Thundercat is a bassist who blends video games into everything he does, and whose latest album situates references to Mobile Suit Gundum and Sonic at the heart of new electronic soul music.
Drive around Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos for long enough and you might hear Thundercat’s falsetto blurt out “I’m on ecstasy.” Possibly wedged between Aphex Twin’s “Window Licker” and Outkast’s “Elevators” on the game’s FLYLO FM radio station, the rhythmic mania of Thundercat’s “Oh Sheit It’s X” will pour out into the polished matrices and dazzling skyboxes of Rockstar’s open world parody of life imitating games imitating art. A song about drugs and dancing at 3:00AM in the morning, it’s well suited to a game unrivaled in its ability to offer up interesting destinations just so you can drive right past them.
Born Stephen Bruner, the virtuoso bassist who’s toured with Snoop Dogg and collaborated with Kendrick Lamar for 2015's seminal rap album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is as comfortable ranking the best anime as he is discussing the finer points of mid-century Jazz. People have been calling Bruner Thundercat ever since his middle-school days when wearing a T-Shirt of his favorite cartoon for several days in a row earned him the nickname. If there are two constants in Thundercat’s life, it’s video games and bass playing, two pursuits that are as natural to him as breathing air and which compliment one another rather than detract.
His latest album, Drunk, is a perfect case in point. Twenty three tracks crammed into less than an hour, the music goes from riffing on anxiety about social media in one track early on to sharing Thundercat’s love of Johnny Cage by the time “Friend Zone” hits. Even outside of any track’s lyrics, the rhythms and and playful layering of funk beats with synth melodies speaks to a deeper fusion of the two worlds. “From the minute I wake up I’m staring at the screen,” Thundercat sings in “Bus In These Streets,” a song that doubles as public service announcement inspired by 80s kid shows which could have easily been cribbed from a late 90s JRPG.
“I’m a video gamer dude, ya’ know?” he says over the phone. “I’ve played video games throughout my whole life.”
Despite just releasing his third album, a mammoth collection featuring the likes of Lamar and Pharrell Williams, as well as Kenny Loggins, Thundercat is more eager to unload on the current state of video games than wax poetic about his creative accomplishments. So what’s he got lodged in his PS4 these days?
“I’ve been playing a lot of Resident Evil 7,” he says. “That is fantastic. Just bad-ass.” Plus there’s his love of fighting games “Somebody could be coming in crying about someone who died and I’ll be definitely playing Mortal Kombat.” What’s he excited for? “I’m ready for the new Tekken 7. Akuma and everything, I’m excited dude—I’m ecstatic.” But when it comes to Street Fighter V, Thundercat doesn’t pull his punches. Ranking the games, he goes “Mortal Kombat number one, Tekken number 2, and Street Fighter would be number...20.” The wound feels both fresh almost personal. “Throw out the game like a disk you’re supposed to shoot,” he says, comparing the latest Street Fighter to the clay plates used for Skeet shooting.
Thundercat doesn’t pre-order anymore either. “I learned my lesson with Metal Gear Solid. I think these game developers think we’re stupid. I’m not giving you $100 a year in advance for a game you’ve already finished that took you thirty minutes to make.”
And he’s also a big defender of the Nintendo Switch’s predecessor. “Only a true gamer knows the importance of always keeping up with Nintendo,” he says. “The Nintendo Wii U was,” he corrects himself, “is a fantastic gaming unit. I don’t care what anybody says.” He continues, “If you wana keep your girlfriend, you get a Wii. If you don’t want her to think you’re a psychopath, you play Mario Kart.”
Finally, there’s the state of the console wars, which you’d think a star bassist helping give classic jazz and 70s funk a new life in the current decade wouldn’t give much thought to, but he does. “In my opinion Sony won this last round between the gaming consoles,” says Thundercat. “That fucking HoloLens? Come on, fuck off. It’s nice that they made the Xbox smaller but, so what?”
Instead, he’s been embracing PC gaming and the revolution in virtual reality with an MSI gaming rig and HTC Vive. That means switching between Shaolin vs. Wutang and Dead by Daylight. And of course, Overwatch. “I kind of dance between Junkrat and Genji,” says Thundercat, the former because he loves trying to blow people up after he’s already dead and the latter most likely because he gets to wield a katana.
Listening to Thundercat sing about, say, Diablo III (“I definitely lost weight playing that game”) it would be easy to think of him as a musical artist who likes to game on the side, but the relationship runs much deeper. “It feels so much like I would rather be playing video games most of the time anyway,” he says. He explains that as he gets older he’s had to fight to keep the rest of life from edging out that part of his identity. “You force it. You make it part of your daily routine.”
“It freaks people out too,” he says. “They get all pissed cause you don’t seem like you’re paying attention to anything.” You can tell its something he’s thought a lot about the longer he meditates on the question of where gaming fits into his life. “Some people look at it like it’s an addiction, or ‘oh you’re crazy.’ But you fill the holes in your life in different ways. Some people prefer to mountain climb or some people prefer to do yoga, but fuck all that just give me Mortal Kombat.”
“I could be playing a video game right now,” he says while I’m on the phone with him. When he tells me “The truth is either you’re a gamer or you’re not,” it sounds almost like another way of saying “If you’re really a gamer, you’ll always stay a gamer.”
For Thundercat, there’s never been a time when that wasn’t the case. He traded his first bass, a busted-up Black Harmony, for his friend’s SNES. “I got the okay from my mom and so I traded my friend the bass for a Super Nintendo that was completely altered to play Super Famicom games,” he says. “And I thought it was something big at the time, not realizing you could take a hot coat hanger and seer off the pieces of plastic keeping the game out.” He still remembers putting a Dragon Ball Z cartridge in and playing through to get to Goku fighting Vegeta. “I couldn’t read shit about it but I tried my hardest to get through it,” says the man who sings “Goku fucking ruined me” on Drunk’s “Tokyo,” a track that mixes Japanophilia with much darker musings on unwanted pregnancies and taking your shame to Aokigahara, the country’s infamous “suicide forest,” nestled in along the side of Mount Fuji.
Thundercat didn’t used to sing. In fact, unleashing his falsetto on his debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse was a first. “At one point I wasn’t singing, I was just playing bass,” he says. “You can get hung up on the fear of what will people think or you can just jump headfirst.” Which, thanks to some encouragement by his friends, he ultimately did. For other musicians it might not have worked, but Thundercat’s bass lines anchor his lyrical stream of consciousness, yielding a combination that’s equal parts sinister and playfully chill; futuristic and otherworldly but also incredibly intimate and present. Somehow his music takes the artifice of all his influences—the anime and video games; Evangalion and Final Fantasy—and strips it away until all that’s left are the beautiful, earnest vibes underlying them.
If this truth can be heard in the music it can also be seen in how Thundercat presents himself. The Thundercats T-Shirt that earned him his stage name has morphed into a fashion sense that takes cosplay and makes it earthly and almost practical.
“I love being able to dress up,” he says. “I wouldn’t be your typical model for the clothing of course. Gucci doesn’t look at fat, black dudes as a sexy commodity I’m guessing.” Assembled by himself with the help of friends in the fashion industry, the styles aren’t about constructing a persona, just conveying how he feels. “One day you feel like Johnny Cage, the next day you feel like Predator, the next day you feel like Jay or Silent Bob, the next day you feel like Shinji from Evangalion. One day you feel like a Gundam or a Sayian.”
Up on stage at a concert though, it just looks like Thundercat: natural and unassuming. “A lot of the time it’s not about how other people feel about you it’s how you feel about yourself,” he says. Who exactly that is, for Thundercat at least, happens to be a product of video games, an interactive art form that’s not much older than he is. “It’s played a major role throughout my creative development and I’m always very thankful for the composers who took time to make music for guys like me growing up,” he says. Whether it’s Masato Nakamura’s “Spring Yard Zone” from Sonic, which Thundercat ranks in his top bass guitar anthems of all time, or the soundtrack of the The Last of Us, the distinction between video game tracks and music proper doesn’t exist for him. Gaming, like the jazz of Miles Davis or the art of Fist of the North Star, is just another part of the background noise informing his music. “[Video games] were kind of like subliminal messages to stay inspired and stay creative,” he says.
“DUI,” the last track on Drunk, like the album as a whole, blends this sentiment into a hazy farewell. “One more glass to go, where this ends we’ll never know,” sings Thundercat as the song fizzles out. For all the albums particulars and its creator’s penchant for being honest and explicit, Drunk is as much about blurring senses as dulling them, and in doing so creating a home in which playing Mortal Kombat fits as naturally as Michael McDonald crooning “Wake up and dream, tear down the wall.”