Photography: The1point8 (the1point8.com)
Assistant: Gabe Gonzalez
Every journey starts with a small step, or so the aphorism goes. But each Thundercat album, seemingly, begins with the multi-talented LA musician at home, relaxed, with his bass plugged in, and his laptop perched next to a bag of crisps. “It starts out with me on the couch with my cat,” he laughs, rustling through a packet of Kettle chips. “That’s how it always starts.”
Where it ends up, though, is always worth travelling to. New album It Is What It Is finds Thundercat surging into fresh spaces while also re-establishing his roots. It’s an album that features some of his oldest friends, as well as his musical heroes; yet it’s also a project framed by loss, while finding joy in the simple task of making music.
2017 breakout album, Drunk turned his world upside down. An explosive release, it led to an 18-month tour, high-profile TV spots and an international audience. Put simply – it changed his life. To paraphrase one of Thundercat’s own songs, though, he’s been through them changes, and not all of them have been welcome.
“I lost a lot of friends to drug abuse and violence,” he says with a sombre turn to his voice. “From that to relationships changing, and a lot of physical growth. I’ve lost, like, 100 pounds. I didn’t even do it on purpose at first! Lots of life changes have taken place. And I’m still here through them, so I’m very happy for that.”
“You spend time with something, that’s the only way you can tell if you love it.”
Thundercat was extremely close to Mac Miller: “There was never really a time when I was without him, in many different ways,” and his loss permeates the new album. “Mac was a beautiful soul,” he says. “He wanted everybody to see the beautiful side of life. A very eager and bright-eyed cat. It was a shame to watch him go.”
“It hurts a bit,” he says, his voice audibly shaking. “But it’s one of those things. That’s why the album is titled that way – because that’s just life.”
It Is What It Is is about embracing every facet of life, from loss to laughter. It’s like a 360 view of Thundercat’s aura, his mind laid out on record, uninhibited and unedited. “I always feel that you are definitely at war with yourself when it comes to being creative,” he says.
But it wasn’t a journey he undertook alone. Steve Lacy permeates these studio sessions, while saxophone colossus, Kamasi Washington – a long-time friend – also makes a stellar contribution. Funk icon, Steve Arrington pushes ‘Black Qualls’ to the stratosphere, while everyone from Childish Gambino to Ty Dolla $ign hits the mic. It’s a varied cast, one that Thundercat picked out because he knew each and every musician would grasp what it was he wanted to say.
“It’s fun!” he gasps, attempting to sum up the studio process. “I was just actually with a friend of mine last night and we started creating music… And it was very funny because the moment that is always the most intense is when you’re realising the possibilities, and trying to create solid matter out of something that keeps changing. It’s exciting to watch something take form like that.”
One continual contributor on the album is Flying Lotus; a producer and musician, he’s there both to add to the music and to prick Thundercat’s own imagination. “He’s not so much a quiet presence, he’s very loud spoken!” Thundercat laughs. “I think with this album, he did a little bit more playing, too, which I think he was really excited about. Shoot, man. He’s always challenging me to do more, and to think more, and to do something different.”
Spread across a hefty 15-track span, It Is What It Is is actually a remarkably concise album, with songs rarely being allowed to billow out. “It’s the way it comes out of you,” he asserts, biting down on some more crisps. “It’s not always meant to be some very drawn out, long idea… sometimes it’s just simply stated. It’s like, there’s no more to say. It’s just that.”
“It starts out with me on the couch with my cat…that’s how it always starts.”
This ethos is matched to every corner of his creative life. “It’s just as important to do nothing, for me,” he comments. It’s an almost zen-like approach to studio creation. “We put a lot of pressure on the idea of making music, but everything takes time,” he adds. “You spend time with something, that’s the only way you can tell if you love it. The time spent with the music is something that you can’t make up for. So sometimes you have to be OK with taking the time, that’s all. And time is endless.”
Everything Thundercat does is rooted in this infinite love for the music. Whether it’s hitting up friends passing through town or tracking down some of his all-time heroes, he seems at his most rooted – at his happiest – when he is focussing on a project. “I always like to say, nothing makes up for time spent playing the instrument,” he adds. “There’s a lot that can be created in those times and in those moments. I’m usually very happy to go back in the studio after I’ve gone on the road for a while, because my mind is definitely in the algorithm of the playing.”
Reflective but eager to move forwards, Thundercat continually turns back on himself. No sooner does he assert something than he retracts it, a playful sense of logic that forever builds to this overwhelming wall of laughter. “If we couldn’t laugh then we’d probably be shooting, now wouldn’t we?” he shrieks. “It’s just important to laugh. I like to laugh at most things. Literally. And not to be condescending, but it’s just that… most things are terrible! And sometimes the terrible shit is really funny!”
“But sometimes it does take a second to get to the laughter, because the pain is very difficult,” he continues. “At the end of it, if you make it out alive and you get a chance to laugh at it… then laugh!”