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From Red Hot Chili Peppers to the ‘Drive’ Soundtrack: An Interview with Composer Cliff Martinez

The former punk drummer now composes soundtracks to films like 'Drive,' 'Spring Breakers,' and 'Only God Forgives.'

Cliff Martinez is probably most known through his collaboration with filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Refn. The composer of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Drive, Solaris, and Only God Forgives, Martinez has had the chance to set the mood for some of the best movies of the last few decades. In fact, a cursory glance through Martinez’s filmography will reveal a nearly flawless tract record. It isn’t just through his composing, however, that Martinez has received recognition. Beginning his musical career in the late 70s/early 80s punk scene, Martinez has had a career as diverse as they come; including putting in time with bands like the Dickies, Captain Beefheart, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, which awarded him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following the release of his latest work, the score for the HBO film Normal Heart, we caught up with Cliff to ask him about his transition from an LA punk to Grammy-nominated film composer.


Noisey: How did you get into to playing live music? Was it through your involvement in the LA punk scene?
Cliff Martinez: I played in a lot of local bands in [LA] with a handful of people that were in the scene. But, I think the first thing of any notoriety was the Weirdos and that was in 1980. And, then I played with Lydia Lunch in 1981, and I recorded with Captain Beefheart in 1982, followed by the Dickies and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those were kind of the known bands. Before that, I played in a lot of bands that were part of the punk scene that nobody may have heard of: The Tenants, a band called the Resistors. There was a pretty vital music scene, that started as early as 1977, I guess. I just thought it was pretty cool. I came here and I was playing progressive rock and jazz, and then I got a whiff of the Screamers—I think that was the first band that I heard—I just fell in love with the punk rock scene and wanted to become a part of it.

The punk scene now is pretty divided, but it didn’t seem like that in the early days. How do you remember the environment?
It was born in Hollywood and migrated kind of south to the beach area in a different kind of hardcore flavor. But, the initial Hollywood scene…not all of it exactly fit together. I remember the the Go-Gos, X, Fear, the Weirdos, the Dickies, the Germs; I supposed you could say the only common thread was it was Sex Pistols and Ramones derived music, but everyone had their own take on it. The Dickies had their kind of West Coast lighter take on it. They did not try do the Sex Pistols, they kind of modeled their own goofball component that the Ramones had. And then the beach guys—like the Germs—I think were more about the angry Sex Pistols thing, which I always thought was incongruent with the Southern Californian lifestyle. I always admired the Dickies for making their lighter, more melodic, positive, and goofy version of punk.


When you joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, did you feel that you immediately started moving away from the punk scene?
I think that [Red Hot Chili Peppers] always aspired to be a part of the punk rock scene, but being punk rock was synonymous with low record sales, or not even having a record at all. [Laughs] Red Hot Chili Peppers very quickly became very popular; they had a record deal, I think, two weeks after the first live show. So, immediately a record kind of separates you from a lot of the other bands. But stylistically they had a lot of other things going on; they had the rap and the hip-hop influences. We tried to play double bills with the Circle Jerks and bands that were pure punk rock and that didn’t seem to quite fit. You know, Flea and I knew each other because were admirers and scholars of the local punk rock scene.

Cliff playing drums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1985

From the Chili Peppers, you’re next big move was to composing. Was composing always an interest of yours?
No, it came later. I turned 30 in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I just gradually found myself spending less time in nightclubs and more time in movie theatres. It was an acquired taste. At the same time, starting with the first Chili Peppers album, Andy Gill (Gang of Four), the producer, introduced me to the drum machine. I just felt threatened and fascinated by the rapidly growing influence of computer technology on music making. I think [my interest in composing] started with channel surfing one day and seeing an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. [Red Hot Chili Peppers] knew the director of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Stephen Johnson. He was a friend of the band, and at one point was going to do a video for the band, so I asked him if I could do an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And after I did that, I just realized that it was, A, the highest paying job I ever had and, B, it was just really fun to do what was, then, really experimental music for me and to fit it to picture. That is when I became really interested in the idea of writing music for films.


How much space for experimentation were you given?
They gave me the video and pretty much said do what you want with it. I think I met Paul Rubens (Pee-wee) once and he didn’t say anything to me; [laughs] offering any kind of creative direction. And, there was a music supervisor and he didn’t say anything either. But what there was… I was brought in on the second season, so there is a first season that, you know, Mark Mothersbaugh had written some music, Danny Elfman had written some, the Residents, Stanley Clarke; there was a lot of people who blazed the trail. No two shows were alike musically. It was a revolving door of all these different composers. But they were all of a pretty groundbreaking nature, so I knew it was do whatever you want. And, since then, it seems like I’ve done my best work when people let me just run free. [Laughs]

I think a lot of musicians see the idea of scoring as intimidating. Writing music is one thing, but setting the pace for a picture is a complete different thing entirely. Working on Pee-wee, as a first time composer, what did you use as your inspiration?
I think you are right. There was something immediately more intimidating about [composing], because my experience in bands was that you wrote whatever you felt like writing. And, when you have to write something for an existing picture you have to narrow it down. You have to be very specific. You have to go for a specific emotion, a specific reaction from the listener, the viewer; and that is what was scary. I had never really written music period, really. I had always just made some contribution to the bands I was in. I never did it all by myself, and I never had to write music that needed to evoke a very specific reaction.


How has your relationship with Steven Soderbergh evolved?
Well, I don’t have any other relationships like that. I’ve worked with Nicolas Refn on two films, but with Steven… I’ve lost count. I think it is like nine or ten films over a period of 26 years; so I don’t have anything else to compare it to. He has certainty gotten a lot more polished and evolved over the years. And, I’d like to think that I did to; I’ve learned a lot in 25 years. As far as our relationship goes, [laughs] probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed is we talk to each other even less. There seems to be a creative shorthand between us, mental telepathy. You know, he only calls me when he knows that I am well tasked for the job. So, that alone kind of gets a lot of the work done. He doesn’t really have to tell me what to do, what not to do.

Solaris, along with Drive and Spring Breakers, have received a fairly substantial commercial response. There have been vinyl releases, and they have done well. Especially, the Drive release, I think that Mondo version sold out in less than five minutes.
I certainly never saw a resurgence of vinyl coming; I’m still scratching my head over that. I did a record signing in Silver Lake, after the release of the Only God Forgives vinyl, and I made a point to ask everybody if they actually owned a turntable; and most of them said no. [Laughs] I have always kind of dreamed of this idea that the pop world and the film music world could come together, and you could actually have something that could approximate a hit record from a soundtrack. A few people have kind of come close, but I often wondered if that was ever possible. I think movies are a great place to be exposed to adventurous music; music that you don’t normally hear on the radio. I think a lot of oddball stuff really comes out of film soundtracks. So, I thought that maybe it was possible; and then Trent Reznor gets an Oscar on his first score, so it kind of happens to an extent. But I didn’t see Drive coming. To me, that was kind of just an extension of what I had been doing since Sex, Lies, and Videotape: kind of a minimalist, ambient score.


I think that with the Drive soundtrack, and especially the Spring Breakers soundtrack, the actual song selections mesh so well with your work that it does feel like a cohesive pop record. You can listen to these records as a full album and it feels right.
Well, that is as close as I can come for fathoming the recipe for a “hit soundtrack,” not that you’d really ever hear those two words in the same sentence. I think that it was, in the case of Drive for example, the fact that the underscore and the songs actually fit together. It sounded like a cohesive concept. Nicolas’ song selection sounded like they could have come from the same artist. That was a very specific kind of 80s homage; I guess you can say that Kavinsky and the Chromatics were a nod to the 80s. Usually when a film soundtrack sells a lot of copies it is because of the songs, so if you can just compliment that, I think that is kind of the format for being popular. But again, it probably has to be driven by a successful film as well. If I could completely understand the formula for doing it I’d love to repeat the experience.

With Spring Breakers you collaborated on the score with Skrillex. Was this the first soundtrack that you co-composed?
Well, I have other people that I collaborate with, going back to Traffic. I’ve always worked with other people, but that’s the first sort of famous, name-brand composer I’ve ever collaborated with.


Skrillex is quite a polarizing artist, what was collaborating with him like?
Well, first off, I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know his music. So my introduction to him and his music was at a screening of the film, which I wasn’t sure I was going to do. And, the very first scene is the montage of the topless girls jumping up and down in slow motion to “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” That whole sequence, the first two minutes of the film with that music and that imagery, is what sold me to do the film. But, I think we were only in the room together two or three times. We didn’t have a whole lot of face time. We exchanged some files over the Internet, a lot of things were just handed to one or the other, and there were a handful of things that kind of went back and forth. Skrillex would write something and Harmony [Korine] would [ask me] to add something to it, and then it would go back to Skrillex. At first it didn’t seem like our styles would be that compatible, but I think that it is an oddly homogenous score. There’s like 20-some songs by very different artists, there’s a lot of music by Skrillex, and there is a lot of music by me and it all seems to flow seamlessly.

I would go as far as to say that that film works almost entirely because of the way the music interacts with the picture. The music being one of the most important narrative devices Korine utilizes.
I don’t generally think that films that have wall-to-wall music—that just seem like an endless rock video—work very well. But, for some reason, you can have continuous music in that film and it all seems to flow. I think after they showed me a handful of scenes—they didn’t show me the film all the way through at first—my first question was, “Are you really going to do the whole film this way? Is it really going to be a silent movie with music plastered all over the place like this?” And he was like, “Oh yeah.” I was skeptical that he could pull it off, but it worked. I thought it worked.


Korine is no stranger to experimentation. All of his films feel vastly different from each other, and I think that, because of the soundtrack especially, Spring Breakers is my favorite of his.
It takes a pretty bold director to do that too. Generally, directors don’t want to hand over that much responsibility to the music department, because they think that films are predominantly about the dialogue and the images. To let a scene play out for six minutes, with not much going on in the way of dialogue, and to let the music narrate a scene like that, like Nicolas [Refn] does? You know, Nicolas was the first director that I ever worked with that where I had a nine-minute music cue, six-minute music cues, five-minute music cues; that is really unusual. He is just comfortable and confident handing over something where the music has got to really step up and play a very large role in contributing to the narrative. That doesn’t happen very often. I thought it was kind of weird that Spring Breakers and Drive kind of happened so close to each other, because both were, from my point of view, nearly silent movies that put a lot of responsibility for the momentum and energy of telling the story in the music.

And Only God Forgives, even more so. Essentially that film is a silent film. It feels like there is maybe ten minutes of dialogue and the rest is driven by the music and lighting.
[Laughs] Yeah, Kristen Scott Thomas is the only one that says anything, the only character that has any lines. He took it even further. You know, in Drive, you have one non-communicative, stoic character—Ryan Gosling’s character. And [in Only God Forgives] like, all three central characters [laughs] the love interest, the lead, Chang, they don’t say anything; they don’t get any dialogue. That was bold.


It is kind of an experimental score too. It is a very multicultural production, and the score reflects that nicely. It seems to incorporate a lot of multicultural elements without losing your voice.
Well, that was the intention. I wanted it to be more Thai-influenced. But that all got obliterated, so there is just kind of a hint of it. You know most of my scores people think sound original but to me they are always a combination of influence of artists that I imitate quite closely. If you put like three or four of them together [laughs] it passes for originality. I think Only God Forgives had like ten; it had like Goblin, Philip Glass, Ennio Morricone, and Thai Pop music. When you start trying to blend all of those influences together you come up with something that is pretty much unrecognizable.

And that might be that original punk in you getting out. Punk music has basically made a career out of heavily borrowing from influences to create something original.
[Laughs] Well, I don’t think that is unique to punk music. I think everyone does it, and if they are smart they don’t get caught. [Laughs] But, I think the business of film scoring is probably even more incestuous, because of the practice of the temp score. Almost every picture editor will refuse to edit a picture without music. And often they don’t have a composer and they don’t have original music at the time they are assembling the movie, so they are always throwing in these temporary, prefabbed pieces of music, generally from other films. It is kind of a controversial practice, I don’t really have a problem with it, but it exerts an influence over the score. If it works, it is hard not to be influenced by it. So it happens a lot in film music and also because everything has to get out on a quick turnaround. There is a deadline that approaches very quickly. Sometimes there isn’t time to be original, because just being original requires some failure time. Time to experiment and get it wrong.

So what is currently on your plate?
Right now, I am catching up on my loafing. I just had a film that I think is still airing called The Normal Heart. It’s an HBO movie with Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts; it’s really good. And then in early August, I have this ten-part series on Cinemax, a period medical drama called The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, and I just finished that. I’m working on a video game called Farcry 4—I don’t know when that comes out. These things have a gestation period of like, years. They are talking about wrapping up the game in November of this year, I don’t know if that will happen. And then, I did some music for a documentary on the making of Only God Forgives directed by Nic Refn’s wife. I think that comes out in Europe in a month or so, I’m not sure when it is coming out here.

To conclude, what is your opinion of the current world of movie soundtracks? Are there any scores in particular released in the last few years that have really floored you?
I don’t know if I can think of anything that is in the same league as some of the things that got me started, like A Fistful of Dollars or A Few Dollars More. I can’t think of anything that hit me over the head and made me think it will be a timeless score that people will be listening to and pointing centuries from now. But, about a month ago, I was really impressed with the score by Nick Cave to a film called The Proposition, an Australian… I guess, period western. He kind of did an Australian western with some modern electronic elements to it, which I thought was really interesting. I think some of the new guys that are coming to it—that don’t come from the traditional European orchestral school of film scoring—some of them are doing really interesting stuff. Things are being opened up to a more eclectic approach, which only makes sense. I think there are a million ways to score a film and it doesn’t have to be done with an orchestra. A lot of people coming from the rock world really have a unique take on scoring. Who is writing the timeless scores right now, the scores that will live forever and be famous film scores? I can’t really tell because that is sort of my milieu. But there are some really cool, very interesting things going on now. For me, what makes film scoring—or just making music in general— fascinating is the influence of technology. That was not a big influence on music before. People would explore harmony or orchestration, and now they are exploring sound itself. All this new computer technology is causing people to rethink writing; the writing process itself is just getting changed because of the technology. I think for the most part it is good, but I think there is also going to be someone who is going to win an Oscar with a score they made on an iPhone pretty soon. [Laughs] So, I think there is a risk that it might get dumber.

Joe Yanick is on Twitter - @joeyanick

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