If you follow Ryan Hemsworth on social media, then you know how much the Canadian producer and Secret Songs head loves film and television soundtracks. On any given day, you're likely to find him posting about everything from Japanese horror flicks to his favourite musical moment from season 2 of The O.C.
That's why he's the perfect person to interview Cliff Martinez. The veteran American composer started his career drumming in bands including Captain Beefheart and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, before composing the soundtrack for Steven Soderbergh's 1989 drama Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Since then, he's been responsible for the music in many of your favourite movies, including Drive, Spring Breakers, and Only God Forgives.
His jarring score for The Knick, Soderbergh's gritty TV series about a New York City hospital during the early 20th century, features droning synthesizers and distinctly anachronistic sounds. This year, he's reuniting with frequent collaborator, director Nicolas Winding Refn for The Neon Demon, and Todd Phillips for the comedy-drama Arms and the Dudes.
Ryan Hemsworth: I wanted to start by talking to you about The Knick, because I'm currently watching the second season, and the music struck me within the first minute. When Steven Soderbergh brought you the initial idea, did it make sense to you to approach this early 20th century story with an electronic soundtrack?
Cliff Martinez: I wasn't convinced at first. But Steven sent me three episodes with temporary music cut into it, so it looked like a promising idea. And after I scored a few scenes, then it kind of made sense. Once you see several episodes, the music element seems to make total sense.
I think from listening to the songs on YouTube and reading about the show online, a lot of people interpret the music as sounding quite connected with the surgeries. Was that intentional or a coincidence?
I think in fact maybe half of the surgery scenes don't have any music. So I don't know… After the fact, people will come up with all of these theories as to why the electronic music makes sense for the period drama. I've heard all of the theories, and I think mine is that you just get accustomed to it after you hear it three or four times.
Connecting separately with the surgeries? I don't know. I'm not sure that the design of the music is specifically revolved around the surgery. I looked at the whole show in comparison to a movie, and you certainly get to develop your character and situational themes a lot more than you do in a film, because there's so much more real estate to deal with.
How did working with Nicolas Winding Refn on the soundtrack for The Neon Demon compare to working with him on Drive?
Nicolas also sends me his script and he talks to me about the project before he even shoots it. Well, that was the case with Only God Forgives. Drive, I didn't have any warning, we had five weeks to do it, so that was pretty fast. I knew from the spirit of Only God Forgives that in his case, the script isn't adhered to very closely. I think I know what kind of music Nicolas likes, so I kind of stay in that territory.
After doing a couple of films with him you realize monogamy has its benefits. You understand what he's looking for, the communication becomes better, and usually you go a little deeper each time. I think Neon Demon had some similarities to Drive, it's kind of a sparse electronic score. Music writing has a juicy role in Neon Demon—well, I haven't seen the finished film, but there's over an hour of music. And there's a lot of places where the music is really pushed out more into the spotlight, even more than Drive. I think I got a bigger part in the film, it's flattering.
And with the film—obviously I haven't seen a trailer for it yet—but it's basically a horror film right?
We describe the first half as a melodrama like Valley Of The Dolls, and the second half is like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It doesn't seem to be a traditional horror film to me, but horror is the genre that it's closest to.
Were you trying to match the visual horror with the music itself? Or were you trying to stay at a distance?
Yeah, there's some horror stuff. He gave me a lot of the psychological parts of the film to do the music. The first half of the film was kind of romantic so there's a lot of romantic music. But then there's some cold-blooded horror stuff too and I think could be really creepy.
Do you find yourself experimenting with new instruments for each film? Do you have your go-to synths?
I like to do a little bit of both. I like to stick to some of my favourite instruments and sounds, because I know that they work and they ensure some kind of consistency in the film. But I also like to dabble with new stuff, that's how I stay interested and try to grow a bit. For me, it's almost all software synthesizers, and there are patches that I make which are software emulations of vintage synthesizers from the 70s, like the ARP 2600, there's a software version of that.
I don't know if a listener can notice the contrast. A big difference from Drive for example, because that's also inspired by vintage software emulations of synthesizers from the 80s. But we tried to find stuff from the 70s, really early synthesis, in software form. I didn't pick up too many acoustic instruments, in fact, I don't think I used any for Neon Demon. It's almost all synthesizer.
I've seen in some videos you use a Crystal Baschet. Have you used that much recently?
Yeah, I try to shoehorn it into every film I've done since Drive, including Robert Redford's The Company You Keep. It's in The Knick as well, but I couldn't really find a place for it in Neon Demon.
When did you first discover the instrument?
In 1968 I think. My parents took me to Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Baschet brothers had an exhibit called "Sculptures for Sound." It was one of those musical experiences when I was really, really young that just made a lasting impression. So, I think it was around 2002 when I was working on Solaris that I tried to track down the Baschet brothers, and I did, and acquired one of their instruments.
That's amazing. It's a fairly large piece of equipment right?
Yeah it's about the size of an upright piano. It takes up a lot of space in the living room.
Do you know if there are many of those out in the world?
Well you can't buy them at Guitar Center; they're pretty rare. A few years ago, one of the builders of the instrument (he's French and lives in Paris) called me up and said, "Cliff I'm coming to North America to tune all of the Crystals, would you like to participate in the North America tuning tour?" "Sure, where else are you going?" He said "Richmond." I said "That's it?"
That's all of the crystals in the United States, just Richmond, VA, and then Los Angeles? There's probably others but this just shows how sparsely populated the United States is with Crystal Baschets.
You come from a drumming background, but there's rarely live drums in your recent work. Do you have any desire to use them nowadays?
I have mine set up in a spare bedroom and occasionally I'll sit down and annoy the neighbours. I really dislike the sound of electronic drums and drum loops, synthetic drum parts, but I do play with them. There's another film coming up called Arms and the Dudes—I hear they're thinking of changing the title—about two 20-something weed-smoking dudes who get involved in an arms deal and it's a true story. I played some drums on that score.
When I travel, I listen to soundtracks including yours. I'm curious, what do you listen to when you're traveling?
Well I don't listen to film scores à la carte. I seldom listen to film music separately from the film. So I get my dose of film music just when I'm watching the films. Even though I have an ear that's tuned to the film scores, I really enjoy film music in the context of hearing it within the film. I don't think film music holds up very well without the picture; I include my own music in that kind of category.
As far as popular music, I try to listen to a lot of electronic stuff now. I like old stuff, I like classic rock, I like really ancient jazz—Louis Armstrong from the late 20s, early 30s. I still love and listen to Captain Beefheart a lot. And my latest musical discovery is Apple Music, which I guess, based on what's in your hard drive and what's in your purchases, it sends you music that it thinks you'll like. So I'm starting to accept the new way.
Do you think we'll ever see a Cliff Martinez solo album?
Probably not. I mean there's just no money in it. You sell 10 copies and people will easily download the rest of them. There's not much exception to that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cliff Martinez's The Knick: Season 2 soundtrack is available on iTunes here.
Ryan Hemsworth is on Twitter.