The Burning Peppermints are a Birmingham-based band whose star has risen sharply and suddenly, catapulting from relative obscurity to opening for the nationally and internationally known (but homegrown) St. Paul and the Broken Bones over the course of about a year. They play an interesting, blended style, with often frantic drumbeats and loud guitar — noise and reverb are especially prominent — and vocals that are hard to describe, though Les Claypool is one name that comes to mind.
Lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Jake Wittig said of their style, “the string of words I always go back to is psychedelic surf punk, though I think the surf part of that string of words more accurately describes our first album. But definitely I think psychedelic punk would be the general words to use. The new stuff is a lot darker, and a little more Southern than it is surfy, but it definitely still has that surf influence to it, that really heavy reverb and that heavy drumbeat in there.”
Of the vocals, Wittig said, “I don’t have a really pretty voice or anything, but I’m good at doing imitations — I can shape my voice. So when I go into songs I go into like, different characters and kind of jump all over the place and just give the vocals as many colors as I can, just because I can’t always get in all the notes I want to.”
The band mixes impeccable timing and a sense of cohesion that is hard to believe is coming from a band that has existed for just over a year. It certainly seems like things may just be getting started for the relative upstarts from Hoover and Vestavia Hills.
“For me, right now, I’ve been at this full-time for a year,” said Wittig, “and things keep climbing; if things start declining and we’re not continuing to do well, then I’ll explore alternatives after that point. But right now, things keep going up: we started with getting to play Secret Stages last year…and then Paul Janeway called me and asked us to open for them, and then we got to play SlossFest, so bigger things keep happening.”
Wittig is something of a wunderkind, having graduated high school just over a year ago. Much of the material that the Peppermints play is his writing handiwork, and despite being only 19 years old, he is the band’s leader. He started off playing with an entirely different lineup about a year ago, and at some point local music producer Ahmad Farzad became aware of them and wanted to record them at his studio, King of the Jungle Productions, just off of Highway 31 in Vestavia Hills.
The band formed around that recording session and the events leading up to it: Farzad is now the Peppermints’ baritone guitar player (which is functionally analogous to the bass), and Ryan Colebeck, the band’s drummer, was Farzad’s friend and so was a natural choice. Rounding out the lineup is Daniel Powers on keyboards; Powers and Wittig were best friends throughout high school.
Farzad, who is 36 (and a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, focusing on music production), said in a recent interview with Lindsay McDuffie at Mother Plug Music, “Jake’s been a mentor, my best musical mentor. 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.”
Farzad’s experience and acumen in the recording booth are a tremendous asset to the group; recording studio time is not cheap in the first place, and having the luxury of an engineer with his own studio as a member of the band is useful, to say the least. He also has extensive experience in the fast-paced, competitive world of music production in New York City, where he went after Berklee to hone his skills and learn from the top professionals. His website includes testimonials from people who have produced Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan, 50 Cent, and others, such as Vice Presidents at major record labels and a producer for Hot 97 (a very important hip-hop radio station in New York).
Farzad’s time at Berklee is the closest any of them have come to formal training, but that is far from the only important qualification for musicianship, especially when it comes to playing with an ensemble. Indeed, Wittig places a lot of value on knowing not just how to play music, but also on having a good “musical sense,” as he put it, a quality he said the band shares and appreciates deeply.
“I was in jazz band in high school and played bass,” said Wittig, “and I learned so much about dynamics and not just how to play music but how to be musical, and everybody has a good sense about it. So I’d say that’s where most of the formal musical training comes from. Ahmad and Ryan have been in bands throughout their lives, and they have the basic amount of theory that you need to get by doing that, but we’ve all expanded our knowledge as we’ve continued to play with each other, because knowing that stuff just makes it so much easier to communicate.”
“This is definitely everybody’s thing right now,” said Wittig, “and we’re pushing forward as hard as we can. We’re going to get on the road in the fall as well. Really, big-picture goals are to make as much good music as possible. I have like seven albums in my head right now that I’m trying to get out, and so far, about one or two of them I’m done writing and I’m in conceptual stages for the rest of them. But if at the end of five years, we’ve played no more festivals but have somehow managed to make seven albums that I’m extremely proud of and think could be respected, I’d be thrilled. … So I’m just really always shooting for the next step, but hopefully moving on to beyond local and statewide acclaim, if you’d call it — it feels weird saying that —but to like national and a global level at some point, is all I can really say.”
One last thing that Wittig was careful to note: “I really feel so blessed to be working with three incredible dudes, and we don’t fight, and if we have issues with each other, it’s very civil and we’re not getting into physical fights with each or having huge creative arguments or anything. It’s just so nice to be in a group like that — and in a group where no one is, say, addicted to drugs or an alcoholic or having to deal with anything; it’s just nice to have a really sane, peaceful group of dudes to make music with. And that’s the only other thing I think I could say.”
That is a testimonial that many a musician would love to be able to give for his or her fellow bandmates. Perhaps it bodes well for the Burning Peppermints; everything else has so far.
The Burning Peppermints will perform at SlossFest’s Shed Stage on Sunday, July 17 from 3:15 p.m. to 4 p.m.