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.