Watch exclusive clips on the music of Treme from the Treme: Season One DVD below.
Treme, the HBO drama created by Wire executive producer David Simon and producer Eric Overmyer about post-Katrina life in New Orleans, returns for a second season April 24th; Season One is available on DVD March 29th. Rolling Stone caught up with New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, who plays struggling trombonist Antoine Batiste, to talk about what the new season has in store, learning to play the trombone and the similarities between Baltimore (where Pierce filmed The Wire for five seasons) and New Orleans.
What can you tell us about the second season? What's in store for Antoine?
Antoine is feeling his oats a little bit. He thinks that he can do more than just be the New Orleans sideman. So he tries his hand at doing a little bit more, and then he starts to question whether or not he should have done it. He's still fighting with [baby mama] Desiree about his job – she wants him to get a "job" job, and he wants to play his gigs. But, also, for Antoine, like all the characters, it's starting to set in that the recovery is going to be a long haul. It's going to take a little more fortitude, so he realizes he's going to have to do a lot better if he wants to do good.
So where exactly does the new season begin?
It picks up 14 months after Katrina, on All Saints Day, which is a very special day in our culture. What Day of the Dead is to Mexico, All Saints Day is to New Orleans. It's become a city holiday – you honor all of those whom you have lost. It's a great way to start out the second season, because it's really honoring all those people who were lost during the disaster, and a reminder that we haven't forgotten them.
How has it been filming a series in your hometown after doing five seasons in Baltimore for The Wire?
First of all, Baltimore and New Orleans are very similar. Some of the urban problems that you find in Baltimore you find in New Orleans. Also, there's a church on every corner and a barroom on every other. And I don't know if it's just because I fell in love with the people of Baltimore – I fell in love with the city. And so it became a second home. But shooting in New Orleans has been a tale of two cities for me. It's a great joy to come home, refine my craft … The other side of it is I am rebuilding my neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park. I have a community development corporation, and I'm getting all the properties that were sold back to the government and we're rebuilding those properties with geothermal and solar homes.
Let's talk a little bit about your character on Treme. Do you like Antoine? He's gotten a raw deal, no doubt – he's always hustling for the next gig, he can't provide for his children, he's beaten up and arrested by the cops for no good reason. But at the same time, he's no saint – he's unfaithful to Desiree (with his ex-wife, no less!), he gambles away most of his pay from his gig with Allen Toussaint.…
[Laughs] Yeah, no, I love Antoine. He reminds me of so many musicians I know here in New Orleans, who, despite their flaws and their inadequacies, they are demonstrating some of the highest musicianship and craftsmanship when they play. There's a legacy that connects us to Papa Celestin and Buddy Bolden, going all the way back to the late 19th century, when the music was being created. And when the music is played, it will connect us through the generations and through time. And that's the thing that Antoine has the privilege of being a part of. With all of his human frailties, he's part of something bigger than himself – and he knows it, and that's what drives him. And that's the thing I love about him. All of his flaws are a lot less than the greatness of music that he's playing, so that's what makes people forgiving of Antoine.
How is your trombone playing going? How much of it is you on Treme, or do you have a horn double?
I have a double. His name is Stafford Agee, he plays with the Rebirth Brass Band – he's one of the best players in the country. And I also have a trombone teacher, Keith Hart, who makes an appearance on Treme in Season Two. Now, I can play, but not too good, not yet. When you see me playing trombone on the street in the second-line scenes, I'm actually playing, and Stafford is there with me. But in the club scenes, Stafford is just off camera, and they just make sure the mic is not on for me, and the mic is on for Stafford, and we play in unison. But I learn every song my character plays. And I played trombone with the Rebirth Brass Band at the opening game of the New Orleans Hornets this past year. That was my public debut.
So what does your friend Wynton Marsalis have to say about your trombone playing?
Hey, man, he loves it. Listen, I knew one thing, I have too many musician friends to mess around. But I get the highest compliments when people come up and they actually think I'm playing, and they say, "I really love your playing. I didn't know you were a musician too." [Laughs] I'll tell them I actually don't play, and one guy was like, "Wait a minute, I'm a musician. I can see, you have the embouchure right, you have all the positions right." I say, "Yeah, I learned everything, but that's not me."
Is it true that you're going to be in the next Twilight film, Breaking Dawn?
Yes I am. I am not a werewolf, and I am not a vampire. I am actually one of the few human beings in the movie.
What's on heavy rotation on your iPod?
I'm listening to a lot of soul music right now. I'm listening to Solomon Burke, a lot of Stax music. Booker T., James Brown. And I'm trying to get that funky trombone sound from Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker.
How have New Orleanians reacted to Treme?
What happens with Treme is there are watch parties all over the city. A big one is at Charbonnet Funeral Home, right in Tremé [the New Orleans neighborhood], one of the stalwart businesses of Tremé. And they have hundreds of people that gather there on Sunday nights to watch the show. And then in different bars, and different music studios, people around the city kind of stop, and collectively watch Treme. And it's been, like, the biggest group therapy session. It shows you the diversity of our community. It shows you the quirkiness of New Orleans, and as different as we are, it shows you how much we share in common. That we have a love of our city, a love of family, and our culture – music and food and family – nothing is more important than that. And so what we're going to try to do this year, as a cast, we're going to go around to the different watch parties and surprise them.
Treme depicts a very unique community, despite the wide spectrum of characters, that seems unlike any other city in the world, let alone the U.S. Why do you think it's had such a profound effect on audiences?
The greatest compliment came this year when I was having dinner, and the waiter brought the check, and he said, "Mr. Pierce, I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude, but I just want to tell you that last year, I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. And when I got to the end, I went into my hotel, and I saw Treme, and I didn't know where I was going to go after my hike, but I decided to move to New Orleans, and that's why I'm here, so thank you." He said, "You gave me a gift," and I said, "No, man, you gave me a gift." It was wonderful.