Sunday night premiere of HBO’s newest series Treme, yep the musical neighborhood in NOLA, and music is one of the major characters. A smorgasborg of tasty tunesmiths appear; Dr. John, Galactic, Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle; some in the background others at the front (Kermit Ruffins plays himself). Will be fun to see the people we’ve seen so many times out and about, on national tv.
Reuters ran a story today (via Billboard) with producer David Simon about music’s role in the show. Here it is, enjoy. Let us know what you think of the show if you watch it, Sunday night.
David Simon’s “Treme” moves to a Crescent City beat
Larry BlumenfeldFri Apr 9, 2010 7:55pm EDT
NEW ORLEANS Billboard – At a pizza joint in the Lower Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, writer-producer David Simon is talking about his newest TV series, “Treme,” which premieres Sunday April 11 on HBO. Music”On one level,” he says, “it’s a celebration of American music.” He interrupts himself, pausing in appreciation of a J. Geils Band blues cover playing on the radio, wondering about the song’s source: “Is that Jimmy Reed?” Simon is a music lover, pure and simple, his ear grabbed by whatever moves him, his mind moved to explore its history and context. That’s no secret to fans of Simon’s critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire”: During its five-year run, the show employed five versions of Tom Wait’s; “Down in the Hole” as themes, yielded two compilation CDs one drawn exclusively from artists based in the show’s setting, Baltimore and nearly always positioned music as more than just a soundtrack bursting forth from a car speaker or jukebox.With “Treme” pronounced “truh-may”, Simon ups the ante, moving music to the foreground. Set in New Orleans, “Treme” picks up three months after the floods that resulted from the levee failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Culture — which in New Orleans means a tight braid of music, cuisine, dance, visual art and street life — is the primary focus of the series, as indeed it was and is the defining element of the city’s identity and its recovery.
Familiar faces from Simon’s troupe of actors show up as fictional cultural fixtures: Wendell Pierce (detective Bunk Moreland on “The Wire”) plays Antoine Batiste, a trombonist we first encounter subbing with the real-life Rebirth Brass Band. Clarke Peters (detective Lester Freamon on “The Wire”) plays the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux, chanting some of his best lines while beating a tambourine.
The true-life heroes of New Orleans music figure prominently too: In addition to Rebirth, the list of musicians making cameo appearances, often in performance, includes trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, pianist/singer Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, saxophonist Donald Harrison and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
If Simon’s new show is a fictional depiction of what truly drives life in New Orleans, as he explains, it’s also a loving expression of what captured his attention decades ago and kept him coming back to the city through the years.
Billboard: When do you recall falling under the spell of New Orleans music?
David Simon: Actually, the first truly New Orleans album I think I found was Professor Longhair’s sides rereleased on Atlantic. I never saw him play. He died before I ever got to New Orleans. But through him, I started hearing about the Mardi Gras Indians, probably to explain the lyrics to “Big Chief.” And at that point, someone played the Wild Tchoupitoulas album for me. That was in college. Later, in my mid-20s, a cousin of mine started throwing a lot of New Orleans stuff at me: later Nevilles, but also Dr. John, and through Dr. John I found all the Cosimo Matassa-produced R&B. It was due to that second wave of music that I finally resolved to go to “NOLA” for the first time, which was for Jazzfest (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) in the late 1980s.
Billboard: How did Jazzfest affect your musical immersion in New Orleans?
Simon: When I first went to Jazzfest, I’d check out the national acts, the ones I knew. But then I started to make one discovery after another — the guys I didn’t know, should have known, wanted to know better. I heard Eddie Bo play by himself at a Piano Night at Tipitina’s. Funky, soulful. I didn’t know much about him, but I went over to Louisiana Music Factory the next day and copped some CDs. That’s always the way it works, right? I discovered how much I loved Snooks Eaglin by walking into a club and hearing him taking requests and just killing everything. Human jukebox, indeed.
Billboard: One thing listeners can’t really get from recordings is the second-line parade: It’s one thing to listen to a Rebirth Brass Band CD; it’s another to follow the band through the streets for four hours. When were you introduced to all that?
Simon: I remember stumbling into my first second line. It was the Treme Brass Band. They went up Orleans Avenue to Claiborne Avenue. They stopped under the I-10 bridge and the echo was great. It was exhilarating, and I later tried to explain it to someone in Baltimore: “It’s not a parade like you think. It’s participatory — you’re in it. It’s directional — you get in front of the horns. And it’s powerful — you lose yourself.” And I sounded like an idiot. Some of this stuff can’t be conveyed just by language. That was the first time I thought there’s power in there that I don’t understand.
Billboard: Did you get to know a lot of musicians through the years?
Simon: Not really. I’d always been a polite civilian standing at the edges of things. When I decided we were going to try and do this show, once I got the green light to at least write a pilot script, I started calling people who I thought could give me insight into various aspects of the culture and who’d allow me to bounce ideas off them. I cold-called Kermit Ruffins, whose music I knew. Kermit gives you the brass history of the brass-band revival, and he’s the best example of a jazz musician as entertainer. I cold-called Donald Harrison, not just for his knowledge of jazz but also Indian culture, in which he was raised. I’d bought Davis Rogan’s album (“The Once and Future DJ”) and I cold-called him. Davis (who inspired a character played by Steve Zahn) is the kind of guy who can reference piano riffs, tell you things like which innovation is Fats Domino’s and which is Dr. John’s.
Billboard: Did you really provide a “soundtrack” to HBO executives to accompany scripts when you were sealing the deal for “Treme?”
Simon: I burned stuff off my iTunes library and sent it to (HBO executives) Mike Lombardo, Richard Plepler and Sue Naegle to encourage them to green-light the show. I felt that a script that relied so heavily on the interaction between music and ordinary life ought to be accompanied by musical examples. The tracks included were those that would be playing — either in performance or in background — in the pilot episode. So it began with Rebirth Brass Band playing “Funking It Up,” then went to the “Treme Song” by (John) Boutte as the title sequence, then back to “It’s All Over Now” — though I probably burned the Dirty Dozen version — and so forth. I don’t know if they listened to it when they read the script. I know Sue did because she told me she really enjoyed the CD and could visualize certain scenes in light of the songs.
Billboard: There’s far more actual footage of musicians performing in “Treme” than viewers are used to seeing in a dramatic series. Is that a risk?
Simon: What music has achieved is part of the story. But it’s not a lot of performance footage compared to the average rock ‘n’ roll movie. We were really conscious of the fact that we have to have a point of view in the room. What we don’t want is that moment from (the 1956 film) “The Girl Can’t Help It,” where it’s “Hey, Fats, how about playing one for the kids?” And he plays “Ain’t That a Shame.” Dissolve in applause, and then dialogue. If at any point the story stops for a piece of music, then we screwed up. Also, the musicians figure into the plot as they did in real life. You won’t see the Neville Brothers in the first season. They weren’t back in New Orleans yet.
Billboard: Are you planning any CD releases in connection with the show, or will there be any related marketing for existing recordings?
Simon: We are planning CD releases for each season, and we are talking to iTunes about offering full musical performance videos on their site. Perhaps one per episode. Nothing’s sealed yet, though.
Billboard: Would people be right or wrong to call “Treme” a “music show?”
Simon: It can’t just be about music. But it has to be musical. On one level it should be rooted in American roots music and the creation and performance thereof. But it has to say something more. Dramas told in long-form structure need to have themes beyond the obvious or they won’t resonate for very long. So the idea of the American city — why it matters, the idea of community — you grab that on top of the music and now you’ve got something worth trying for.