Thundercat is ﬁnally in tune with himself
By JEFF WEISS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 17, 2020
LOS ANGELES -- They all know Thundercat here: the weathered, seen-it-all counterman who reserves the lanes, the acne-ridden teenager handing out floppy and slick leather shoes, the waiter bringing heaping platters of fruit and bowls of matzo ball soup. To them, the interstellar jazz bassist is practically family. But don't mistake this for "Cheers." The Pinz Bowling Center in Studio City is no insular neighborhood tavern, but rather one of the most popular social nexuses in Los Angeles (at least in pre-pandemic days). It attracts everyone from stoned Valley high schoolers to the Los Angeles Lakers, young working-class families to those old enough to remember when bowling was televised every Saturday afternoon on ABC. And one regular is Thundercat, née Stephen Bruner, who never fails to abide.
To be fair, it is impossible to forget Thundercat. On this Tuesday night in early February, he's wearing oversized cat-eye pink sunglasses and red silk shorts seemingly designed for a boxer obsessed with Edo-period Japanese woodblock prints. His magenta dreadlocks are partially covered by Gucci headphones. There's a fanny pack slung around his black Pokémon sweatshirt, a nest of gold chains dangling around his neck, and his shoes are leopard print. He looks like the star of an Afro-futurist manga about George Clinton's P-Funk Mothership: The Next Generation. But this isn't a pose. Thundercat used to amble through his native South Central in the warzone late '90s wearing a tuxedo T-shirt.
"Haven't seen you here in a minute," the gravelly voiced clerk says, swiping Thundercat's credit card and letting us know the lane will be available in 15 minutes or so. "Everything OK?"
"It was a really, really hard year," Thundercat says, nodding his head in appreciation. "Glad to be back, though."
The September 2018 death of rapper Mac Miller - Thundercat's best friend and close collaborator - has colored almost every day since then. Miller's death at age 26, by accidental overdose, occurred roughly one month before the pair were set to embark on a national tour, which would have featured Thundercat as both opening act and the bassist in Miller's band. The tragedy forced Thundercat to grapple with his own demons involving alcohol abuse, triggering a newfound but hard-fought and shaky sobriety.
Around this same time, he decided to go vegan and lost 100 pounds ("I didn't notice until I saw a picture of myself, and it freaked me out. It's still kind of hard to process."). Shortly thereafter, he experienced the emotional ransacking of a breakup. Somewhere in the fog, he found the clarity to finish his fourth studio album, the typically brilliant "It Is What It Is," which cements his unlikely but deserved ascent to the ranks of jazz-funk fusion superstar - roughly 35 years after critics read the genre's last rites.
"When Mac died, I realized I couldn't drink my way through it," Thundercat explains. "I sat with it, let the pain in, and accepted that this would be a roller coaster. I needed to feel every part of it, and I still don't know how to feel. There are moments when I break down about it."
To understand Thundercat, you need to accept his natural duality. In one moment, the 35-year-old bassist/producer/general musical virtuoso can be unflinchingly open, vulnerable, generous and sincere. In the next, he will comically hump one of those machines where you put in a dollar and try to grab stuffed animals with a giant claw. This is what he briefly does while we wait to bowl, squandering a couple bucks in a vain effort to win an oversized plush Sonic the Hedgehog.
"It took me a while to deal with my struggles with alcohol and the friends I've lost," he continues, as we play air hockey amid the chirping whirs and epileptic lights of the arcade adjacent to the alley's 32 lanes.
"Some days I feel good about it, some days I feel horrible. I spent a lot of time self-medicating, and it served its purpose until it couldn't anymore," he says wistfully. "Sometimes, when I look behind, I see smoke and ashes. I feel like I survived, but in a different form."
He sighs and adds for emphasis. "Sometimes I have a hard time."
The Dionysian equation of "sorrow + excess = great art," has gone out of vogue in the past decade. It's a slightly antiquated notion that usually leads to pretension and maudlin indulgence. Thundercat's genius lies in his ability to both reinvent that frayed calculus and combine it with a hilarious streak of absurdist postmodern irony and fluorescent intergalactic symphonies. The result is something like a one-man synthesis of Frank Zappa and George Duke scoring the soundtrack to a live-action reimagination of "Dragon Ball Z," set in the contemporary San Fernando Valley.
His catalogue includes multiple paeans to his nattily attired cat, Tron, and guest raps from everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Pharrell Williams to Lil B. Thundercat's bass lines formed the sonic bedrock of "To Pimp a Butterfly," Lamar's Grammy-winning generational triumph of an album; he will appear on the next Herbie Hancock album; he reintroduced Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins to millennials on his last album's underground smash, "Show You the Way." In line with the ever-evolving Thundercat Cinematic Universe, the first single off "It Is What It Is" is a gossamer falsetto funk levitation about moving out of the hood and making ill-advised posts on Instagram, pairing Steve Lacy with Childish Gambino with Steve Arrington - the sequin boogie sorcerer behind Slave, a band whose biggest hits all came before Bruner was born in 1985.
"These older artists are beacons of sound and light, and it's important for me to remind people of the context and understanding that ground the music I'm making," Thundercat says. "In this weird algorithm era, it's important to remind people about jazz and the funk and all these stuff that came before us and remains timeless."
His obligation to tradition can only come from someone acutely aware of their place in a deeper slipstream of funk, jazz, yacht rock and soul. His father crafted gorgeous strobe-light grooves in a late-'70s disco ensemble named Chameleon. Thundercat's older brother, Ronald, is one of the best drummers in the world; his younger brother, Jameel, is a gifted beatmaker who until recently played keys in the internet. Thundercat's original guru was Reggie Andrews, the Mr. Holland of South Central music education. And Thundercat refined his trademark Richter-wobble backing up Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, and as a member of venerable L.A. punk thrashers, Suicidal Tendencies.
It's fitting that he feels perfectly at ease in Pinz, enjoying a sport whose peak popularity came during the Watergate era. "People automatically associate bowling with fun, but there's something relaxing about it to me. Some people love to get competitive, but there's no pressure to win. I'm only competing with myself," he says, breaking down his love affair with the lanes. "There's a real Zen quality to it; it's similar to music in the sense that you have to be okay with your style and learn to be in tune with yourself."
He removes his sweater, revealing a Mac Miller T-shirt underneath. Knuckles are cracked. It's time to bowl. As a musician, Thundercat is always dazzling, unleashing perfect-pitch wails that sound like tears from heaven splashing on an open-collared white leisure suit; his bass riffs are as chunky and rumbling as King Hippo. But as a bowler, he is solid, workmanlike, straightforward. There is no chimerical spin to his throws, but he has precision aim and cruises through the first half of the game with a series of nines, a spare and a strike.
Bowling's appeal is obvious for someone like Thundercat, who alternates between whimsical joy and profound grief. It's a sport that oscillates between the euphoria and cruelties of life, a sure-thing strike that turns into a 7-10 split. Beneath the sartorial flamboyance and eccentricity, Thundercat retains the unaffected quality of someone who grew up in South Central, who would never go Hollywood even if Brad Pitt recently came to his show at the Wiltern.
"That was trippy as hell," he says later. "I guess he reached out to my management, but I had no idea and while I was playing, I look over and he's sitting next to Ariana Grande. So I waved."
For now, it's serious business at the bowling alley. Kind of. Thundercat takes a laissez-faire approach to the sport, drifting off and wandering about, breaking to FaceTime his 13-year old daughter. Pinz is his happy place, a cocoon of sentimentality and nostalgia that reminds him of when he used to come here with his friend, Austin Peralta, the jazz piano prodigy. They used to watch "The Big Lebowski" on loop and always dreamed of starting a bowling team, until Peralta's 2012 death from viral pneumonia aggravated by a combination of alcohol and drugs. He was just 22. Peralta played on Thundercat's 2011 debut, and the duo had been virtually inseparable right up until his last night on earth.
If Thundercat has a superpower, it's in his ability to transmute his intense grief into art. It's a quality he shares with his label boss, close friend and producer, Flying Lotus - who walks into the bowling alley about halfway through our game.
"He's slowly been able to introduce people to who he really is: a maniac who can be very silly but also someone who is super emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve," Flying Lotus says.
"We're both super grateful to have the art to turn to," Lotus continues. "The closing track on ("It Is What It Is") was the first thing we did after we heard the news about Mac. It was painful for us to write the music. It was like, 'Are we really going to try to do this - feeling this way? But he was like, 'Let's go!' We listened back to it for hours, just crying, but how else could that have manifested into something beautiful?"
Not long after Peralta's death, Thundercat and Miller became close friends based on a shared musical bond and countless other similarities. They'd go on double dates to Pinz and endlessly re-watch "The Big Lebowski."
"We used to argue about who was Walter, who was the Dude, and who was Donny," Thundercat recalls. "But Mac and I eventually realized we were both two Lebowskis."
It's now the 10th frame, and by some cosmic synchronicity, the video screen above is playing the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes." Thundercat busts out a smooth two-step to Michael McDonald's 10,000-thread-count croon. He nails the spare to finish with a respectable 118 score.
This is where the story was supposed to end. A few days later, Thundercat embarked on what was supposed to be a two-month long national tour - his first since the death of Miller. The tour was, of course, eventually canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
About a week after he returned home, we spoke about the surreal nature of the present moment:
"I've never dealt with anything like this, and I know it's not easy for anyone. I'm just trying to be emotionally supportive to my homies and homegirls," he says wearily via phone. "It brings up a lot of weird emotions because it could've been prevented if not for the fact that we have such a narcissistic, greedy idiot at the top right now."
In a perverse way, Thundercat's new album feels particularly suited for this moment - filled with both celestial, futuristic escapism and plaintive grief, the strength of human resilience and an unstinting sense of frustration. After all, its title is a Zen koan unto itself: "It Is What It Is."
"The name hits a little different now," Thundercat says, laughing.
We talk a little more about his last year and the emotions stirred by yet another false start. The tour was a chance to forget it all and focus on the music, but now he's back home. Even worse, Pinz is closed indefinitely. I ask if there's been anything - any piece of art or record or minor consolation of philosophy - that has gotten him through the deaths, the breakup, the battle for sobriety, the disappointments.
"The Big Lebowski," Thundercat reflexively answers.
"What about it?"
"Strikes and gutters, man. It's all just strikes and gutters."