Cliff Martinez put down his drumsticks for the last time more than 25 years ago. Drummer for three years with seminal funk-rock outfit the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the Eighties, Martinez left amid reports of discord. The Chili Peppers went on to huge success, of course, and Cliff Martinez left behind rock n’ roll and stints playing with Lydia Lunch, Captain Beefheart and The Dickies to veer off in a different direction. Presumably licking his wounds. Now he’s one of the world’s foremost film score composers.
“I like to think of myself as clawing my way to the bottom of the A-list,” he says, wincing at the description. He’s won numerous awards and prestigious nominations for his work, which includes scores for films such as Drive, Only God Forgives, and Traffic, TV series The Knick and also the video game Far Cry 4, for which he won a BAFTA Games Award. Every visual medium this mild-mannered musician touches with his sparse electronica is elevated to a whole other level. On top of everything, he’s just won the Soundtrack Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
We’re meeting in London and Martinez is showing me footage from his phone. He’s come straight from France where The Neon Demon was competing, and he’s playing me a video of director Nicolas Winding Refn at the end of the film’s screening. “Nicolas was hysterical,” he says. “Before the lights were even up he jumped up and started [clapping].”
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I like to think of myself as clawing my way to the bottom of the A-list...
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The press reported abuse being yelled at the screen, but Martinez seems oblivious. He admits to feeling nervous about the Cannes premiere. “I know that the audience is capable of turning on you and for Only God Forgives, the press screening was peppered with boos,” he says. “So I was on high alert thinking that some people might not like this film. I mean with the necrophilia and stuff, there’s room to dislike it. But the audience was very enthusiastic and I didn’t hear... I guess when people get up and leave, they let their seats flop up extra hard.”
He confesses his own girlfriend doesn’t like it, though – which is perhaps what prompted Nicolas Winding Refn to declare his own partner’s love for it at the film’s recent UK premiere in London.
Cliff Martinez’s career turnaround has been remarkable. But despite his talent and acclaim, the decision to change tack in his career was not deliberate. You’d barely even call it a decision.
“I fell into it accidentally,” he says. “I was still with the Chili Peppers. I had a fascination with music technology. The producer brought a Linn drum machine [to me] and basically said: ‘I want this machine to replace you and I want you to programme it’. I was just terrified.”
He felt threatened by the machine’s capabilities and its implications for him as a musician, but he was also drawn to it. He got a sampling drum machine soon after, then a primitive early sampler and sequencer and suddenly he felt empowered, and the creativity began to flow: “I thought I was inventing a whole new vocabulary of music”.
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I fell into it accidentally...
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The Red Hot Chili Peppers, however, weren’t keen on using anything that was “inorganic, electronic or mechanical”, and he started playing with his new toys outside of the band. “I used to host get-togethers at my house where friends would come over and take turns making rude body noises on mic,” he says. “I would play them on the mini controlled drum set and make these weird sound collages. I’d think: ‘This is great, I’m brilliant, I’m a genius – what am I going to do with it?”
Then he saw Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Pee Wee’s Playhouse was an American children’s TV show which became a cult hit. The show featured music – a lot of it experimental – from the likes of Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman, The Residents and Mitchell Froom. A light went on for Martinez, who knew the show’s director, Stephen Johnson, who had previously made music videos.
“I asked him if I could score an episode,” he says. Johnson said yes. “They sent me my show sans music, sans sound effects. I thought they had given me the worst episode ever but then when I started to write the music, it started to pull together and become more cohesive. And I thought: ‘God, I saved the show. God, I’m brilliant.’ Little did I know then, that that’s what music does.”
When he talks about his past self, he concocts a vision of someone stumbling through life, of someone to whom things just happened, of someone with the arrogance of youth. The man sitting here today unrecognised in the London hotel lounge we’re chatting in has little of that – he’s wiser, he’s humble and he’s honed his craft, and with that he’s modest and realistic. Maybe a little coy.
Sipping a cappuccino, he’s conservatively dressed, polite, softly spoken and self-deprecating. He deflects praise and professes a preference for solitude, choosing to tinker with his electronic organ alone in his bedroom over rocking out with his proverbial cock out on stage. If this is the true Cliff Martinez, you can see why he wasn’t suited to rock n’ roll, and was attracted instead to something more low key. He’s more a thousand feet than a million miles away from the life he used to live, though – there’s the odd element of the rock star lifestyle still evident.
Take Cannes: “Did I do it for fun or out of obligation? Mostly for fun. I’m too selfish to volunteer to do nothing but work when I go there. So I went there for fun, I went there for the food and the parties and the alcohol – and the cappuccino.”
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Things really took off for me...
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Prior to working with Danish helmer Refn on Drive, Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon, Martinez had a longstanding partnership with another auteur – Steven Soderbergh. And it was his tape of rude body noises that brought them together.
“A friend of mine who was a sound editor – Mark Mancini [who won an Oscar this year for Mad Max] – got hold of my tape,” explains Martinez. “He said: “You should come in and do some music for this film we’re working on.” The film was Alien Nation. Although it was scored by Jerry Goldsmith, the director wanted some music creating that the aliens in the film would listen to.
“Sometimes they ask the sound department to do the music that sits in the cracks between the sound department and the music department,” he says. It was while working on this project that he met Soderbergh.
“I would work there from 10 o’clock at night to six in the morning and [Mark’s] roommate at the time was Steven Soderbergh,” he continues. “Steven came in once or twice and without even being introduced just sat down on the couch and started making comments. And I thought: ‘I can tell this guy is not a musician but his instincts about how things fit with the picture are really smart’. So we hit it off creatively. After a day or second visit he told me he was making a movie and he’d like to have me score it. Years later he told me he hired me because I was the only composer he knew.”
How to flatter a guy. It’s funny how things work out, although there was probably a subconscious recognition of talent – both have gone on to do pretty well for themselves. The movie was the 1989 Palme d’Or-winning Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Steven wanted an extension of the rude body noises collages Martinez had made. But when Martinez received the rough cut of the movie, he realised the belches and flatulence weren’t going to work. “I called him up and he said: ‘Okay, we’ll do something different’. So I guess he just heard something, you know? He had an inkling that I was somebody with a musical personality that he could get along with, I guess, because the music definitely went in a very different direction for that film.”
They’d go on to work together for 12 years and 10 films, spanning Kafka, Traffic, Solaris (Martinez’s personal favourite work) and Contagion. It was in 2011 when Contagion was released that Drive also hit cinemas and made a massive impact – the talk was more about the music in the film than anything else: “Things really took off for me,” Martinez says.
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No kidding – and so was spawned another successful repeat collaboration. Refn was keen to work with Martinez again and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite working in between with other directors, the Bronx-born composer hadn’t found a collaborator to inspire him in the way Soderbergh had, and with Soderbergh talking increasingly frequently about quitting the industry, Martinez needed another muse.
“Monogamy has its advantages,” he says. “I mean, I always give my best – but it seems like the best scores have been repeat experiences.”
He’s drawn to Refn in particular because of the emphasis he places on the music.
“I don’t think I’d ever done a nine-minute music cue until Drive,” says Martinez. “Nicolas has these really long extended pieces where there’s not much dialogue; he wants it to be carried by the music. Not a lot of directors have the courage to cut a film and leave it unfinished waiting for the music to pull it together. He really pushes the music out into the spotlight in a way that hardly any directors do. Soderbergh does it once in a while but The Neon Demon has got a 16-minute cue in it.”
So where does inspiration come from for him?
“Drugs, straight up, for the most part,” he says. He pauses then points to the cup of coffee on the table in front of him. “Stimulants like that.”
He continues: “Hopefully, [inspiration] comes from the director and the film. For The Neon Demon, Nicolas called me before he’d even written it [saying he] had this idea for a horror film about women. Kind of like Valley of the Dolls meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
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It seems like the best scores have been repeat experiences.
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The same happened with Only God Forgives. “He would talk about it, then he’d send me the script and then a rough cut. All of that adds up to thinking about it and talking about it,” explains Martinez. “I no longer make the mistake of trying to write music to a description or a script or a phone conversation. It’s always been a waste of time but there’s still this incubation period. The work doesn’t really start until I see the picture and start throwing stuff up against it. Then you really know whether you’ve got something that works or not.”
And his actual process? “After he sends me the film, my process is generally lay on the couch, stare at the ceiling for a couple of weeks, just wait for lightning to strike,” he says. “Usually it does. Sometimes it takes longer. I’ll ask the director a lot of questions. Sometimes he’ll volunteer a lot of thoughts about what he’s looking for.”
If he’s really stuck, he’ll look at a film that he thinks is similar: “Sometimes, I like to [try to] imitate other things that I don’t know how to imitate. Sometimes I’ll look at something old like an Ennio Morricone film, or [in the case of The Neon Demon] Dario Argento films. I know I’m not going to be able to sound like that but on some level it has an influence. And even if I try to make it like that, I’ll screw it up in an interesting way.”
I like this self-effacing side to Martinez. “So sometimes when I’m really stuck, I’ll listen to other stuff,” he says. “Hopefully, it comes internally without having to steal anybody else’s ideas but when all else fails I’ll steal with impunity; I’ll plagiarise with impunity.”
The best of us do, I say. He laughs. The conversation switches to his 2012 induction into the rock and roll hall of fame with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At the ceremony, he performed with the band.
“That was horrible,” he says. “Flea called me up a few weeks before and said: ‘We want you to come’. I said: ‘Of course I’ll come’. ‘And we want you to get up on stage and play Give It Away.’ Oh my God. I hadn’t played drums in 25 years so I practiced day in, day out.”
And how did it go? He says it was nerve-wracking. “They asked me to give a speech so I had a speech all worked out that was trying to be funny,” he recalls. “And the person who introduced the band was Chris Rock. For 30 minutes.”
Martinez took to the mic straight after: “There’s no feeling in the world quite like telling a joke in front of 7,000 people and have it go flat. The music was slightly more comfortable but not by much!”
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Hopefully, it comes internally without having to steal anybody else’s ideas...
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Glad to have left touring behind him, he’s not easily convinced by encouragement to play live despite an increase in film score composers taking their music to the road. Fabio Frizzi, Ennio Morricone, Clint Mansell and John Carpenter are all doing it.
“I don’t miss being up on stage, and the preparation, the low pay and the performing,” he says. “Having to do the same thing night after night after night. I get offers to do it, but the problem is I don’t really know how to perform music that’s primarily electronically conceived and performed in front of a live audience in a way that would be interesting. I see all these multi-millionaire DJs hitting the space bar for two hours a night. I’m not going to do that.”
So he doesn’t regret leaving Red Hot Chili Peppers then? “Well, they kind of made a few bucks,” he laughs. “I mean, I wish I could have stayed around long enough to become a billionaire. But I guess it wasn’t for me. I was nine years older than Flea and Anthony so I think there was a bit of a generation gap. And I love what I’m doing.”
Not surprising considering the success he’s had – and he’s probably not short of a bob or two these days. Back with the Chilis, he was taking home $300 a week. His first paycheck for Pee Wee’s Playhouse earned him $10,000.
“Flea was telling me they don’t make any money from their albums anymore,” he says. “[He said:] ‘80 per cent of our income comes from performing live because of pirating illegal downloads.’”
Paving the way for other rock stars, economics are driving members of bands to follow in his footsteps. And as technology makes it harder to earn money in certain areas, people across music are finding the need to diversify to open up additional revenue streams, which could explain why the likes of John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone are touring. He might protest, but perhaps we’ll see Cliff Martinez take to the road again after all. Nine years older than his former bandmates he may be, but a 62-year-old Cliff Martinez performing live is something both music and film fans would want to see. And he’d probably earn a bit more than $300 a week.
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Words: Kim Taylor-Foster