When life on the road taxed Tree Adams, the New York-born and bred musician took a sidestep to the City of Angels to score and compose music for movies and TV, such as “The 100,” “Californication,” “Legends,” and “NCIS New Orleans.” But the itch to play live never left as Adams steadily played gigs featuring his jam band’s slinky blues and funk sounds.
These days Adams is out jamming with his latest groove machine, Dagnasterpus, made up of highly-credentialed music artists, like trumpeter Jordan Katz (from DeLa Soul, Method Man & Lucinda Williams), saxophonist David Ralicke (Beck, Ziggy Marley & Macy Gray), trombonist Shaunte Palmer (Earth, Wind & Fire & Kamasi Washington), and bassist, Ethan Phillips (DeLaSoul, Ghostface Killah & Raekwon). The band’s percussion includes drummers Yayo Morales (Rita Marley) and Michael Jerome (Blind Boys of Alabama, Me’shell Ndgeocehllo), along with James Brack on keyboards, percussion and background vocals. Also on keyboards is Joey Massari and the guitarist is Andy Schuyler.
Dagnasterpus‘ shows are a legendary feast of music, they recently played to a packed house at The Mint in Los Angeles. Here’s what the band’s leader had to say about gigs, composing, and life in L.A.:
Gotta start with the name Dagnasterpus–where did it come from?
I think the word just fell out of the clouds and landed on my head one day. It seemed like a formidable creature that might devour a village but the Dagnasterpus might also be fun to drink a beer with afterwards. Perhaps it is part Octopus, part Loris, part Wooly Mastodon, male, female…or all the above.
Tell us about your musical journey from your early years to The Hatters to now with Dagnasterpus?
I began learning piano and theory when I was very young, probably nursery school and kindergarten. My grandma was a classical musician and she taught me. I studied clarinet and flute as well and then eventually picked up the guitar after listening to Hendrix’s “Axis Bold As Love.”
Eventually in the ’90s, I was the lead singer and guitar player in a band called The Hatters. We were a jam band based in NYC and we did a lot of touring over the course of just shy of a decade. We built a solid fan base and released a few albums on Atlantic Records. Got to tour with some great bands like Buddy Guy, The Allman Bros, King Sunny Ade & Tribe Called Quest, to name a few. It was a fun chapter.
Eventually, I gave up the road life and started working as a composer on these film and TV projects in Los Angeles. That transition began in the late ’90s. All the while, I was writing songs and releasing my music independently, playing gigs here and there as The Tree Adams Band. This was a smaller unit with a gritty blues sound that began to evolve into a larger funk ensemble with horns eventually leading to the creation of the mighty Dagnasterpus.
Describe your music and how you got the band together. You have some amazing players!
The Dag squad is an amorphous organism, pretty nimble and funky. We’ve got a killer horn section and those lines can of course be syncopated at times, but also really melodic. Our grooves are usually built around an insistent ostinato guitar figure. Kind of borrowing a bit from the way that those Fela Kuti songs are constructed.
We’ve also got a drummer and two percussionists so it’s a big sound and it’s essential that people play partsy and not too busy. The vocals are gritty and bluesy. That’s how I roll. Then, we’ve got some fun gang vocals on the choruses usually big unison chants or cries rather than harmonies.
With the lyrics I’m weaving observations of the everyday life with tales of secret agents and disreputable characters.
You’ve scored music for films and television. Do you have a preference between scoring or performing live?
I enjoy both. Playing live is essentially an expression of yourself as an artist mixed with something physical/almost athletic in the moment. It’s often a pure open channel to how you’re feeling. Whether it’s lyrics where you are singing about your feelings or channeling deep soul through your fingers in a solo or a melody. The immediate feedback from an audience can also be a special feeling for better or for worse. We spent years on the road feeling the high of playing to packed houses and then feeling down the following night after driving 10 hours, to set up the circus again just to play for the crickets. The performing arts are raw and there’s magic that happens sometimes inexplicably as the swirling cauldron of crowd, band, gear and your own biorhythms coagulate.
Writing music for film and TV is the applied arts. It’s someone else’s story that you are supporting. The music is not the primary focus and the decision making is primarily in service to the story. This can be inspiring and sometimes you end up with something really cool that you’d never think to do. Also, because you are working to picture, you often have to make elaborate tempo or meter maps to match things happening in the cut. I never would have written a song that altered between 7/8 and 5/4 every other bar that then ramped up 50 bpm as it slammed into a giant colossal anvil hit before working to picture doing these action sequences. It can be really rewarding to collaborate with people in this way too. Essentially, it is story telling through music.
You were born and raised in NYC — when did you move to L.A. and what are your thoughts about life here?
I moved to LA 20 years ago. I love the space you get here. It’s really great if you need to build a studio everywhere you go too. I think when people live in close proximity to each other as they do in NY, they are more prone to walking right by each other and staying locked in their heads, because it’s impossible to actually say hello to everyone. Here in LA, we do have to drive a lot, but you can find you’re walking around life and I do say to hello to people as I pass them on the street. It feels a bit more like a village in this way sometimes. I find that people are nice here in LA for the most part.
I do miss NY bagels and pizza though…. I can’t lie. I think there are tons of great neighborhoods here in LA. I have lived in the Los Feliz/Hollywood Hills area since I got here. I like the canyons. I like being close to the gritty city stuff too. It’s fun to see music and get some grub at a local joint. I also love the fact that here in LA, you can drive to the beach, to the desert or to the snow in about an hour. We’ve got amazing ball fields too….and lots of them, which is great for kids. I just wish we had more blues joints here in LA.
Any special places in Los Angeles you frequent and want to share?
Here are some of my favorite spots: Il Cappricio. (family owned Italian on Vermont ) – my favorite place in town. Phillippe’s (downtown ) – has the killer French dip. Agra (on sunset and Fountain) – Great Indian joint. Yucca’s (on Hillhurst) – the Taco Stand of champions, The Mint (on Pico Blvd) – great nightclub/place to see live music