How does Thundercat cope with a global shutdown? “I got rubber gloves. I got a bunch of knives. I got some bear traps,” says the oddball bassist whose love of cats and gaming makes him uniquely adaptable to the current state of affairs. Thundercat’s oeuvre is as innovative as his pandemic preparedness kit: His relentless hooks and deceptively sugary vocals have appeared on albums by Janelle Monáe, Anderson .Paak and Mac Miller, and he was a major contributor on Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated album To Pimp A Butterfly. Last week, Thundercat released It Is What It Is, his fourth studio album featuring contributions by Ty Dolla $ign, Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy (The Internet), and BADBADNOTGOOD.
Thundercat’s look is as kaleidoscopic as his music. The playful, sensationalistic influence of anime and video games is present in both, as is a persistent emo streak—the drama-filled line “Nobody move/ There’s blood on the floor/ And I can’t find my heart” from his 2017 track “Them Changes” is the lyrical equivalent of the chipped purple nail polish he sports these days. But It Is What It Is, recorded in the wake of his friend Mac Miller’s death, is streaked with something darker and moodier than anime heartbreak. Tracks like “Unrequited Love” and “Fair Chance” layer searching lyrics over spare, meditative bass tracks. “It Is What It Is,” the album’s meandering epilogue, bristles with shards of feeling: a rueful reflection on the inevitable wilting of fame morphs into bruised instrumentals punctuated just once by the words “hey Mac.” A rush of stormy drums builds to a fever-pitch before the album drifts to a close.
Despite its grounding in grief, It Is What It Is is laced with Thundercat’s signature bounce and irreverence. On “Overseas,” he implores a love interest to join the mile-high club before comedian Zack Fox interrupts with a pilot-style voice-over announcement. “Dragonball Durag,” a cheery, tongue-in-cheek bop, pokes fun at the classic macho sexual conquest saga: “You don’t have to like my video games or my comic books, but baby girl, how do I look in my durag?”
When we sat down with Thundercat to discuss his musical influences, we expected a long list of niche jazz artists, but it turns out that Thundercat draws inspiration from more unexpected sources. From his favorite of the Sonic The Hedgehog soundtracks to dating his cats, from his Katy Perry theory to digestive health, the contemporary music world’s resident ultra-nerd invites us on a psychedelic joyride through his mind.
VEITCH: What are you doing right now?
THUNDERCAT: I’m spraying Lysol between my toes and listening to Jay Electronica’s new album.
VEITCH: Tell me about these bear traps of yours. Are you a little nervous about the virus?
THUNDERCAT: I’m not scared of a fucking virus. I just got that shit in general. That wasn’t because of the coronavirus.
THUNDERCAT: Yeah, man. I like to party. I got bullhorns. I got all kinds of shit.
VEITCH: The bullhorn is the essential party item. What was the last song you listened to?
THUNDERCAT: The last song I listened to was “Shiny Suit Theory” by Jay Electronica.
VEITCH: Do you remember your first concert?
THUNDERCAT: I think it was Janet Jackson on her Rhythm Nation tour. Chuckii Booker opened for her.
VEITCH: That’s amazing.
THUNDERCAT: It was tight. I remember wearing a Ghostbusters costume to it. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.
VEITCH: How old were you?
THUNDERCAT: That I don’t remember. I hope I was really young though, to be wearing a Ghostbusters costume.
VEITCH: These might be the times to bring that back though. I don’t know.
THUNDERCAT: No, this would be the time to fire the president. This isn’t the time to wear a Ghostbusters outfit.
VEITCH: Are you planning to reschedule your tour?
THUNDERCAT: I mean, we’re going to, but I don’t even know what’s happening these days. I don’t even feel like masturbating anymore. I went to masturbate and then started crying, and then just sat back down.
VEITCH: Man. I’m sorry to hear that.
THUNDERCAT: Yeah, thanks.
VEITCH: Do you have a favorite video game soundtrack?
THUNDERCAT: Ooh, damn. Yeah. It’s always been between Sonic 1 and Sonic 3. Fuck Sonic 2.
THUNDERCAT: Yeah, Sonic 3 was jamming. And then you know what else? Sonic Racing. And Final Fantasy. Don’t even get me started. And Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X.
VEITCH: Is there a game that you would like to design the soundtrack for?
THUNDERCAT: If I had a chance to work on a game soundtrack, it would have to be Super Smash Bros.
VEITCH: What is your favorite of your own songs?
THUNDERCAT: What kind of question is that? That’s like saying, “Which one of your kids do you like the most?”
VEITCH: Well, everyone has a favorite kid.
THUNDERCAT: I love all of them. To be honest with you, I could never choose. The part where I could’ve been hurting the most could be the part somebody else enjoys the most. So that’s always weird. Sometimes it’s hard to listen through an entire album of mine because it’s a bit of a picture book for me. So, it’s like I can’t really separate the memories and real life from the art itself.
VEITCH: That makes sense. What’s your favorite Katy Perry single?
THUNDERCAT: It’s between “Dark Horse” and “California Girls.” I don’t know, but for some reason I think she likes black dudes. That’s a good feeling, given that the opposite end of the spectrum is just us getting beat up on camera by cops. But like, at least Katy Perry likes us. “Coming at me like a dark horse.” I’m like, “Hmm. All right. I can dig it.”
VEITCH: Yeah. I see it.
THUNDERCAT: I want to be that dark horse. Actually, here’s the thing. I don’t date famous chicks anymore.
VEITCH: Those days are behind you?
THUNDERCAT: I’m genuinely dating my cats.
VEITCH: Well, that’s nice.
THUNDERCAT: Yeah. I’m just starting to speak cat a little better.
VEITCH: Oh, no.
THUNDERCAT: [Laughs] That took a really sharp, sad turn, didn’t it?
VEITCH: Speaking of cats, how did you become Thundercat? Were there other name options?
THUNDERCAT: I never really considered any others. But if I could pick a new one, it would be Active Shooter.
THUNDERCAT: Or Poopy McPoop, maybe.
VEITCH: Speaking of which, there’s colonoscopy footage in your music video for “Tron Song.” Is that footage from your colon?
THUNDERCAT: [Laughs] No!
VEITCH: What song would you pair your own colonoscopy footage to?
THUNDERCAT: “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd.
VEITCH: Insane that you have an answer to that so quickly. We’re going to move into some more sophisticated territory. Who is your all-time dream collaborator?
THUNDERCAT: Well, Jesus, I guess. I don’t know if I’d want to do an album with Jesus. I just want everything to end.
VEITCH: Is this whole interview a cry for help?
VEITCH: I’m hearing it. Do you have a song that always puts you in a good mood without fail?
THUNDERCAT: “Heart to Heart” by Kenny Loggins. Whenever I hear it, even if I’m in a store, I just throw whatever’s in my hands. You can just tell Kenny has been through a lot. It’s like, buddy, what number marriage is this? The first line of the song is, “You ain’t crazy. I ain’t gonna lie anymore.” It’s the best opening line I’ve ever heard to a song in my entire life. He’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna stop gas lighting you.”
VEITCH: That’s wild.
THUNDERCAT: Every time that song comes on, I’m screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, it doesn’t matter where I am. If I’m in the grocery store, I just throw everything I’m holding. If they call the cops, it’s cool. The cops will be beating my ass while I’m singing Kenny Loggins, that’s for sure. Basically, he’s saying we need to get rid of Trump. Kenny wants us to come together like two butt cheeks and stop this shit. And that’s the only way.
VEITCH: What would you put on your road trip playlist?
THUNDERCAT: 645AR, Shooter McShootem, Teejayx6, for sure. And then like Edberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal…
VEITCH: Wow, what a contrast.
THUNDERCAT: And the soundtrack from Evangelion.
VEITCH: What would you throw on if you were hosting a party?
THUNDERCAT: Definitely Young Gunner, Chuckii Booker, and some D Train.
VEITCH: What would you put on if you were crying in your bedroom?
THUNDERCAT: Jaco Pastorius. Alexander O’Neal, some Michael Jackson, and Stranger in Moscow. And Kenny Loggins, “Heart to Heart.”
VEITCH: Naturally. If you were, perhaps, to smoke, what might you be listening to?
THUNDERCAT: If I smoked weed, I would play Born in the U.S.A. on a constant loop.
VEITCH: That’s so horrible.
THUNDERCAT: Well I’m not a smoker, but I used to drink. If was drinking, that would be a different story. I would put on then Tender Love by Force MDs, and by the time it was over I would be blacked out so it just be my phone alarm for, like, hours.
THUNDERCAT: My alarms on my phone are pretty epic. I’ve got the Cannibal Holocaust theme song going these days.
THUNDERCAT: Did you ever see Cannibal Holocaust?
THUNDERCAT: It’s very introspective.
VEITCH: If you were to pick a couple of songs to play at your funeral, what would they be?
THUNDERCAT: Oh, now that’s a good one. I’d open with “The Adulteress’ Punishment,” from Cannibal Holocaust. And I’d close with “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield.
VEITCH: What’s on your rider?
THUNDERCAT: A lot of diuretics.
THUNDERCAT: Blackberries, blueberries. Magnesium citrate. I like to take ’em all at once.
VEITCH: I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s a lot of thunder.
THUNDERCAT: I’ve never been afraid of a little thunder.