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- Posted on Jun 4th 2010 4:00PM by Dan Reilly
Treme' -- named for the neighborhood in which jazz is said to have originated -- takes an honest look at the city in the wake of the storm. Much of the ensemble cast portrays musicians: Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary is an outspoken struggling DJ/musician, Wendell Pierce's Antoine Baptise keeps busy as a "workaday" trombonist, Rob Brown's Delmond Lambreaux is professional jazz trumpeter, and Lucia Micarelli's Annie ekes out a living as a street violinist. 'Treme' also features cameos by many of the city's best musicians like Dr. John, Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins, as well as appearances by Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, among others.
Just days after concluding filming for the show's first season, Simon spoke to Spinner about the joys and problems of working with professional musicians, why most of the characters drink Budweiser and the message he hopes the show brings to viewers who aren't familiar with New Orleans.
How do you go about picking the music for the show?
Well, everybody's involved. There's a music supervisor, Blake Leyh, and the writers and producers all have relatively strong opinions on music. Eric [Overmeyer, co-creator] has lived down there for more than 20 years, maybe longer, and I've been traveling down there since the late '80s, so you write the script and you see what you think might work. Sometimes you're shaping the music to fit the story and other times, the music is incidental in a way that music in a jukebox can often be incidental.
How has the experience of working with so many local musicians been for you?
This is a show about music, so we're using a lot of musicians and it's often hard to schedule them. They have touring schedules, club dates, studio time, and this isn't their main gig, so it's a struggle to make the schedule work for everyone. But by and large, the music community of New Orleans has regarded the project as being of some merit, so people have gone out of their way to make it work.
How did you decide on this spectrum of musical backgrounds for the characters?
Antoine, he's a workaday player. He's a professional musician, which, in New Orleans, is something that's handed down within families as a profession. We knew we wanted someone to be a workaday brass player, and the trombone just seemed to suit Wendell. We knew we wanted someone [Micarelli] who could play the violin, because that would get us into Cajun music and country, a whole element of American roots music in South Louisiana. We knew we wanted to get somebody who played modern jazz and was symbolic of all the great players who've had to leave New Orleans in order to get their due -- that's been the case ever since Louis Armstrong. People who pursue jazz in modern milieus have to go to New York, Paris or Los Angeles where there's more of a market, so we knew we wanted somebody in Delmond's situation. We knew we wanted someone who's involved in the [Mardi Gras] Indian culture, which is elemental to New Orleans music.
Is it your goal for the show to make the local musicians like Kermit Ruffins popular on a national or international level?
I hope it calls more attention to the culture of New Orleans because it's culture that saved the city. The city was not saved by political leadership -- there was none. It wasn't saved by any kind of coherent urban policy -- there was none. It wasn't saved by economic fiat. If you look at how far New Orleans has come back in the last five years, it's because the people refuse to give up their culture. They couldn't imagine living anywhere else or being any other way. It's extraordinary because American culture has not endured in the same way anywhere else.
What surprised you about the musician culture in New Orleans?
I'm surprised how little they're paid, I hate to say. You can be a really good musician in New Orleans and come close to starving. The 10th best piano player in New Orleans at any given moment would be filling nightclubs anywhere else, and he may be struggling to get gigs [at home].
Is there a reason they all drink Budweiser?
Um, no, but they do. White folk tend to drink a variety of beers, but Budweiser is the drink of choice in the black community in New Orleans. People always assume that there's product placement on HBO and we're getting money for this car or that beer. We don't ask for money for anything. If somebody tries to place a product, we tell them to go f--- themselves. But you walk into the Candlelight Lounge and three out of four cans of beer you see on the table will be Budweiser. It just is.
It looks as though some of the performances are recorded live. How do you go about that?
The first time, we actually staged the second line [parade], and that's what's in the pilot, a rehearsed second line. What we came to believe after that is "We need to have a parade and catch up with the camera," so in Episode 6, we called the second line. We wanted to depict a particular second line that happened on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in '06 and so we had everybody wear what they wore and we used the same route and depicted what occurred. We basically just turned the parade loose and chased it with cameras. I think it turned out better, actually.
Wendell Pierce has been taking trombone lessons for authenticity's sake. What other training have the actors gone through?
Well, we try to marry people to consultants who can help them with the roles throughout the cast. Donald Harrison, who's chief of the Congo Nation and whose father was chief of the Guardians of the Flame, has been working with Clarke Peters on the Indian moves and the whole culture of the Indians as well as how to wear that suit on the street. That thing is 30, 40 pounds of pretty, and the first time Clarke put it on, he was like "My God! I gotta walk in this?" Donald is also working with Rob Brown on his trumpet work. We're trying to get it so it's the right valves and the brass is credible to a horn player. No one can teach Lucia Micarelli [who plays Annie] anything. She can play anything on violin. Michiel Huisman [Sonny] is learning New Orleans piano with Davis Rogan [the role model for Davis McAlary], actually. We're just marrying people to the real whenever we possibly can.
Are street musicians still getting harassed like it was depicted in the show?
Sometimes. It comes in waves. It happened right after the storm because the police were just wired tight. There was a lot of violence, unresolved anger and frustration. When most of the police were working, their houses were gone and their lives were in disarray. Maybe 25 percent of the force had either been fired or quit, so in the immediate aftermath of the storm there was this sort of unexplained, almost irrational crackdown on musicians. It faded for a while and it seems to come back every now and then.
How did the experience of filming 'The Wire' in Baltimore prepare you for shooting in the less safe areas of New Orleans?
I've never had problems filming anywhere. In Baltimore, we reached accommodation with drug crews and asked them if they could set up shop a couple blocks away because we needed to use the location. By and large, if you come to people on their own terms, if you don't take advantage or lie, they're accommodating and comfortable with the process. The problems you have are when you try to film in an affluent area -- the sense of entitlement on the part of upper middle class and rich folk is profound. We never heard complaints when we filmed in working class or poorer areas.
What was it like to have Elvis Costello come in for the first episodes?
I'm a civilian like anybody else. The guy is a brilliant interpreter of song as well as a remarkable composer. He's somebody that has also done a great service to New Orleans, along with Allen Toussaint. That was the first recording session back after the storm, [2006's] 'The River in Reverse.' We felt the need to honor it because at that point in time there was a curfew -- you couldn't be on the street. There were very few people back, the Lower Ninth Ward was still closed and people couldn't go to their homes. But these guys came back to a half-wrecked city and recorded a dynamic album that made reference to not only the storm but the culture of New Orleans music. It was a really admirable thing for him and Toussaint to do at that particular point in time.
Were there any musicians you were intimidated to meet?
I gotta say, they're all intimidating to me. Except maybe Kermit. Kermit is so comfortable in the world of New Orleans that anybody can encounter him at any given moment and it'll be a delightful moment. I remember, I went up to him and said I was interested in doing this television show. He'd seen 'The Wire,' but you walk up to four out of five musicians and they're going to be a little suspicious of you. Kermit was like, "You're making a TV show? No problem. Good. Good idea."
How did you get past the apprehension of the musicians and locals?
We still haven't in some ways. I think they now see the show as a very good venue for presenting what New Orleans has given to the world: African-American music. But you never get past the fact that a lot of these guys have been f---ed over 10, 12 times by record companies and publishing houses. There's a whole history of struggle in terms of rightful payment going to these artists. We often try to use the versions of songs where the money might pass through, but it's not always possible. We don't want anyone to come away with a bad taste in their mouth. One of the most enjoyable things about making the show is honoring some people who have really contributed to American culture.