Thundercat, AKA Steven Bruner, is a virtuoso jazz bassist who takes his name from a Saturday-morning cartoon show and often looks like an escapee from one in performance. He has shown up for gigs wearing a sombrero, a Native American headdress, and a furry helmet fashioned from a taxidermied fox.
His willingness to experiment with what he perches on his head reflects the way he thinks about music. The 32-year-old Los Angeleno has played his six-string, hollow-bodied instrument with acts as disparate as the California skate-punk band Suicidal Tendencies, neo-soul goddess Erykah Badu, and rap luminary Kendrick Lamar. He either plucked or sang in his soulful falsetto on most of the songs on Lamar’s Grammy Award–winning To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, helping to craft its pitch-perfect blend of jazz, hip-hop, and politically conscious lyrics.
“I feel like people were starved for that,” says Thundercat, whose father was a Motown drummer. “It was like a piece [of the culture] that had been missing.” In late February, Thundercat released his third solo album, Drunk, which features guests like Lamar, Pharrell Williams, and Wiz Khalifa, as well as less probable but no less successful appearances by ’80s pop crooners Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.
“The reality is I’m very much a Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald fan,” Thundercat explains unironically. Neither Loggins nor McDonald was familiar with his music when he reached out to them, but their children knew it well. The way Thundercat sees it, he’s part of an art form that keeps evolving, frustrating anybody who wants it to freeze in time. “Music keeps moving and getting crazier,” he says. “The next thing you know, everybody’s going to start liking bebop again, and you’re going to be like ‘What the hell?’ It’s going to really freak you out.”