundercat guy, although all signs point towards the fact that he is probably the most exciting bass prospect in the world RIGHT NOW? (May well be because he is always stoned and mute during interviews, as you can see here). Anyway, I thought I could try to remedy to this and draft some kind of biography.
From what I have gathered, Stephen Bruner, like most young players boasting ridiculously insane chops, is from a very musical family: dad is a world-class drummer (Ronald Bruner Sr. laid down the groove for Diana Ross, The Temptations and Gladys Knight among others) and so is his brother, jazz sensation Ron Bruner Jr., who received his first Grammy Award last year just aged 26 for his drumming on Stanley Clarke’s latest album. At home, mom played the flute, the youngest brother piano, grandma the organ and grandpa the guitar. “There was always music in the house” Ron recalls, and at weekends, the sons would follow their father to the wedding gigs he was playing with their uncle. As a result, both kids were extremely precocious (Ron started drumming at the tender age of 2, Steve followed on bass at 4), gifted with perfect pitch and the ideal context to refine their superhuman playing abilities, developing a fraternal symbiosis as a rhythm section.
Ron became a pro drummer at 15, just as confortable playing post-bop with Kenny Garrett one day or rocking with Suicidal Tendencies the other. In 2002, Steve, still in high school at the time, joined his brother in the cult LA punk band – a gig that would frighten the most seasoned bass vet but not the 17 year old. Robert Trujillo’s tenure with Suicidal Tendencies (and its trash funk spin-off Infectious Grooves) made a lasting impression on the bass playing scene, bridging the huge gap between funk and punk while dazzling listeners with his near-impossible three-fingered triplet bursts and slap tour-de-forces. For anyone who picked up a bass in the 1990s, Trujillo was the reference, a true bass hero who went on to play with Metallica – big shoes to fill for a teenager to say the least. I remember friends that went to see Infectious Grooves a couple of years back at the Elysee Montmartre in Paris telling me about a crazy young bassist teasing the connoisseurs in the audience by wiggling his fingers before starting the riff of Violent & Funky, meaning “what Rob did with three fingers, I’ll do it with my thumb”.
Thundercat on duty with Suicidal Tendencies: as they say, there’s no accounting for taste. Nice knuckle duster ring though.
But more than a tale of musical prodigy, this illustrates Thundercat’s versatility. There are thousands of insanely good instrumentalists out there, but few of them are actually interested in making music rather than being watched on YouTube wanking on their instrument. Beside high-octane punk shredding, Stephen Bruner’s range is expansive – from the subtle, sparse notes on Erykah Badu’s Window Seat to the percolating jazz fusion groove of The Cell, from the lyrical chordal work on Mmmhmm to the out-of-this-world, Squarepusher-esque distorted soli of Galaxy in Janaki on Ellison’s Cosmogramma – not to mention the absolutely bonkers rollercoaster that is Pickled and its avalanche of Jaco Pastorius flavoured scales. Moreover, having Flying Lotus handling the production side of things doesn’t hurt. Its incredible sound design sure helps highlighting Thundercat’s pyrotechnic lines – there’s a lot of Ableton tweaking going on there.
“I do believe that hip-hop can be the new jazz, and I’m helping create that” Thundercat said in an interview to Bass Player in 2008. Like drummer extraordinaire Chris Dave, he is part of this new generation of jazz literate hip-hop loving instrumentalists who can literally play everything/anything ; a mutant jazz cat, and that’s why Thundercat, the monicker he chose for himself, suits him so well (even if it’s purely the result of an unhealthy cartoon addiction dating back to his childhood). Calling him a bassist is almost reducing – he composes, produces and even sings. He does all of that on Mmmhmm, a highlight on Cosmogramma – clearly his finest work to date:
We can expect his upcoming album to be more or less in the same eclectic mould as his flawless contribution to Cosmogramma. He’s been hanging out with Ellison and his posse for most of the past year as part of Infinity, FlyLo’s stellar live band, alongside Ravi Coltrane (on sax, how did you guess?) and harpist Rebekah Raff among others. He also performed live bass duties for virtuoso violonist/conductor Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (another Infinity member and massive contributor to Cosmogramma), who leads the Suite For Ma Dukes orchestra, a pretty amazing contemporary ensemble revisiting J Dilla’s Donuts.
There is a good chance to find all this musicians on the LP, including Ron Bruner, who featured on Cosmogramma and mentioned he was working on a “jazz fusion slash whatever” record with his brother. FlyLo was also tweeting about “a crazy Thundercat styling over a Jonny Greenwood loop” recently, and Erykah Badu is probably laying some vocals on the record, as this tweet would suggest:
Thundercat is clearly part of this Los Angeles based, genre-flouting scene of spaced-out astral travellers navigating between hip hop, IDM, jazz and post-dubstep sounds, sporting the same afro-bohemian psychedelic look favoured by SA-RA’s Shafiq Hussain and Erykah Badu.
Thundercat interview – and a bit of bass noodling - introduced by Shafiq Hussain
In the 1960-70s, when bass was still in its infancy, bass heroes used to play jazz, funk, rock – good, honest music – until fusion became synonymous with unsufferable instrumental wankery over either some unlistenable progressive chord sequences or soporific groovy muzak. That’s the reason why Thundercat is such a breath of fresh air: finally a shredder with an ounce of musicality and imagination in him, pushing jazz’s boundaries in the footsteps of electronically altered bassists like Squarepusher or Matthew Garrison while updating the sonic heritage of jazz-rock greats Stanley Clarke and George Duke to produce original bass-driven grooves thoroughly exciting and accessible.
*Further reading - Erykah Badu, Suicidal Tendencies: Stephen Bruner On Bringing A Jazz Attitude To Hardcore & Hip-Hop (interview to Bass Player, 2008)
*Geek corner - Thundercat’s gear: 6-string custom-made MTD Tobias / 4-string Fender Precision / SWR amps
Edited on 14/04/11