November 14th, 2011 | Interviews

theo jemison

Mike Watt somehow knew that Thundercat was coming. When he said people thought the Minutemen were Martians from planet Jazz, well … that is pretty much exactly what we get with Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse, made by a kid who played bass for Stanley Clarke and Suicidal Tendencies both. Thundercat speaks now about the sublime and the ridiculous, but not in that order. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

You recently posted a photo of a really colossal dick someone drew on a backstage wall at a show you played. As someone who has spent much of their adult life as a touring musician, what is it that makes people draw dicks on backstage walls?
I think it’s a code of silence—when you don’t see one, something tells you instinctively to draw one on the wall. The secret society of penis drawers—that’s exactly what it is.
How many dicks have you drawn?
A few hundred. Different sizes, different shaped penises, people’s faces shaped like penises—all kinds of stuff.
Do you get any kind of special hotel discounts once you’ve done like 500?
Oh—The Dick-Drawer’s Membership Club? Yeah, you get a membership card, a box of condoms and a vintage Playboy.
On Pitchfork, you reminded Flying Lotus that although PBS’ Bob Ross is a completely delightful, positive guy on camera, he may well be hiding a terrifying dark side off camera. Since you are also a delightful, positive guy … what terrifying dark side are you concealing from the world?
I try not to have one at all. But everybody’s had their point where they had all they can stand and they can’t have any more. There’s always that. Other than that, I just try and … you know, be cool. I’ll say it like this—as a kid, I wasn’t evil, but … I would hide things a lot. I’d have dual things going on. My parents would think I was at the studio, but I was really hanging out with my girlfriend. ‘Yeah, I’m at the studio—but I’m really Downtown, drunk, hanging out at the Standard!’
Did you ever get busted when your parents were like, ‘So, son—you’ve sure been at the studio a lot! Can we check out those demos?’
The sad part is I actually was working. I’d be doing this, and all this debauchery would be going on, but it’d go hand in hand. I’d come home and play my parents something new, and they’d have no clue that I was wil’in out. That I was butt naked on the street with a sword the other day!
In the past. I used to be kinda crazy when I was younger. Take fireworks and shoot ’em into oncoming traffic. Run around naked.
Naked on the street with a sword? I couldn’t even pull off two-thirds of that.
It’s not something I planned out. I have tons and tons of random moments in life that occur, like, ‘How did that happen?’ I don’t know, but it happened!
Did you develop your mind-boggling mastery of your instrument simply because you had to fit music into the tiny amount of non-debaucherous time available to you?
No, no—growing up I spent a lot of time just being very exposed to different things.
Exposing yourself to different things?
Yeah, exposing myself to different people—all kinds of stuff! As a child, I was very much into my visual my art. They kinda went hand in hand. They had different emotional pulls on me. Playing bass—around the age of 10 is when I got really serious, from my dad playing me Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Portrait of Tracy.’ It blew my socks off. I couldn’t believe it was possible to be that beautiful on an instrument, so I took to my instrument even more. It developed naturally, but also there was part of me that wanted to get better—I’m still like that.
How did it affect you as a musician to have a parent who’d already done it?
Things were not very far off because I had an example to understand—‘This is how the business works, this is how these kind of people work, this is where you wanna be, this is where you don’t wanna be …’ I had all that at my fingertips. That’s part of what gave me an advantage in functioning properly in different scenarios and situations. It wasn’t new to me. When I started traveling, I just felt like it was part of what I was supposed to do.
What sort of hard-way things do you think you got to skip?
I was reared in a very Christian home, so it was more perspective. It wasn’t ‘DON’T DO THINGS.’ My parents were very open to me being who I wanted to be. They didn’t try to stop me. They just wanted to make sure I had these moral values before I left their house. They drilled it very deep into me, but at the same time I got an opportunity to be in the world—to be myself. They encouraged me to dress how I wanted to. My mom used to have purple hair! For the last ten years! Well, maybe last four or five years. She has a mohawk now!
Didn’t your mom name the record? You’re the second person in two issues to have a record named after the Apocalypse. Why is the Apocalypse on people’s minds?
Spiritually speaking, you can feel it in the air. Everything is just so weird. It’s almost like … something bigger than you moving faster than you. And then the different things biblically that are talked about going on that we’re seeing happening in front of us—wars and rumors of wars, people rising against each other, all that stuff that’s been talked about before. It’s not saying … we’ve been in the last days a long time. Just because they did a movie called 2012 and everyone’s paying attention to 2012—this has been going on for some time.
Supposedly every generation thinks it’s going to see the world end. Maybe I’m falling for that too. But it is a weird time.
Absolutely. We been experiencing the end age for a long time, and it has nothing to do with this generation. We never know the generation it is who’s gonna see it. But somebody’s gonna see it, even if it’s our grandkids’ grandkids. We’re seeing pieces of it. People can feel it in the air, you’re starting to see things come to the front. Creatively, artistically—that’s why it gets described by so many people in music. That’s how you feel! It’s not to be taken advantage or publicized like, ‘OH NO! THE END OF THE WORLD! OH NOOOOOO! THE MAYANS PREDICTED IT!’ It’s not one of those things. You can feel it in your spirit. And that’s all you got a lot of the time—your spirit. Calling the album The Golden Age of Apocalypse, it’s like a very … it’s a precursor. It means, ‘Watch what’s going on around you.’
What is your role as a creative person in these times?
A lot of the time, I just wanna be used by God. That’s just what I really want out of what I do. Whatever that entails. I try my hardest to listen to God and what he’s trying to say to me, or if he’s trying to say something to me—if there’s nothing to be said. It’s imperative that you pay attention and try and see where God wants you. It could be as small as … like when God told you to go left and you went right. And you know it was God talking to you! A lot of people try and downplay, like, ‘Wasn’t that just you talking to yourself?’ But the truth is—you can take it or leave it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He’s there. It’s just that time you should play closer attention, and try and figure out where you’re supposed to be.
A lot of times when we talk to people, we talk about how complete examination and knowledge of self can be a pathway to powerful art. But this is the opposite. It’s about total humility, about losing the ego to become a vessel.
Yes—absolutely. The more you can be selfless, the closer you can get to Him—where God wants you. You stop holding on to things that block you from trying to get further and get into different places. I try not to be blocked by anything! One thing that can be a block is money—it seems so funny, but it’s true.
Yes, I laughed painfully.
Your ability to feel comfortable in your own skin can sometimes be connected to the fact that you don’t know where your next check is coming from so you can’t think properly—I’m not saying that’s me, but there’s so many different places insecurity can come from that can hinder you from doing what you’re supposed to do. The key word in a lot of it is just having faith. Other than that, it does not make a lot of sense. There’s always the opportunity to not make sense of something—you can find a reason why not to do something, but sometimes it’s better for you to put yourself in the line of fire and figure out where you fit in. That’s how I treated everybody’s music I’ve ever worked on. I wanna be used and utilized by a person to convey what they wanna convey.
Mike Watt told me the same thing—the bassist is there to serve the song.
I know Mike Watt! Absolutely. Stanley Clarke said that to me: ‘Your job—you’re a servant.’ He was trying to explain the difference between being a servant and being the artist. I was so used to being a person who put myself in other scenarios. He was trying to get in my head like, ‘Look, you’re always gonna have a mentality in your head that allows you to be a servant. But that’s part of bigger picture of being an artist. You got to know when to pull it out and when not to because it can be easily taken advantage of.’ I was like, ‘Huh.’ I never necessarily looked at it like that but the truth is yeah, everything I’ve done musically … you’re finding where you go.
You’ve played with so many kinds of visionary people—is there anything that you can connect between them? Is there something they’ve done that could help other people make breakthroughs in their own work?
You just gotta be where you’re supposed to be. It sounds corny, but that’s all we got. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘It’s not supposed to be fair.’ You wish it was and you want it to be, but it’s just not supposed to be fair. Anybody that’s a hard worker is gonna see the result of what they put their hands to on whatever level it is, but you can’t define a person’s success in that they’re rich or everybody can see them doing what they’re doing. You gotta look at a little more than that and see where their head is and what their point was and what they were trying to get to and what they consider success. It’s the funniest thing on this planet when you see like a Michael Jackson. Let’s go with a dude that tall. Michael Jackson was a star since he was a kid. The truth is, it wouldn’t matter. You can try to follow the same formula, which the record companies used to do, and try and put a group together to find the one Michael Jackson and focus on him and try and make him into a star. Yes, you can definitely monetarily try to recreate that. But the truth is you can’t mistake the funk, and Michael Jackson was the funk. He didn’t need to be a formula that was created. This dude had four brothers that were killin’, and their dad beat ’em into shape. It was in his nature to be a star.
You can’t really plan it—you just have to make your work something you’re proud of. Because you could win the lottery the next day or get hit by a bus.
As funny as it is, that’s the truth. And here’s another thing. When it comes to how girls perceive guys that are musicians or stars—the girl gets with you—
This could be a whole other interview!
But the same scenario, where the girl gets with you cuz you’re rich and famous and then she leaves you. Is that really a successful situation? Or is it actually successful when you have a person who is genuinely loving and it has nothing to do with the money and the situation surrounding you? What do you consider success? ‘You know, man, I found that one girl I’m supposed to be with, and I could lose all my limbs, or I could have golden limbs dipped in platinum with lasers shooting out of the fingers, and she wouldn’t care.’
Those limbs just kept getting better.
Gold limbs? Platinum? Lasers? Garlands and wreaths hanging from them—all kinds of cool stuff, man!
Is there a 6-year-old Stephen somewhere deep inside you who is so proud you still sport Thundercat outfits?
I’m definitely like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m free enough in my own skin to dress the way I wanna!’ I love the association cuz the truth is it’s all love and it’s a beautiful thing, but people always tell me I look like Will.I.Am or like—‘Look, it’s Kanye!’ I’m gonna take the compliment, but that’s just people’s way of trying to associate what they see because they only see greatness like them. So if you see me like Will.I.Am, I don’t look at it as a dis or a downplay—I feel like I have the potential to be that great, too! I’m happy to do stuff like that. People are like, ‘You’re just trying to be different.’ But for me, it’s about connecting to what I’ve always been. I could show you a picture of me when I was 5 and I dressed the same way. I’d have a voice-changing helmet and some boots and a cape and glasses and a toy guitar with Lion-O hanging out of my pocket. Not to say I don’t grow, but certain things are the fabric of who you are. And the aesthetic is something I’ve held on to, and I’m proud to be able to be my own person in front of everybody.
Mike Watt says the Minutemen really confused people—that people thought they were Martians from planet Jazz. Do you think you’ve finally delivered the Martian jazz record planet Earth has been craving?
I don’t know if I put out the ultimate Martian jazz album, but I’d hope it definitely made some waves and changed the way people write and see and do music. A lot of the times people see music and see stuff that takes you a little bit out, and then they’re like, ‘Ah, this stuff is too difficult—this is not something people wanna hear.’ But there’s gotta be something there! It happened before. Jazz mixed with hip-hop and punk is nothing new! It’s not something I’m gonna take credit for. It’s definitely my take—my understanding. I’d hope I make an album that worthy of the title—‘This is the Martian album I’ve been waiting for for so long.’
The album is so fluid—the songs feel like they could flow in any direction.
I definitely have to give it up to Flying Lotus for his ability to hear things. I’m the kind of guy who’s scatterbrained naturally. I remember I’d be playing this stuff, but I never heard any sort of flow—I was just creating music. Lotus rearranged everything and put it in this order, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ It all made sense. We’re very in sync with stuff like that.
Where’s the overlap? What matters most to you both about music?
Other than the basics which everybody would know … you have to have a certain amount of understanding to be able to go further, and not just be playing somebody else’s song or playing a bass line like, ‘Is this good enough?’ We hit points where we were just flowing. I remember when we were recording ‘MmmHmm,’ we were in the middle of doing stuff and that started coming out and he just started recording. Even with ‘Dance of the Pseudo Nymph,’ when we did that, I literally remember dancing around his living room, playing bass and dancing with the Indian headdress on. … And the funniest thing about ‘Dance of the Pseudo Nymph’—if you ever sit me and Lotus down, we will argue to this day where the ‘one’ is in that song. That’s how in sync we were! Neither of us could tell we were on a different ‘one.’ We were still in sync—but in two different places! When it came out, he was like, ‘No, this is where I was.’ ‘Well, this is where I was!’ We went through seven minutes of a song—we were just creating! In all honesty, that’s the fun part of the music to me—the unknown. There’s always a chance to know what you’re doing—‘Oh, OK, we’re gonna retake this part and you’re gonna slow down and …’ There’s always that. Let’s just go wherever we’re going. It’s the freedom in the music.
John Coltrane supposedly once said something like, ‘The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.’ One of those times when people asked him why he never stopped practicing.
I would never compare myself to Coltrane, but that’s super-freakin’-awesome. That’s the truth. You could know everything and still know nothing.
So is this what you want from music? As many of those moments as possible?
Heck yeah, man! I always wanna connect like that—have my heart in what I’m playing. As I get older … I think the word is ‘jaded.’ I always ask myself how to keep that zealousness about being a young artist. You can lose that. We just get old. I always say to myself, ‘I never wanna get old.’ When it comes to the music, I always wanna be in search of these moments where it’s … beautiful.
You were joking in another interview about hosing down crowds with DMT to help them break through—does that mean DMT is just a shortcut to get to the same place your music is going?
I just want people to break out of their stuff. I remember one time I saw my older brother taking a drum solo—he’s the most amazing drummer hands down in the world right now—and he starts taking a solo, and I see this guy jump out of his chair and start dancing. But not dancing—he was almost like a Deadhead. He was twirling—he was gone! Some people were making fun of it, like, ‘Look at this crazy guy!’ But they didn’t see what was going on—this guy was completely connecting to God through this music right now! He’s gone somewhere! And also just knowing it’s possible to be that connected. … Yeah, I wanna see people come out of their selves a little bit. Especially in L.A.—I definitely wanna see people go to a higher level.
So have you ever done DMT?
No—just watched a video on it one time.
You’re into gore movies—what’s your sentimental gore favorite?
Faces of Death! The first time when I got to watch Faces of Death
Were you under 18 so it was illegal?
Oh, hell yeah. It was on the internet. I was with my cousin and we used to go get on the internet just to download crazy clips like that. It was so trippy. We’d watch some clip of a guy’s head being bit off by an alligator, then go eat Yoshinoya and write music.
You talked before about how you get frustrated with anime directors who deliver one masterpiece and then disappear—you seem obviously concerned with longevity. What is it you need to give people in the future so they aren’t like, ‘Man, Thundercat—there was so much more he could have done!’
I see the music as part of a bigger picture with me of course. I’m not just a musician—I’m an artist. I’m ready to start on my second album. I just wanna make sure people always know where to find me. Naturally I wanna be huge and all the crazy Hollywood dreams—
A bass-shaped pool?
Thundercat-shaped pool! Red in the hot-tub for the eye—hell yeah! Check this out. The rest of the pool is actually hot—like where the cat is. And the eye is actually cold as hell, but it’s red so it looks like it’s hot! You got me all excited—I sound like an idiot!
You once threw your bass into a crowd of 60,000 people—that’s got to be like throwing your child into a crowd of 60,000 people. What happened? Did you ever get it back?
No, I gave it away, man. This was one of Rage Against the Machine’s final concerts. It was Suicidal, Mars Volta and Rage Against the Machine, and we were on right before Rage Against the Machine. You think Europe has hardcore fans? South America … I don’t even wanna call it hardcore. It’s demonically possessed! Blackened hardcore metal fans! They’re insane! The emotion was so flying while we were playing—they were so excited because apparently Suicidal hadn’t been there in twenty years. You could feel the energy—it was so inspiring. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my bass, but what happened was … right at the end of the set, we were going off and I took my bass off and threw it in the audience! And the promoter told me no one had done that ever—they don’t really have instruments like that over there because it was kind of a higher-end instrument, and they don’t get those down there. I was so happy about that moment, I said, ‘I hope I blessed somebody.’ It felt like that to me—let’s go somewhere else, let’s take this further! The funny thing was it was like throwing a dead cow into shark-infested waters. When Rage Against the Machine went up on stage, people were like lighting stuff on fire. They couldn’t go on for an hour. It was like, ‘Oh, look—the Apocalypse is coming! Let me put on this bow tie and play the ‘Bon Voyage’ song like on the Titanic!’ When Rage started playing … they started the intro and couldn’t come on for twenty minutes. People were ripping chairs out of the stadium! But it felt like it was all in love. People weren’t trying to hurt each other. They were just so excited. It was intense! I felt happy to be part of that moment. I threw my bass out because that’s how I felt. ‘Take it—it belongs to you.’