Stephen Bruner reflects on love and tragic loss with It Is What It Is

Photography Parker Day

Thundercat is from another planet. Not Thundera, the home of his cartoon namesakes, but somewhere much, much funkier. He is a galactic ambassador from sonic spheres outta sight, the spiritual successor to Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins. A 22nd Century Jaco Pastorius by way of the Hidden Leaf Village. Few musicians have such a gravitational pull, connecting stellar collaborations like constellations, and his bass playing abilities are rumoured to be over 9000. So why is he so down to earth?

On his latest album, It Is What It Is, he sings “Nothing is yours, nothing is mine, we are decaying over time. I’m going to find someone to love, let’s go together, innerstellar love.” The falsetto floats on a searching bass, preceding a soaring saxophone solo from long-time friend and collaborator Kamasi Washington. It perfectly illustrates the intimate inner space of Bruner, the cosmic expanse of his range, and the lyrical exploration of ephemerality that permeates throughout. “There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to my writing,” he reflects, “it’s very much an emotional process. It could be anything from a small noise to a spark of an idea. I was always taught to be honest in music, and sometimes you have to search for how you feel and go from there.”

Photography Parker Day

Produced by twin-soul Flying Lotus, Bruner’s fourth release on Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has all of his trademark off-beat charm and irreverent playfulness, the first half flitting between frenetic bass tumbles (How Sway), hectic drums (I Love Louis Cole) and fuzzy, thumping synth (Funny Thing). How anyone could not fall in love with the shameless, sexy hook of Dragonball Durag, or crack a smile at the line “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”, is beyond me. Musical contributions abound, with Childish Gambino, BADBADNOTGOOD, Louis Cole, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Ronald Bruner Jr, Dennis Hamm, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil B, Steve Lacy and Steve Arrington all lending their hand. The latter two feature on the exceptional single Black Qualls, a soulful head-bouncing groove about the contemporary black experience that marries funk past and present, the refrain urging “no more living in fear.” I ask Bruner how he amasses this amount of creativity? “You never know what’s going to happen, someone could say no, but the way I treat it – there’s no pressure. I can only do it if it’s genuine and really resonates with me as an artist, you know when that moment happens authentically. It’s like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (collaborators on previous hit single Show You The Way), if someone held a gun to my head and told me to sing a Kenny Loggins song, I would win that battle. It’s in my heart, the people I collaborate with. I’m smiling every time there’s a song by Mike on when I’m getting groceries. I still reach out to him all the time, just to let him know I love and appreciate him.”

The most important partnership for the record is undeniably Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), the experimental electronic and hip-hop musician, DJ, filmmaker and (sometimes) rapper. The pair first worked together on Thundercat’s debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse back in 2011, and since then, have become one of the tightest duos in the industry: “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Lotus’ prowess and ability to create. It’s been a joy working with him all these years and I love the places our minds go. We match, spiritually, there’s a synchronicity that I draw a lot of inspiration from.” Both men’s families hail from Detroit and many are musical titans in their own right – Ellison counts Alice and John Coltrane as his great aunt and uncle, while Bruner’s father played drums with The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Supremes. Was it inevitable he’d fall into music? “I am fortunate and thankful for the household I grew up in because it was exactly what you think it was, a bunch of musicians supporting each other. All my family members are very individual as artists, in our mindsets, the way we do things. We respect and acknowledge that when we offer up our different perspectives.”

Photography The1Point8

At the tender age of sixteen, Bruner joined his brother’s LA punk thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and would later go on to lend his talents as a session musician, first on Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah, then Lotus’ Cosmogramma and most notably on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, arguably one of the strongest records to come out of America in the last decade. “As time progresses,” notes Bruner, “everybody’s starting to realise that Kendrick is one of those guys that transcends rap. Working with him was one of the best moments of my career. The last time I felt that level of intensity was when I grew up learning new music with Kamasi, Cameron Braids and my brother. Kendrick will bring that out. Sometimes I think, ‘I’d love a chance to do it like we did’, but it’s not always about that. The art of it is the part when it happened, we really did that.”

“It Is What It Is” isn’t a nihilistic shrug at life, but stoicism painfully learnt from the accidental overdose of Bruner’s best friend, Mac Miller, in 2018. The undertow of grief eclipses much of the second half of the album, and the title track and Fair Chance are filled with such longing and heartbreak that it’s sometimes difficult listening, were it not the fact they’re so beautifully composed. Halfway through the final song, a ghostly wind blows and he utters ‘hey Mac’ into the void, a crash of rolling funeral-march drums fading with strings. The hurt is raw and real, the loss keenly felt. How can anyone get out of bed and create something after an event as tragic as a friend’s death? Bruner takes a couple of beats and sighs softly, “You know man, talking about Mac, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Even if it hurts. It’s one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and it’s been hard, but nonetheless, so is life. You can’t have one without the other, the light without the dark. It was a lesson and I had to learn it. After he died, it was hard to be myself for a while, and it would scare my friends because I couldn’t focus my energy in one place. It’s not as intense as it was, and everything takes time. So that’s where I’ve been, taking time.”

It Is What It Is may be coloured by loss, but truly, it’s all about love – fraternal, spiritual, platonic, sexual, artistic, and all the spectrums in between. Before Bruner returns to his afternoon of anime and comic books, he says something that becomes more prescient with each passing day of lockdown. “My mom always said to ‘give a person their roses while they’re alive’. You don’t have to wait until someone passes to let them know how much they matter. I never miss an opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me.”

It Is What It Is was released on Brainfeeder Records April 3rd 2020