By Lindsay McDuffie
If you’ve spent considerable time in Birmingham’s music scene, you might recognize Ahmad Farzad’s man bun towering above a black leather jacket, or possibly a cotton white tee with “Truth = Beauty” written across the front in permanent marker. Ahmad (pronounced uh-MOD or, by his Persian family, AH-mad) is a Birmingham native, bassist for The Burning Peppermints and King Magnum, and owner of King of the Jungle Productions (KJP), where he records, mixes, and masters performances from some of the Southeast’s finest musicians. My interview with him far exceeds the space of a single write-up, so we’ll first discuss Ahmad’s role as music producer. In part two of this interview, we’ll discuss his role as music maker.
[Mother Plug] What are your current projects at KJP?
[Ahmad Farzad] The new Peppermints album, Taylor Hollingsworth, Taylor Shaw, Dead Balloons, Elliot aka Meridian. All of these acts are Birmingham people who I think are super talented, uniquely talented. So I’m super pumped to work with them.
What’s the process you go through, in your mind, when you decide to record an artist or take on a new project?
I have to believe in them. It’s not easy. I’ve turned down fine money because there were artists that wanted to work with me, but I felt it wasn’t—it’s one thing for artists to just have a good time doing it. But I take everything so seriously, [laughs] that I need people who are super serious about it, too. Because then I can work my butt off for them. But if there are people who are gonna be happier with all their lyrics being moved to a grid so it’s perfectly on beat, putting on auto-tune, stuff like that—I just can’t do it. They can go somewhere else and get it done faster and cheaper.
But, I don’t know, I just like artists that are speaking their own truth from their hearts. Because I can do that well here. If I’ve got an artist like Taylor Hollingsworth, who’s a local guy, I told him he’s diarrhea-ing gold out of his mouth when he was recording his Country Western project. Because it’s so effortless when he’s performing.
Taylor Shaw does the same thing for me. I feel like he’s wrapping his arms around me when he’s playing his acoustic music that we’re producing here. So, to answer your question, what I look for is them speaking honestly from the heart, even if it’s not the greatest talent-wise. At least if it’s from the heart, that’s, like, something.
I was at one of those Taylor Hollingsworth recordings, and something very cool happened. Michael [Shackelford, local musician/producer] was taking his jacket on and off the chair to go smoke. You said that would normally peeve you, because it would throw off the sound you had set up for the room. But, it didn’t affect the sound. You remarked you actually became a better person because of what Michael taught you. What did you learn about yourself that night?
With Michael, it actually wasn’t on the chair, he was taking his jacket on and off the kick drum. Normally when I do that stuff on purpose to get the sound a certain way in the room, I’ll tape it down, take pictures, so nothing moves literally a millimeter. Some people believe that the difference between a B-grade recording and an A+ recording can be a matter of a few millimeters. And I agree. So, yeah, normally someone making the instrument in the room sound a certain way and then moving that baffler or whatever, then putting it back on, and moving it—I’m like, not cool with that. But you know, Micheal just made it work. His ear is so good. He’d throw the jacket on and start playing, and he’s like, “Oh, no, it’s not back to where it was” or “it’s not right.” So he’ll move it. That’s why I was able to grow, because his ear was so on point with his setup, that he was able to get it back to where it needed to be every time. And so I just learned to sort of relax, you know?
But that’s the other thing, too—why I won’t work with certain artists and why I love working with certain artists. Artists like that I’m constantly learning from and getting better being around these guys. And where I’m at in my life, in my career, that’s what I need really badly. Because I want to keep growing. I want to be great. So, I learned a little bit of humanity and studio techniques that night.
You once mentioned starting a recording studio in New York. What happened with that, and why did you decide to start back in Birmingham?
Well, I didn’t start one in New York. After I finished up school in Boston I went up to New York and finally got an opportunity to be a vocal producer at a West Village studio, private studio, that was in a $20 million loft space. The FBI was in the same building. It was an insane room and area, you could see the water. But, my boss—he was smart, and he was talented, but he wasn’t a good dude. And ultimately, as good of face as he had with me, ultimately the cracks started to show. I realized he didn’t really care about me, and he was sort of nutballs. Like, seriously. So I ended up getting an offer to go intern at the Boston Music Conference. It started as an internship but I ended up helping to run it.
I ended up leaving my [West Village] job, and everybody thought I was crazy because they were paying me a lot there. All my expenses were paid. But I worked for a few more producers afterwards, throughout New York, for much less pay. I didn’t have a place to live the last year-plus of my time there. So, then I came back to Alabama to open up this place, and started designing and building it so it could be all the good things of the stuff I experienced, and none of the bad things I experienced.
What are the good things?
The bad things [laughs] are being in studios and not being able to record with your whole band all at once. Like, you practice together and play shows together, then when you go to immortalize it and you’re paying for it, you all of a sudden change it up completely—that makes zero sense to me. I never like that. That’s one of the bad things that, here, is a good thing. Artists who want that, you can do that here.
The good things—experience was the good thing, from the different places I worked. Like, even if they weren’t the best dudes, a lot of my mentors there are hit music producers. They have closets with old records, platinum records, on the floor. Those guys got the job done. They are doing their thing. So that’s one cool thing about this place—I’ve been relentlessly working to find my thing. That’s what I knew I needed to come back to Birmingham to do, because I knew I would never be able to have my thing up there. They are all talented too, so why go somewhere else unless they’ve got something special? So I’ve been working on a character. So that’s a good thing here because of a good thing there, knowing I just have to find my thing.
And be really professional about it, too. A lot of my mentors were also industry executives at different labels. Those guys are pretty hardcore about stuff. Even though I’m growing as a human being, and I’m still not a master or anything, having their example and being able to bring it back here helps me relate that to some of the people I work with who haven’t had those experiences. While I always keep my mind open to learning from the people here, too.
When you first set up KJP, what kind of vibe or atmosphere did you want the place to have, and how do you feel you’ve accomplished it?
I was working in all pop stuff up North, so when I came down here, I was sort of thinking the same thing. But then I designed and built the live room and heard the way it all sounded—it’s so beautiful and so musical. I sent all my most recent [pop] work at the time to a friend in Boston. He got back to me and was like, “Yo, everything you sent me sucks. You’re an artist and none of this shit sounds like an artist’s. It’s just horrible. This is not you at all. If this was a way for me to meet you, like introduce yourself to me, I got nothing.” So, that hit home hard. I wasn’t even having fun doing it.
Also, when I was up North, all we ever talked about was what’s hot next year, what’s hot two years from now, three years, four years, five years from now. And that shit’s not musical, at all, to think about all the time. And so, my sort of lazy but I think also healthy way to deal with that was like, okay, what’s always hot, and just try to figure that out.
And I finally realized: humanity is always hot. You still have to look for your markets, depending on what type of music you have, what type of goals you have. It just happened that I’ve got a very human room that amplifies humanity, I think. If something sounds good, it sounds better in there. If something sounds bad, it sounds worse in that room. So that’s half of the most important part of the vibe, is this “I’m only after humanity.”
The other most important part is that I was an artist (and still am), but I was for years until I decided to get into recording. So I understand how most recording studios aren’t nurturing to artists. And I try to be, sometimes to a fault, as nurturing as possible to artists. Unless my gut’s like, “Yo, this is a bad idea! They’re wasting time.” Then I’ll really stand by my guns on that type of stuff. But usually it’s on point when I feel that way, so the artists get it too. And you know, just caring. Being an artistically nurturing place to immortalize your work.