Cinematic Orchestrator: Cliff Martinez recaps over two decades of film scoring

With Only God Forgives about to hit DVD, composer, former Chili Pepper and Captain Beefheart collaborator Cliff Martinez looks back on more than twenty years of soundtrack composition

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Dec 2013

Soundtrack composers are rarely revered to the degree rock stars are, and Cliff Martinez should know – he's been both. Drumming for seminal punk bands like The Dickies, Lydia Lunch, and a brief stint on the skins as part of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band in the late 70s and early 80s led to him being drafted into the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983. He stayed for three years, before leaving the band and going on to compose his first film score for Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. It was Steven Soderbergh's breakthrough, and cemented a close working relationship between Soderbergh and Martinez that saw him score several other key titles in the director's ouevre, including Contagion and Solaris.

It was his minimalist electronic score for Nicolas Winding-Refn's Drive which brought Martinez to widespread recognition – his pulsing, understated compositions were absolutely vital to the film's slick appeal, and with a deluxe vinyl edition released in the UK by Geoff Barrow's Invada imprint, suddenly Martinez's name was on the lips of every hipster and film fanatic, along with Johnny Jewel's Chromatics, and Kavinsky, who provided key cuts for the film.

Martinez's latest score, for Winding-Refn's Drive follow-up Only God Forgives, saw him taking bigger creative risks. He reinterpreted karaoke classics from Thailand – the film's setting – and worked closely with the film's sound production unit to create a score which complemented the brooding, static-laden ambient tracks which lace the movie's most intense scenes. He incorporated native Thai instruments, giving his compositions an ethnic, cross-cultural feel. It is, he reflects, one of his favourite works. Speaking from his home in LA, Martinez laughs often, with sardonic good humour and a self-effacing modesty.

"Initially, I really wanted to be influenced by the setting of Thailand," he says of his score for Only God Forgives. "The first things that I worked on were the five karaoke songs. I made faithful recreations of the original tracks, minus the voice. For a few of them, I did my own, more adventurous interpretations of them - none of those were used in the film though. The ground floor was to do something that reflected the setting."

How did he manage to complement the brooding atmospherics of the sound production unit's work? "I've always been fascinated by that grey area between music and sound design, and with what the sound department does and what I do," he says. "Unless you are talking about door slams and footsteps, I think what sound departments do functions much in the same way as music does." He describes the score for Only God Forgives as a "successful hybrid of the two approaches." Writing the score in a Thai hotel room, Martinez drew on his own knowledge of the country's musical traditions and forms: "In terms of the kind of 'global' approach that I used, there are a lot of different influences in there that made it what it was. I guess that is why it's interesting – because it is so eclectic."

Winding-Refn began cutting the film to the Bernard Hermann score for 1950s science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still, which, explains Martinez, "happens to be one of my all-time favourite scores." The initial formulation – Hermann's domineering, strident orchestration melded with Thai pop music "started eroding as well, as the dark, Eno-esque textural stuff started to become so important," he explains. Philip Glass and Ennio Morricone became huge influences. "I have this theory that if you steal something from one artist, that's just plagiarism," chuckles Martinez. "But if you steal from two or more artists and put it together, you can claim it as something original. Only God Forgives was influenced by a wide range of artists, and that, for me, is why it is such a special score."

His favourite of his own scores to date is for Soderbergh's Solaris, a remake of the existential science fiction classic by Andrei Tarkovsky. "It's the only one I still listen to," says Martinez. "Usually I know every molecule of the music backwards and forwards. What makes music interesting is the balance of the unexpected and the expected. For some reason, Solaris still seems to hold some kind of mystery, some element of surprise for me. It had an unexpected emotionality that some of my scores don't. Usually I try and write things which are pretty austere and not emotional." Like Only God Forgives, Solaris is sparing in its use of dialogue, making the score all important. "Personally," he says, "I like the films I do where the music has a big, important role, and feels like another character in it."

Asked whether, as a drummer, he is tempted to make rhythmic construction the main focus of his score work, Martinez is quick to point out that the score for Sex, Lies and Videotape was almost completely beatless. "That kind of defined my style for a lot of films – minimalist, ambient, textural music that completely lacks rhythm," he reflects. "After I quit playing drums I actually didn't want to hear any rhythm. But now it plays a really important part in all my scores – drums are the only instrument I play with any legitimate facility. I like to make music by hitting things with a stick." Working without drums for a long period made him appreciate the other facets of composition: "Emotion tends to be locked up in melody and harmony. That's an obvious thing to say, but it's true. Things that are non-rhythmic contribute to a greater degree to the psychology and the emotionality of the film."

"I've always been fascinated by that grey area between music and sound design" – Cliff Martinez

His working relationship with Soderbergh spans ten films and three decades, while his collaborations with Winding-Refn so far number two. "I don't really know how to compare them, because they're both rugged individualists," he says. "I've done ten films with Steven, so I can practically read his mind, and vice versa. I really understand his likes and dislikes better than anybody I've worked with – monogamy has its benefits."

Is working with Winding-Refn comparable? "They both seem to like to do something very different every time they start a new project," he says. "They always encourage me to do something I've never done before, which is quite the opposite from what most people ask for – most people come to me because they have heard something of mine which they liked, and then there's some obligation to sound like Traffic, or like Drive. Steven and Nicolas come to me and say, 'I'm doing something completely different from my last film, and I wat you to do something completely different to anything you've ever done.' It's a big challenge, but it's a welcome challenge."

Now that his soundtrack work is being appreciated by a wider audience, Martinez is pleased but somewhat baffled by his music having a life beyond the films it was composed for. "I'm not a big consumer of film soundtracks," he admits. "I've always felt that film music is meant to accompany dialogue and images. Probably because my music is so simple, I don't really feel like it's a great standalone, a la carte listening experience. If you remove it from the context for which it is written, it always feels a little simplistic."

However, he says, "that doesn't stop me from releasing these soundtracks – I know there are people who like it, and who use it as background for something." He remains puzzled about what function his music can serve for people: "I was thinking recently, 'What in the world would people be doing while listening to this? What would be the activity in someone's life for which the Only God Forgives score would be the soundtrack?' One of the first pieces of fan mail I got was from a soldier in Afghanistan who said they always listened to it when they went out on patrol. I thought, 'Okay, that makes perfect sense!'"

One other notable film on Martinez's CV is 1990's Pump Up The Volume – a cult teen movie starring Christian Slater as a nihilistic radio DJ who takes on a corrupt high school. Martinez's music sat alongside tracks from the Pixies, Ice T, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. Like Drive, which seemed to usher in a wave of retro-futuristic synth pop appreciation, the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack defined an era, and capture the zeitgesit of the emerging early 90s alternative rock and rap scenes. Is it luck or fate that has led Martinez to be involved in both? "I don't have much perspective on how era-defining they are," he says self-effacingly. "It feels like I did Sex, Lies and Videotape about 3 years ago. Somehow, the sense that that much time has passed that something like that or Pump Up The Volume could have defined the era escapes me."

Nevertheless, he says, "I see a strong connection stylistically between Sex, Lies and Videotape and Drive. I'm still into that ambient, electronic, minimalist thing that I was doing 25 years ago. I try hard to speak in my own voice, and if I was doing things perfectly, I wouldn't like to be part of an era – I'd rather stand apart from the era." He admits that this is a difficult task: "I don't think there's any way to put one note in front of the other without it becoming time-stamped in some way or another. The sounds become dated. You can certainly go back through film history, and you can hear two notes of a score by John Williams, or Ennio Morricone, or Franz Waxman, and you can nail the era. That's inescapable. But certainly when I'm writing, I'm not thinking, 'How can I make something that sounds really 2013?' It doesn't enter my thinking."

Although he considers himself primarily an electronic musician, and is an unapologetic fan of plug-ins, soft synths and technological shortcuts over expensive analogue gear, he does own one particularly amazing instrument – a water-driven organ known as a Cristal Baschet, which was one of the signature sounds on the Drive soundtrack. "I saw a collection of the Baschet brothers' instruments at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, when I was ten years old," he recalls. "My parents took me there. Nobody was performing on these instruments – they had a dozen, some of which were percussive, some of which were the early prototypes of the Cristal. They were all fantastic works of art. The brothers had this agenda, this vision of musical sculpture. I saw these instruments in the same year I first saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Those were two experiences which kind of re-upholstered my brain, and made me want to become a musician."

This formative encounter lay dormant in his memory for years, until "in 2002, when Solaris came along, I remembered the experience, and sought out the instrument and the guys that made it. So it was an ancient childhood memory that I dusted off, and pursued for Solaris. Ironically, the instrument wasn't really used in that film. But once you get something like that in your living room..." He laughs. "I felt a strong obligation to shoehorn it into every subsequent film."

Recently, Martinez joined his former bandmates in the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they were inaugurated into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Was this an important moment for him? "It was a really big deal," he replies. "There are a lot of ex-Chili Peppers. Given their 27 year history, I was only there for 3 of them. So it was an honour that they included me." Did the ceremony have a whiff of kitsch about it? "Being indicted into The Hall of Fame is not in any way cheesy," he quickly asserts. "It's a pretty lovingly-crafted awards ceremony. I was very impressed, I was very moved by it. The thing went on for six hours. It was a great rock and roll show, and a great tribute to the cream of the crop in rock and roll."

He is clearly proud of his association with the Chilis, and believes they are an enduring musical force: "A lot of people that got awards that night have stopped making records long ago, but the Chilis are one of the few artists that are still going. To qualify, it has to be at least 25 years since your first record. The Chili Peppers were, I think, the only artists there that day who are still making hits, who are still considered contemporary and relevant. I felt like I was in fast company." What did he do with his award? "I have the award right on top of my TV," he says. "The TV is the centrepiece of the house, and the trophy is the centrepiece of that." He chuckles again. "It's a good discussion piece."

Along with Hans Zimmer, who worked with The Buggles and other bands in his early career, and former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, not to mention Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Martinez is one of a legion of contemporary film composers who have made the jump from the rock music industry to the Hollywood hills. "Everybody in rock and roll is trying to jump on the pile," Martinez reflects. "Technology has all but made the music industry obsolete, through everybody's music being pirated. Singer-songwriters are feeling the pain more than anybody. Film composers are the last of a vanishing breed of professional musicians who still get a paycheck for writing music. So the migration from rock and roll to film music is pretty natural. There are a flood of people turning to writing music for the moving image, whether it be films, TV commercials, or video games." His shrug is almost audible. "All the people you mention, including myself, are part of a stampede to survive in the music business."

Now that Only God Forgives has been released, many are curious to know if Martinez will work with Nicholas Winding-Refn again. He refuses to be drawn on the details of his next project, but in response to that particular question, he answers: "I'd love to work with Nicolas again." Are there any other directors he would like to work with? He ponders this for a few seconds. "I'd like to work with the next Nicolas Winding-Refn; the next Steven Soderbergh... whoever that might be."

Read Cliff Martinez's Hero Worship piece on Captain Beefheart in this issue.

Only God Forgives is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 2 Dec.

A limited edition double vinyl package of the Only God Forgives soundtrack is available from Invada Records, along with other work by Cliff Martinez, such as Drive and Solaris.