EXCLUSIVE : Shining the Spotlight on THE 100 Composer Tree Adams

Enjoying a long career as a television and film composer, Tree Adams has worked on such recent TV shows as CALIFORNICATION, PERCEPTION, IN PLAIN SIGHT, LEGENDS, THE LIZZIE BORDEN CHRONICLES and now THE 100.  Bringing his unique, varied and multi-talented sounds and composition style, Tree happily delves into the post-apocalyptic world of THE 100, which offers a vast array of musical canvases to draw upon.

In an exclusive interview, Tree Adams talked about the joy and challenges of creating musical themes and sounds to invoke the spirit of each of the warring Grounder clans and the heroes that rise in the midst of it in THE 100.

How did you first get approached to work on THE 100?
TREE: I had worked with a few of the crew on different projects and they recommended me for it.  I then met with Jason Rothenberg, the showrunner, and we talked about some ideas and that was it. I joined the show this year for Season 3.  They basically wanted me to come in and give more of a melodic and thematic approach to things.  I think because the show has so many different characters and so many different worlds they go into that they wanted to kind of have the music bring out some of those distinctive sounds in order to facilitate the storytelling better. That was sort of the new road that they wanted to go down.

So you were asked to compose a specific musical sequence for each character?
TREE:  Not necessarily each character because that starts to sound a little bit like “Peter and Wolf” or something.  I think when you have something like this where there are so many characters, part of what you do is figure out that there are certain characters that we may want to give them themes.  Then there are certain dynamics, like we have a heroic theme and a tragic theme and these kind of apply to our main characters — like characters that were on that first group that came down as the hundred.  Then you have a couple of bad guys that have their own textures or their own melodies.  Things like that.  It’s coming up with something so that it helps the storytelling, but is not a distraction.

Like distinguishing between the Sky People and the Grounders and Ice Nation. Were there specific sounds that invoked those different cultures?
TREE:  Yeah, definitely.  And there are some new ones this season who we encounter, like subsets of the Grounders, and those start to get their distinctions as well.  And then there’s some other groups. In the giant space station of the Ark, there were other stations that linked up.  There were 13 different stations and they all fell to Earth.  Some of them were destroyed, but some of them lived.  So they are looking for some of those other shuttles that have landed and they have each set up their own encampment.  It is like an ever-spreading world.

There is also the City of Light, which Jaha (Isaiah Washington) went in search of last season which is encountered a bit this season.  Did you have to create some kind of sound for that?
TREE:  Yeah, totally.  There’s also an opportunity to say something about what we are doing in terms of technology now days. We are talking about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, social media — some of these things that we are kind of dealing with technologically  — I think Jason starts to sort of satirize a little bit about what is happening in today’s world.  Like offer commentary about what’s happening in today’s world.  [Laughs]  I can’t really say too much about it because we haven’t gotten there and I don’t want to be the spoiler.  There’s this other kind of component that gets introduced this season, that is very interesting, that you get to see fleshed out as well.

What kinds of instruments did you rely on to create the sounds for this season on THE 100?
TREE:  Going in, I have to respectful of the fact that there has been two seasons of stuff already there.  When I first spoke to Jason, we discussed creating more thematic material and the fact that there was going to be this whole new storyline that would allow me to forge completely new territory.  So it was along the lines of using the “same box of crayons,” so to speak.  We have your traditional orchestral ensembles, big ethnic battle drums, wailing female vocals, and we do a lot of Middle Eastern instruments as well — integrating non-traditional Western sounds like the Duduk and Oud and Persian Daf — and we get a lot of that going as well to provide some exotic flavor. It is a pretty wide-open palette.  We are also in the future, so anything I can do as far as sound design, that bag is open too.  So we cut a pretty wide swath.

Are you relying on electronic instruments or are you using a live orchestra?
TREE:  We don’t have the time or budget to do a full live orchestra.  We basically have a quartet coming in every week to sort of sweeten stuff. Then as far as all the Middle Eastern instruments, all that is live, like the Duduk and the Oud and the Daf.  I actually play a lot of that myself.  Then, of course, the vocals are live and the drums are live.  So most of it is live.  The orchestra stuff, you are hearing some live stuff mixed with samples.

How many days do they give you to actually work on each episode?  It sounds like you have a fast turn-around.
TREE:  It is tough.  I mean, it is just today’s schedule.  The tools we have at our disposal are getting better and better and they know it and they expect it even faster than ever.  So I’d say that tops I get two weeks; if it’s tight, I get a week.  Like right now, I’m doing it in a week.  It’s insane.  When I first started, I took a lot of time and I had a few months to come up with thematic material and I was sort of able to supply a whole mess of stuff for them to cut with and to hammer out the sound that we were going to use and to create some recurring themes.  That was really helpful.

Did that also give you enough time to catch up on the show because you had not worked on the first 2 seasons and to get a sense of where the show was coming from as far as world-building?
TREE:  Yeah.  I’ve done this before where I’ve come on mid-season and I think it is actually one of the reasons that they brought me in.  I’m pretty good at this process.  Every single time that I’ve done it, I go back and I watch every single episode.  I’ll read scripts.  I basically have to immerse myself in it to devour as much as I can so that I can know where they are at and catch up.  It’s an interesting thing.  As soon as I heard about the possibility that I was going to get brought in on this, I sat down and started watching it to see if it was something I was interested in — and I was really taken by the show.  I really enjoyed it.  So it was an easy thing to get sucked into.  I have a couple of kids and I had them watch it with me too.  So that was fun.  I know that I need to be loyal to what has happened.  You have to do the research. It’s only fair to the show.

What are some of the kinds of scenes that you enjoy composing for?
TREE:  There are a few characters that are fantastic.  I really love working with Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos).  I really like those two in particular.  I have a lot of fun with them.  Bellamy (Bob Morley) too.  Then there’s Roan (Zach McGowan) and he’s really fun to write for.  He’s got great bad guy stuff to write for.  He was also on BLACK SAILS and SHAMELESS.  Action scenes are always fun.  I love writing emotional scenes too. There are a lot of good relationships in this show and those good running threads over the course of the season as certain relationships develop — like a love-thing or a tension-thing.  In this case too, there is also mentoring going on.  Like the Abby (Paige Turco) and Kane (Henry Ian Cusik) mentoring relationships with some of the younger characters, and it is good to work on that stuff as well.

Sounds like you are a fan of the show.  That has to make it more fun for you.
TREE:  [Laughs]  Yeah, I enjoy it.

Was there a favorite twist that you enjoyed from the prior two seasons?
TREE:  It was pretty evil when they threw that dude off the boat.  That was a pretty cutthroat move there towards the end of last season.  Then they killed off Finn (Thomas McDonnell).  I didn’t expect that.  You’ve got to be careful on a show like this when there are this many characters — people get killed off.  That was it: killing off Finn.  I was like: really?!

Would you have liked to have composed for that particular scene?
TREE:  That would have been tons of fun.  [Laughs]  But I’ve got my share of “fun” scenes coming up this season.  There’s lots of stuff going on that I can’t divulge.

Do you have a go-to sound or instrument that you find particularly fun to weave into the show compositions?
TREE:  The Duduk.  It’s a Middle Eastern wind instrument.  I love the kind of darkness that it has in it and it’s also very soulful.  So I’ve been putting a lot of that in there.  I think the Daf, which is a Persian frame drum that has rings on the inside of it, that has a lot of tonality to it.  I tend to layer that in a lot of the battle scenes so that it has a real Earthy quality.  I think the key is that if you are doing some really big, epic, sci-fi, adventure music that you need to add some kind of organic edge to it.  It suits the world really well.  I think in the world of THE 100, it has a bit of Mad Max feel to it.  It’s dusty.  It’s got some edge. The characters — sure, some of them are really good-looking and hot and they are running around with perfect hair — but the fact is the world has “a little bit of edge with hair on it.”  And I am just imbuing the music with that as well.  I really enjoy working with the whole team in crafting the sound.  The guy who does the sound effects, Charlie Crutcher who has been there from the beginning, he is brilliant.  We collaborate on a lot of stuff and talk about who is going to take what.  The guy who kind of mixes it all, Tim Scanlan, he’s great.  We had a conversation this morning about this one scene that is really a collage of music and sound-effects and it gets really intense.  I said to him, “I’ve created half the picture here.  I’m not sure what Charlie’s got planned on his side.  Let’s go back and forth and open up a dialogue so that we can give this scene and this world as much texture and energy so that it really gems.”  I think that is crucial to the project — to have everybody really communicating and sharing information.

How many “chefs are there in the kitchen,” so to speak, in creating all the sounds that we hear?
TREE:  Obviously, it’s Jason’s show.  Jason Rothenberg is steering the whole ship.  We will sit down and we will have session where we plan out time-code ins and outs of all the music starts and talk about all the bits of sound and dialogue. Then Charlie Crutcher, he’s doing the sound-effects, and I’m doing the music and then Tim Scanlan is the associate producer that sits down and kind of directs the mix.  There’s two guys who actually mixes all the elements together.  That’s kind of the landscape.  And I have a music editor, Carly Barber and I deliver all my stems to her. Those are the separate elements of each track, and if they need to make adjustments, she is there to slice-and-dice.  It’s just a lot of communicating and collaborating. If you mandate is: whatever is best for the show — you’re in a good position to either fight for what you believe in or you are there to cater to whatever the scene needs and adjust as necessary.  Sometimes like if there is a big impact, like a shuttle falling to Earth, and I’ve created something musically that swells to it, then at the moment of impact, I need to clear for the sound-effects to take over for a little bit or sometimes they want to have all of the sound go away and have the music lift and take you off.  It is those kinds of conversations back-and-forth that I think are really crucial to helping the experience be as impactful as needed.

Is there something fans can watch for as Season 3 opens on THE 100 as an example of your work?
TREE:  The Panther scene was great.  Listen for a lot of solo cello that accompanies Clarke and her character.  She has, after basically wiping out everyone at the Mountain, she’s got this new treacherous side to her and I think we see a few different sides to her early on.  We see her vulnerable side, her treacherous side, and her heroic side.  I have this sort of solo cello motif for her that takes on a few different shapes and I think that is fun to look for.  There is this heroic theme that you will hear again and again for the Sky Crew.  That’s it. Look for that.

To hear the rich and dulcet sounds created and composed by Tree Adams for our heroes and Clarke specifically, be sure to tune in for the Season 3 premiere of THE 100 on Thursday, January 21st at 9:00 p.m. on the CW.