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A Conversation With Tree Adams

From ‘long-haired, touring bluesy rock guy to long-haired, studio-rat computer nerd,’ composer Tree Adams talks scoring and storytelling

Posted in MusicWorld on February 8, 2016 by

Tree Adams’ musical roots run deep. A seasoned composer, songwriter, musician and storyteller whose work has filled many a smoky roadhouse as well as several films, some of television’s most popular series and even the occasional video game, Adams thrills to playing both sides of the divide. His diverse string of credits include scoring series such as TNT’s Legends, the CW’s The 100, Showtime’s Californication, and many more, as well as major motion pictures like Reach Me, Redemption Road and All Things Fall Apart.

But before his composing career took off, Adams discovered rock n’ roll. While classically trained as a child, he was bitten by the rock bug upon his first hearing of Jimi Hendrix. That fateful introduction led him to cut his musical teeth as primary songwriter, lead singer and guitarist of the Hatters, who became a fixture of the same, fertile New York City jam band scene of the early ‘90s that spawned success stories like Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors. The outfit’s rootsy sound became largely defined by Adams’ soaring, soulful vocals and incendiary blues riffs.

From there, his penchant for rich imagery, collaboration and vivid storytelling found a home through his multiple projects for film and television. But Adams hasn’t sequestered himself permanently behind the recording console. His pervading love for live rock n’ roll reunited him with childhood friend, guitarist Chris Scianni, to form the Howlin’ Volts, an amorphous collective that fuses elements of blues, funk, soul and heavy, hard-driving, guitar-based rock into potent force behind Adams’ evocative songs and powerful voice.

BMI caught up with Adams to discuss his musical journey from juke joint to editing suite and beyond.

What prompted the initial transition from your blues roots into composing music for film and television? And was that a difficult leap or a natural progression for you?
I had been a touring musician for a decade, or so, and I was getting a little worn out on road-life. In 1996, the group I was in, The Hatters, was disbanding and I found myself back in NYC, looking to figure out the next chapter. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) took me to hear Jerome Lowenthal perform some Bartok pieces, and we met some of his Julliard students. Some of them had been dabbling in composing music, and I learned about computer programs, like Logic and Digital Performer, that could enable one to work to picture and use samples. I thought this was fascinating. Cut to me in a cramped apartment full of gear that I didn’t know how to use. I bought a Power Mac 8500, which was a frustrating little box with a blazing processor of about 120MHz, and picked up a copy of Logic, along with its dictionary-sized manual (in sketchily translated German/English) and began the slow transformation from long-haired, touring bluesy rock guy to long-haired, studio-rat computer nerd.

At the time, an old high school friend of mine, Sam Sokolow, was making a micro-budget indie film called The Definite Maybe (Josh Lucas, Roy Scheider), and he asked me to do the music. Along with my trusty new steed, the 8500, I owned a couple of ADATs – back then they were state of the art – and I was ready to roll. The project called for me to write both songs and score. I did some songs myself, and produced songs for different artist-friends of mine. The score called for a range of writing - from action scenes to comedic moments and dramatic moments. I felt inspired by the freedom to use different instrumentation. I felt incredibly liberated, and I was evolving musically in a big way – yet also returning to my roots. After all, my grandmother had classically trained me since the time I was able to walk over to the piano. I had played clarinet and flute in the school orchestra as a kid. There was a wide world of music beyond these smoke-filled barrooms that I had come to call home, and I was thrilled to embark on the new journey.

Your love of storytelling has played a huge role in your work. What do you attribute that emphasis to? Which composers and songwriters do you consider masterful storytellers?
Storytelling is actually the whole gig, in my opinion. As a composer, I feel like my job is to get inside the story and find the most effective way to support it. It’s often really about working with writers, and understanding the web they’re trying to weave. I have always been a writer of both lyrics and fiction. I married a writer. I minored in it in college at The University of Pennsylvania. I have always been very tuned in to this layer of the project as a composer. Often, a producer or director driving the process creatively is the one who wrote the project, so they have intentions for the scene that may or may not be manifest in what we’re looking at. It’s our job to do this detective work, sometimes, and find out what they originally wanted for the characters, or how a particular scene might fit into the grand scheme of things over the arc of a whole film or series. We, as composers, get inside these moments – we’re watching five seconds go by over and over again, and tuning the nuances of the sequence. It can be difficult to maintain the perspective that the architect of the entire story has. This is our challenge. Nailing those five seconds with meticulous attention, and then also, somehow, plotting the right course through the full campaign, and weaving thematic strands that support the story, evolve and pay off in the end.

Obviously, there are different approaches across the composition spectrum, from Wagner’s Ride of The Valkyries or Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf, where the music is literally telling the story and characters have themes and it’s so inherently rife with a visual, like many great John Williams film scores. I am big fan of the melodic approach, and I think Michael Giacchino is doing some of the best work out there today in this vein. His scores for The Incredibles and Up were just stellar. Nowadays, we see more subtle approaches and less melodic scores, like the dark and desolate swatches that Jonny Greenwood used for There Will Be Blood, or Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Social Network; scores that employ more of an industrial/sound design-like palette. I really like Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Heat, which uses these evolving aleatoric tension beds. All of these work in part because of how well they serve their stories.

In television, there are some unique challenges. Often there are multiple editors cutting the episodes, and sometimes they will add temp music from disparate sources. It can be tricky to navigate, if your objective is to create something cohesive. I’m often very proactive about what gets used for temp, or at least in trying to pin down what the instrumentation should be in going forward. It’s also useful, at times, to establish certain principles for the approach to things. For instance, how to treat act-outs, and how to approach spotting dramatic sequences timing-wise. Whether to come in right away or to let the emotion begin, and then follow it on a certain shift. With comedic projects, they often have poignant moments right on the heel of light ones, and it can be tricky to shift in the score. But, sometimes we establish a general rule that we’ll handle those moments, for example, by carving out of the playful groove and not hitting things too hard. For the music to work, it’s best if you can corral a whole team into using a consistent approach on all fronts. These are the little wars we wage when there are so many cooks as there often can be.

As far as songwriters and storytellers go, there are so many. I love Tom Waits. His poetry is often so well integrated in the music and the vibe that gets laid down. I think Willis Alan Ramsey is one of the best that very few folks know about. Bob Dylan, obviously. Paul Simon and Johnny Cash, too. I grew up listening to a lot of folk and blues, and there are some greats there as well. Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie Mcghee (my desert island favorite), Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal, whom I have had the opportunity to produce and play with.

How do you approach a prospective score? Is it contingent on the script, or do you follow the director’s lead? How important is that element of collaboration?
It’s different for every project. I think it’s really helpful to read the script. I’ve heard John Williams say that he doesn’t like to because he forms images in his head before seeing the picture, but I am often able to interpret some things from the written word that may pertain to the ultimate vision for the project, though they never make the cut, like a character’s backstory or maybe a juicy adjective that leads me to a specific musical choice. Then, yes, I will typically follow the director’s lead (or the showrunner, if it’s television). My job is to keep things on course. If the creators are struggling to convey what they’re looking for in a scene, I might suggest that we not speak specifically in musical terms, but rather talk in terms of the story. How do we want this scene to play? Whose scene is this? How are we supposed to feel about a particular character? Is the moment about someone’s heartbreak, or their anger and subsequent new resolve? And so on. It’s often better to talk story than to talk horn articulations with a director. Then, it’s up to you to do the translation and the detective work.

Your scores have embraced a myriad of styles, from jazz to hip-hop to electronica and beyond. Was that a gradual evolution, or had you been always been yearning to compose using elements of different genres?
My musical style has been a slowly evolving process. I started by studying classical music, and then I really listened to blues, folk and eventually rock and pop music. Once I started writing music for film and television, I was introduced to projects and assignments that would bring me into new genres. I learned a great deal by just hammering away and, sometimes, by working on longshot projects that never panned out, or by writing replacement songs and/or cues for projects on spec. There were a few people, like music supervisor, G. Marq Roswell or music execs like David Grossman (Paramount) and Gwen Bethel-Riley (Artisan Entertainment), that gave me some key opportunities early on to submit material. In the end, the stuff that didn’t get used enabled me to learn a great deal both on the production and composition front, and maybe, more importantly, on the perseverance front. Eventually, once I got established as a composer and developed working relationships with different directors and showrunners, I was fortunate enough to have some of them take me across genres. In the four films I’ve scored for Mario Van Peebles, he has brought me in to do traditional Copeland-esque stuff, hip-hop, country and action/heist music, to name a few genres. With one director I work with, Simone Bartesaghi, our first project together was a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi drama called Downstream. For Bartesaghi’s next film, we did a dubstep soundtrack to Run, a heist flick about Parkour bandits. When I first worked with Ken Biller, I wrote a traditional orchestral score for his show Perception. For his latest show Legends, I used more of an industrial-contemporary sound design palette. For Jason Rothenberg’s show The 100, I’m doing epic battle music – dark, orchestral stuff with duduk and female vocals. Maybe for his next project I’ll get to write Gregorian chants or polka music! That’s the beauty of this, I suppose. We keep exploring and growing.

Outside of your busy scoring schedule, your latest project is the Howlin’ Volts. How different is your approach to songwriting compared to your process for compositional work for film and television?
Well, being a composer for film and TV is what I called the applied arts. The music has a very specific goal, and it gets lots of direction and scrutiny, and there are, of course, politics surrounding it all. What I do for songwriting now is in my category of arts – I try to approach it with less of an agenda, and I try to keep it free and, often I use it to express things I’m feeling, or use it as a way to air or resolve what’s happening in my life. I do it for love. While I try to imbue my scores with passion and emotion, I keep it in a category over to the side, and I keep my Zen headspace for it. This is particularly helpful when someone wants to change your masterpiece.

Your career trajectory may have kicked off in straightforward way, but it’s since taken a number of interesting turns, seemingly without losing touch with what first attracted you to music. What advice do you have for today’s crop of aspiring songwriters and composers looking to get started?
Well, the business has changed a bit, but I think some things never change. It is important to feed your passion and stay inspired. It’s a tricky thing. There is so much disappointment early on. It’s hard to break in. You have to get used to eating “NO” for breakfast. This also becomes particularly useful down the line, as you embark on writing your thousandth and then your ten-thousandth cue and so on.

Then, I think, it’s useful to find a mentor, if you can. That gives you perspective and real insight as to how to navigate these gigs. It’s a real apprentice-based field. So many talented folks come out of these programs at Berkeley, USC, etc., and they are ready to be the next James Newton Howard or Snuffy Walden, or whatever. The guys at the top of the business got there by humbly honing their craft and learning from those who came before them. We never stop learning and, actually, that’s what makes this a great career. You can still be hitting your peak when you write your last piece of music. But it’s not an overnight thing. Though you may be technically prepared in terms of software and musical knowledge, there is nothing that can truly prepare you for the insanity of these jobs for which there is no real playbook other than to dive in and do it. I’ve got a great team helping me, and most composers doing film and TV work do also. My advice is to get on a great team and learn. Make yourself a good team player and do what you can to get in there. Meet and talk with other folks doing it and find your way in.

Tell us about your relationship with BMI.
I have been with BMI since the early 1990s I believe. Ray and Doreen have been super helpful to me over the years. They’ve been a sounding board when I have had questions regarding trends in the field, issues arising out there in the workplace that might impact residuals and just providing me with general advice. There are many great BMI events that I have attended over the years: the film and TV awards, the Sundance round table, the Songwriters in the Round series.  They do a cool composers’ workshop in Sundance (I hope to attend that one day) and a conductors’ series that I have been asked to partake in, but have not been able to do yet. In all, I’m very happy with my relationship with BMI and appreciate the support they have always given me.