If you’ve set foot in a red-lit bar or caliginous nightclub over the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard the work of Cliff Martinez.
The 59-year-old film composer’s soundtrack to the modish film Drive has become a fixture on the after-hours circuit—a synth-heavy, seductive ode to dirty deeds done dirt cheap. His latest opus is the score to Spring Breakers, which he collaborated on with the DJ-producer Skrillex—a film that has all the trappings of another cult hit.
Martinez’s Los Angeles home, meanwhile, has transformed into one big music-making apparatus.
“My house is pretty much a studio,” says Martinez. “Most of my living room and dining room furniture is now in storage, and there are instruments in every room. My drum set is in the bedroom.” He pauses. “I like rolling out of bed and having all my tools ready.”
In addition to the drum set, Martinez’s home holds, among other instruments: 19 steel drums, an electrified three-string lute from Thailand called a pin pia, tubular bells, a bamboo mouth instrument from Cambodia known as a khene, and a Cristal Baschet—a ornate experimental instrument composed of 54 chromatically tuned glass rods that are then rubbed with moistened fingers.
It’s an interesting coincidence, then, that the Bronx native’s first scoring job was for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Martinez composed the score to the 1987 episode “Why Wasn’t I Invited,” which centers on Cowntess—the cow—sending out birthday invitations to everyone but poor lil’ Pee-Wee.
Prior to scoring TV shows and films, Martinez grew up in Columbus, Ohio where watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan inspired him to begin playing drums in the third grade (he wanted to play guitar, but his local music store didn’t have a guitar teacher). He eventually packed his musical gear into his car and, at 22, moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a music career.
“It was on the bicentennial: 4th of July 1976,” Martinez recalls. “I was living in Columbus and had sort of hit the pinnacle of any musician’s career there, playing in Top-30 cover bands in hotels.”
He was in a wide variety of punk bands after moving out to L.A., including The Weirdos, Lydia Lunch, Foetus, The Dickies, Captain Beefheart, and last but certainly not least, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Martinez joined the group in 1983, right after they signed to EMI, and played drums on the band’s first two albums, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Freaky Styley. Creative differences, however, led to his being fired by singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea during the recording of their third album. They claimed his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
“I had been in the band for three years and it didn’t appeal to me anymore,” he says. “I was 32 when I retired from the Chili Peppers and was having a hard time reconciling going onstage with nothing but a sock on my genitals by age 40. I didn’t think there was longevity in that career, and that was probably wrong because they’re still doing it and they’re doing great.”
Martinez has since reconciled with the band, and joined them onstage when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, playing drums with the Chili Peppers for the first time in 26 years.
“I thought there was more musical diversity in film music,” he adds. “On the radio back then, you could travel on the left side to the right side of the dial and hear just four kinds of music. It seemed like there was more room for avant-garde and experimental music [in film].”
He continues: “I remember seeing A Fistful of Dollars at the drive-in with my parents, and it was one of the first albums that I owned, and it happened to be a film score. And Bernard Herrmann’s score to The Day the Earth Stood Still was a very important one. There was this NBC program called Saturday Night at the Movies, and they used to air it constantly and I’d always watch it because of the music.”
He got his first scoring gig on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse through a pal, Stephen R. Johnson, who used to direct music videos for the Chili Peppers, and then his other pal, Mark Mangini, happened to be roommates with a budding young filmmaker by the name of Steven Soderbergh. Martinez met Soderbergh and—armed with a cassette tape of his Pee-Wee score and some other “weird, musical collages” he’d made—convinced the director he was the right man to score his first film, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
“I had no formal training [composing] and was just a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, so for the most part, I had to re-tool completely,” confesses Martinez. “It was kind of rough and I’m still learning, still a bit of a musical Neanderthal, but I’ve grown to understand melody and harmony.”
Martinez’s ambient score perfectly complemented the gloomy tenor of the film, and the duo of Soderbergh and Martinez have since collaborated on nine more films together, including Traffic and most recently, Contagion.
“We really communicate telepathically; there isn’t a lot of dialogue,” he says. “He’ll send me the film with his temporary score in it, and then I’ll go and write music for the film. We get together maybe three or four times during the course of making the film.”
Martinez saw his stock rise in Hollywood after scoring the 2011 film The Lincoln Lawyer—that is until Drive, released that same year, made him the hottest composer in Tinseltown. That film’s soundtrack, a fusion of ‘80s synth-pop and contemporary electronic tunes, became a bestseller on iTunes, climbing as high as No. 4 on the charts—a rarity for an indie film soundtrack.
“I’d always shied away from synthesizers because most of the directors wanted something organic that didn’t sound overtly synthetic,” says Martinez, whose Sex, Lies score was more ambient. “Then I was brought in on Drive five weeks before they had to finish the film, and I thought the opening credits sequence was a real statement of musical style, so I felt I needed to make it a retro-80’s synth-pop sound.”
The composer’s modus operandi is as follows: he’ll watch the film, usually with temporary music inserted by the director. Then, he “retires for a time” to think about it. He watches the film several more times, has “a conversation or two with the director,” and then composes “a couple of pieces of music to capture the feeling of the film.” If he gets a thumbs-up from the director, he moves on. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. “To me, the inspiration comes from the film and not the script,” he says.
His most recent soundtrack to Spring Breakers was a unique scenario. The film, about a group of four disillusioned college girls who rob a diner to bankroll their wild spring break, and then get busted by the fuzz and fall in with a gonzo white rapper-gangster named Alien (James Franco), had a very spare screenplay that initially turned off Martinez.
“The script was like four pages long and there wasn’t much to it,” he says. “It bore very little resemblance to the final film, and I remember when I first talked to Harmony [Korine, the director] he said, ‘Don’t pay much attention to it, that was just a guide.’”
Martinez split composing duties with the ubiquitous dance music producer-DJ Skrillex. While the lopsided-haired turntablist took on the more up-tempo, dance music scenes, Martinez’s job was to do “the interior, psychological scenes” to establish an ominous tone. He used Brahms’s “Lullaby” as a model for his parts, which included a crucial courtroom scene that introduces the girls to Franco’s character and alters the trajectory of the film, as the narrative shifts from hedonistic spring break fantasy to a twisted take on The Great Gatsby.
“I thought the intention was to be dark and a little shocking, which is kind of what people come to me for,” he says, with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to treat the girls, or Alien, Franco’s character, as threatening people doing bad things. I wanted to paint them as friendly, nice, innocent people. That’s what I was going for.”
The two soundtrack collaborators only met “a few times,” says Martinez, instead communicating mostly by phone and swapping MIDI files via email. When Martinez saw the opening tune that Skrillex had inserted, an orchestral version of his dubstep anthem “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” called “Scary Monsters and Strings,” he says this set the tone for the rest of the score. Martinez finally caught a screening of the finished film last Thursday, and was very impressed.
“I’ve always thought it had the potential to be another Drive—a surprise hit,” he says. “I think Harmony’s objective is to shock some people and delight others.”
His next score is for The Company You Keep, a political thriller directed by and starring Robert Redford that is out April 5, and he’ll reteam with filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) for Only God Forgives—a suspense film in the vein of Drive starring Ryan Gosling as a man embroiled in the criminal underworld of Thailand who seeks revenge after his brother is murdered. The film does not have a U.S. release date yet, but is expected to bow at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“Nicholas really wanted to avoid anything remotely resembling Drive, but to me, I think it is similar in that it’s very spare in dialogue, so the music plays a really big role,” says Martinez, excitedly. “It has an ethnic twist since it all takes place in Thailand and Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas are the only Westerners in it, and the rest is a Thai cast, so there are subtitles. There’s an exotic feeling and I tried to impart that in the music as well.” He pauses. “It’s probably even bloodier than Drive, if you can imagine that!”
Martinez is currently working on scoring a commercial for the 2014 Corvette. He doesn’t have any more film projects lined up at the moment, but is confident that the offers will come rolling in following the releases of Spring Breakers, The Company You Keep, and Only God Forgives.
But for now, it’s back to the drawing board.