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Musical DNA: Get to know ‘Belushi’ composer Tree Adams

Tree Adams has music in his DNA. His grandfather, Seymour Solomon was a fiddle player in the army during World War II, and his father, Chicken Hirsh, is an active jazz drummer who played with the ‘60s rock band Country Joe and the Fish. Adams furthered this lineage by studying music theory at the University of Pennsylvania and forming the rock band the Hatters. The band toured consistently for seven years, dropping several albums and performing alongside giants like the Allman Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest.

During the recording of the last Hatters album, however, Adams was asked to contribute a song to a movie soundtrack. The experience proved revelatory, and he’s since gone on to become an acclaimed composer for both film and television. Some of Adams’s most notable credits include The 100, NCIS: New Orleans, and Californication. He earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for his work on Canterbury’s Law, and he recently landed an HMMA Award for scoring the Showtime documentary Belushi.

Film Daily had the good fortune of talking with Tree Adams about his musical family, his varied career, and his creative process. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us about your history in music. How did you start your journey?

My grandmother gave me piano lessons, played recorder and sang with me when I was little and then I studied the clarinet and the flute in school where I played in our middle school orchestra. We had a lot of old blues records around the house like Sonny Terry and Brownie Mcghee, Muddy Waters, Freddie King etc. So, that sound and those scales began to seep into my bones and then I heard [Jimi] Hendrix. I believe it was the album, Axis: Bold As Love, where I kinda fell in love with the guitar and the idea of chasing off down that path.

You come from a family with a deep musical heritage. Did you know you were going to pursue a career in music from an early age?

No, when I was younger I had a lot of energy. I was into sports and I didn’t have the discipline to sit and practice. My grandmother and grandfather were classical musicians (piano and violin respectively) and my mother was a decent piano player as well. She was always playing Scott Joplin around the house. So, they gave me classical training but I was reluctant. 

My father (who I didn’t grow up with or know that well) was a drummer with Lightnin’ Hopkins and eventually the rock band, Country Joe and the Fish. I think somehow I romanticized his experience on the road and I thought that maybe there was a bit of that rock n roll road life hidden somewhere in my DNA and I was gonna go find it.

Your band the Hatters played alongside celebrated acts like the Allman Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. How did rubbing shoulders with these acts affect your approach to music?

Well, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to perform and/or record with a lot of different artists and musicians, some of whom I grew up worshipping and it’s often a great learning experience that can be quite humbling. When you get the opportunity to perform with or even play on a bill with other musicians, you are often tuned in to what they’re doing on stage, how they structure a set, what kinds of events they layer in their show and how they’re interacting with the crowd. If we’re all magicians, we’re just sorta sniffin at one another’s trix. 

So, for instance we might borrow technical stuff regarding guitar tone on a gig opening for Buddy Guy or Warren Haynes and then emulate some call and response thing that I saw King Sunny Ade do on a co-bill we did the next night. Got to work with Taj Mahal and produce a song for him once and he was wearing a cool hat. So, I went out and found a cool hat. We’re all just makin’ stew. So we grab the spices we like here and there and sprinkle it around. That’s just what we do.

You produced your first soundtrack-related song during the recording of the last Hatters album. How did the opportunity to write an end title song come about?

This was a while ago but I believe the director, Brad Siberling, was looking for someone to record a song for the end title and then someone from Amblin Entertainment contacted Atlantic Records asking if they had any artists who’d be good for it. We happened to be in the studio in New York at the time and so we arranged something, had the filmmakers come in and worked it out to picture together. 

This was back in the land before pro tools. We were recording to tape and probably using smpte code and a VHS for the video sync. Anyhow, it was my first glimpse into the world of film music and storytelling and I have fond memories of discovering the process.

How has your solo/soundtrack differed from your work in the Hatters?

As a composer, I have had the opportunity to write scores across numerous genres. I have written tons of epic orchestral music, modern sci fi soundscape, horror, atonal music, dubstep, hip hop, blues, New Orleans jazz, you name it. One of my favorite things about being a composer is the opportunity we get to travel with it whether literally or figuratively. 

At times, I feel like a musical version of Anthony Bourdain. As a singer and a solo artist, I have maintained a bluesy thing throughout but I have expanded the palette a bit since my work with the Hatters. My current band, DAGNASTERPUS, is essentially a 10 piece funk band with a brass section and a battery of exotic percussionists.

You’ve gone on to score TV shows like The 100, NCIS: New Orleans and Lethal Weapon. Can you tell us how each of the scores for these shows differ?

Yes, it has been an exciting adventure so far as a composer. For The 100 we had an epic orchestral palette for the show and a huge matrix of entangled thematic motifs which was an ambitious undertaking given that each episode had about 40 minutes of music. Also, the science fiction component for the show called for a lot of imaginative contemporary soundscape work. 

NCIS: New Orleans had all of the usual procedural show score components (car chases, shootout action cues, dramatic and comedic cues, squad room and medical examiner cues, etc) but then we’d layer in a pinch of the NOLA voodoo. So, for each episode, we’d record a band ensemble and sprinkle the gumbo with some brass or some other exotic flavors percussion, mbiras etc. 

For Lethal Weapon, we had a lot of the same typical procedural cop show elements in the score but with a focus on guitar textures. We would do a lot of emotional or cerebral guitar collages for one of the main characters, Riggs. I think the idea was to make the audience feel for him and root for the guy, who was deeply flawed.

Would you say there’s a notable difference between scoring a film and a TV show?

I guess that depends on the film or the TV show. In my experience, every project has its different politics and process. As a generalization, I might say that film projects tend to be a bit more about a director’s single vision which can streamline things a bit and give you more opportunities to go out into some risky spaces and try new ideas. Also, you typically have a bit more time to experiment and to dial in the MIX. 

With television, the pace is obviously faster and there can be more cooks in the kitchen depending on who you are working with. I think with both mediums, the dynamic with the studio or the company funding the project can factor in at times as well. People do have opinions now and again.

Do you find that it’s easier to compose music for stories that you can connect with on a personal level? 

It’s certainly easier to write music when you connect with the story on some level but, I’m not sure it needs to be on a personal level. For instance, I might not necessarily relate to a film, say about Mongolians living in the desert, but I could relate to the situation intellectually and I’m sure I could have a blast scoring that film.

Walk us through your creative process. Do you start with a mood or musical riff?

My creative process varies from gig to gig. Sometimes, it begins with a script or a conversation with a filmmaker, sometimes it begins with a rough cut of the project. I like to let whatever nascent stage glimpses I’ve had settle and bounce around in my head for a bit before I pick up an instrument. Sometimes it starts with a melody. Maybe it’ll come to me in the middle of the night and I’ll sing it into my phone. 

Sometimes, I hear a whole symphony playing something and I run out to the studio at 3 in the morning and start fleshing out an idea. Sometimes, I will grab a particular instrument and try to coax some animal noises out of it or connect a few pieces of analog hardware and get the synapses firing. 

I find that it is very important to try and remain open even as we’re manifesting so that we can soak in all the nuances of the filmmaker’s vision and pivot on a dime if need be. It’s like a dance or like playing live music late in the 3rd set where everyone is off their head and anything can happen. Or at least it should be :)

You received an HMMA Award for scoring the Showtime documentary Belushi. In what ways did the Belushi score stand out from your previous work?

I wouldn’t say that it stands out against any of my previous work. If anything, it’s kind of a continuation of what I’ve done. I have done many guitar scores for flawed characters: shows like Californication and Lethal Weapon films like Swelter and Redemption Road. For Belushi, the director, R.J. Cutler  wanted  to merge the whole 70s rock band thing with some cerebral drama in the score. 

I enjoyed the fact that Belushi was himself in a band and such a part of 70s music and culture. So, with the score we got to follow him through these flavors of  his time (particularly rock, funk and blues.) Then, we got to deconstruct the elements and rearrange them in a cerebral stew to accompany the dramatic element of the story and his eventual demise. [Director] R.J. [Cutler] had a clear vision, we followed it and it was a blast.

What’s your mission as a composer? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching the Belushi documentary.

My mission as a composer is always to be a loyal companion to the story. For the Belushi documentary, I think the viewer needs to experience his journey and to get a sense of the man behind the iconic characters that he played in films and television. R.J. wanted the music to be tasteful and subtle in that regard and I think we managed to pick our spots to have fun with the journey as well as our spots to tear some of that fabric apart and layer it tastefully in there as connective tissue for the dramatic arc.

Do you make a point of using different musical influences for each project?

No, each project is its own world and requires its own journey down the rabbit hole. That said, sometimes worlds can be similar and sometimes you can get hired because they liked what you did on some other project. In that case, you need to pull at the clay and fashion it into something new.

Some actors don’t like to watch themselves on the big screen. Do you enjoy listening to your past soundtracks? 

It can be difficult listening to things when they’re mixed in at the end because sometimes it doesn’t translate as intended. Your music has to share a space with dialog and sound effects and there are many people involved in the decision making process on the DUB stage. So, the best survival technique there in my opinion is to work with the sound effects and the dialog up pretty loud as you make some decisions so that you can craft a score that will have its own place in the MIX at the end.

What do you consider to be your greatest professional success?

My next one….

What about your greatest personal success?

My greatest personal success has just been being there for my wife and kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring film/TV composers?

I’d recommend reaching out to composers and trying to get a spot on someone’s team. It’s a bit of an apprentice-based business. It’s important to learn how these gigs work and how to manage them. There are tons of tasks that you need to know how to navigate and tons of tricks to creating a process that you can succeed and thrive in. 

What is your favorite soundtrack of all time?

Chinatown.

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