Farzad with The Burning Peppermints, photo courtesy of Dez Wilson
By Lindsay McDuffie
Intense passion compels the best musicians. We see it every day–Alabama has a fire in its belly. One band, The Burning Peppermints, has forged ahead as a cardinal element in Birmingham’s alchemical music scene. Ahmad Farzad is one such wizard, playing baritone guitar for the Peppermints, producing quality records at his own recording studio, King of the Jungle Productions (KJP), and sharing his gracious attitude and learned experience with those who stand in his light.
But it’s not magic–it’s hard work. It’s regret. It’s redemption. In part one of this interview, we discussed Ahmad’s role as a record producer. In part two of this interview, featured below, we discuss his role as a musician, and the unending passion it took to become one of the best.
The Peppermints are playing Sloss Fest this year. How are you and the guys preparing for this opportunity?
Honestly, we’re working just as hard as we’ve worked when Sloss Fest wasn’t on the bill, when St. Paul and the Broken Bones wasn’t on our schedule. That’s pretty much our game plan; just keep doing what we’ve been doing, being as critical on ourselves as we usually are. But also, don’t change shit, make the most of the opportunities that come our way. Hopefully that will continue to work. And when it stops working, we’ll have to assess the situation [laughs].
Growing up, you took guitar lessons in Vestavia from someone named Greg, the same guy my brother took lessons from. Who have been your mentors, and how did they shape your approach to making music?
Greg was a great starting-out point for me, because I went to one guitar school and I was like, “Hey, can I learn ‘Happy Birthday’ by next week?” They were like, “No, here’s sheet music to Elvis’ ‘Love Me Tender’.” And I was like, I can’t get into this. Then I went to Greg and was like, “Can you show me how to play these Metallica and Green Day songs and play these solos?” And he was like, “Yes.” And I was like, “This is my guy!”
Greg was awesome. He helped me get started. But I gotta admit, I don’t know if I should say that helped shape me as a musician, though, other than thinking that was just a part of my journey. I have weird, mixed feelings about it. He was very encouraging, like a teacher.
But my mentors were…honestly, with playing music, other than my own personal influences, Dave Grohl’s drumming on the Nirvana, In Utero album made me want to play guitar more than Kurt Cobain’s guitar riffs. I just knew I wanted to make that type of feeling happen when I was playing guitar.
Then, honestly, guys like Big Haas, Fantom of the Beat—he worked with Wu Tang, came up with them; did hits with Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim and 50 Cent–he was that type of producer. When I was in New York, he helped me out a lot. He taught me a lot of lessons I wasn’t mature enough to totally get. But he’s still with me, those lessons are still with me.
From left to right: Fantom of the Beat aka Haas G (Platinum Award Winning producer, “Magic Stick” went Double Platinum); Ahmad; E.M. (Ghost Producer, Eminem, Norah Jones)
There was one time he agreed to come meet me in the city. And I stood him up! [laughs] He wouldn’t answer an email from me for over a year. I felt so guilty. That’s where a different type of mentoring—; turns out, he still loves me and cares about me, but he was like, “Oh, you pushed that line, bro. You have to grow up before you can get my attention again. I was too good to you”-type of deal. So that helped me a lot, too. That lesson is with me a lot.
Then there was this guy, Tone Capone. I’ve got a quote from him on the website. He’s been a VP of EMI Latin America, VP at Motown Records, former Urban Music Director at Jive and TVT Records, and currently Executive Producer at Hot 97 in New York, which is a huge station up there. He helped me in business ways, on the music industry side. And honestly, being encouraging and stuff—once I was able to meet him and not be scared to be around him, because I wanted something from him.
And again, I was super immature when I first met him. This was all around the exact same time [as Fantom]. I gave [Tone Capone] a call, and his office actually got him to call me back for our first conversation, and I was the biggest idiot. Just so immature and ineffective. Just wasting his time, clearly. And that guy didn’t answer an email from me for maybe six months or a year. But yeah, that helped me grow up a lot, too! [laughs] But then I went to this thing in Chicago, where I met with top people from just everything. So I took them all gifts! [laughs]
What were the gifts?!
Signed baseballs. There was this player named Armando Galarraga. He threw the twenty-first ever no-hitter. And on the last bat, the ump made a bad call. And it cost this dude one of the top no-hitters of all baseball history. The umpire, I forgot his name, he got death threats. He felt so bad for taking that away from Armando. But Armando was a gentleman about all of it.
Anyway, this is when that had happened. I got signed baseballs because my friend–his sister was married to him. So we got signed balls for all of the music industry people I had meetings with, and also just Tone. I made them all my dad’s lotus images [Ahmad’s father is a renowned photographer of lotus flowers.] He did beautiful prints on watercolor paper, and he signed them all and stuff. I took them all multiple photos, prints too, with that signed baseball. So that definitely helped land a little bit. They were like, “Just write ‘lotus’ or ‘baseball’ on the emails you send so we know who it’s from.”
So, all those guys. It’s weird. Jake’s been a mentor. My best musical mentor. [Jake Wittig, guitarist/vocalist/founder of The Burning Peppermints]. I’ve never had to get good—I never actually had to play like a musician until I started playing in this band. When we’re all really young, leading is not the easiest thing to do. I made so many mistakes, because I used to lead my bands too, for years and years. So, we both helped each other out immensely. It’s been crazy. I’m glad my mind hasn’t been shut down to let someone pretty much half my age help me learn, you know? That’s why the band, the Peppermints, is, at least for now, working. Because there’s actual respect. Still, we’re all fuckin’ weirdos, and we’re all sorta stubborn, too. But we all have good hearts, so we try our best.
You once mentioned that the time has come for local bands, in Birmingham and everywhere, to demand a higher quality sound from their soundchecks. Can you expound on this?
Once I started playing in bands in Birmingham, we started playing at certain newer venues that had a professional monitoring system. Once we started playing at shows like that, we did a bad job at first. We were like, “Oh, it’s good enough.” When you’re sound checking, no one’s in the room. You can hear everything fine, and [when the show starts] the room is entirely full, which changes everything. And then all of a sudden, in your monitor, your bass will sound like a distorted acoustic guitar.
There are certain spots here in Birmingham where people will be like, “I hated playing that stage because it’s so hard to hear myself.” And I realized, it’s not so much the room or the rooms, it’s the fact that with any band that keeps growing, they’re going to play bigger venues. And when you play a bigger venue, you’re going to need to know how to set up your monitors well.
I think a lot of more local artists are getting a taste of what it’s like to be on a stage where monitoring is crazy important. We have to demand it from ourselves to work harder to be more professional musicians. So I think this one place in particular is forcing artists to get better at monitor mixes. Or else, if you keep growing, you’re just gonna keep running into the same problem.
We’ve also played with bigger bands lately, and we’ve talked to them about monitoring. They gave us a lot of their personal feedback and suggestions on what to look for in certain rooms on certain touring circuits. It was pretty awesome to get such precise feedback. And to this day, they still can’t get it right after playing over 100 shows over the past two years. So that’s something.
What are some of your favorite recordings of music?
I mean, straight up, Steve Albini’s recording of Nirvana’s In Utero. When I heard that the first time, that shit blew my mind. Just the power, the way the drums were coming through, I felt them so hard. That was my most influential recording as a younger dude.
And now, I just like so many different types of recordings. I don’t really have another answer. Deadmau5’s <album title goes here>, that thing is the most gorgeous sounding electronic album I’ve ever heard to this day. The sounds are so beautiful. And old jazz recordings are pretty solid, too. I really like those a lot.
With your experience as a music producer and recording artist, what advice do you have for someone looking to be successful in the industry?
Nothing worth doing is easy. Instant gratifications are easier, but really building something like a musical institution or a band—if it’s not just all about the money for you—is going to be difficult. If it is all about the money, it’s going to be difficult. One of them has a better payoff, but, it’s hard. Anything in the entertainment industry is hard. People can be taken advantage of easily because their dreams are at stake. Or everything that happens good or bad is taken extra heavily because it’s all heart.
If you want to go learn to be an accountant, a dentist, a lawyer, a doctor—you can go to school, you go through these steps, and then once you get certification, you start applying to jobs. But there’s nothing like that for the music industry. I went to music university too, extensively. But I feel it doesn’t really prepare you for what’s to come.
The best thing I can suggest is to follow your heart. Because if things do happen for you, and you’re following your heart, all you gotta do is keep being yourself and following your heart. If you don’t follow your heart, and you’re not successful at it, it’s a nasty feeling. But if you don’t follow your heart and you are successful, chances are you can’t keep it up. So you’ll lose it as well.
Find first what you love and what you want to be remembered as, as an artist and professional, and work towards that. If you follow your heart, whichever way it goes, at least you’ll have some sort of action, some little thing to cling onto depending on what this crazy life is throwing at you.
Catch Ahmad, Jake, and the rest of The Burning Peppermints crew at Sloss Fest, Sunday the 17th, at the Shed Stage from 3:15-4:00pm.