When Cliff Martinez parted ways from future behemoths Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1986, he could have dug his heels in and stuck it out in the rock & roll underground – after all, he’d spent the early ’80s playing for figures like Lydia Lunch, Captain Beefheart and bands like the Dickies and the Weirdos – but instead, he began a long and decorated career as a film score composer.
Since he was picked up by Steven Soderbergh for the 1989 hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Martinez has gone on to score some of the most aesthetically recognizable and intriguing films to combine arthouse auteurism and massive commercial success in recent memory. As well as continuing to work with Soderbergh on films like Traffic, Solaris and Contagion, his notably creeping and sparse composition style has melded with stylized psychological thrillers such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, and high-octane freakiness like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
In this excerpt from his recent Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio with Julian Brimmers, Martinez discusses making jingles for TV adverts and groundbreaking, psychedelic kids TV offerings like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, working with 90-piece orchestras and “shamelessly knocking off Brian Eno.”
Working with Directors
The film always comes first. You have to be an advocate of the film more than of your own music. With someone like Nicolas [Winding Refn], I feel like I understand what he’s looking for. I understand his taste in music. I think I understand his films, too, even though they’re sometimes challenging to follow.
Steven Soderbergh and Nicholas are the only two directors that I’ve worked with more than once, and those relationships are kind of special, because each time you do something with them, it takes it to a deeper level. Some of my best stuff, I think, is with Nicholas and Steven, and I think part of it is because we’ve worked together before.
The first scoring job I ever had was Pee-wee’s Playhouse around 1988. They had the Residents, Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, Stanley Clarke, Mitchell Froom. There was no adult supervision. It was kind of like, “Do whatever you want.” It was avant-garde and adventurous. That’s what made me excited about putting music to picture.
I think it was on the third season of the show, and I knew what the show was like already. When they gave me my episode, I thought it was the worst episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse ever, not knowing how music would fill things out. As I started to work on it, I thought, “I just saved the show.” I arrogantly assumed that the music was what pulled it all together. Later I realized, “Oh, that’s what music does.”
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
I remember Steven said to me, “This music [from Pee-wee’s Playhouse] will be perfect for my first film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” When I saw the film, I called him up, I said, “I don’t know about the Pee-wee thing and your movie.” He goes, “Oh yeah, we’ll do something different.” I think we just hit it off personally. Years later, he said to me, “I hired Cliff because he was the only composer I knew.”
I guess it’s okay to talk about it now, but I pretty much shamelessly knocked off the music that Steven had edited the film with, which was Brian Eno. To me, the music of Brian Eno was then, and still is, a big mystery to me. I didn’t know how to do that. Steven and I worked very closely. He’d come over to the house a lot, talk about music, sit down and listen to stuff, and I’d play him things. What I did was I sampled a lot of red wine glasses. That was one of the main flavors.
Usually when people want an orchestral composer, I’m the last name on the list. Solaris was one of my early attempts at doing an orchestral score. It was kind of my first big challenge, doing a big studio picture, and my first encounter with a really large... It was a 90-piece orchestra.
I wanted to do the minimalist ambient, textural thing, but with a live orchestra. I was also fascinated by baritone steel drums. I had just purchased some from Trinidad. They were sitting in my living room, and I decided that I wanted to fit them into my next film project, and that was Solaris.
A lot of reviews of the soundtrack called it an electronic score, so I think it was partly because there’s no vibrato. Most of the string parts were played on the bridge of the violins, so it had a bit of a ghostly and ethereal sound that some people thought was purely electronic. Plus, at that point, I had a reputation for being an electronic composer, not an orchestral one.
Songs and Scores
Usually, the songs and the score go their separate stylistic ways. Drive was an exception, because there were only five songs, and four of them could have practically been from the same band. They were all homages to ’80s synth-pop, so I thought here’s one where I could actually make the score and the songs sound like a cohesive thing. Whereas with many other films, they have tons of songs from a range of styles, so there’s no way to really accommodate something that is that eclectic. For the most part, a lot of the scores that I hear that are part of a song-driven film, I don’t see much connection between the score and the songs. It’s pretty hard to do.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
It was exciting to work with Red Hot Chili Peppers on Freaky Styley because we all loved George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. We were big fans of that music. We get a front row seat to his creative process, which was terrific.
He did a great job producing that album. He brought in Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to play horn and sax. We had backup singers. Working in Detroit was kind of unusual. All of the P-Funk people were out in the lobby waiting to come in to do hand claps or vocals. Aretha Franklin was working in the studio down the hall. It was one of my greatest musical experiences, working with George. I think the band was very intimidated by the recording process. George made the whole thing a big party, and I think that spirit ended up being a part of the tracks.
I was introduced to the Linn drum machine when I was making the first Chili Pepper album. The producer of that album, Andy Gill, wanted to use the drum machine on one track. He handed me the drum machine and said, “I’d like for you to program it.” I think I had some familiarity with drum machines, but when I actually had one to fool around with, I realized that the art of drumming would soon be extinct, and so would I if I didn’t evolve. At that time, the days of Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon were gone. The style that was prevalent in the ’80s was kind of perfect to be replaced by a machine.
I started playing drums around third grade. My parents took me to a local music store, and I think I’d just seen the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and I said, “I want to play guitar. Do you have any guitar teachers?” They said, “No, we don’t have any guitar teachers. We have a drum teacher.” I thought about it for a minute and I went, “Okay, I’ll play drums.” It was pretty arbitrary.
For years I didn’t really get to use my drumming skills in any score. Sex, Lies, and Videotape had a complete absence of rhythm. People always ask me, “What did you bring from the world of rock & roll drumming that informed your career as a film composer?” I can’t really think of anything except the idea that as a drummer you’re in the role of accompaniment, and that’s a special way to think about things. You’re not in the spotlight. Your job is the make other guy look good, and that’s what film music does.