NCIS Hawaii interview: Composer Tree Adams talks about creating the show’s score

Tree Adams headshot - Credit: Randall Slavin
Tree Adams headshot - Credit: Randall Slavin /

NCIS Hawaii is the latest addition to the popular NCIS franchise and features some significant firsts, such as the inclusion of a gay romance introduced in the first episode and a female leader of an NCIS unit.

Show Snob had the pleasure of chatting with accomplished composer Tree Adams, who is working on NCIS Hawaii and previously worked on NCIS New Orleans. We spoke with Tree about the differences between the series based on location, how he creates the character motifs, and much more!

Show Snob interviews NCIS Hawaii composer Tree Adams

SHOW SNOB: Can you tell me how you got involved in the NCIS franchise?

TREE ADAMS: I began on NCIS New Orleans, I was brought in after, I think, three seasons or something. They had been looking for someone who could bridge the gap between—the production office was based in Los Angeles, the production took place in New Orleans on location—they wanted someone who could bridge the gap between the two cities and work with players from the local region.

They put together a shortlist of people, they received some demos, and I got called in for a meeting and essentially kind of won the bake-off. They liked the idea that I was down to be a cultural emissary and record with musicians in New Orleans and be based in Los Angeles and go back and forth. Then those producers, specifically Chris Silber and Jan Nash, on the New Orleans series, brought me over to this Hawai’i series along with the new co-exec Matt Bosack.

NCIS: Hawai'i
Tree Adams headshot – Credit: Thibeaux Hirsh /

SHOW SNOB:  What’s the most significant difference between composing for New Orleans versus NCIS Hawaii?

TREE ADAMS: A lot of the format of the show is similar in that you have your crime scenes, you have layers of the case unfolding, exposition, you have obviously, shootouts and car chases and all that. Within that framework, that format, we try to establish a voice that has a palette from the region.

In New Orleans, we used a lot of horns, band ensemble, bass guitar, drums, maybe more of a bluesy approach within the music. Some tonal percussion feels local to the area there. With Hawaii, we’re using a lot of Polynesian drums like an Ipu Heke, we’re using a bit of lap steel guitar, we use ukelele, but we use it not in the typical way where you hear it strumming on the beach you hear it more in tension scenes and eerie scenes.

It’s just trying to imbue the score with a little bit of the flavor of what’s going on there in the region. And sometimes, because there is a lot of good source music being used where you’ve got sons from local artists and stuff, we need to be able to integrate seamlessly in and out of that.

I think part of the whole reason for doing that is to put some money in the pockets of local musicians and honor traditions, be respectful of the local culture.

NCIS Hawaii
NCIS Hawaii “Pilot” – Pictured: Vanessa Lachey as Special Agent in Charge Jane Tennant. Photo: Karen Neal/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

SHOW SNOB: Can you talk a little about the main character motifs and how they differ from each other?

TREE ADAMS: Jane Tennant, who is our female lead, she’s the first female leader of an NCIS franchise which is kind of exciting to be part of that. She has a tough side to her, she’s a bada**, which is kind of fun in some of these action sequences, like the first episode when she jumps off a cliff. There are all these heroic things she’s capable of, but she’s also a single mom, and when you see her at home, there is a warmer side, so we had some warmer, more warm and charming themes for her that bring you in.

Then you’ve got Ernie, an animated tech wizard. He’s the genius who helps crack the case all the time. He’s really quirky and fun. There is a palette we created to accompany his flavor, I guess it’s about being quirky and fun and underscoring his intelligence, his superpower.

Then some of the other characters and relationships that are forming, whether they are friendships or something more, I’m still waiting to see where some of these things are going in the script. There is a bit of a romantic thing brewing Tennant and Milius, they’re sort of rivals at first, but I don’t know where that is going to go. It’s fun to tease those out.

NCIS Hawaii
“Boom” – Pictured: Jason Antoon as Ernie Malik, Vanessa Lachey as Special Vanessa Lachey as Special Agent in Charge Jane Tennant, Yasmine Al-Bustami as Lucy Tara Photo: Karen Neal/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

SHOW SNOB: I know one of the things people are excited about on this show is the gay romance between Lucy and Kate. It was cool to see that twist happen in the first episode. Did you do any compositions for their relationship yet?

TREE ADAMS: Right now, I can’t do any spoilers, but they haven’t used score to underscore the romantic aspect of it. They’ve used score to underscore the playful aspect of it because those two are having fun with each other. And I guess that’s a little bit in the courtship arena at this point, I think. But I think when they do get busy, they’re using a song underneath. So we’ll see, obviously that is always fun to do. I’d love to get a chance to underscore a romance like that.

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New episodes of NCIS Hawaii air Monday nights on CBS and are also available to stream on Paramount Plus.