Tiffany Anders and Mato Wayuhi on the Music of “Reservation Dogs” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, July 14th, 2024  

Tiffany Anders and Mato Wayuhi on the Music of “Reservation Dogs”

The music supervisor and composer for the series take us behind the scenes of key music moments

Sep 26, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Shane Brown/FX Bookmark and Share

Whether they’re strutting down the dusty roads of their Oklahoma reservation, or having heartfelt conversations with their elders, the Native American teenage protagonists on Reservation Dogs need music to help drive home their lived-in stories. Sterlin Harjo (the co-creator and showrunner of this acclaimed FX on Hulu series) enlisted veteran music supervisor Tiffany Anders to source songs for needle drops, and hotshot composer Mato Wayuhi for the score, to soundtrack his nuanced characters’ in turns hilarious and tear jerking adventures.

Wayuhi is an Oglala Lakota multidisciplinary artist from South Dakota. He is fresh off contributing to War Pony, a grim and gritty rez story, which won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Before that, he built a niche following as a solo musician appealing to fans of Chance the Rapper’s and Tyler the Creator’s colorfully quirky yet introspective songwriting. Wayuhi will be scoring the Marvel series Echo. He even flexed impressive acting skills in a supporting role playing a young Bucky on the “House Made of Bongs” episode of Rez Dogs.

Anders made a name for herself working on a number of acclaimed series like Netflix’s Beef, Firefly Lane and PEN15. Before that, she was the music supervisor on successful indie films, most notably the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy. In addition to being a savvy music curator, Anders also has a knack for writing her own songs. She wrote and recorded her debut solo album in 2001, Funny Cry Happy Gift, produced by Polly Jean Harvey.

Anders and Wayuhi take us behind the scenes of how they heighten key moments on Reservation Dogs through their music.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): How do you work together to make the compositions and needle drops complement one another on Reservation Dogs?

Tiffany Anders: We do spotting sessions, where we go through the episodes and decide what scenes will be scored, and where there’s going to be a song. Otherwise, we work in separate realms, unless something is already in the cut, and then maybe Mato takes it from there. What do you think, Mato?

Mato Wayuhi: Yeah, each episode, especially this season, is its own film in so many ways. So they’re thematically and musically separate from one another. That means when there’s a needle drop, the music creates a certain vibe. Then I try to match that as much as possible. Episode 3 of this season is a good example of that. The “Deer Lady” one, where the music creates a very palpable vibe. My job was to operate in the same space as that, and provide musical context within different scenes. Unless there’s a creative note from somebody to do something really out there, needle drop music can set the stage for me to do what I have to do.

It must be great to have someone as talented as Tiffany to tee things up like that.

Wayuhi: I’ve learned a lot of different types of music from you Tiffany. Also, this show has helped me grow so much in my producing and composing. When I first got on, I didn’t really know a lot of blues or rock, or what’s coming out of that scene in Oklahoma. It opened up my world to how that music is made, and helped me respect the forefathers of it. It’s been fun to learn how to do music in that genre, and has been really constructive for me. Not only as a storyteller, but also as a musician. It gave me confidence to go into other realms.

Considering you see each of these new episodes as a short film, how does that affect your approach compared to prior seasons?

Anders: This new season is unique in lots of ways. We have an episode that’s really needle drop heavy, and it’s very period specific. For that one, Sterling was like, “Just go for it.” There were only a few songs he wanted. Otherwise I had freedom.

But, for Mato, I feel like he really branched out so much this season. For instance: the “Deer Lady” episode. It has so much heavy lifting in the score.

Wayuhi: Sterling said similar things to me. There’s a lot of trust, which is really cool. I’m really grateful for that. Because in the first season, for a lot of us, it was a lot of our first times making TV. And then each season, we were given so much agency.

It’s very poetic that this is the last season. It’s the season where I feel like I’ve grown the most. At the same time, we’re depicting these characters, and I know these characters. I am these characters that are on screen. So it feels cool to do my best to give justice to what they’re going through.

Tell us more about relating to these characters, and how authentic they are to your experience.

Wayuhi: What’s so beautiful about Elora, Willie Jack, Bear and Cheese, and I would say, Jackie, now, too, is that they all represent their community in a way that is personalized and humanized. I cannot get Cheese out of my head. And Willie Jack, too. They’re emblematic figures that really exemplify what it is to be young and indigenous right now. They also have growing pains that are universal, which is really cool. I’ve gone through what these characters have been enduring.

That was something Sterlin and I spoke about recently. He was like: “I had a lot of choices for music, and I chose you.” Because in my own music I was exploring themes of isolation, but also community and culture and authenticity. So I was really grateful that everything kind of came together the way it did.

What are some key scenes where you wrote music to complement the Rez Dogs’ character development?

Wayuhi: There’s a scene in Season 2 with Cheese. He gets sent to a boys home for being falsely accused of something. He’s just sitting on his bunk, feeling really isolated, looking at these old drawings he did. I was tasked with making a piece of music for that. It was great, because every score I do for these characters, I get to know them more. I’ll go through my history, or my ancestors’ history and draw from that. I like writing music for Bear’s scenes too, because he’s such an emo child, and I love pulling on those heartstrings.

I feel like I got to know Cheese by his concert shirts. Wasn’t he wearing a Sade one in that episode?

Anders: Yeah, and later he has a Rage Against the Machine shirt on. He’s a real child of the 90s in 2023.

Tiffany, you researched a much earlier era for the “House Made of Bongs” episode (air date Aug 23].

Anders: Yeah I’m a big fan of ‘70s psychedelic stuff. That’s when this episode takes place. The director of that episode, Blackhorse Lowe, also loves that kind of music. I sent a bunch of music before I’d even seen the cut, so that they’d have an idea of what music to work with that wouldn’t cost a fortune. Sterlin texted me before I saw the cut, and was like: “We have to get rid of all Black Sabbath and Fleetwood Mac that he wants to use, don’t we?” And I nodded, “Yeah, yeah, we do.” There’s about 10 needle drops in that episode.

That led me to again start gathering things that I thought would work. It’s very important to Sterlin to represent Tulsa and Oklahoma in general. So we use a couple of Tulsa classic rock artists from the ‘70 that worked well.

Ever since Season 1, Sterling has been like: “The music has to sound DIY.” A kind of rebellious, non-corporate vibe. That’s the most thrilling direction to get as a music supervisor, in my opinion.

How so?

Anders: Because of the genres that it pointed toward, or because it doesn’t even really mean a genre. I knew exactly what he meant— that it has to have some guts and quality to it. That’s genuine and sincere. That can be new country, or indie rock from the ‘90s. But it has to have that truthful quality.

Some shows get very rigid about what the soundtrack’s going to be. Not this show. And I love that. One of the great things, also, about Mato’s score, and the way that he composes is there’s no formula. You’re not hearing the same theme over and over again in different scenes over the season.

In fact, the score is getting so much attention that you snagged a deal with Marvel, Mato. How do you feel about working on Echo (which will also feature Reservation Dogs actors like Devery Jacobs and Zahn McClarnon)?

Wayuhi: I’m proud to be a part of it, but actually, I cannot say anything about that.

What was your experience like working on War Pony? It’s quite impressive that the movie won the Caméra d’Or award for best debut feature at the 2022 Cannes Festival.

Wayuhi: That’s a cool movie. It kind of inadvertently got me on the Rez Dogs team. I got involved with that movie in early 2020. I’m grateful, because I never sought out to be a composer. But I got asked to do the score for War Pony through my own music. One of the producers was a fan. And then Sterling had kind of tapped me to do Reservation Dogs around the same time. He ended up asking the filmmakers of War Pony “How is Mato?” And they spoke highly of me, fortunately. [Director] Riley [Keough] put me in touch with Sterlin.

War Pony was a crazy one, because it was kind of like creating a new feeling that I’ve never experienced in music. And then Reservation Dogs has been a lot of, “What can service the characters, the best? And what can I pull from that?” While they’re very different scoring experiences, both are very personal and honest shows. I really got to grow so much, and the friends and the family I’ve made from both projects have been indescribable.

It’s been really cool. And yeah, going to Cannes— that was the first time I’ve been to France, and it was crazy. A whirlwind, but it was really cool. The success of that film and Rez Dogs has meant a lot to me personally, just from a cultural standpoint. I’ve always known the beauty of our culture, and now for others to learn about it in this way that is very authentic, and for someone like Sterlin or Riley to be telling that story, people who have positioned themselves like that, it’s very uplifting.

How does it feel to be having these film and TV successes after years of working as a smaller underground musician?

Wayuhi: The idea of centering myself within music has always made me a little uncomfortable. So when scoring came along I was like, “Oh, this is so great! I’m a faceless entity.” I like establishing credibility and being taken seriously as a composer, and building teams, and stuff that isn’t incumbent on the solo musician trope. I really do love being a solo musician outside of this. But it can be very taxing and isolating. I like being a team member.

And what is it like to be part of these teams working to tell stories with more indigenous representation? This seems like a turning point not just for you personally, but for your community.

Wayuhi: Colonization and the motion picture industry are kind of in tandem with one another. I studied film at USC [], so I’m a big nerd about this stuff. Indigenous communities were being forced from their lands as Hollywood came into its own. Now autonomy is being given to creators to dismantle a lot of stereotypes that were set upon them. And that’s been really cool, challenging and exciting. Throughout that, I think I’ve learned a lot about my own indigeneity in terms of what I feel comfortable with displaying, and what that even means. So it’s been a really exciting moment, and I’m hopeful it can continue and evolve into other parameters.

It’s also cool that audiences and critics are relating to what Native people go through in these stories, because it is just a human experience. But that’s been stripped away from us, for centuries. So it’s good to have such a humanizing experience.


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