Whether winning a Grammy with Kendrick, thrashing with Suicidal Tendencies or rumbling in the glitch with Flying Lotus, who gave the six-string-thumping groove master a place to shine solo on his Brainfeeder label, L.A. bass boss Thundercat puts the low end at the forefront of all that he does.
With his fourth LP It Is What It Is brimming with new sounds and ideas (it’s being released by Brainfeeder on April 3), Thundercat spoke to us on leap-day afternoon from Portland after his first official tour stop in Vancouver.
Darcy MacDonald: How was the first show?
Thundercat: It was pretty fun! I mean, that’s my favourite thing to do. Touring and playing live shows is how I grew up, so I genuinely love it.
DM: When you’re writing, how do you approach balancing the complexity of what you do, knowing that you will invariably have to bring it to the stage?
Thundercat: I love making music that’s gonna challenge me to sing and play. It’s two different melodies going at the same time (when I’m) playing bass and singing. Creating independence between those two is always fun.
And I like making music that is challenging when I’m playing it live on tour. Sometimes I like writing really fast tunes with a lot of changes and stuff like that because it keeps my mind sharp, in that respect, because that’s literally how I grew up. Since I was a kid and I decided this was what I wanted to do, (I’ve liked) anything that would lend itself to me playing and always having a process that is fun for me. Even if it’s painful.
The role of the bass vacillates somewhere between the harmonic stuff, but also you can create melody, and then also you have a job that’s a bit locomotive, where you have to keep things moving. So yeah, I’d say that it’s a pretty big challenge to play and create solely from the bass like that, and sing. It can be really jarring in some respects.
DM: When you compose, do you start uniquely from bass ideas and move outward or do you have ideas for what other pieces may be doing simultaneously as you’re writing?
Thundercat: I feel like everything does naturally stem from the bass. I mean, even though, like, I could play key bass or try to mess around with different instruments like that, it always is starting from somewhere between the bass and my mind, melodies and harmonies I’m hearing and stuff like that. I do hear the different roles the instruments play and I do anything from trying to emulate them to create them myself from what I’m hearing rhythmically, from the bass.
DM: As a young artist, you toured for several years as a member of Suicidal Tendencies. Please tell me about that a bit.
Thundercat: Mike Muir — Cyco Miko — really kicked my ass into shape. I think he saw something there, to some degree, but at the same time I think he just… we would just have fun, to be honest with you! Me and Mike would always just have fun on stage, and there would always be some crazy moment that would lend itself to like, you know, “Oh, what are you gonna do here?”
(I’d) stand up there and almost get pelted with beer bottles, and people telling me that I’m not [the band’s previous longtime guitarist] Rocky George. Those types of moments would happen, but (Mike) would encourage me to not feel anything except what I felt in the music. And I would try to go for it, genuinely. So it was very educational. He encouraged me to be myself.
Every now and then I’d get made fun of because I always dressed a little weird, but it’s kinda like, that’s just what comes with the territory. And Mike taught me a lot. He would force me to stand out and solo. He’d give me a moment to think through solos, and take my time. That’s how we would treat it, and that’s ultimately what I would take into my music, along with the speed, and the craziness, and the intensity. All that stuff that we know Mike, and Suicidal, and Infectious Grooves for. He taught me that, for it to always be that intense, and never let up, you know? That’s my formative years! Some people go to college, I went to the School of Suicidal.
DM: Growing up, who was your fantasy band you wished you could play with?
Thundercat: Frank Zappa. Or Mahavishnu Orchestra, that’s who I would have wanted to play with. (Drummer) Billy Cobham was in there throwing fireballs. That would be it for sure. As I grew up, that’s definitely something I saw myself doing, like, “Man, I wish I woulda played with John McLaughlin back in those years,” or been involved in those moments. That is something I have romanticized.
DM: What do you feel you’re pushing forward with on It Is What It Is?
Thundercat: I’m just always excited about the music, man. I get excited about the progress but at the same time I’m always just wanting it to still be something special and different every time people hear it. Another one of my biggest influences is Andre 3000, for what he contributed at the time that he did. Guys like him and Pharrell busted the doors open for people to be open, and listen with open ears and open hearts. So I’m always excited about what’s next. I just like to see change.
Everything is familiar (and) I think there’s space for everything. People are becoming open to that, and that’s more important to me than just the part of like, striving and struggling to be something-and-this-and-that.
It’s meant to be enjoyable, and it’s meant to be something you love. And even though there’s pain in love, it’s one of those things where, sonically, it’s a big world. I don’t think so much along the lines of making sure I’m in the right place or doing the right things. I always just make sure I’m following my heart, and go where my heart leads me. ■
For more about Thundercat and the new record It Is What It Is (out April 3), click here.
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