Private Playlist: Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey

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Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner. Credit: The onepointeight / Carlos Gonzales.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is one of L.A.’s most accomplished and in-demand musicians. A frequent collaborator with Flying Lotus, Bruner has also contributed to albums by Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick Lamar, with whom Bruner shared a Grammy in 2016 for his performance on the track “These Walls.” But most recently Thundercat has come into his own as a solo artist. His fourth album, It Is What It Is, was released in April 2020 on Brainfeeder. Bruner spoke with KCRW about the night Jaco Pastorius changed his life, the importance of listening to albums from the beginning, and the record that helps him through strange times.

Interestingly enough, I kinda got here before this happened. 

With all the tenets of what brought about the new album, It Is What It Is, I found myself just needing a moment. And it doesn’t feel like what I wasn’t doing already. I don't feel like, "Oh god, the world's ending!" I mean, I already knew the world was ending. It just feels like “everything in its place” a bit. And everybody needed a moment to have this introspective, like ... "Am I a terrible person?" And it's like, "Yeah! Live with that!"

There's so much music. And sometimes you forget different places you've been and visited, and some places you visit quite frequently.


One artist I've revisited is Egberto Gismonti and his album, Academia de Danças. It's one of my favorite Egberto albums. The composition is ridiculous. It feels like music genuinely from the brain, and it's immediately beautiful, immediately overwhelming. He leaves no stone unturned in the idea of the compositions that are on this album. And I love it. It's pure in sound and melody and harmony to a major degree. The whole album is a journey. I don't want to change one song. 

There's one song I love on the album that maybe I’ve played by itself: "Vila Rica 1720." But anytime I put it on, if I start from "Vila Rica," I get weirded out and have to start from the very top, because getting to "Vila Rica" is what makes it really special. It’s like, you can't put on Jaco Pastorius's album and start at "Portrait of Tracy." You have to hear that from the beginning, because that's a very tender moment that you don't want to separate from the album.


My dad used to listen to a radio station at night, because he'd sit up and read and practice and do stuff after we went to sleep. And he wakes me up around three o'clock in the morning and pulls me into the bathroom. He's like, "Check this out." And it was "Portrait of Tracy” on the radio. My dad tried to convey to me that it was one guy playing the bass by himself: this four-string instrument that I had been practicing. And when that actually set in, it sparked this weird possibility, and I became infatuated and really wanted to understand what that meant. It blew my mind.

And within the next couple of days, my dad came home with the CD. And I emulated my dad in a certain respect where I would wait until everybody went to sleep. And I would sit down and open my art book, and I would listen to Jaco's album really low, and then I would practice to it. But it was that moment of hearing "Portrait of Tracy" where it turned my whole entire life around.


Evangelion may be the greatest Anime soundtrack. I’ve been listening to Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone by Shiro Sagisu, and the key song is “Cruel Dilemme.” That composition sits in a really introspective space in the cartoon where every character is trying to figure out things in their mind. It also makes me sit and think a bit when I hear it.


One album that has helped me through weird moments like this is Steve Kuhn from 1971. The very end of the album is extremely beautiful; it gets really intense. There's one track called "Ulla" and another called "The Meaning of Love." I love it. It's a beautiful picture, and it helped me to comprehend things, life a bit, you know. And as I'm thinking about it, I hope it does that for whoever listens to it too.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue