Award winning multi-ethnic musician, multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, musical director and producer Amir John Haddad talks about recording flamenco guitar for the new James Bond movie, on channelling your focus into something beautiful and about Mission Impossible
Lars Mullen: We've fired up the flux capacitor, the compass says we're heading south. We're going to go to Spain, to meet my good friend, Amir John Haddad.
Amir John Haddad: Hi Lars, how are you doing? It's so good to see you, sitting here in Spain, and you in the UK.
Lars: The wonders of the internet. Is it warm down there? How is Spain, today?
Amir: Well, here in the south, in Andalucía, in Málaga and it is pretty warm still. We had some cloudy days, but you know, the summer vibe here lasts much longer than in other parts of Europe. So I'm really happy to be here, actually.
Lars: Beautiful part of Spain, beautiful part. Well, while we're all talking about the region, let's talk about the album you released, not long ago, which you told me was dedicated to different areas of the region. Tell me about that.
Amir: Well I've been visiting Andalucía, the southern part of Spain since I was eight years old with my parents and my family. We would come to the south of Spain and spend our holidays here. And that was also one of my early stages of connecting with flamenco music. And since then, I always had the urge of giving something back.
You know I've been living here for so many years and flamenco music has been a huge part of my life. So it was very important for me, to put that on an album, compose songs and deliver a certain emotion, that belonged to each province. And compose a song, that is dedicated to each province.
And, as you know there are many different flamenco styles, that are interpreted in different provinces. And so in some of the cases, I composed in that particular style, and for some songs I just chose a style that was suiting for the emotion I wanted to deliver. It was a thrill of an experience and I enjoyed very much composing, recording, and releasing it.
Lars: There's some beautiful videos that go with it, for atmospherics. I can't think of the track for a moment, the ladies singing on the beach, what's that one?
Amir: Yeah, that one is the single of my album. It's called Andalucía and it is a rumba, flamenco rumba. It's a very vivid kind of a song and the video was recorded in the village I live in. It's a very beautiful village, with white painted houses in the mountains. And also, the featuring guest artist, Chelo Soto Robles, she's an amazing gypsy singer from Málaga and she sung on the album.
So for me, it was obvious to have her as a front singer on the video. I had also flamenco dancers featuring, the wife and the daughter of José Salinas, who is the luthier who builds my flamenco guitars. They are both professional flamenco dancers. So we went down to the beach and we had very nice silhouettes of them dancing there. It was beautiful to collaborate with them.
Lars: Fantastic atmosphere. That must have been beautiful. Of course, we've mentioned flamenco a lot there, you are a master of flamenco. How did all that start?
Amir: I was born into a family with a lot of musical interest and love. And my mother, coming from South American descendants and my father from the Middle East. Arabic music was very important and South American folklore.
My dad always used to play the Arabic lute but he was a flamenco music lover, and a flamenco guitar lover. Because the singing and the flamenco guitar, the rhythms and the tonalities are very similar to the oriental and Arabic music. That's why he loved it so much, it reminded him of his own music. And I was exposed to that.
I would listen to flamenco albums when I was a little boy and I would watch him play the Arabic oud and then he would start playing the flamenco guitar as well. And that's how I got involved, so from a very, very early age on I was exposed to the oud and to the flamenco guitar. And it was just a matter of time that I just picked it up, whenever he would leave it on the sofa.
I would go there, pick up the guitar, try to put my fingers on. One day he saw me put some chords on the fretboard without him showing me. And so he said "do you want to start learning guitar?" I said, "yes, I would love to." And then he showed me the first chords, the rhythms and basic technique and that's how it all started.
Lars: And if it's in you, it's in you, isn't it? It sounds like it was the thing to do. But of course, flamenco.
We've had Snow Owl on the programme, who's also in the Hans Zimmer Orchestra, like you are. 200 people in the "band", as we've said. Where you are like the rock band in this massive, massive, production.
And because Hans has written, as we've said, Mission Impossible, so many film scores. I came to see you and there's my friend Amir I was talking to, five minutes ago, there he is now on the stage, with a classical guitar, playing the lead lines for Mission Impossible. That's just fantastic.
Amir: It is an absolutely overwhelming experience. In very few moments of my career, I had the possibility to play with a full orchestra. A couple of years back, I performed some Vivaldi tunes, Concerto in C major, or D major and that was a thrill already. But of course, the production, the amount of energy, that explodes on stage with the 'World of Hans Zimmer' is overwhelming. And on top, you play tunes that sound amazing, that are amazingly composed and beautifully arranged. It just makes you happy to be able to perform this music.
The thing is, once you play in such a big environment, with so many people in an orchestra and you're the soloist at the front. It takes a lot of energy to stay in your place. You know, to defend your place, to make your music sound big, compared to what the orchestra is playing. So it's like a little bit like a David and Goliath kind of a battle, you know, you're sitting there all by yourself but somehow you're backed up by this huge energy. And it's and it's never about who you are or what you do. It's how you see yourself, getting into the sound of the orchestra as well.
One thing is to be a soloist and to play your solo parts but there are many moments where you play together, with the orchestra. And it's so important to hear and to be listening what they play and how they play. Because every night, there's a slightly different energy on stage. Not only for me, I play every night differently but of course, the whole orchestra as well.
I think this is one of the biggest skills to be in sync with the sound of the orchestra and only that way, the audience will perceive the greatness, and that big impact of the music.
Lars: Yeah, you said the word sync, I can see a blend as well. Where you're there, thousands of people, big orchestra, but you're in your small rehearsal room. It's, you're focused, but you've got to blend in the orchestra. With the energy. Like you say, that must be incredible.
Of course, I've seen you, there's flamenco bits, like your dexterity on the guitar is absolutely incredible. Speed and accuracy. And then you're at the back in the band, you're shredding. There's a crazy shred going on. So you've obviously got several guitars 'for the vibes of the different orchestra.'
Amir: I do have, because every song, that Hans composed has an absolute different energy, a different range of sounds as well. Some of them are very classical, some of them are more rocky, some of them have world music elements. So you need to be very careful on what kind of string instruments to choose. And I think they made a very good selection of arrangements as well. So my position up there is playing the flamenco guitar, also the electric guitar in many songs. I play the Greek bouzouki and I also play a Nylocaster, which is a Stratocaster with nylon strings. I also play the ukulele, which is my new, and latest instrument, so to say. And, it is fantastic to see how every instrument has a place and has a very important moment within the arrangement. This is also, again a responsibility of each musician that is playing up there. To know exactly what his role is, and not just thinking that he's a soloist and just, you know, "I can play like I want." No, you have to play like you feel, but you also have to play to fit in.
Lars: It's the way you do it, Amir. That's why you've been picked to do the job. James Bond. We're all waiting for the new film to come out, you know what I'm gonna say. How did that happen? That's incredible.'
Yeah, James Bond, that was a very beautiful thing. I got an email, from Hans, saying "where are you, what are you doing, can you come to London?" So I said, "yes, I can come." He basically said, "I have a very fun project for you." I didn't know what it was at the time. And he said, "can you call me," so I called him, of course. And then he told me, "look, it's the new Bond movie, and I would love you to perform some guitar tracks and record some flamenco guitar lines, for different cues and different moments of the film."
So I had to travel to a private island, in the South Pacific. An island that belongs to Tahiti. And from there it was like an odyssey. I had to fly so many days to get to London to finally be able to record.
So when I entered the studio in London, Fukunaga, the director was there, Hans was there and their respective teams. And it was just a beautiful moment to see how they were talking, looking at some rough takes of the movie. The movie hadn't been digitally finished. And, so it was really interesting to see that raw version and to listen to their conversations, their suggestions and decisions. And that made it also much more easy for me to go into the studio and then record. Because I already had seen certain scenes, you know? And again, Hans is so encouraging, always, and he's such a lovely guy, that he always tries to get the best out of you and make you feel comfortable. And it's like, you know, have fun, come up with great ideas, just open yourself up to the music. And that's how I did it. And then I went into Stephen Lipson's studio, which was on the other side of London. We recorded there with Steve Mazzaro who is Hans's composing assistant and well, it was again an overwhelming experience.
I mean, to be recording flamenco guitar for the new James Bond movie. It just doesn't happen every day. And it was a thrill because, I'm a James Bond lover.
Lars: I'm quite interested, the way you say you 'I had to fly to an island'.
Amir: We had this production on a private island going on and then my flights got redirected, so I could travel directly to London.
I felt like James Bond myself, in a sense of, I'm a musical agent. I have to overcome all these obstacles and I have to come out as a winner. Which means that I have to be in the studio, in front of the mic. And I have to be recording my flamenco guitar. So, I hope that, that energy is also being reflected on the tracks I recorded.
Lars: Let's just talk guitars for a moment Amir. Have you got that classical guitar, that you used for the James Bond theme, there close?
Amir: Oh, yeah. I always have my instruments around me, whenever I'm home. And this particular guitar, this is my flamenco signature model, "El Amir", built by José Salinas. He is a great guitar luthier here, from Málaga. And this particular guitar, I used that one for the James Bond recordings, and I also used that for the, World of Hans Zimmer live tours.
It has a pickup here and it has a condenser mic down, in here. So you just plug in your jack and that's it. Acoustically, it just sounds beautiful.
Lars:'I feel so inadequate, interviewing all these people. All I do is play guitar, and cause trouble. What about the Stratocaster with the nylon strings?
Amir: Yeah, that's a very cool instrument. I have it right here. This is a very unique thing, since you know, these instruments. I mean it's a Stratocaster body and it has just normal nylon strings and it has a beautiful, acoustic piezo over here. And it's a little bit thinner, the body is a little bit thinner, than the original Stratocasters.
These are modified by a friend of mine. He's a guitarist from Los Angeles, Long Beach. Ben Woods. He modifies those instruments and he came up with the idea and for me as a flamenco guitar player, I can play my finger style but I also can, [he shreds] just play like a shredder on it with a pick and it sounds amazing acoustically. With a clean sound but it also sounds very cool, kind of vintage when you plug in some distortion pedals.
Lars: Absolutely wonderful. So, like everybody else, during this dry time for live music gigs, I know you've been proactive. There's some great videos you've been posting. What's next for you?
Amir: I've been collaborating, doing some remote controlled recordings for Hans. You know, for new soundtracks that will be coming up eventually. And that was a beautiful thing to be participating in some of the music that he's been composing. And I've been teaching a lot of online classes. I've started a guitar mentoring program, online. So many people from around the world, many students and many followers of mine, reacted on the promotion I did. And it's been a beautiful experience to get to meet the people who've been supporting me and who have been listening to my music and have been following my career, to finally get to meet them. And to be able to teach them, because many of them are semi-professional or amateur guitarist and it has been a really nice thing for me, to give something back. And it's about adding value to people's lives. It's not just about me teaching, of course, but it's also to engage with somebody, who is sitting on the other end, to see how this person is doing and what this person needs. To interact on that level is beautiful.
Music is always about emotional exchange with people and the students have been doing great.
Also, I got the- a very nice award, the Global Music Award, for one of my singles for the album. And that was a beautiful thing, because it was just a short time after my album had been released that I got this award. It just makes me happy about the fact that out there, there are people listening to my music, they like it. And it's a recognition of the past and the career I've had so far.
Future projects..., well, the album Andalucía, has been submitted um for the Latin Grammy, so we're just waiting for the first results, about nominations. And, hopefully it gets nominated, and it would be absolutely a dream come true, of course, if it would be selected as best flamenco album 2020.
So these are projects that we have going on right now.
You always have to dream. You always have to invest your time in things that you would like to do and besides dealing with the craziness of the pandemic and the coronavirus issue around the world. It is very important, as a human being and in my case also as an artist, to always focus. Try to filter that energy into something else and change it. With music, I feel just so blessed, that I can channel whatever comes to me into a different language which is the universal language of music.
Lars: There's a fantastic common denominator, here, somewhere. Where professional people, like yourself, there's this energy, they're giving something back. And you're so passionate, about saying thank you to everybody. And I wish you the best of luck, with the awards for that album. I really, really do. Amir, it's so nice to speak to you, you must take care. And we'll see you on the road.
Amir: Thank you.
About Lars Mullen
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column and Fusion Virtual World Tour Interview Series.