Trailer for HBO’s Tremé
Working on the HBO drama Tremé is a challenging experience for music supervisor Blake Leyh. Besides having to choose the music for the music-centric show, he also has to arrange and produce the music that is done LIVE on camera, virtually unheard of in scripted entertainment.
“If you do ten takes, if they play it a little differently in each take, it creates editing challenges. But I just felt very early on that all of this music should be done live. Because the approach that we use depicting this world that exists (makes) it feel real and authentic,” Leyh says.
The show, which deals with how residents return to life in post-Hurrican Katrina New Orleans, focuses, not surprisingly, on the wealth of music of the Crescent City. But even with some shows containing up to nineteen live musical performances, some genres of music have been bereft of coverage in season one.
“One of the things that we didn’t cover much in season one of Tremé was the hip-hop and dance scene,” Leyh states. “That’s an incredibly important and vibrant part of the New Orleans musical landscape. We’re hoping to have much more of that in season two.”
And, even though HBO picked up Tremé for a second season nearly as soon as it debuted, don’t expect new episodes immediately. “We can’t shoot in New Orleans until November because of insurance with hurricane season. We have to wait until hurricane season is over. So we’ll be on the same schedule again next year,” Leyh says.
For now, Tremé has three more episodes to go in its debut season. Leyh has finally found the time to be able to begin watching the show himself. “I was just noticing how incredible Khandi Alexander is. Also, the evolution of the story of the Mardi Gras Indians is fantastic.”
For my money, Tremé is the best series on TV this year. It’s not easy watching but is immensely enjoyable and entertaining. Much like a great novel, David Simon and crew build their story block by block; slowly but surely a blossoming of story filled with rich characters steeped with authenticity. The pleasure comes from the broad strokes as well as the little ones.
The reality of New Orleans post Katrina is necessary for people to see. That beautiful city was still struggling nearly five years after the hurricane and is now facing another giant hurdle with the massive BP oil spill off of the Louisiana coast (the spill now threatens a larger amount of the Gulf of Mexico). Maybe this time our government will actually do SOMETHING to help the people down there that are affected by a destruction they had no hand in creating.
Below is an edited transcription of my recent interview with Tremé music supervisor Blake Leyh.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: Tell me about how you got involved with David Simon originally?
Blake Leyh: I had worked with some of the producers before on other projects. When they were putting the pilot to The Wire together they asked me to work on it. I was originally hired as the sound designer and composer. But it became clear pretty quickly they didn’t need very much composing. There wasn’t very much composing. Although I did do a bit here and there. I became involved with picking all of the source music. At some point we realized it made more sense to call me the music supervisor.
The process evolved very naturally. We did a much better job with the music in the later seasons. In season one there’s a lot of stuff, when I go back and look at it now I kind of cringe. David is very knowledgeable about music. Particularly about blues and R&B. He has a lot of strong opinions. All of the creative decisions come from him at the end of the day. On The Wire he wasn’t as familiar with the world of hip-hop. But neither was I when I started out. So I kind of went to hip-hop school. I had listened to hip-hop back in the early days, when hip-hop started. I loved Grandmaster Flash. But over the years I had drifted away from the music. So it was really just a question of coming back to it and understanding what people were listening to. People look at David’s shows and they think that it all feels so real that this must be made by people who organically have an understanding of this world that’s being depicted. When you watch The Wire it feels like maybe the show was made by corner boys in West Baltimore. But, in fact, all of that work can be done through research and caring about the world passionately and getting involved with it and bringing the areas of expertise that you have. So I spent quite a bit of time on The Wire working with unsigned hip-hop artists in Baltimore. The challenge with hip-hop and the reason that you don’t hear more of it on TV is because its very hard to clear. There are almost always multiple writers and multiple producers. There’s also, very often, disputes among the creators of the music as to who owns what. It took us three months to clear “Lean With It, Rock With It”. It was a hit at the time and it was playing all over the radio. But if you wanted to license it to use it in a TV show it was very challenging. There was like five writers and one of them hadn’t been heard from in six months, he had disappeared. Another one, his cell phone was not accepting messages. There were times also with the local stuff where we had to send contracts to jail in Baltimore. It’s challenging.
After the storm, after Katrina, even while we were already working on The Wire, we started talking about using some New Orleans music. And we actually did that in seasons four and five as a way to support the New Orleans music community and send some money down there and give that music some exposure. Only when it made sense creatively in the show. But we did use maybe ten pieces of New Orleans music over seasons four and five of The Wire. While we were still working on The Wire, we had talked about the idea of a show in New Orleans. So when it came time to do that and HBO greenlit the pilot (to Tremé ) we jumped right in and started working on it.
So you were the first person he thought of when it came to make Tremé?
Blake Leyh: Yeah, I think it was a natural choice. I also have a pretty deep history with the music of New Orleans. My mother and my sister lived in New Orleans for many years and I spent a lot of time down there. It wasn’t like doing a show about polka, for me. It was doing a show about some of the music that I love most in the whole world.
How did you approach doing the music for the show and was it hard to incorporate the live music while filming?
Blake Leyh: The live music on Tremé is a huge technical and logistical challenge. I had made the decision when we started talking about how the music would be done on the pilot…I campaigned early on to have all the music performed live. Which is very unusual way to produce music for a TV show. Most of the time, if you see people on a TV show playing music, they’re not actually playing live – the music is recorded in advance and then the actors pantomime. There are various technical reasons why that’s done. One is that people think you’ll get a better quality recording of the music than if you try and do it on location. It also effects the editing. If you do ten takes, if they play it a little differently in each take it creates editing challenges. But I just felt very early on that all of this music should be done live. Because the approach that we use depicting this world that exists and trying to have it feel real and authentic…if you look at the opening scenes of the first episode of Tremé, we have that huge second line with the Rebirth Brass Band. You’ve got twelve musicians, maybe twenty dancers, maybe one hundred extras, a hundred people just marching in the parade – if you look at the finished scene, all of those people in that scene are the real people who normally do that. The only person in that scene who’s not already a part of that world is Wendell (Pierce). So if you’re going to have all of these people doing the thing they normally do it makes sense to just let them do it and leave the technical aspects of how to capture that, leave it up to us. If you took the Rebirth Brass Band in a studio the week before and recorded them and then had them march on the street playing the music back over a speaker and having them pretend to play it – that’s how it would normally be done in a movie. But if we had done that, I don’t think you would have the immediacy and the authentic, real energy that you get from producing it the way we did.
What differences or challenges did you find being on set?
Blake Leyh: Just the amount of music in this show is insane. I think it grew, because as we kept moving forward through the season, once we realized that we could do it and it was very successful and the formula was working, the writers started throwing more and more music in there. There’s a later episode that has nineteen live music performances in one episode. We had originally been thinking there would be three or four per episode. Just the volume of music has been incredibly challenging to get all that done on the production schedule that we have. Sometimes we get the scripts five days before we start shooting and then we have eleven days to shoot the episode. When you’re putting all the music on in post there are already scheduling challenges, but you have a minimum several weeks to get all of the music clearances done. In this case you have five days sometimes to pick all the music that they’re going to be playing live and to secure all those rights. Just the amount of music has been the biggest challenge.
I don’t do the actual music clearance, so in terms of all the paperwork and the licenses and contacting the record labels to get them to sign off on stuff – we have a fantastic clearance guy, Jim Black who does all that – other than that I do everything in the music department. Working with the writers and the creative team to pick the music, casting the musicians, figuring out which bands are going to be where and in which scenes, working with the bands on arrangements, some of the time they’re just playing the same thing they normally play. The characters we have, like the street musicians Annie and Sonny, they don’t have any organic music, it’s all created for the show. We have to decide on those songs. I work with them to arrange the songs and decide how they’re going to play them and which part of the song they’re going to play. And then I do all of the music editing after we finish shooting and then I mix all of the music as well. It probably should be like four people doing the job that I’m doing.
Do you get paid like four people?
Blake Leyh: Unfortunately, not. (laughs) No, really, I have the greatest job in the world. It’s been really a dream job. Tremé has been the culmination of so many things. To get to work with all of these musicians directly, so many of whom have been heroes of mine for years, it’s been very, very rewarding. The show itself is so good and it’s about these things that I really care about.
Making HBO’s Tremé