Cliff Martinez interview: The Knick, Soderbergh, composing for film and games

Drive composer Cliff Martinez about his work for TV, film, and video games, on projects such as Far Cry 4, The Knick and Solaris...

Composer Cliff Martinez has carved a reputation as one of the most distinctive film composers in modern cinema. The former Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart drummer has spent the past 25 years working alongside some of the great independent directors of a generation, including the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Nicolas Winding Refn and Harmony Korine, creating bold, ambient scores that sound quite unlike anyone else. Gripping period drama The Knick marks Martinez’s twelfth collaboration with Soderbergh and Paul Weedon recently caught up with the composer to talk about his extensive body of work and that recent Drive re-score.

For a period drama, The Knick has a very contemporary sound, which seems like an odd choice initially, yet it’s one compliments the tone of the show perfectly. Was this something you were keen to explore from an early stage?

No, Steven [Soderbergh] just sent me several episodes that were rough cuts and he used as temporary music – some music from Spring Breakers, Only God Forgives, Contagion, maybe some stuff from Drive and some other stuff that I didn’t recognise. But all of it was electronic and contemporary, so the idea and concept for a modern electronic score that contrasts with the period was Steven’s.

Period dramas tend to have a sound that’s derived very much from the time in which they’re set. Are genre preconceptions something you take in to account when approaching a project like this?

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Yeah, I think it depends on the genre. I’ve never done a comedy. I think comedy has a very rigid style and approach musically and horror films kind of do and action films do, but I think with something like The Knick… I’ve done three period pieces for Steven, including Kafka and King Of The Hill, and every time he didn’t care to acknowledge the period through the music. King Of The Hill uses a lot of source music from the period to help us establish the period a bit, but complimenting the period musically hasn’t been a top priority.

I guess there’s a medical drama genre, but I don’t know what that music sounds like, so I didn’t really feel and obligation to do medical genre music. But I guess a lot of my films, like Spring Breakers and Only God Forgives, I don’t know if they really fall very neatly in to real rigid categories like horror, action or comedy. So I think the dark, psychological stuff – if that’s a genre? That’s how I’ve been typecast.

What attracted you to The Knick initially?

I thought there was a connection between the industrial revolution – the rapid advancements of medicine and science that were taking place and, to me, I guess that was kind of the justification for the contemporary electronic sound. And I suppose in some ways I was trying to create tones of the new, the future and, I guess, of pioneering and innovation. That’s kind of one of the themes of The Knick. 1900 was also a period of one of the biggest waves of immigration in New York, so on some level I was trying to be a little bit ethnically diverse. I don’t think that was an imperative. It was pretty subtle, but that was a little thread of an idea. It probably sounds good in theory, but you may not notice it musically.

Aside from that, what’s familiar to me about all these projects is that most of the time I’m asked to play the psychology and the inner emotions of the characters. Not the situations, not the exterior stuff, but the inside stuff. So I think that’s all kind of common. The characters all have a kind of dark side – Thackery with his drug abuse and Edwards with his addiction to fighting, so I think it was all about the characters to me. Even though it was a unique setting and a unique period and a unique subject of medicine, I guess. In some ways it felt like a very familiar task for the music to accomplish.

How did The Knick’s score develop? Did you have long exchanges with Steven over the overall sound of the show as it developed?

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No, Steven and I don’t communicate very much. He usually sends me temp score and I start sending him music. He lets you know if he doesn’t like something, but he was very supportive during the whole process. He usually just sent a short email that says “that’s great, keep going”. Early on we had a conversation briefly – I just wanted to confirm that he was committed to this idea of a contemporary electronic soundtrack, which I thought at first might be risky and I just wanted to know that that was intentional. But I think that was the only phone conversation of any length that I had with Steven throughout the course of the show.

You’ve been working with Steven for over 25 years now. How does that familiarity affect your work, having known and worked with each other for so long?

Well, the impact of having a director work with you a second, third, fourth or fifth time is that you get to something different. Frequently when someone calls me for the first time to work on something, it’s because they heard something of mine that they liked and there was an inference that they wanted a score that sounds kind of similar – whatever it is that caught their ear. When you get kind of repeat work with somebody like Steven, he’s always doing something new. We went from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Kafka, from kind of ambient electronic, minimal music to a kind period east European folk music.

So the thing that’s fun about working with Steven or Nicolas Winding Refn, when they ask you to do another film or another project, they want to go in a different direction and they take you with them and they hope that you come up with something different as well. With Steven, I’ve been able to do science fiction. I’ve done three period dramas. I’ve kind of done a horror movie, if you can call Contagion that. So I’ve got to do a lot of different genres by working with Steven repeatedly. I’d say most of the stretching and most of the musical growth that I’ve had within the last 25 years has been because I get to work with him.

Musically, I know the Cristal Baschet has had a huge impact on your work over the years. When did you first become interested in the instrument?

My parents took me to the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 and they had an exhibit. I think I was nine years old. I was pretty young and pretty impressionable. I don’t know, I think I was just barely getting in to music and I think I might have heard The Beatles and that would have made a big impact. It was an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called ‘Baschet Instruments’ and it was more of an art exhibit than musical instruments. The instruments weren’t performed on at all. Actually, the Baschet brothers, one of them was an acoustician, the other was a metal sculptor, so they kind of had this idea about making musical sculpture.

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So it was in the Museum of Modern Art as sculpture and they were playing pre-recorded music in the background. I bought a souvenir album from the museum and I think that, along with Meet The Beatles were two of my first records that I ever owned [laughs]. That exhibition made a strong impression on me, and years later I thought of it and tried to track them down and that’s how I began a relationship with the instrument.

The instrument played a huge part in the Drive score, which has gone on to assume a life of its own away from the film. Has the way that people have taken to that score surprised you?

Yeah, I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score has gotten as popular as it has. If I did I would repeat the experience as soon as possible. But, yeah, I know it’s a good film. It’s a good score. To me it seems like a descendant of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Traffic and a lot of scores, musically. But yeah, I’m kind of fascinated by the popularity of that particular film out of 25 years, that’s the one that’s singled out as a quintessential ‘Cliff score’.

Were you aware of the recent BBC re-score that took place?

Yeah, I got sent a couple of emails about it, but I haven’t really read up on it. I heard it was re-scored and it was broadcast on the BBC and that’s about all I know. I don’t know who the artist is. I read the name, but I don’t know who it is.

A lot of people took it very personally that this was the film that they chose to re-score.

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Yeah, I didn’t really dig in to it. I got some emails about it and I didn’t really research it and quite honestly I’ve seen so many parodies and read so much about the film that it was just another bit of information in a long stack of emails about that film that I didn’t really digest thoroughly. I assume that this thing had the blessing of Nicolas. I don’t know how they would have gotten a copy of the film with dialogue and sound effects and no music without the director and producer’s permission.

Nicolas said he was honoured that the BBC had chosen to experiment with the film in that way.

I guess I didn’t really have a reaction to it. I was wondering how it happened. So I thought the idea may have come from Nicolas or maybe somebody approached him and he thought it was a good idea, because I was wondering logistically how you would get a copy of the film to re-score. That’s about the sum total of my response to it.

You mentioned in your Reddit AMA last year that you tend not to revisit any of your work once you’re done with it.

[Laughs] Yeah, I’m sick and tired of it usually. I often don’t see the film in the theatre because I’ve seen it a couple of thousand times and the music I know forwards and backwards. I know every molecule and every frame of the whole project. But I am curious about what the audience think, so that’s about the only reason to revisit these things and see, or to learn, I guess, from a therapeutic or educational point of view.

Am I right in thinking that Solaris is your one exception?

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Yeah, I listen to Solaris. That one’s got some longevity in my mind for some reason.

I get the impression from comments you’ve made previously that sci-fi is something you’re still keen to explore?

Yeah, I was surprised I didn’t get more offers to do sci-fi after Solaris. That’s one of the things I’d like to do. I think horror would be something I’d love to do and something that’s… not a broad comedy but something lighter than what I normally do would be fun to do. But yeah, science fiction is on the list as well.

How did your background in the punk scene go on to inform your transition to composing? You’ve worked in some very disparate genres.

Well, I became interested in music technology. I think that was what eventually led to film scoring. I was working on the first Red Hot Chili Peppers album and the producer suggested that I replace myself on one particular track with a drum machine and he handed it to me to program. And I sort of thought this is how the Indians must have felt when the pilgrims landed [laughs]. I thought that this box was going to mean the extinction of the species of drummers.

But it was also kind of a profound instrument. What it could do was fascinating to me. So in the late 80s, lots of stuff began to happen with computer music technology and I was fascinated with it. I think it pushed me in a more experimental direction and I felt that film, more than radio, was where you could create that. It was where that music was accepted and heard and had an audience. So that was probably the beginning of it. I had an SP-12 sampling drum machine, a Prophet 2000 sampling keyboard and Roland’s first hardware sequencer and I just thought that was a musical revolution right there. But I didn’t see any relevance with all that stuff and rock and roll, and I guess my tastes were changing as well.

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You’ve cited the likes of Tangerine Dream and Goblin as influences before – these were experimental bands in their own right before they moved in to composing. Who else would you rank among your influences?

I think the biggest guys were Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann, probably – those two composers. And one of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was pretty young was A Fistful Of Dollars. On NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies, I would watch The Day The Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and that movie and that music just got to me. So those were the earliest influences and I’m still inspired by those two composers.

On a slightly different tangent, you recently completed work on the soundtrack for Far Cry 4. How did that experience working on a video game compare to your work on The Knick?

One big distinction for me was the fact that almost 80% of it I would say is action music, which is not what I’m known for, so that was a challenge. And the other challenge for me – other composers feel differently – but I thought it was a challenge not to work with a picture and just have descriptions. Occasionally I would be sent some clips, but for the most part you’re kind of flying on autopilot. You know it’s going to be an action sequence, but you don’t have all the visuals and I’ve always depended on the picture to dictate the structure of a composition – where the music changes – I work very closely with the picture, so to not have that at all…

Actually, I talked to two of my friends about it before I took the project on – one who quit working on a video game because he didn’t like it and another who’s done a number of games. And the first said “I hated it. I hated not working with a picture, I just had no idea what I had to do”. My second friend said “I loved it, because you don’t have to work with a picture – you’ve got so much freedom to do what you want”.

So I’m somewhere in between those two worlds. I found it a little frustrating not to know how the music would be used, but on the other hand it gave me a lot of freedom to try a lot of different things not knowing how it would ultimately be used. And Ubisoft would often say “we need something for this situation” and I would write something and they’d say “no, it’s not working, but we’ll use it over here”. So it was a pretty different process, but also very drawn out. I think the whole gestation period of it was a year, so it goes on a long time. It’s a very different kind of a project.

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You worked with Harmony Korine on Spring Breakers, which also saw you working alongside Skrillex. Again, that’s proven to be a hugely popular soundtrack. It’s recently been announced that Korine is working on another film, The Trap. Can we expect another collaboration there?

Yeah. I think so. Harmony’s spoken to me about it. There’s no deal for me to do it, but he’s been talking to me and I hope I’ll get to do it.

What else do you have in the pipeline?

I don’t know where and when it comes out, but I did a documentary about the making of Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen (My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s also a Lincoln car commercial starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Those are out here. I don’t know if those are being shown internationally.

We don’t tend to get interesting commercials over here, unfortunately.

Oh, I’ve seen some great European commercials that would never get shown here! But anyhow, Nicolas may be doing some more commercials and I may be doing those, but again there’s nothing definite about those. At the moment, no, there’s nothing new that I can talk about.

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What is it that you tend to look for in a project generally?

To be asked! [laughs] I’m not very selective. I’m pretty easy. I wish my career was at a point where I could be selective and say no to this and no to that, yes to this. But really I just pick up the phone and say yes for the most part. But I do love independent cinema. I love the rugged individualists like Harmony, like Nicolas, like Steven. I like the guys that have their own very strong, personal, artistic identity and they assert it pretty colourfully and forcefully. I do like that. I admire that. That’s the type of composer I would like to be, so those are the kinds of projects that I lean towards, or try to lean towards.

Cliff Martinez, thank you very much.

Lead illustration by Dan Pritchard (

The Knick soundtrack is available now from the HBO Shop.

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