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Play It Forward: Thundercat Eases Loneliness With Trippy Music

Nov 19, 2020

On the last edition of Play It Forward, All Things Considered's chain of musical gratitude, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd spoke about Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist Thundercat.

"Bass frequencies, they move the heart and the core, so I just love the bass. Thundercat is a genius bass player — super lyrical, like Jaco Pastorius," she said, before addressing the artist directly. "Hi Thundercat, it's Mia. I hope you're well these days. I put on your records and I don't feel lonely. Even in these crazy times, I feel like everything's going to be okay."

Thundercat says he found Todd's message overwhelming. "I think that was a little slightly overwhelming. I appreciate it beyond reason. It made me feel better about everything right now. That was very sweet of her to do that."

The artist spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about the humor in his music, building his confidence as a vocalist and an artist he's grateful for: Louis Cole. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On he title of his latest album, It Is What It Is

It means up and downs and strikes and gutters. It's the good and the bad, it goes hand-in-hand. It tends to be a bit funny for me now: When there is no answer, it's just, "It is what it is. What are you gonna do?" It feels a bit more comedic for me at this point for sure.

On the importance of humor in his songs

It's very heavily entangled in there, to be honest, the comedy. It's something that I've always thought that was important, ever since I was a kid, to laugh. Being able to laugh is one of the best feelings ever.

YouTube

On the song "Dragonball Durag"

It has a pretty funny story behind it. There was a person I was dating a while ago, and I remember — sometimes you don't know the things that attract the other person to you. I was lounging in the house in my durag, and the person I was with, I remember the look in their eyes. And I was like, why is she — what's going on here? And she said she liked how I looked in my durag. It was a game-changing moment for me. I was writing music as I was getting this look, so it kind of translated literally.

On an artist he's thankful for, Louis Cole

Louis Cole is, I think, one of Los Angeles's greatest musicians. It's one of those things where he is 100% in control of what he's doing, he knows what's going on, and he's very well-versed in many instruments. There's a specific tune from a group he has called Knower; I think the title of the song is "F*** the Makeup, Skip the Shower." That was one of the first moments I got a chance to really fall in love with Louis Cole's music. It's one of those things where the progression's happening, the way it's moving, the speed it's moving at — it feels very simple, but it's extremely complicated. I would like to say, I love you man. I'm excited to see where you're going, where you'll take things, all the time. Keep creating, man. What you're doing is definitely changing the world. Just keep going.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for Play It Forward, our series where artists tell us about their music and the musicians who inspire them. Last week, the singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd told us why she's grateful for the bassist, producer and singer Stephen Lee Bruner, who performs as Thundercat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIA DOI TODD: Bass frequencies - they move the heart and the core. So I just love the bass. And Thundercat is a genius bass player - super lyrical, like Jaco Pastorius.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK QUALLS")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) No more living in fear.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go to Thundercat next, so what would you like to say to him?

TODD: Hi, Thundercat. It's Mia.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TODD: I hope you're well these days. I put on your records, and I don't feel lonely, even in these crazy times. I feel like everything's going to be OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK QUALLS")

STEVE ARRINGTON: (Singing) Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don't need your co-sign.

SHAPIRO: And Thundercat joins us now.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

THUNDERCAT: Thank you for having me. That was - that was very sweet.

SHAPIRO: What do you think of what you just heard from Mia Doi Todd?

THUNDERCAT: I think that was - it was a little slightly overwhelming, you know? It's...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

THUNDERCAT: I appreciate it beyond reason. It makes me feel better about everything a bit right now.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

THUNDERCAT: That was very sweet of her to do that.

SHAPIRO: What's it like to hear that people are listening to your music and feeling less lonely?

THUNDERCAT: It's trippy. It's pretty trippy, you know? It's so weird how it translates. I feel like it's - sometimes you don't know how it's going to translate. So it's always like a bit of a - there's a bit of a surprise when, you know - when it - when and if it does like that, you know? I don't - I don't know. Because a lot of the time I feel like it's more just me in my head, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT IS WHAT IT IS")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Sometimes there's regret. It is what it is. It couldn't be helped.

SHAPIRO: This album that came out in April is called "It Is What It Is." What does that sentence mean to you now?

THUNDERCAT: It means ups and downs and strikes and gutters. And it's kind of like the good and the bad, you know? It kind of goes hand in hand. And I don't know, it's - it tends to be a bit funny for me now, you know, where it's kind of like when there is no answer, it just is what it is, you know? It's like, (laughter) - like, what are you going to do, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT SONG "IT IS WHAT IT IS")

THUNDERCAT: But, yeah, it's a bit more of a - it feels a bit more comedic for me at this point, for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT SONG "IT IS WHAT IT IS")

SHAPIRO: It's interesting that you say comedic. I mean, Mia Doi Todd described your music as heartfelt and honest and funny, too. And those are three words that I don't often tie together, but they do really describe your music. How important is humor to the songs that you write?

THUNDERCAT: It's, you know - it's very, very heavily entangled in there, to be honest - the comedy. And I don't know. It's just - it's something that I've always thought that was important ever since I was a kid, you know, to laugh. And, you know, being able to laugh is, like, one of the best feelings ever.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the track on this album that I think has the most overt, outright surface comedy, which is "Dragonball Durag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRAGONBALL DURAG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I feel kinda...

(Laughter) "Dragonball Durag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRAGONBALL DURAG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Baby girl, how do I look in my durag? Would you tell me the truth?

Well, (laughter) it has a pretty - it has a pretty funny story behind it. There was a person I was dating a while ago. And I remember that it was like I - sometimes you don't - you never know the things that makes - that attracts the other person to you, you know? You never know. I was just kind of lounging in the house in my durag. (Laughter) And I remember the look in the - in the person I was with. I remember the look in their eyes. And I was like, why is she like - what's going on here?

(LAUGHTER)

THUNDERCAT: And she said it to me. She was like - she liked how I looked in my durag.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRAGONBALL DURAG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Endlessly.

(Laughter) You know...

SHAPIRO: What you thought was your fashion weakness was actually your fashion strength.

THUNDERCAT: (Laughter) Yeah. It's like, you know, she liked it. And, you know, the rest is history.

SHAPIRO: Just before we started this recording, you were talking about your cat making a mess on the floor. And there is a line in this song - I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRAGONBALL DURAG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good. Baby, let me know...

Oh, my God. If any - I feel like that's the most literal statement I've ever said...

(LAUGHTER)

THUNDERCAT: ...In my life. That's going to be on my - that's going to be on my headstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRAGONBALL DURAG")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Let me know, how do I look in my durag? I'm trying to get intimate.

SHAPIRO: Well, Thundercat, it's your turn to Play It Forward and tell us about an artist who you're thankful for. And because this is the finale of our second season, this is going to be the last link in the chain. So who do you want us to go out on?

THUNDERCAT: I'm going to go ahead, and I'm going to go ahead and say Louis Cole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS")

LOUIS COLE: (Singing) Never guess and never know. Losing everything you own.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about him.

THUNDERCAT: Man, Louis Cole is, I think, one of Los Angeles's greatest musicians. And saying perfectionist is like - that's not it. That's not it. It's one of those things where he's - he is 100% in control of what he's doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS")

COLE: (Singing) A bolt of lightning from the blue, yeah. Now it's really clear to you. Things may not...

SHAPIRO: Tell us about a track of his for people who aren't familiar with his music. What can we play to introduce people to him?

THUNDERCAT: There's a specific tune from a group that he has called KNOWER. And, I mean, I know I'm not supposed to cuss on air, but I think the title of the song is "[Expletive] The Makeup, Skip The Shower."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** THE MAKEUP, SKIP THE SHOWER")

KNOWER: (Singing) There is nothing to improve me. This is not a [expletive] movie. I am not a superhero.

THUNDERCAT: And that was one of the first moments I got a chance to really fall in love with Louis Cole's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** THE MAKEUP, SKIP THE SHOWER")

KNOWER: (Singing) This is not what I agreed on. This is not what I agreed on.

SHAPIRO: What do you hear when you listen to this?

THUNDERCAT: I'm hearing colors flying. I'm hearing Genevieve's voice. And it's mostly - it's Genevieve's voice.

SHAPIRO: That's Genevieve Artadi, the singer.

THUNDERCAT: Yes. That's Genevieve Artadi. And it's one of those things where the progressions happening...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** THE MAKEUP, SKIP THE SHOWER")

KNOWER: (Singing) Repetitious, repetitious, repetitious, repetitious, repetitious.

THUNDERCAT: ...The way it's moving, the speed it's moving at - it's very simple. It feels very simple, but is extremely complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHONE")

COLE: (Singing) You always pick up your phone.

SHAPIRO: Well, what would you like to say to Louis Cole of the duo KNOWER?

THUNDERCAT: I would like to say, I love you, man. I'm excited to see where you're going, where you'll take things all the time. And keep creating, man. You're - what you're doing is definitely changing the world. Just keep going.

SHAPIRO: Thundercat's latest album is called "It Is What It Is." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

THUNDERCAT: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHONE)

COLE: (Singing) Alone. The weirdest times I call you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.