Session musicians rarely become cult heroes anymore the way that members of Motown’s Funk Brothers or Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew gained notoriety in the ’60s and ’70s. An exception is Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, a 32-year-old bassist from Los Angeles who’s been playing professionally since he was 16. That was when he joined the punk-metal band Suicidal Tendencies with his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and soon became a sought-after player, due to his technical dexterity, peerless pitch, and free-thinking stylistic versatility. In time Bruner built one of the most eclectic resumes in modern music — he toured with Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu in the ’00s, made key contributions to a trio of brilliant albums by Flying Lotus in the ’10s, and recently appeared on albums by Mac Miller, Childish Gambino, and Ty Dolla Sign.
Bruner’s most celebrated work is on two of the decade’s most mind-blowing albums — Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington’s triple-LP jazz odyssey The Epic. But contemporaneous with those records are Bruner’s own adventurous and oft-intoxicating solo albums, including the new Drunk, his third full-length as Thundercat.
Left to his own devices, Bruner essentially abandons any pretense of pop accessibility, instead favoring a heady mix of jazz, funk, Quiet Storm soul, and prog rock. Lyrically, Bruner is equally freewheeling, mixing goofy jokes with earnest spiritual musings, sometimes in the space of the same song or even a single lyric. One moment, he may lament the dehumanizing effects of technology. The next, he’ll pay tribute to his cat, Tron, by making cat noises over vintage, Innerversions-style licks. Drunk contains multitudes.
Even when Bruner’s superstar pals make cameos on Drunk — including Lamar, Pharrell Williams, Wiz Khalifa, and two of Bruner’s idols, soft-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins — they never overwhelm his singular, highly eccentric vibe. Whatever else one might say about Drunk, you can’t say there is another album quite like it — no album not already made by Bruner, anyway.
“The way I record, it’s just a stream of consciousness,” Bruner told me when I reached him by phone earlier this week while on tour in Salt Lake City. “It’s one of those things where there are moments in there that I think that are exactly inspired by the subconscious, you know?”
Drunk plays like a chaotic 52-minute journey through Bruner’s hyper-active brain, with 23 tracks that flit swiftly from one topic to the next. Several tracks last for barely 30 seconds before moving on to another fit of inspiration. Drunk‘s catchiest song, the Isley Brothers-inspired “Them Changes,” is prefaced with the funky synth-pop of “Friend Zone,” a broadside against sexual frustration that quotes Lamar’s “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” A few tracks later, Bruner pours his heart out on one of Drunk‘s loneliest (and shortest) numbers, the 26-second “I Am Crazy,” which commences an album-closing dark-night-of-the-soul suite that concludes with the stark ballad, “DUI.”
When asked about the short songs on Drunk, Bruner mentioned an unlikely inspiration. “D.R.I. is one of my favorites,” he said, referring to the long-running Texas thrash-metal band known for extremely succinct songs. “You have something to say and then you don’t, and then once you don’t, that’s just it! A lot of the time people have this idea of what a song is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be radio-friendly, or it’s got to have a bridge. That’s so, for a lack of a better term, bullsh*t.”
Talking to Bruner is a lot like listening to his music — it’s loopy and fun and feels like a pure expression of whatever is on his mind at the moment. And then you try to put it down on paper and a lot of it just seems nonsensical. Perhaps Bruner was feeling scattered after doing a series of phoners — or maybe the wide-ranging Drunk is a pitch-perfect reflection of who he is — but it was hard to keep Bruner on a single train of thought during our 20-minute conversation.
However, one topic made him light up: Frank Zappa.
A god to serious musos everywhere and utterly confounding to 98 percent of casual listeners, Zappa might be the least fashionable influence there is for a contemporary musician — particularly someone so associated with zeitgeist-y albums like Bruner. But I suspected that Bruner might be a Zappa fan based on some of the more sophisticated instrumental passages on Drunk, particularly the relentless “Uh Uh,” which nearly veers into jam-band territory. Also, Bruner’s sophomoric sense of humor is also Zappa-esque. (From “Captain Stupido”: “I feel weird / comb your beard, brush your teeth / still feel weird / beat your meat, go to sleep.”)
Sure enough, when I broached the topic in our interview, Bruner confessed that he had been listening to Zappa that very morning. (The wickedly funny double-album 1979 double-album Joe’s Garage, to be precise).
“Frank was, like, definitely a big influence, and I wish he was still here so I could let him know — to tell him, thank you for what you did and the contribution you gave to music,” Bruner said. “The way he processed music, he would hear music, and he would get on his knees and close his eyes and put his hands out like, just feed it to me. I hold on to that saying that he said: ‘There is only good music and bad music.'”
Bruner also claimed that he played Zappa records for Lamar while they were making To Pimp A Butterfly. Whether any of those spastic jazz-rock classics actually embedded themselves in the framework of Butterfly is unclear. (Bruner was also feeding Lamar lots of Miles Davis at the time.) But it seems like a fitting summation of Thundercat, the missing link between Zappa and Kendrick.