Reservation Dogs Music Supervisor Tiffany Anders Speaks About Properly Representing its Indigenous Cast

Martin Douglas

[Spoiler Warning: If you have not seen Season 1 of the FX series Reservation Dogs and plan on doing so, you might want to before you read this interview, as quite a few of the series’ plot points are discussed.]

The coming-of-age story has been played from so many different perspectives that it’s difficult to cull a truly fresh take on the format, but Reservation Dogs doesn’t have that problem. 

Part of it is systemic; rarely do contemporary stories of Native American people get highlighted in mainstream film and television. We all know why, that’s no secret at this point. But as more stories from Asian and Latin American filmmakers are being told, as Black American stories dive in bold new directions, finally we get to experience a series on a major network starring — as well as created and directed by — all Indigenous American people. 

The other part of it is that Reservation Dogs is the best series to debut this year. Centered around four teenagers living in a small Oklahoma town with big California dreams — sullen but charming Bear, born leader Elora, brazenly hysterical Willie Jack, and introverted but supremely crafty Cheese — the show explores a breadth of themes in its brief series order: petty crime, single moms, absentee dads, parents who are still together, grief, community clinics, depression, suicide, tribal police, folk tales that might actually be true, bar tales that are surprisingly cromulent, rival neighborhood “gangs,” weedhead uncles who are really older cousins, deer hunting, hapless spirits, delicious greasy frybread. 

Boasting a soundtrack which hosts a diverse array of artists — including but most certainly not limited to godfather of modern rock ‘n roll guitar Link Wray, beloved singer/songwriter Lee Hazelwood, Indigenous rap stalwarts the Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red), and even Pacific Northwest innovators of twee Beat HappeningReservation Dogs showrunner Sterlin Harjo worked closely with music supervisor Tiffany Anders on the music that informs its rich world. Also in charge of the music direction on the Netflix series The Chair (another great debuting series), Anders has also worked in music journalism (conducting a few great interviews for L.A. Record) and is a musician in her own right (playing in the band Hot White Noon and putting out two solo records on Up Records).

We spoke with Anders about her path to music supervising for film and television, working with a kindred musical spirit in Harjo, the triumphs and challenges of creating an authentic musical experience for the characters on Reservation Dogs, and more.

KEXP: You have been in music, as you just mentioned before we started recording, for a long time. You've been a musician. You've done journalism. You are pretty well known as a music supervisor now. Tell me about your upbringing in music.

Tiffany Anders: Well, I grew up in L.A. with a single mom and she really loved music, particularly rock and roll. And so I kind of grew up through her enthusiasm, becoming a fan myself. But very, very early on, I remember being obsessed with the Go-Go's when I was like six and collecting records at that point. And my mom always really encouraged that. So I went to a lot of shows. 

And I think right around the grunge years, [in the] ‘90s I was a teenager. I moved to Seattle when I was 19. I was ready to go, get out of L.A. And I had some friends up there who were in bands. That's kind of when I started doing my own music [with] such a great welcoming community up in Seattle. I mean, just beyond when I look back on it, how nice and welcoming everybody was. And I met Chris Takino from Up Records and we really hit it off. He was from L.A., so we had that in common. He put out my band's first 45 on Up Records. I did a solo record with Up and became really good friends with a lot of the artists on the label. And then I moved to New York and moved to L.A. My mother, who's a filmmaker, had always had struggles putting music in her films. Actually, a lot of my labelmates on Up Records and my friends’ bands ended up with a lot of their songs in my mom's films because I was kind of already doing music supervising that way.

Oh, that's awesome.

Yeah. So then I came back to L.A. and I just thought, “I want to investigate this more.” I didn't quite know [music supervision]; I kind of thought it would just be like a job. I didn't quite know how much I was going to be involved and how much I would like doing music supervising. That's kind of the gist of my musical path.

How were you approached by Reservation Dogs to do music supervision for their series?

So this is interesting. This is a little bit of nepotism in my career, which I have to say there isn't a lot of it. I had to work really hard for [my career]. But my mother being an independent filmmaker in the ‘90s and stuff, she's a big part of the Sundance Labs and the Sundance Film Festival and stuff. She's mentored a lot at these Labs that they have. And she would always do these Native American Sundance Labs, writing labs, and she'd come back just like blown away by how incredible these experiences were going to these reservations and working with these young Native American writers. And so she had met Sterlin [Harjo], who's the show creator, showrunner on Reservation Dogs

She had met him a while ago. I think they were both advisors and they really hit it off. My mom had told me about Sterlin and also told Sterlin about me because she thought that musically — we just really liked the same stuff. And we're really on the same page in terms of what kind of music we liked. And Sterlin's... I think he's around my age, maybe a little bit younger than me, and we definitely connected in that way. And so before Reservation Dogs, I knew Sterlin, Sterlin knew me. And then when this came about, he asked me to work on it basically. So that's how it all happens.

For people who don't know what goes into music supervision, is it a situation where you watch the rough cuts without music and you decide what songs go into what scenes? What's the process there?

It depends on the showrunner and how strong their vision is with certain things. On Reservation Dogs, it was definitely a lot of Sterlin and I working together; Sterlin definitely had an idea of what he wanted in the show. And a lot of it to me was kind of even a bit like, I feel like I learned a lot because I went into it thinking, “Oh, my gosh, we're going to put all this amazing, cool Native American music in it.” I was listening to Native American psych bands from the 1970s and I was thinking that we were going to use all this really great obscure stuff. With Sterlin, he had an idea what he wanted. He had a playlist already mapped out.. 

And so oftentimes, like the pilot for instance, the first episode was done before I came on. Now, a lot of those — about a third of those songs had to be replaced because of budget issues. But pretty much what you're seeing in that first episode was all stuff that Sterlin put in.

Oh. So one of the questions I was going to ask you was about the opening scene where "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is playing while they're robbing the chip truck.

It's the best ever. And I wouldn't have changed a thing. I mean, that's the most brilliant use of "I Wanna Be Your Dog." And the whole homage to the Stooges in the beginning by mentioning them on the radio, the radio announcer mentioning them. And I'm the biggest Stooges fan in the world. So once he told me that he had already had Stooges in the cut, I was like, “Oh, you and I, we're going to get along famously; this is going to be so exciting for me.” So, yeah, that first cut, definitely Sterlin. I think only minor things, I came in and tweaked a bit. But from that point on, things got a little bit more hectic in terms of what we could use, what money we had left for the budget. And just in terms of things, in terms of the schedule moving really fast, it became more of a collaborative effort where we had to rely on each other to come up with ideas for certain scenes. But yeah, props to Sterlin for the pilot. That's all him.

It seems like you're saying, Sterlin had a huge hand in the music direction of the series. And there's so many different elements of music that are already in the world that don't need to be kind of plucked out or selected. Like the episode where Cheese goes on the ride along with Big and [Redbone’s] "Come and Get Your Love" is a huge part of that story. So was that a Sterlin pick as well? Did he already have that idea?

Yeah. Oh yeah. That was scripted and that was, like you said, it's a big part of the story. 

What I find really interesting about this series is how Sterlin wanted to approach the music. Like I said, I was thinking, “Oh, I'm really going to get to explore all this cool Native American music.” Which I did. On certain things — and there's certainly some nuggets in there that I was like, “Sterlin, how about this?” You know, this weird, native folk song from the '70s or whatever. And there's a few things that got in there that were like that. 

But what was interesting to me was that [the series] really shows, I think, with Sterlin being from Oklahoma, it has an Oklahoma thing to it even more so than it... I don't know. He really is very faithful to what the place is. And it's really his own experience in a way. So it just comes off so real. I think that's one of the greatest appeals about the music to me, too, because it's kind of all over the place. You've got a few indie bands from Oklahoma, and then you have Lee Hazelwood, who's also from Oklahoma, and then country music and stuff that — I don't know, me being from Los Angeles was kind of eye-opening in terms of where we're at now and how these communities listen to music and how kids listen to music, and particularly Oklahoma listens to music. All of that was really cool to me to learn the diversity of music and how things overlap. And it didn't necessarily have to be Native. It didn't have to necessarily be young. It could be an old ‘70s guy from Louisiana singing a song and if Sterlin felt like it was the right vibe to him, he would go for it.

I think it's really interesting when you point out how important era and location are in selecting things that augment this story, because, like you said, it's a very Oklahoma sort of vibe. Like you get the feeling that you're really in this region with these kids. Because at the same time, it's like kids that are younger than us — in their 20s, in their teens — they grew up with iPods and all sorts of music booming from everywhere. Whereas I feel as though millennials and well, quote-unquote, “geriatric millennials” [laughter] and Gen-Xers kind of came from an era where you picked a few different styles of music and you kind of learned as much as you can. So it's really cool that all of these different elements are brought in. 

What are some examples of the Native American folk songs or psych music that you kind of suggested? Which ones did and which ones didn't make the cut that you were kind of passionate about?

Well, there was a comp that came out on Light in the Attic Records; I'm good friends with those guys over there. And they kind of keep me informed about what they're putting out. I told them early on that Lee Hazlewood was a big one for Sterlin and I to have in the show, and they've released all of Lee Hazlewood's catalog. They've been really great about doing that. So then they were like, “Oh, you should check out this Native American comp.” So I got really into these songs on this comp that they put out. And it's mostly Canadian. It's all Canadian Native American songs, but it's [full of] very political and weird 70s kind of folk songs. 

In two of the episodes we use two of the artists from that comp. One of them was David Campbell and the other one [was John Angaiak]. The song was called "Hey, Hey, Hey, Brother," which was in the last episode, in 01x08. And then there were certain artists that, you know, there's of course the big artists, Native American artists that are huge, like Redbone and Link Wray we were really big on keeping. Sterlin and I actually had to fight to keep Link Wray in the second episode. He's in the first episode. And then we have another little tiny bit of him in the second episode. And that's something that most studios and stuff would say, “Well, you can use score there. You don't need this.” But I think for Sterlin and I, it was important to fight for certain things like that, like the Link Wray [song]. You've got to include Link Wray.

Of course.

He's the greatest. He created the rock and roll sound, the rock and roll guitar sound, and he's Native American. This is a tragic story and kind of amazing, too, which is that early on, Sterlin and I had talked a lot about the guitar player, Jesse Ed Davis. He's Native American from Oklahoma, and he played with everybody in the ‘70s. He played with Eric Clapton, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan. He was a session guy on like every classic rock record you can think of. Then he put out a couple of his own records. Just a cool [guy], really wore his heritage. Cool looking dude. Played with Gene Clark, who's one of my favorite artists, too. And he just put out these beautiful solo records as well. He died tragically, I think in the ‘80s. 

And we wanted to use this one Jesse Ed Davis song and we could not find the publisher. So it was stuff like this where I tried and I tried. And Sterlin kept going like, “Doesn't he have an estate? Doesn't he have a family?” He had no kids. {It was] the most tragic thing in the world; it was just killing me. But that was a Native artist that we both really wanted in the show, that just we kept hitting dead ends with. I couldn't license [the song we wanted to use]. So, maybe by the time Season Two happens, somebody will come out of the woodwork and say, “I can claim the rights to Jesse Ed Davis.” But as it is right now, he's this tragic figure whose song is in limbo and is such an important Native artist.

All right. So I've held this question as long as I possibly could. Please tell me everything about “Greasy Frybread.”

“Greasy Frybread.” Okay, so I don't know a ton about it. Sterlin is a co-writer on the song. So Sterlin wrote it with Sten Joddi, who plays Punkin [Bear’s father]. And they all wrote it for the dad's rap song. And that's about all I know about it. Now Sten Joddi, he was a casting. I think the casting people found him. So they get major props for finding him and having him write the song with Sterlin.

It's a really great song. I was watching the show with my girlfriend and it came on and I looked at her and I'm like, “This is a really good song. I'm not being ironic. I really love this song.” So I had to ask about it. Also, later in the episode, there is one of my favorite bands Beat Happening.

Oh yes.

Playing "Our Secret" is playing when Bear realizes that his dad's not coming — after he had bought that microphone pendant and everything. Tell me about that.

Well, that is really interesting, because Sterlin, again, surprised me. I know Calvin, obviously from living in the Northwest and knowing a lot of those bands up there. And Sterlin, when we talked before we started Reservation Dogs, he had told me that he had gone on tour with Beat Happening.

Oh, crazy.

And [he] was friends with Calvin [Johnson]. I don't know if he was selling merch or what he was doing, but he knew Calvin and I guess Sterlin was living in the Northwest for a little while, too. So we connected on stuff like that. And Sterlin wanted to use a Beat Happening song somewhere. So that was on the agenda. And that was something that he and I agreed on. Again, [all] Sterlin.

Was the scene with the Deer Lady and "Midnight Rider" also a Sterlin idea?

That indeed was Sterlin's idea. And I, I have to say, I'm in charge of the budget. So I was a little like, “Ehh. We got ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and ‘Midnight Rider’ in one episode, it's going to be so expensive.” But, man, it's a good episode because of it, isn't it?

Yeah, it's perfect. All of the song selections in that episode in particular are pitch perfect.

They're really, really perfect. One of the things that I love about it too is that Cheese doesn't know Redbone. That he doesn't know that song. And I think there's a lot of things that Sterlin got really right about. You know, going back to what you might be listening to in Oklahoma and not like beating things over the head with references. Oh, yes, all Native American people have to know Redbone or they all listen to these Native American bands. 

What I love about it is how it's culturally so mixed up. Generationally, it's so mixed up. It just feels so real to me in that regard of genres being mishmashed. Having hip-hop in there, but also having a lot of country in there. And like even the Freddy Fender song that's playing in 01x08 [“Wasted Days & Wasted Nights”] where Willie Jack is giving her dad the gift card to the casino. I just thought, “This is so great.” Something that's playing in their house that they all know. 

And I just think, a lot of the times when I'm being approached to music supervise something, you're focused on time period and characters. “They're teenagers and it's the year 2000” or “it's teenagers today.” So what do teenagers listen to? “Let me go look at what’s on Spotify. What's the latest thing?” That was not done here, and I feel like it just makes it feel so much more real and more interesting in a way.

Yeah, I think and especially with a lot of young people [nowadays], they're musically omnivorous. They like listening to a lot of different things. I think on a personal note, I was kind of like that as well. But I think culturally we weren't there yet back in the ‘90s when I was obsessed with Nirvana and really getting into rock music — or even in the early 2000s when all I was listening to was the Strokes. But now it's a completely different generation. And those unnecessary boundaries are no more. It's really cool and it's represented really well in this series.

Yeah, it's really true. And I liked having the freedom to not have to think about what would be playing in Elora's car as she drove away with Jackie. You know what I mean, I didn't have to think, “Oh, she would be listening to a hip-hop song, you know, about leaving or a West Coast hip-hop song because she's going to the West Coast and that's what kids listen to.” Instead, that's actually where we originally had Jesse Ed Davis, and that's when I got called in to find [alternative music suggestions] for that. And it felt great being able to put something in that wasn't so on the nose of having to get into what they might have been listening to. Instead, just adding to the environment and the whole style of the show.

Yeah, I think "Point of No Return" was a great song for the moment.

Yeah, I liked that. I thought it worked really well and it was one that I got a little shy about even sending to Sterlin. “Is this going to work? I don't know, they're teenagers, they're leaving. Does this make any sense?” But I love the song so much, and I knew that Sterlin would like it. So, yeah, I felt like it works. I'm glad that you liked it, too.

When you were asked to be the music supervisor for Reservation Dogs, were you excited or did you feel a lot of pressure to represent this all-Native American cast and crew? Or was it a mixture of both?

It was definitely a mixture of both. I was super excited because the minute that I got Sterlin's playlist, I just was over the moon. I mean, he had such great music on there and a lot of the stuff that I loved already, like Lee Hazlewood, I've loved since I lived in Seattle. And I think it might have been Chris Takino at Up Records who first played me Lee Hazlewood. And he just had great music on his playlist. So I knew that him and I would hit it off in that regard. I knew that I could send him something and he would probably like it. We were on the same page. 

But yes, in terms of the Native American thing, I grew up in L.A. I grew up pretty poor. And we were always living in neighborhoods where we were the only white family there. So I kind of had this feeling that I got these other cultures within L.A. I knew the Mexican culture. I knew the Black culture because I went to a school in South Central — just all this stuff that I was exposed to in L.A. But Native American culture, I do not know. 

So there were certain things, like we had this wonderful composer Mato that Sterlin had wanted and he had never composed. And he's really young; he's like twenty three or something. At some point the music editor was kind of trying to help guide him and he said, “You could put some flutes on this and some drums.” And I just was sitting there silent and Sterlin very nicely said, “No, no, no flutes, no drums.” But we were all kind of learning. No, this isn't going to be quote-unquote “Native American music.” And the only times that I felt comfortable doing that with Sterlin was like the scenes with Spirit, like when it was funny. “Do you want some flutes and some drums on this? Because I can find you a track like that.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah.” But I was scared to even say that. It was a cultural thing that I definitely had to get used to, and so it was intimidating in that regard for me a little bit. I didn't want to overstep. And because there's a lot that I don't know and there was a lot that I learned and it was total, total joy learning and working on this. So fun. 

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