It might seem strange for a self-described “indecisive” guy like Grand Forks native Brent Paschke to make career plans before he was old enough to apply for a driver’s license, but he said he “just knew” all along that music was his calling.
“That was just never a question,” he said. “In the seventh grade, I quit all sports. There was never a backup plan.”
His risk paid off, and Paschke has gone from an ambitious guitarist who was convinced he’d make a suitable replacement for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante in the early 1990s to a musician, producer and songwriter who seems to have his imprint on everything these days.
Over the years, Paschke has earned acclaim and the respect of fellow musicians — not to mention an ongoing gig with one of the biggest names in music and the chance to open for major acts like the Black Eyed Peas.
Getting a break
Paschke graduated from Red River High School in 1990 and then attended a music school in Minneapolis. He cut his teeth as the guitarist for Twin Cities pop rock group Spymob, a band formed in 1993 that seemed poised for stardom.
But a common occurrence for new bands — unexpectedly getting dropped from a record deal — changed those plans.
Paschke said the band’s lawyer also represented Pharrell Williams, half of the Grammy-winning production team The Neptunes. Pharrell had a meeting with the president of Epic Records, who had just dropped Spymob, and Paschke said the timing worked out perfectly even though the band was “really bummed.”
“Pharrell went in there telling her he loved Epic Records and his favorite band, Spymob, is on her label,” he said. “She then had to break the news to him that she just dropped us. Pharrell was like, ‘O.K., that’s fine, then I’ll sign them.’ That’s where it all started.”
Paschke and the rest of Spymob were quickly recruited to play on “In Search of…,” the 2002 debut album by Pharrell’s rock and hip-hop group N.E.R.D. The album went gold in the U.S., quickly making the Spymob guys a hot commodity in the music world.
Not familiar with their music? Paschke said explaining their sound is a bit tough to put into words, but it’s a “beautiful experience like you’ve never had.”
“If you’d say the sound of Steely Dan is like driving west on sunset, I’d say the sound of N.E.R.D. is like gassing up Apollo 13 and orbiting the Earth with a front-row view of the Orion,” he said.
Paschke still works with Pharrell today and is “the guitar player that Pharrell uses 95 percent of the time he has someone play guitars,” he said.
“I’ve worked with Pharrell now for close to 10 years, so I have a great understanding and connection to what he’s thinking artistically,” he said.
He’s played on several N.E.R.D. albums over the past decade, including the group’s fourth album, “Nothing,” which was recently released.
Life in L.A.
Paschke moved to Los Angeles in 2006, a move he said gave him more opportunity than he could find in the Midwest.
“There’s that part of small-town, easygoing, not-so-crazy life that’s just appealing,” he said. “But as far as music goes, to be on any kind of next-level thing, Los Angeles is really the hotspot right now.”
He’s kept busy in recent years, and got the chance to play on two Katy Perry songs featured on her chart-topping 2010 album “Teenage Dream.” He said Perry “wanted to be there to direct the parts.”
“I really dig Katy,” he said. “I thought it was cool that she was that involved in the process. She’s very talented.”
Paschke said he’s focusing more these days on his production team with Shy Carter and Ahmed Oliver, a team that’s already worked with Ray Jay and will soon be featured on his show.
“I feel like now I’m on a journey of writing and producing more,” he said. “I still play a lot of guitar, but now I’m trying to get some motion as a writer and a producer.”
And Paschke’s been involved with several other major artists over the years, producing some songs for Taylor Dayne and writing and producing Joey McIntyre’s last EP.
Paschke said L.A. is much more “glamorous” and flashy than his Midwestern hometown, and said it still feels unnatural to have to boast about himself as he plays the music industry’s “game.”
But he said his upbringing in Grand Forks — and the North Dakota work ethic he picked up along the way — has probably helped him make it in a competitive industry.
“When you can go in and you’ve honed your craft a lot, you’re a great player,” he said. “That’s what counts. A lot of guys will talk the game, and they get in because they talk the game. But at a point, they might not be the last guy recording on the song.”