As music director for Bruno Mars’ band, the Hooligans, Phred Brown has played on some of the world’s biggest stages, whether it is the Grammys, the Super Bowl, or sold-out shows at mega-venues like Madison Square Garden or London’s O2 Arena.
That’s quite the jump from his humble beginnings playing piano bars in Detroit, but Brown is the type of person to make his own luck.
The Detroit native grew up playing several different instruments, which eventually led to a scholarship at the University of Michigan’s music school. That endeavor ended after only about five weeks, as the “school” part of the equation just wasn’t something that interested him.
“I had never studied music like that; I had just absorbed a lot of theory from my mother, who was a music teacher, and growing up in that environment,” Brown said. “It really was a great program, but music had never been academic for me. The tests just felt odd to me, so I left.”
Brown returned to Detroit, where he led his own band and gigged around town in random nightclubs.
In 2009, Brown decided to try his luck in Los Angeles, and he moved to California on a whim. Soon, a friend of Brown’s referred him to Mars, and a solid relationship was quickly formed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fender caught up with Brown at the Fender Artist Showroom in Burbank, Calif., to talk about his Motor City roots and his meteoric rise in the music industry.
Fender News: How many instruments do you play?
Phred Brown: I played drums and piano growing up. My mom taught music, and she said that I once told her that she couldn’t give lessons to students anymore and could only teach me. I started playing piano at that point, and then started playing drums in church. From there, I picked up trumpet and trombone and saxophone. I ended up playing trombone all the way through school. I had a fever when I was a kid, where I wanted to know how that instrument worked. I remember playing tuba for a graduation in high school because the bass clarinet player was graduating. At this point, guitar, keys, bass and horns are the ones I play the most.
FN: When did you pick up the guitar?
PB: The first time I started playing guitar was in the ninth grade. Bass was in middle school, but I started to really hear the guitar in the music I was listening to in the ninth grade. I’m from Detroit, so Motown was a big influence. But as I got to high school, the bass took me to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flea. Listening to John Frusciante really opened my eyes to the guitar. I just wanted to know what he was doing, so I spent maybe two or three years focusing on the guitar.
Have you always played Stratocasters?
PB: I’ve always wanted to play Strats because all my guitar heroes play Strats – [Jimi] Hendrix, [Eric] Clapton, S.R.V., John Mayer. The versatility of the sound that I’m trying to get, I’m now finding how to get exactly what I need through the Stratocaster.
In your opinion, why has the Stratocaster been able to stand the test of time for 60 years?
PB: For one thing, it’s extremely customizable. If there’s a certain style you want to play, there’s a mod for it. If you’re a blues player and want a little grit, you can do that. If you’re a country player and need some twang, you can do that. There is something for everybody. I’ve been listening to Eddie Van Halen a lot, and the Frankenstein is a perfect example. He said, “This is what I need a guitar to do. I can start with a Strat and get to where I want to go.”
Have you played with lots of bands before hooking up with Bruno Mars?
PB: After leaving Michigan I went back home to Detroit and started playing in bands, jamming with whomever. I’d play bass, guitar, whatever was needed. Really, it was kind of a collegiate experience in itself, being in bars and putting those hours in. I feel like the only way to follow your dreams is just to do it.
How did you find your way to Los Angeles?
PB: I was actually planning on moving to Chicago, but I came out here and hung out for a month and actually found some work. Then there was a friend of mine from kindergarten that I was hanging out with whose roommate was moving out. So then, I had an apartment and a job. I thought that was pretty good. I drove back to Detroit, packed up all my stuff and came back. Sometimes you just have to go for it.
How did you meet Bruno?
PB: One of the bands I was in here in L.A. was named Kenji Chan. We were talking one day, and he had just met Bruno, who was looking for musicians for his band. I sent a video of me at a keyboard singing “Bring It on Home to Me” by Sam Cooke. Maybe a week and a half later we were in rehearsals, and then it was a year and a half of touring.
And you’ve had some pretty big highlights with the Hooligans, right?
PB: Yeah, I mean the Super Bowl was an incredible experience. And MSG [Madison Square Garden], I couldn’t believe that. Going from playing in front of 300 or 400 people to headlining arenas in six months was crazy.
It’s just saying yes to the opportunity. The opportunity presented itself, and I jumped. I’m glad that I did.
What are you working on now?
PB: I’ve been writing some stuff for myself and with some other artists. I’ve been doing a lot of producing, too. The ability to write songs is a muscle that you need to exercise. That’s the only way you’ll get better. Even producing, that’s something that you need to keep fresh.
Catch Brown performing the song “Uptown Funk” with Mars and producer Mark Ronson on the Nov. 27 episode of Saturday Night Live and click here to watch the video for the explosive track.