Thundercat On 'It Is What It Is,' Losing Mac Miller And Learning To Do Nothing

Apr 4, 2020
Originally published on April 4, 2020 6:04 pm

Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, is one of the music industry's most eclectic and prolific collaborators. Over the past five years, the virtuosic bass player has worked with everyone from Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar to Michael McDonald. His latest album, It Is What It Is, was released on Friday and it features the same expansive range of genres and styles.

With appearances from Childish Gambino, Kamasi Washington and Lil B, It Is What Is hops from jazz to funk to R&B, full of Thundercat's signature dizzyingly-fast bass runs and sense of humor. The album also has plenty of somber moments, like when he reflects on the passing of his late friend Mac Miller.

"It's hard to see clearly through the pain of losing him," he says.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke to Thundercat about the influence of Mac Miller, including the story behind his cameo the Tiny Desk concert recorded shortly before Miller's death, and the importance of learning to sit and do nothing. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for a transcript of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Michel Martin: First of all, how are you doing right now, under self-quarantine?

Thundercat: I'm chilling. I feel like I was already a homebody, kind of self-quarantining kind of person on a regular basis, anyways. So it doesn't feel like far-fetched or anything. It feels very close to what I would be doing on my own anyway.

Do you miss people? Do you miss playing with people?

No [laughs]. I have a ton of things I miss, for sure. I miss being with Lotus and working a bit. But it's all good. It hasn't gone anywhere. Over the course of the last year, because of all of the things that actually have changed in my life, I've gotten better at just sitting still. I always talk about this saying that me and Mac Miller used to have: "Sit down and let things happen." And we would laugh about it, but it's something to learn: to be able to just sit down and do nothing. I think everybody is learning this right now.

The rapper Mac Miller, who died in 2018, was a very close friend of yours. There are a number of references to him and the closeness you shared throughout the album. What influence do you think he had on this album?

I mean, it's hard to see clearly through the pain of losing him. I think Mac's spirit always was very influential, ever since I met him, in my attitude about recording; just the way I would go about recording sometimes, I knew it's something I had learned working with Mac. But it's kind of hard to see clearly with that. I mean, even on the album, I'm kind of saying goodbye to him a bit.

You shared on Twitter a story about when you joined Mac Miller for his Tiny Desk concert. Can you tell us about that moment?

Yeah, I totally remember that moment. For lack of a better explanation, Mac was always in some kind of way about what he was doing. He really wanted it to be magical every time he would do something. This moment was really funny because I was on tour in Europe, and I was going between different countries, going in and out of cell phone service, and Mac was really like "I really want you to be there." I'm like "It's going to be fine, man. There's no reason to have me there. Just do your thing." But he's like "No, I really want you to be there. I really want you to be there." And I was like "It's very difficult, Mac, I'm in the middle of a tour. I can't just cancel a couple of shows and come out there and do it." And lo and behold, I cancelled a couple of shows to come out there and do it. I could see that he wanted it to be something. He wanted to feel comfortable in front of everybody. He wanted to introduce people to how it works for him. I think he wanted me to be there beside him.

And he didn't think I was going to show up. Flaking is a major part of being a musician. I'm not a flake, but we just, as musicians, that accumulates as a reputation. And so Mac probably didn't believe that I was going to show up, because I'm coming from some part of Eastern Europe or something. And I showed up! And when he turned around and I was like "Thank you," and he was kind of laughing, it was one of those moments like "No way, you're really here!" He's like "Did you really just come out here?" And I was like "Yeah, man." We talked about it and it was like, I would do it for him. I would do that for Mac.

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One of the things I like about your music is you don't shy away from things that are hard. Losing Mac Miller, your friend, he isn't your only friend you have lost too soon, and I'm wondering to be a young man and to have lost people, that's hard and I do wonder what you think about that. Has that become central to your art? What do you think about that?

That's where the name of the album comes from. "It is what it is," is like this is reality; this is what we live in; this is the existence; this is the existential dread, that feeling of "I don't know what's going to happen" and impending doom. It's been realized on many different levels. I'm happy that I can still laugh through a lot of it, but at the same time it's just the reality. We're all going to die at some point. And it always just seems like it's not going to happen to you. When you get older you start to say things like "These kids think they're invincible" and stuff like that — and you kind of do. You kind of do, because you're going along about your business and you think you're going to be seeing your friends when you're old. You're even assuming you're going to make it to be old. This moment for me has become the acceptance of that, and trying to keep my head through it. "Life comes at you quickly" is the one thing that I can think of right now. But even though it comes at you quick, you can still be okay.

With a new album to share normally you'd either be planning a tour or touring right now. How are you planning to share this work with people now that things are so different? Do you think that people will just find it and who needs to hear it?

I definitely think that people will have a chance to connect with it in any way. Music for me is what I do; everything else is a plus. Playing live for me is a major aspect of it, but being adaptable and being open to change and stuff like that — I don't know. Like the movie Ready Player One, we're kind of living in that a little bit. There's a part of it where I'm very adaptable with this stuff. ... I always see stuff and I go "It's not really a race." It's not something that I have to be afraid of or feel like I have to [contribute]. Or you do contribute when you feel [like it] but the truth is you feel it out.

I don't know what comes next. The act of being together and playing live is such a specific thing. I think that this will make those moments even more special when everybody gets a chance to do it, because we realize that it could be taken away from us at any given time. But there's nothing that makes up for it, in my mind, actually being able to play live and go on tour and make music with friends.

Do you have any words of comfort for artists who are feeling defeated right now?

I'll say it like Erykah Badu told me: This isn't a race. Take your time. Stay out of your mind, because a lot of the place that exists is in your mind, where you have these problems. "What if" and "If I don't get a chance to" and "What if I don't get to see." And the truth is it's all in your mind. So get out of your mind and come out here with everybody else and just be here. And I guess I would say just don't be afraid [even if] everything is lending itself to being afraid. Just keep creating fearlessly.

NPR's Michael Radcliffe and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, with all that's going on in the world, we know this is time for some new music, this time from singer and bass player Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK QUALLS")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I'm not living in fear, just being honest. 'Cause (ph) there's no more living in fear, no more living in fear if we don't talk about it.

MARTIN: That was "Black Qualls" from his new album, "It Is What It Is." Thundercat is known inside and outside of the music business as a producer and collaborator who's worked with everybody from Snoop Dogg to Kendrick Lamar to Michael McDonald. His latest album is just as eclectic, and he's here with us now to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us - from a distance, of course.

THUNDERCAT: Hi. Hey. How's it going?

MARTIN: Well, better now (laughter) that we're talking to you.

(LAUGHTER)

THUNDERCAT: Hey.

MARTIN: So how are you doing with all this, by the way? I mean, gosh.

THUNDERCAT: I'm chilling. I mean, I'm the kind of - I feel like I was already kind of a homebody, kind of quarantined, self-quarantining person on a regular basis anyway. So it's kind of like it's not - it doesn't feel, like, far-fetched or anything. It feels, like, very close to what I would be doing on my own anyway.

MARTIN: Do you miss people? Do you miss, like, playing with people?

THUNDERCAT: No.

MARTIN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK (Laughter).

THUNDERCAT: Oh, yeah. I have a lot of - I have a ton of things I miss, yeah, for sure. I miss, you know, working a bit and - you know, I mean, but it's all good. It's not - it hasn't gone anywhere. It's just - like I was saying, I think I've just - over the course, over the last year because of, like, all the things that have actually changed in my life, I've gotten better at just sitting still. I had to - I always have - always talk about this saying that me and Mac Miller used to have where we would, like, sit down and let things happen.

And it's kind of - like, we would laugh about it, but it's kind of - like, it's something to learn - to be able to just sit down and do nothing also, you know. And this is a chance for everybody - I think everybody's kind of learning this right now.

MARTIN: Well, you're right about that. You know, I was going to bring Mac up in a minute, but let's just talk about him now. I mean, the rapper Mac Miller died in 2018 - was a very close friend of yours. And you've opened up on Twitter about him. There are a number of references to him and the closeness you shared throughout the album. What influence do you think he had on this album?

THUNDERCAT: Well, I mean, it's hard to see, you know, clearly through, you know, kind of the pain of losing him a bit. I think Mac's spirit always was very influential. You know, ever since I met him, like, my attitude about recording, my - you know, my certain - just the way I would go about recording sometimes, it was kind of like I knew it's something that I had learned and - or acquired on working with Mac.

But it's kind of hard to see clearly with that just based on the tenets of what - you know, like the - I mean, even on the album, I'm kind of saying goodbye to him a bit.

MARTIN: Yeah. Let's play a little bit from "Fair Chance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAIR CHANCE")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I'll keep holding you down, holding you down, even though you're not around, you're not around. So hard to get over it, I've tried to get under it. Stuck in between, it is what it is, is what it is. Bye-bye for now. I'll keep holding you down, holding you down. You'd do it for me. It is what it is.

MARTIN: You even shared in this Twitter thread about the time you joined Mac here in Washington, D.C., for his Tiny Desk Concert. And there was a moment that - of laughter that happened then. Do you remember that?

THUNDERCAT: Yeah, I totally remember that moment. Mac was always - like, you know, he really wanted it to be magical every time he would do something, you know. And I remember this is why this moment was really funny - because I was on tour in Europe, and Mac was really, like, I really want you to be there. And I was, like, that's very difficult, Mac. I'm in the middle of a tour. You know, I was, like...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THUNDERCAT: I can't just cancel a couple of shows and then just come out there and do it. And, lo and behold, I canceled a couple of shows to come out...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THUNDERCAT: ...To do it. And it was one of those things where the reality - it was I could see that he wanted it to be something. He wanted to feel comfortable in front of everybody to a degree - he wanted to introduce people to how it really works for him. And he didn't think I was going to show up. You know, flaking is, like, a major part of being a musician. You, like - I'm not a flake, but we just - as musicians, it accumulates as a reputation sometimes.

And so Mac probably didn't believe that I was going to show up because, I mean, I'm coming from, like, some part of Eastern Europe or something. And I showed up. And when he turned around, and I was, like, thank you, and he was kind of laughing, it was one of those moments, like, no way - you're really here kind of...

MARTIN: Yeah.

THUNDERCAT: He's, like, are - did you really just come out here? And I was, like, yeah, man. You know, we talked about it. And I was, like - I was, like, I would do it for him.

MARTIN: That's beautiful.

THUNDERCAT: You know, I would do that for Mac.

MARTIN: That's lovely. That's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that.

THUNDERCAT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: One of the things I think - I know that I like about your music is that you don't shy away - particularly this album - from things that are hard. At the beginning of our conversation, you talked about having to kind of learn to sit with things.

THUNDERCAT: Yeah.

MARTIN: But to be a young man and have lost people - that's...

THUNDERCAT: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's hard. And I do wonder what you think about that - how you feel - like, has that become central to your work, to your art? Or is it - what do you think about that?

THUNDERCAT: I genuinely - I mean, that's where the name of the album comes from. It's, like, "It Is What It Is" is, like, this is reality. This is what we live in. This is the existence. This is the existential dread, that feeling of, like, what if - I don't know what's going to happen. There's, you know, an impending doom. It's, like, it's been realized, you know. I'm happy that I could still laugh through a lot of it, you know.

But at the same time, it's, like, it's just the reality that we're all going to die at some point, you know. And it always just seems like it's not going to happen to you. Or, like, you - you know, like, when you get older, you start to say things like, these kids think they're invincible and stuff like that.

And, you know, you kind of do. You kind of do it because you're not - you're going along about your business, and you think you're going to see your friends until - you're going to be seeing them when you're old. You even assume that you're going to make it to be old.

But it's one of those things that's, like - it's the acceptance of that, you know. This moment for me has become the acceptance of that and just trying to keep my head through it is - it's a - you know, it - life comes at you quick is, you know, the one thing I could think of right now. But it's, like, even though it comes at you quick, you can still be OK, you know. It's just part of the reality that we live in, which has multiple different realities.

MARTIN: Certainly, your life is different than it would be right now. With a new album to share, normally you'd either be planning a tour around it, or you'd already be touring. So you can't do that right now. Thoughts about sharing this work with people without that avenue? I mean, obviously, we're having our conversation, and we're talking about it here. But how are you planning to to share this work with people now that things are so different? Or do you think people will just find it who need to hear it?

THUNDERCAT: Music for me is what I do. Everything else is a plus, you know. I mean, yes, the playing live for me is, like, a major aspect of it. But, you know, being adaptable and being open to change and stuff like that - I don't know. I mean, like, Eric Abadou (ph) always said to me that I always see stuff and I go, it's not really a race. It's not something that I have to be afraid of.

Sometimes you do contribute when you feel, though. But the truth is, you feel it out. And I don't know what comes next. I don't know what comes next. The act of playing live and being together and playing live is such a specific thing, I think that this will make those moments even more special now when anybody gets a chance to do it because we realize that it could be taken away from us at any given time, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah.

THUNDERCAT: But there's nothing that makes up for it in my mind - the actual being able to play live and go on tour and make music with friends and stuff like that. That's just what it is. So if that's changed, then that just means we find what goes with the now and what comes next.

MARTIN: Well, you've already actually been sharing these thoughts, but I was going to end on - I'm thinking there are artists who may be feeling kind of defeated in this moment, just like a lot of people are defeated or frustrated because they can't go on tour. They can't record with their friends in the way that they were hoping to do. I was just wondering if you had some words of comfort for them or some advice for people who are feeling that way.

THUNDERCAT: Yeah. This isn't a race, and take your time. And just stay out your mind because a lot of the place that exists is in your mind where you have these problems - where you - what if and what - if I don't get a chance to, and what if I don't get to see, or what if I don't get to - and the truth is, it's all in your mind. So get out of your mind, and come out here with everybody else, and just be here. But also, I mean, I guess I would say, just don't be afraid. Everything is lending itself to being afraid, and just keep creating fearlessly, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT'S "HOW SWAY")

MARTIN: That was singer and bass player Thundercat, whose latest album, "It Is What It Is," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT'S "HOW SWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.