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“The Truth Is We’re Not Going to Stop Existing”: Thundercat on Anime, Inertia, and His New Album

The singer, songwriter, and peerless bass player talks about creativity in the time of quarantine

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By the time “Very Good Advice” comes around in the 1951 Disney adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the film’s titular character has ventured far enough into the harlequin fantasy to know it’s not all cotton candy clouds and daylong tea breaks. She tries to soldier on to the end of the journey, then searches frantically for a way back home, and when neither works, she does as all Disney princesses do: plops down in a clearing and breaks into song. “Well, I went along my merry way, and I never stopped to reason,” she sings, as all the strange, make-believe creatures of Tulgey Wood slowly disappear. “I should’ve known there’d be a price to pay / someday, someday.” It’s a somber moment in an otherwise bright and whimsical movie for children, and a reprieve for the audience to gather themselves before the film’s conclusion: Eventually, the song says, Wonderland must collide with reality.

“It Is What It Is” would be a similar gathering point on Thundercat’s new album, It Is What It Is, out last Friday, if it didn’t arrive at the very end. If you were to look at his dreads coiled into buns, his iridescent nail polish, and his likes on Twitter, you’d surmise that Thundercat’s world is a fanciful one filled with all the things your brain does at 3 a.m. when you’re trying to sleep, and it is. But despair is one of those things. “I tried to make it work,” he sings. “My best just wasn’t enough.” By the time the title track comes around, the singer, songwriter, and peerless bass player has completed an exacting lyrical journey inward—after the passing of his close personal friend Mac Miller in 2018, Thundercat “took the darker path” when making this “somber” record, according to his coproducer and label boss Flying Lotus. When Thundercat and I speak about it in late March, he describes their relationship like one between a director and a film editor—FlyLo is someone who thinks about the “who, if, what, and why”—which contributes to the cinematic quality of It Is What It Is.

The album is sequenced like captain’s logs from the sole survivor of a deep space mission. The album’s middle section (from “Miguel’s Happy Dance” to the lead single “Dragonball Durag”) is emblematic of the wayward, very-online charm that separates Thundercat from other vocal jazz artists, and plays a bit like the dispatches at six months in, when the freeze-dried ice cream has run out and you’re talking to the smiley face you painted on the wall with half a day’s rations. The final section of It Is What It Is often feels big, but more than that, like the acceptance of someone who’s realized how big and cold and unfeeling the universe truly is.

When we spoke on the phone, Thundercat’s was the first human voice I’d heard in 24 hours. Due to genuine shock I forgot all about my dazzling Alice in Wonderland comparison, but we did talk about processing grief, overcoming inertia, working with Flying Lotus, and that anime you recommended to him on Twitter. (He’s seen it.)

If you were like, 13, with no monthly payments or obligations, in your old neighborhood with your old friends, what would you be doing right now?

I’d still be in the house watching anime. I can’t totally say that—I had one friend that lived down the street and we’d trade Marvel cards every now and again. Or I’d play Super Nintendo.

Drunk came from a busy period when you were playing in WOKE and working with Flying Lotus on the Kuso score. Was the writing process for this album more solitary?

This album is definitely more me by myself—with contributions from my friends, of course. There would be moments when I’d go out and share and I wasn’t sure how it’d translate—a lot of the time I would prefer to record and do things on my own, in my own space. Especially with the vocals and stuff like that.

What’s your working relationship with Flying Lotus like? How does he push you creatively?

The narrative to the aesthetic to the visual, he’s always trying to spark the flame of creativity when it comes to these things with me. I’m always sort of there, in my mind, and sometimes it needs to be pulled out a bit. Distorting and turning the volume up, sequencing, like, processing. Getting at the who, if, and what and why.

How do you corner your thoughts? Do you sit down with the intention of “I’m going to write a song”?

Sometimes you do intentionally sit down and do it, sometimes you sit down and there’s nothing there, sometimes you sit down and there’s a lot there. Mostly, it’s about not shying away from what the idea is. It can be genuinely challenging.

Can any part of it be therapeutic?

It can be, but it’s not like people’s stereotype of a songwriter where your pain goes into your art. It can, but it doesn’t always work like that. It’s not like your real life doesn’t affect your creative life. They’re one and the same.

But I mean, once you’ve pushed out a song like “It Is What It Is,” is there any feeling of relief? Of closure?

Sometimes it can create PTSD. It’s a bit of a snapshot and—sometimes it’s hard to look back and see a body of work that came from such a hard place, but it’s still a piece of art. That’s the reality. You find your peace about it, you know? It just … is what it is.

How do you overcome the feeling of inertia?

You mean things getting heavier and harder? The truth is, in my opinion, it’s not that you do, you just are altered. It’s sorta welded onto you and you carry it and it becomes this part of not just your story, but how you do things … until it’s not anymore. Until you learn whatever there is to learn from it and grow in the manner that you would.

You’re changed forever.

Especially when you’re young, you know? You think you’re invincible and then you learn otherwise. But in those moments, you just try not to let them overtake you and take you out, that’s all.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic, you were headed out on tour. How does an entire festival season stuck inside change the landscape of things?

But the truth is we’re not going to stop existing. Creative energy isn’t to be killed off by us, we’re just participating in it. It might change the way people monetize things. But the landscape will only change in the sense of people being like, more aware of each other. People better cover their fucking mouths when they cough, I know that much. [Laughs]

Once this is over, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?

Sit on the couch and watch Naruto again. [Laughs]

What’s the best way to recommend an anime to somebody?

There always has to be a frame of reference, to know where to point them. You’ve got to know what someone’s been watching. Like, [anime] is one of those things I love, and any time I tweet about it people act like “Oh, you’re just now watching this,” and it’s like, “Dude, I’m fucking 35!”