Thundercat Isn’t Just Your Favorite Musician’s Favorite Bass Player [Interview]
Ahead of the release of his forthcoming new album, It Is What It Is, Thundercat spoke with Okayplayer about his new album, his friendship with Flying Lotus, “Them Changes” being his most well-known song, and more.
“There’s a saying that every musician wants to be a comedian, and every comedian wants to be a musician.”
This is part of Thundercat’s response when I ask him about the role humor plays in his music, particularly 2017’s Drunk and the album’s soon-to-be-released follow-up, It Is What It Is, out April 3rd via Brainfeeder.
“I think there is a special correlation between music and comedy…The better a comedian is the more honest they are sometimes. The same thing with music. And getting to those honest places sometimes, it’s pretty funny.”
Even the lead up to our interview, at the SIXTY LES Hotel in New York City on a surprisingly warm February day, began somewhat comedically. He was in the bathroom yelling greetings out of the door when his publicist brought me to his hotel room; after properly meeting each other our conversation quickly turned to the Mortal Kombat video game he had connected to the room’s TV, which then led to a discussion on why Mortal Kombat X is better than Mortal Kombat 11.
There has always been a subtle underlining of humor attached to Thundercat’s jazz-leaning music. “Walkin,” a standout from his 2011 album debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse, had a video where him and adult film star Havana Ginger take a delightfully bizarre stroll in their neighborhood that ends with him and Flying Lotus literally exploding from a high-five. In “Oh Sheit It’s X,” a standout from his 2013 album Apocalypse, he paints a relatable picture of being drunk in a public setting (dealing with loud talkers, realizing the moment that you’re fucked up) when all you want is to be with your partner. Drunk is filled with countless comedic and whimsical moments that tend to offset the more existential and sobering parts of the album, the back half of it a contemplative and moody commentary that captures the poignancy and escapism that often comes at the bottom of a bottle. Sometimes, however, there is no humor to mask the honesty Thundercat is articulating in his music. Apocalypse ends with a tribute to talented jazz pianist Austin Peralta — the son of famed skateboarder Stacy Peralta — the almost seven-minute-long ode beginning with a roaring and triumphant symphony that ends in silence, with Thundercat telling his departed friend, “I know I’ll see you again / In another life.” It Is What It Is ends with a more subtle tribute to the late Mac Miller (the latest single from the album, “Fair Chance,” also makes reference to Miller’s passing), the title track featuring a moment where Thundercat, in a somber tone, says “Hey, Mac,” before the song gives way to Miller’s voice.
Even in its brevity, it’s touching and solemn — a moment that lingers on well after the song is finished.
When discussing Thundercat and his music, his virtuosic bass-playing will never go undiscussed or unnoticed. It’s his distinct sound and personality to bass playing that has allowed him to play with everyone from thrash metal luminaries Suicidal Tendencies to Snoop Dogg. He has recorded with Erykah Badu, Donald Glover, Pharrell, and Kendrick Lamar. But his songwriting has become just as important, as is evident in his most well-known song to date, “Them Changes.” Originally appearing on the 2015 EP The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, “Them Changes,” and its Isley Brothers-sampling drum pattern (from “Footsteps in the Dark“), became a favorite among mainstream music stars in the late 2010s. In 2018, Ariana Grande covered the track on BBC’s Live Lounge; in 2019, both Pharrell and Questlove praised the track, with the former referring to it as “if [A Tribe Called Quest] was ever a band, but with El DeBarge singing,” and the latter honoring it as a song that really moved him during the 2010s.
That Thundercat manages to exist in this space — frequenting mainstream music circles as your favorite musician’s favorite bass player, all while cultivating a space filled with likeminded left of center musicians like Flying Lotus, bassist MonoNeon, keyboardists Dennis Hamm and DOMi Keys, and drummers Justin Brown, Thomas Pridgen, Louis Cole, and JD Beck — is a testament to how valued and respected he is. An artist who simply wants to create music and help provide a foundation for the next generation of musicians that will succeed him.
Okayplayer spoke with Thundercat about his new album, It Is What It Is, his longtime friendship with Flying Lotus, “Them Changes” being his most well-known song, and if Dragon Ball Z‘s Piccolo is Black.
You have a lot of friends who are comedians — Zack Fox, Hannibal Buress, Eric Andre. Would you say that they have also played a part in your influence in terms of how you approach humor in your music?
Oh, of course. I feel like you wind up being material for your homeboys even if you’re not trying to. There’s been many of times where Hannibal has just laughed at my pain. [Laughs] He just sees it sometimes and it’s just comedy. But at the same time, it’s just one of those things where I think we relate in different ways. We’re always looking for ways to relate, and there’s been a couple moments where somebody wouldn’t know that I was that type of dude. I think there was one time at the premiere of one of Hannibal’s shows, and one of his friends tried to fire one off at me because he didn’t know who I was. And I remember — I could hear clear as day in the background — Hannibal was like, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” But I think that’s the never-ending thing between musicians and comedians. We’re always spending time around each other trying to understand stuff in different manners.
Fuck, marry, kill — Zack Fox, Dave Chapelle, and Eric Andre.
What? Hold on, all right. Let me see here. Who would I fucking kill? Kill Eric, marry Zack and then fuck Dave Chapelle. Yeah, that seems to make sense.
Yeah, it’s like, just murder Eric.
I appreciate how that took some time.
Yeah, it’s like, “Wait. Hold up.”
Childish Gambino appears on the album version of “Black Qualls.” How did that collaboration come about?
Well, me and Donald [Glover] are good friends or very good friends to some degree. I would always send Donald music. Not always just to work on, but just to let him know where my mind was and how I was processing things and stuff like that. And also with the idea of always wanting to keep him inspired, and keeping music as a focal point for stuff. But this specific song was one of those moments where I think he saw something about it that he felt spoke to him. And I remember playing a million different things, but this song came about and he was like, “Send me that. I want to understand this song a bit more.”
And I didn’t know what that meant. Then, at one point, I remember asking him, “Would you like to work and do something?” and he kept mentioning that song. So I told him, “Well, it’s open to be able to work on more.” And he did. He sent it back, and I feel like Donald — he’s just a beast of a musician and an artist when it comes to that. And the first thing he sent was dead on. I remember I was just like, “Of course Donald gets it.”
Flying Lotus, another good friend and collaborator, is also a part of this album. This year is also the 10th anniversary of Cosmogramma. What would you say is it about FlyLo that really fuels you and pushes you as a creator?
He’s always challenging what you think is supposed to be. He’s always pushing me out of my comfort zone in different ways. I wouldn’t be singing if it wasn’t something that he brought light to. Not in the manner that I would be doing now. But as a person that spends a lot of time behind the instrument like that, he challenges me in different ways. And I appreciate that.
The last track of It Is What It Is feels like a tribute to Mac Miller, which reminds me of your tribute to Austin Peralta [on Apocalypse‘s “A Message for Austin“]. In moments of creating songs like this, how do they function for you? Do you see them as catharsis? Do you see them as a sentimental send off?
It’s a bit of a weird place that it exists. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances to have to deal with sometimes. But sometimes it acts as closure. Sometimes it feels like an open, gaping wound. But it’s a part of the story for me. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about it, because it strikes such a weird place for me. But a lot of the time it’s more of an outpour of how I feel. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances to create under sometimes, but it can feel like a bit of closure. But it feels very distant, and sometimes it’s more of a longing. I miss my friends.
What I’ve also always appreciated about you, and what a lot of people appreciated about Mac, is the creative space he cultivated and encouraged with his peer. And I feel the same with you. You’ve introduced me to so many musicians through collaborating with them — Mike Mitchell, JD Beck, DOMi Keys…
Yeah. They’re some bad motherfuckers.
Do you ever think about yourself in that role as a creative cultivator looking out for what is going to be the generation that succeeds you?
Shafiq Husayn [Sa-Ra] used to tell me that everything is on a wheel, and it’s one of those things where I always said to myself, “I want to contribute to the wheel.” I didn’t know what that meant. I’m not a teacher — in the literal sense — but the place I grew from and came from, we called each other “Master Teacher” and stuff like that.
More than anything, I knew that there was something bigger. It’s just if you choose to do it. To this day, I still am excited about the idea of change and growth on many different levels. So that was my mindset behind the idea of contributing, and wanting to leave something for people to be able to connect to. Especially in the day and age of the internet where there’s different phases of it that get…muddled because people buying people’s libraries and choosing to only buy certain records, and you leave out these definitive years of an artist’s records.
It sucks, but at the same time it creates a weird paper trail that you have to find yourself a lot of the time. I think there’s a place where I would want to do that. I love the idea of finding stuff like that.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, which gave us “Them Changes.” Did you ever think that “Them Changes” would become your most recognizable song?
No. I never assume anything. I knew how I felt making the record. Sometimes when I hear the lyrics, and when I look back at the moment of creating that, it’s funny. I always tend to laugh at stuff but it’s funny because, it’s clear as day what the song is about. But it’s like, I’m thinking of myself in that time and where that was the moment that was terrible to me. It was like…it was going to get so much worse. Things got so much worse after that.
Oh my God.
Jokingly, but it’s just…It’s fucking comedy, man. But better to have loved and lost than never have loved before, I guess. Sometimes, I catch myself in the song and I’ll be laughing in the song while I’m singing it because it’s just like, “Of course the one song.” [Laughs]
Yeah. But that does speak back to what you said about honesty, and those are the things that will always resonate. It was honest enough that it created a moment to where you have Pharrell and Questlove both speaking so highly about it.
I’m happy it translated the way it did. I hope this one — I hope it sticks around forever. I hope that it trolls me in time. One of my favorite moments ever is in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where they’re playing [James Ingram and Michael McDonald’s “Yah Mo B There“] in the back. And they play it everyday and the guy threatens to blow his brains out. He’s like, “If I hear ‘Yah Mo B There’ one more time, I’m going to ‘Yah Mo’ burn this place to the ground.” It’s just like, “I want to be that guy.” [Laughs]
Last year, I watched the livestream of your Camp Flog Gnaw performance, and I noticed that most of the people in the audience were young kids, teenagers. In an age where you don’t see as many musicians on stage — and a musician leading a band at that — I imagine some of those kids watched you perform and thought, “Oh, that’s cool. I’d like to try that.” This goes back to the point of ushering in the next generation after you, but do you also view yourself as a preserver of musicianship?
Yeah. The way I grew up with Kamasi [Washington], Ronald [Bruner], Cameron Graves, Terrace Martin, and Ryan Porter — it’s an important thing. It’s one of those things where, whatever you bring to the table, it’s totally worth it to always have that be the forefront. I grew up as a playing musician and I know that the whole role of a musician has been skewed, over time. But fuck it. That’s what it’s supposed to be, so you exist in that.
Lastly, do you share the same unanimous sentiment that Piccolo [from Dragon Ball] is a Black man?
Of course. Actually, you know what — I don’t know, man. Mr. Popo is a black man, and that is fucked up.
Piccolo is just…I don’t know. I’m like “Low key, that’s actually Gohan’s dad.” Goku is a horrible father. But Piccolo, he’s got some Black tendencies. I want to say Piccolo is, if anything — I’m trying to think of a nationality that people mistake them for Black all the time? Piccolo is Cuban. Piccolo is a Cuban. Because you’d be like, “He’s black,” and he’d be like, “No, I’m fucking Cuban.” Like, Mr. Popo was a genuine, stereotypical — the whole thing with the turbans, and Black people would put the turban on. From that to the Sambo character, it’s like, “Are we just gonna ignore the elephant in the room?” Mr. Popo is riding a fucking magic carpet, wearing a turban, and he’s got big, red lips. I’m like, “Didn’t we stop other cartoons for this doing this shit?” We’re just like, “No, Mr. Popo, he’s cool. Piccolo is the Black guy.” I don’t know, Piccolo is Cuban. Or he’s Dominican or something. I think the best part about Piccolo too — he’s got some real black tendencies.
He stays out of fights. He’s like, “I would whoop your ass, but I’m not going to die like Goku keeps just doing ever so conveniently.” He’s like, “I’mma go sit in the mountain somewhere, because it’s not like I’m going to stop you from destroying earth.”
But yeah, I don’t know. Piccolo, he’s Dominican or something. He’s not full Black. Yeah. It’s a weird one for me, man. He always got beans, too. I don’t give a fuck how racist — that is the proof that he’s not Black. He’s not fully just Black. No, because he was never a slave. He’s just from another planet. Like, Popo is the embodiment of slavery. He looks like the character you would find on a Coca-Cola can in the ’50s. You’d be like, “Who the fuck made this character?”
Like, “Why are you still here? Why do you still exist?”
I want to ask [Dragon Ball creator] Akira Toriyama, since he want to say Vegeta is definitely Japanese — what the fuck is Mr. Popo? I don’t see any Mr. fucking Popo T-shirts. Let’s get that out in the air right now — there are no Mr. Popo t-shirts.
Would you cop one though?
Yeah. Just for the awkward silence that it would create walking in a room.