In 'Treme,' New Orleans' Music Is Everything

Treme i i

hide captionWendell Pierce plays trombonist Antoine Batiste, seen here with the Treme Brass Band.

Skip Bolen
Treme

Wendell Pierce plays trombonist Antoine Batiste, seen here with the Treme Brass Band.

Skip Bolen

In David Simon's HBO series Treme, the music is almost as important as the people picking up the pieces after hurricane Katrina.

As a trombone player, a disc jockey, a restauranteur, a bartender, a lawyer and many others try to put their lives back together, their stories unfold to a remarkable soundtrack. Music is everywhere: on the radio, in the streets, in bars and clubs.

Several musicians also make cameos throughout the series, including Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello and Kermit Ruffins.

Blake Leyh, music supervisor for Treme, talks about the critical role of music in the series.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

David Simon's new series on HBO, "Treme," explores the lives of the residents of New Orleans three months after the Hurricane Katrina, as a trombone player, a disk jockey, a restaurateur, a bartender, a lawyer and many others try to put their lives back together. Their stories unfold to a remarkable soundtrack.

Music is the glue that holds the show together: On the radio, in bars and clubs and, of course, in the streets. The show begins with a parade, a second line.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")

(Soundbite of song, "I Feel Like Funkin' It Up")

CONAN: Rebirth Brass Band, playing "I Feel Like Funkin' It Up" from the HBO series "Treme."

Blake Leyh is the composer and sound designer. He's also music supervisor of "Treme," a position he also held on David Simon's previous HBO hit series, "The Wire."

If you're watching "Treme" and have questions about the music, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation online. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Blake Leyh is in our New York bureau. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. BLAKE LEYH (Composer and Sound Designer; Music supervisor, "Treme"): Hello. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And who picks the music? Is it you, or is it the musicians? Or is this scripted?

Mr. LEYH: Well, it's a combination of me and the writers, mostly. It's a collaborative of effort. But all of the music that is going to be played live on the show has to be picked in advance, so the musicians don't really pick that themselves. We usually pick it for them.

CONAN: And they're supposed to be spontaneously playing it?

Mr. LEYH: That's right.

CONAN: That's where the acting comes in.

Mr. LEYH: Yeah. I mean, but, you know, the whole approach of the show -I mean, people have remarked on how real everything feels. And one of the primary ways we achieve that is to, as much as possible, have people just doing what they normally do.

So the scene that you just played the excerpt from, there's a brass band and maybe 20 dancers and 70 extras. And all of those people are just doing what they normally do. They normally do that. They play that music in the street and dance and parade. And the only thing in that scene that's not normally there would be Wendell Pierce playing the trombone. He's an actor who's introduced with the situation, but everyone else is doing what they normally do.

CONAN: And that's a tune that you would expect to hear them play.

Mr. LEYH : Yeah. They play it on almost every second line they do, every parade.

CONAN: And it's - writers, it's interesting, always want to put in a lot of dialogue in character development and explication and all that sort of thing. Music takes up time. Do you find them trying to crowd it out, or do you find them trying to put it in?

Mr. LEYH: I think another thing that's very unusual about the show compared to other movies and television shows I've seen is that the music is very integrated into the story. So whenever we are hearing music performed live, there's a reason for it to be happening. A character that we care about is there playing the music or watching the music.

And usually, the music only is a sort of brief interlude. We almost never get to see a whole song played. Though we wanted to avoid the other end of the spectrum, which is when, like in an Elvis movie, when everyone stops what they're doing and they just play a whole song, and the song ends, then everyone the action picks up again.

We try and keep the story and the music woven together in a way, so it's all of one continuous piece.

CONAN: And everybody is passionate about the music, partly because they make their living at it. You mentioned the actor Wendell Pierce. He plays Antoine Batiste, the trombone player, and appears to be, well, really, really good.

Mr. LEYH: Appears to be is the key phrase there. I mean, yeah, Wendell has been taking trombone lessons now since we first knew we were going to be doing the show. But he doesn't actually play his own parts. It's one of the few pieces of artistic license and fabrication that exists.

CONAN: Was that a discussion beforehand, that you could have somebody be playing and accomplished - I mean, this is important to who he is - an accomplished musician that doesn't actually play.

Mr. LEYH: Yeah. I mean there - well, there's whole range of there's a spectrum of different characters on the show. There are real people who are just doing what they normally do. And then there are actors who are completely pretending. And then there are a lot of things in between. There are people playing characters similar to themselves. But in this case, for the main characters, we knew we needed actors and - I mean, this is a role that feels like it was - that Wendell was born to play. And so we had to overcome the one detail that he couldn't actually play trombone.

CONAN: Is it functionally any different to have a character learn to fake playing a trombone convincingly to Melissa Leo? I don't think she's a lawyer.

Mr. LEYH: Well, I think it is different, because lawyering doesn't have the same kind of visual performance aspect and it's probably - well, I don't know. Maybe that's not true. I think it's probably easier to fake lawyering on camera than it is to fake playing the trombone.

CONAN: Certainly been done more often. Let's put it that way.

Mr. LEYH: That's definitely true. And so, if you want to fake lawyering, you have a lot of examples you can go to, whereas we kind of had to invent a way of faking playing the trombone.

CONAN: And as - there are other - there's not a character who's a disc jockey. And there are - there's music on the radio that seems to be, again, set to the soundtrack, and that's picked carefully I assume.

Mr. LEYH: Yeah. Really, every piece of music is picked carefully but, I mean, all the music. No music in a movie or a television show, sort of randomly...

CONAN: In its casual, yeah.

Mr. LEYH: ...falls into place. So you know, everything - every aspect of - and particularly in a David Simon show, every aspect of everything is very carefully picked and chosen.

CONAN: We see cameos from musicians, throughout the series: Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, though Elvis spends his time onscreen sitting in a table and nodding as other people play.

Mr. LEYH: Right.

CONAN: Now I guess that's something he often does. Kermit Ruffins. Did you have to pay close attention to which musicians were around New Orleans in the three months after the hurricane, or was that a happy accident?

Mr. LEYH: No. We're very careful to try and honor the historical timeline. And, in fact, there are a lot of musicians that we'd like to feature on the show that we couldn't use because they weren't actually back in New Orleans in early 2006 when the story takes place. The Neville Brothers would be one example. They didn't play back in town until Jazz Fest, 2007. And so - or 2008, actually. So we don't see them, for instance. And all the music that you hear in the show is music that you would have heard at that time in New Orleans so...

CONAN: At that time and place. Yeah.

Mr. LEYH: A lot of people wanted to submit - I've gotten a lot of Katrina songs. People want to send us Katrina songs. And they say, you know, I lost my house in the storm or they - and they have a whole story and they've written this incredible song that details their experience. And they think it's perfect for the show. We can't actually use those things because those songs couldn't have been heard in New Orleans in 2006. The song didn't exist yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Blake Leyh, the music supervisor of the HBO TV series "Treme." If you'd like to get in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And how early in the process do you start working with the scriptwriters to say, yeah - I mean, you're responsible for pacing everything, but I really think that this needs to be a little longer. This needs to - this could be a little shorter?

Mr. LEYH: Well, the actual length of how long a piece of music is onscreen is often determined in the editing room. At the very end, it's the last step. But at the very beginning, as the script is being written, we often collaborate and work together and talk about various ideas. I mean, we have ideas about who we'd like to fit in to an episode when you look at the whole arc of the season.

CONAN: Could you give us an example?

Mr. LEYH: Well, we - let's see. We realized at certain point, that we were about halfway through the season and we had not yet had any Cajun or zydeco music that performed live and so - and we knew we wanted to have that at some point. So, we - in - I think in episode seven, we have a wonderful local group called the Pine Leaf Boys.

So when we were writing the script we looked at various local Cajun bands we could have fit into that slot and been that - and they were available and they were perfect for the role. And so we cast them, and they did it.

CONAN: So you have to subsume yourself in the music, not just of that place, but of that exact moment in time?

Mr. LEYH: Yes. There's a lot of a lot of research has to be done about exactly what was going on during that time period.

CONAN: And this was, obviously, a traumatic period in the history of the city. I also have to ask you, given what's going on now, could you have imagined that the city of New Orleans - you're doing post-Katrina New Orleans - that there could be a disaster of an entirely other kind looming in its future?

Mr. LEYH: Well, New Orleans is the kind of place that's handled many, many disasters ever since it's existed. And but one of the incredible things about New Orleans is the people pick themselves up and carry on. And the way they do that, typically, is through the culture. And that's really - at the end of the day, that's what the show is about. It's how people, through living their culture, managed to respond to a disaster in the magnitude of Katrina and carry on with their lives because there was no real federal response, no government response, no economic response to the disaster. And it's our feeling that the way New Orleans managed to continue to exist was because of the strength of its culture.

CONAN: We're talking with Blake Leyh, music supervisor of the HBO series "Treme." And he's with us from our bureau in New York. There's Annie in this series. Lucia - and I'm not sure I'm pronouncing this correctly Micarelli?

Mr. LEYH: Lucia. Lucia Micarelli.

CONAN: Yeah. And a wonderful violin player. How did you find her?

Mr. LEYH: The casting the casting people cast her - Meagan Lewis who's the casting director for the show. And I don't know how she found Lucia, but she did an incredible job. When I first met Lucia I was like, hmm, is she up to the task here? But she certainly has been. She's an incredible musician and turns out to be a very good actor as well, which is something that Meagan must just have been able intuit.

CONAN: So that's...

Mr. LEYH: But she had never done any acting before.

CONAN: So that was just - turned out to be applause. But, obviously, people would have had their doubts.

Mr. LEYH: Yeah. But she's done of great job.

CONAN: Calls: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Again we're taking about the HBO series "Treme." Blake Leyh is the music supervisor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Joey(ph) on the line. Joey calling from San Francisco.

JOEY (Caller): Hi. I used to live in New Orleans many years ago and I'm a musician and felt just taken back there, immediately, watching the show and fell in love with it. And we really look forward to it every week and I just want to commend you on the fantastic work and the breadth of music there. I was recently with some people who just left New Orleans and sort of felt that it only captured a small slice of what's happing there and almost it was like a - as if you came to San Francisco and only shot Fisherman's wharf.

It's what they said about it. And not being down just in New Orleans for so long, I was wondering, was it a specific style that you were looking to sort of promote or capture everything, or how did you go about selecting? What styles of music and what sort of niches were going to be covered in what was happening down there.

Mr. LEYH: That's interesting. I actually haven't heard that criticism too often. I mean, we've tried to be - we've tried to cover pretty wide breadth of the music there, and that is our intention. I think there are a couple of areas which have gotten short shrift. One of them would be hip-hop, because there's an incredible hip-hop scene and tradition in New Orleans.

JOEY: That's what this person was referring to. They have - they live in that culture a little bit more than the jazz and what you would have more in the French border is more an uptown.

Mr. LEYH: Right. Okay. Well, I guessed that then. Because, you know, there are a lot of people who are fans of the wire who are disappointed by "Treme" because the world that was depicted in the wire is not as much a part of "Treme." But I mean, I do think, I hope that the show will go for multiple seasons. And we plan finitely to have more hip-hop in the future. But it seems appropriate for the first season to look more jazz which is, after all, the primary, first original music of New Orleans.

CONAN: Joey, thanks very much.

JOEY: Thank you very much for the great show.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. LEYH: You're welcome. Thank you for your call.

CONAN: This email from Leslie(ph). My family and I absolutely love "Treme." We're not from New Orleans but we really enjoy the show. The music is the best and my 11-year-old stepdaughter started to learn the tenor saxophone shortly before the show came out and she gets especially excited with the music. So you're going to be responsible for unleashing another saxophonist on the world.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bert(ph), Bert with us from St. Louis.

BERT (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

BERT: I was just curious, how does one become a music supervisor for TV, film, et cetera?

Mr. LEYH: Well, there is no way to become one, unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately. I think people doing this kind of work come from all different paths. There isn't really a way to get to do it. I mean, it requires a lot of different skill sets. I'm sorry, what?

BERT: I work for various record companies, doing promotion.

Mr. LEYH: Right.

BERT: You know, and it was kind of like I fell into it. And I've worked from everything from Motown, to Atlantic, Warner Bros, Tommy Boy pop to rock.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BERT: You know, and with the record industry as it is now - looking for other avenues.

CONAN: Right. Well, which most of the film...

BERT: --fascinated me.

CONAN: With most of the film industry. If you really want to be involved with the film industry, you have to just go and start doing it. So you have to find a position on a project that's appropriate to a beginning level, like work on a student film or a very low budget independent film and offer the services for free and gain some experience.

Mr. LEYH: Well, well, thank you. You're doing a wonderful job.

CONAN: Thank you. Thanks for the call, Bert. This is from Michael(ph) in Portland. Is the HBO music budget enough for you to highlight all of the music and musicians you want? Is it comparable to shows such an "Entourage"?

Mr. LEYH: I don't know what the music budget is on "Entourage," but I would guess it is. HBO has been incredibly supportive over the show. Basically, they asked us how much money we needed and we told them and they gave it to us. So we have not - it's one of these rare moments in the universe where you have enough money to do the job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEYH: That you're trying to do.

CONAN: Remember this moment.

Mr. LEYH: And I mean - and that's actually been one of the things that we wanted to do with the show is support the music community in New Orleans. It was an important part of what we're trying to do. So being able to pay musicians on the ground in New Orleans as well for their services has been very gratifying being able to support the music community.

CONAN: Can you give us some idea of how much per episode you inject into that community?

Mr. LEYH: I think it would be in bad taste to call specific figures, but it's quite a lot of money that's gone into the New Orleans music community from the show. I would say it's probably more than a million dollars in - directly into the pockets of the musicians.

CONAN: Impressive. This email from Josh(ph): Love seeing the Pine Leaf Boys. We want zydeco. So there's a vote for zydeco there.

Mr. LEYH: Well, I didn't get that far in the answers to questions, but Cajun/zydeco is the other - would be the other thing after hip-hop that has not featured as much as we would like to in the future. So stay tuned, season two, there'll be more of that.

CONAN: There's much more about the music of "Treme" at NPR's jazz blog, A Blog Supreme. That's at npr.org/blogsupreme. Blake Leyh, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. LEYH: Thank you.

CONAN: Blake Leyh, music supervisor of the HBO series "Treme," joined us from our bureau in New York. You can see a photo of the production at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, Anthony Bourdain on his latest book "Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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