Interview: BMI Award-Winning Composer Tree Adams Discusses His Creative Process for Bluesy ‘Belushi’ [EXCLUSIVE]

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(L) Tree Adams, photographed by Randall Slavin, (R) 'Belushi'

The ultrasonic hum quivering from a dystopia-classed UFO may be aurally favored by BMI award-winning Tree Adams, but that doesn’t shine any less of a beam to his bluesy upbringing. In fact, if composing his life’s soundtrack, one’s ears would deliciously perk up to a trumpet call that resonantly coincides with Belushi.

Making Emmy rounds, Belushi is an audiovisual documentary focused on one of the heavy-hitters of the genre, John Belushi, who turned an already satisfying gig on NBC’s Saturday Night Live into a troupe affair with The Blues Brothers. Nerds and Beyond were lucky enough to chat with Adams himself as he experimentally tore apart live recordings to create an appetizing score. 

Nerds and Beyond: Belushi is a documentary centered around exploring one of the seven original cast members of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, John Belushi. He also happened to use those grounds to dabble in his other love for music, thereby founding The Blues Brothers alongside Dan Aykroyd. Being brought up around records of the same nature, such as Sonny Terry and Freddie King, it very much seems as if this was a passion project? How did it feel to primarily go back to those blues roots?

Tree Adams: I’ve always loved the blues. I love the fact that John Belushi and Dan Akroyd did a lot to support the blues, popularize the genre and draw attention to some of its original progenitors. In doing the score for the documentary, sure it was great fun to be able to create some fabric in that world. It was also a lot of fun to tear it apart and experiment with the recorded ensemble bits to make some cohesive cues for the dramatic side of the film.

Nerds and Beyond: The documentary’s archival style plays on audio, with interviews being overlaid by various photographs and footage narrating his life’s journey. Most of them were recorded in the 1980s, which sits as a unique perspective. Can you let us in a little on R. J. Cutler’s direction when it came to combining this with the score? Did he want it to mostly feel like an audiovisual due to who Belushi was?

Tree Adams: R.J. had a very clear vision of what he wanted for the music overall. There were, as you say, these archival clips and photos of course and we needed to craft cues that would integrate seamlessly and tastefully with these so that we could accompany him on the journey through the decade going back and forth between the band ensemble (blues, funk, and rock stuff) and the dramatic underscore.

Nerds and Beyond: A part of your process was taking the live recordings to mosaic together certain elements into a new sound that was unrecognizable but still could be threaded together in harmony. Why was this important to you?

Tree Adams: As I mentioned, cohesion was essential. So, my thought was that the best way to make the cerebral, emotional, and darker side feel related to the vintage band stuff was to tear those elements apart and create new pieces with the same fabric. So, grab a slide guitar or a harmonica, warp and stretch it, add effects, reverse it and see what new dimensions you can find there. Filter drum takes and send them to outer space with reverb and delay to give pieces some subtle motion underneath. Grab a sustained bass note roll of the attack, time-stretch and add harmonic distortion to create ominous low tones. It’s basically all the fun mad scientist in the studio stuff.

Nerds and Beyond: Your body of work meshes with the likes of The CW’s The 100 to procedural hit dramas such as NCIS: New Orleans. The prior’s sounding board accumulated to around 40 minutes of music, whereas Belushi sits at 1 hour and 48 minutes of watch time. When approaching larger projects, how do you break them down so they don’t seem as intimidating? Since you’re given more time, does that help any?

Tree Adams: Yes, the schedule for a film usually allows for a bit more time hence the fun experimenting we were able to do…and a lot of live recording I might add. I have pretty much the same system for approaching every project, so I wouldn’t say that I treat film, TV, or video games differently. That said, I use all different instrumentation and approaches to find inspiration. Also as a collaborative medium, there’s often a different process with each filmmaker. As far as being intimidated goes, I feel that way at the beginning of every project no matter how big or small it may be. I have come to accept that energy as part of the job. Perhaps it is also a way of honoring the gig because it means you really care about making it great.

Nerds and Beyond: Even more so, television shows such as The 100 have a passionate fanbase. Do you feel more pressure when it comes to them analyzing how something like its score reveals its story, or do you encourage think pieces?

Tree Adams: I think it’s great when there’s a fanbase for a project and it is not lost on me that the fans are listening to the score and watching closely when you create themes for different characters or worlds and what have you. That’s super a fun challenge and I welcome that engagement, because it really allows you to provide another enhanced layer of storytelling.

Nerds and Beyond: What people may not know about you is that writing was your minor in college at The University of Pennsylvania. What initially drew you to study the topic? And how do you feel the knowledge that you learned helped navigate composing now later on in your career?

Tree Adams: I’ve studied music my whole life whether passionately or reluctantly. My grandmother sang with me and taught me piano and recorder when I was really little (like nursery school age). As I got older I wanted to learn to be able to play with other musicians and eventually wanted to be able to write music myself. So, I studied at the guitar study center in New York and then more when I was in college. There’s really nothing like performing though. You learn a great deal playing with other musicians in front of an audience.

Nerds and Beyond: If a network gave you free rein, what would your next project be genre-wise? Who would you hire to be a part of the dream team?

Tree Adams: I think I’d like to work on another science fiction project. It’s so much fun to have the freedom of imagination that comes with sci-fi. Also, there is a really rich world of traditions and motifs to reference for fun along the way. As far as who to bring on to collaborate with goes, it’s so hard to pick from a world of so many talented musicians and friends! If we’re allowed to resurrect people, I might grab Fela Kuti, Babatunde Olatunji, and Jimi Hendrix and get them in a room with Thundercat and Yo-Yo Ma.

Feast your ears on Belushi yourself exclusively through SHOWTIME.

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By Rachel
Joining the Nerds and Beyond team back in February 2019, Rachel Finucane graduated university with a Bachelor of Arts (Humanities) majoring in Screen Arts. She’s been passionate about all things television and film-related since penning her first Neighbours fanfiction aged twelve, before inevitably taking that pen to dabble in fashion, sports, and music. She can be spotted on Twitter at @rachelfinucane_.
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