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How a Punk Ethos Keeps a Legend Fresh: An In-Depth Interview with Cliff Martinez

Legendary composer Cliff Martinez talks about his score for Hotel Artemis; touches upon his work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old To Die Young; elaborates on his Drive score; and shows how his craft has changed over the years, among other things.

Cliff Martinez has been making electronic-infused music for films for nearly 30 years — scoring a host of iconic and groundbreaking work, including Drive — but he’s not one to rest on his laurels. There is an unmistakable template to Martinez’s work, but you’re not going to get the same score over and over again from him.

Just take a listen to some of the scores he’s done and you’ll realize that you’ll know Martinez’s film music when you hear it. His scores are often some variation of stark, atmospheric and unconventional. Consider the work of Steven Soderbergh, whose Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 was Martinez’s first major motion picture, and whose TV show The Knick Martinez scored for him most recently. Or Nicolas Winding Refn, whose films such as Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, have relied on Martinez and his particular style to help tell their stories.

But Martinez — a former drummer in groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, and punk acts like The Weirdos and The Dickies — retains the spirit of his punk and avant-garde roots and is always looking to shake things up with his work.

“Being discontented is an important weapon to have in your arsenal,” Martinez said in an interview over Skype last week from his home in Topanga Canyon, an idyllic expanse in western Los Angeles. “The great Anthony Robbins said… when you’re satisfied or really content, that’s when you really get into trouble.”  

Martinez’s latest score — a relatively heavy-hitting work of art for Drew Pearce’s directorial debut Hotel Artemis, which Lakeshore Records is releasing digitally June 8, the same day the film hits movie theatres — is a testament to the idea that while Martinez might have a signature, he’s always up for exorcising any encroachment of the stale.


Hotel Artemis: A Character Study

Not long ago, Martinez moved into a new home that allows him more square-footage to experiment than his previous digs, and as of late he’s had ample opportunity to make use of it. When I caught up with him, he was busy scoring Refn’s upcoming Amazon TV show Too Old to Die Young and is celebrating the release of Hotel Artemisa film about a members-only hospital for criminals set in a near-future dystopia. 

Note: Film trailers don’t always use the film’s score, so view this for information about the plot and actors, and not as insight into Martinez’s score.

The synth score is one of Martinez’s grittier, more bombastic offerings, offering a harder edge that stands in contrast to some of his variously more ambient, more atmospheric, or more synth-arpeggiator-driven fare. (The edgier electronic score for Refn’s The Neon Demon, essentially a horror film, shares a bit more in common with Hotel Artemis than does Martinez’s other work.)

Although Martinez says it wasn’t his intent to be darker or grittier than usual (“because just about everything I do is some shade of dark,” he says), it is a rather intense outing.

“I wouldn’t call it an action film, but the tension and chunks of action are non-stop,” Martinez said. “In terms of pace, it doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end — it starts at nine, goes up to 10, and drops back to nine.”

Most notable about the more than one hour of music Martinez composed for Hotel Artemis, a film that finds him working again with Drive producer Adam Siegel, is that it leans heavy on specific themes for characters.

“I really like that it’s so theme-oriented,” Martinez said. “Drew had a thing about how every character needs a theme.”

Pearce was so adamant about themes that a pen — a crucial element of the plot — even has a theme, according to Martinez. The various themes serve as a contrast to some of the other cues in the film, he says: the themes tend to be more melodic and the other tracks more “intense, pounding, and urgent.”

I’ve listened to the score a good dozen times, and agree with his assessment. The contrast is pronounced, with some passages transpiring like the calm before a bomb blast — albeit on the cusp nine or 10. Familiar Martinez synth arps abound in places and even a Cristal Baschet, used on Drive, works its way in during the theme for Nice, a woman played by Sofia Boutella. But tracks like “Don’t Cross My Line” have an acid-rip to them and cuts like “Hell in a Handbasket” are as frenetic and unhinged as the title suggests.

Hotel Artemis, which hits theatres on Friday, June 8, and is the directorial debut of Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce, stars Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Brian Tyree Henry, Charlie Day, and many more talented souls.

‘Psychological, Not Situational’

At a foundational level, “what passes for a theme in my book is something you can remember when you hear it again,” Martinez says. But it’s not enough to lazily lean on the same motif: “I had a music teacher who used to say ‘always give them the same thing but different’.”

For Hotel Artemis and other films he’s scored, Martinez has found that the test of a good theme is its versatility. If it’s one that he would use a lot, such as a theme for a main character, he tries to ensure it can work in a variety of circumstances the character would endure.

“Say it’s a suspenseful scene; can I take the theme and bend it up and make it work for a romantic scene?” Martinez said. “Can I make it work for a scene about revenge? Can it be reworked to accommodate for various situations?”

Perhaps even more important is the following concept: “To me, themes are psychological, not situational,” Martinez says.

cliff martinez hotel artemis

If a film calls for a character to do something mundane, such as the laundry or the dishes, Martinez writes beyond it.

“OK, he’s going to the laundry — that’s not the part that you score,” Martinez said. “[I’ll score] the psychological intent behind going to the laundry. I try to get into the character’s head.”

Martinez’s approach pairs well with Refn’s films, because the director often shoots scenes that have little or no dialogue. It could be a character driving a car from Point A to B, or going to an audition, or staring into space.

“Which is actually a great canvas to paint on,” Martinez says. “Some of the best stuff is when what the character is thinking is not obvious… and then people kind of look to the music to explain something like that.”

By scoring for psychology, it seems that Martinez is effectively the narrator of a Refn film.

“Nicolas is great for leaving deep holes to fill in,” he says.

The Blank Page

Composing music for a film isn’t easy, regardless of a composer’s means for executing their full vision or the scale of the score or scope of the film: a leaner electronic setup or a John Williams-level orchestral battalion both run up against some of the same challenges. There’s the tight turnaround, the logistics, the rewrites, and more. But a standout hurdle for Martinez is the early stage, with which anyone trying to create something can identify.

“I guess I’d say the blank page and those first few pieces of music are a big challenge,” he says.

He’ll take a broad outline of the score — assessing tone, style, harmonic vocabulary, which instruments he’ll use, and the placement of the music, he says.

“A lot of big decisions are made very early on,” Martinez says. “Those first big pieces of music you write kind of define the template for what you’re going to do for the rest of the film.”

That tight turnaround I mentioned before can be a gift. As evidence, let me offer an example and let Martinez offer another.

Martinez says each of the two seasons of The Knick — the Soderbergh-helmed, Clive Owen-starring Cinemax show set in 1900 in New York City — was basically a 10-hour film. But the fast-paced nature of television left him feeling like he didn’t have enough time. Regardless of that, Martinez crafted one of his best scores of his career, a hybrid synthetic and organic score with an anachronous quality that nevertheless was exactly what the show needed.

Martinez offered up Drive as an example in which time can “sometimes be your friend.” He only had five weeks to write and record the score — “… which is for me about as fast as it gets,” he says.

(The rapid-clip schedule owes to Martinez getting hired on later in the production, replacing Italians Do It Better head Johnny Jewel. For much more on the background on Drive, refer to Vehlinggo’s in-depth Drive interview with most of the soundtrack’s musicians, including Martinez.)

“In Drive, I thought I got lucky in that the first impulses really worked,” Martinez says. “There was no second-guessing and I just kind of went with my first impulse — the first take. Sometimes that can really work in your favor.”

Of course, this writer would concur that Martinez’s instincts on Drive were sound.

“In ‘Drive,’ I thought I got lucky in that the first impulses really worked.”

Going back to what was said earlier about the embryonic stage of the scoring process, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of those beginning steps.

“There’s a lot of pressure at the very beginning, particularly if the director is someone you haven’t worked with before — which is most of them,” Martinez says. But not all.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of ‘Too Old To Die Young,’ the Amazon series that marks the latest partnership between Refn and composer Cliff Martinez. They first worked together on ‘Drive.’

‘Invited in on the Ground Floor’

Martinez has scored dozens of films and, as he said, many for directors with which he hadn’t previously worked. There was Allan Moyle for 1990’s Pump Up the Volume; Paul McGuigan for 2004’s Wicker Park; Robert Redford for 2012’s The Company You Keep; and Harmony Korine for 2013’s Spring Breakers (along with Skrillex); and, of course, Pearce on Hotel Artemis. There are more.

But a significant proportion of his career’s work has been on films directed by Soderbergh and Refn.

“A great thing about Nicolas and Steven is that they would like to do something new and different each time and they take you along with them,” Martinez says. “You’re there at the very beginning… you get invited in on the ground floor.”

“That doesn’t happen a lot,” he continued. “A lot of times I get called when [a film is] already in post-production. A temp score has established a style and I happen to be in that temp score and [the filmmakers] want something similar.”

From their first collaboration in 1989 for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, to their most recent foray, The Knick, which ended its Cinemax run in 2015, Martinez scored 10 films and a TV show for Soderbergh, by this writer’s count.

Their deep, filmic relationship is one of mutual admiration. Soderberg told Rolling Stone in 2014, while promoting The Knick, that Martinez “always delivers. My belief in Cliff was total from the get-go. It’s been fun working with Cliff and watching his ideas expand.”

Martinez says he and Soderbergh have gotten to a point in which they almost don’t need to talk to each other, “not because we don’t get along, but… a bit of telepathy and creative shorthand begins to happen.”

After their initial film, Martinez and Soderbergh would go on to partner up for some compelling outings, such as 1993’s King of the Hill, 1999’s The Limey, 2000’s Traffic, 2002’s Solaris, and 2011’s Contagion. (Coincidentally, Martinez told me that, of his film music, Solaris “was one of my favorite scores and one of the few I can still stand to listen to.” Additionally, I might add, it’s also one of his best and most popular.)

The first film Martinez scored for Refn, Drive, also turned out to be one of Martinez’s most popular and renowned. Combined with the soundtrack’s pop songs from Kavinsky, Desire, College & Electric Youth, and Chromatics, along with Refn’s impeccable storytelling and the cast’s incredible talent, Martinez’s score was crucial in changing the life of this writer and many others I’ve met along the way. In a behind-the-scenes video Milan Records made for its release of The Neon Demon soundtrack, Refn elaborated on his relationship with Martinez.

“One of the things that really cemented Cliff’s brilliance — in Drive there was a part of the movie that needed to be tied together, and editorially it could only be taken to a certain extent,” Refn says in the video, “and Cliff was able to musically tie all of the strings together.”

The way Refn and Soderbergh work with Martinez during a film production lends itself to the composer getting a head start on understanding the characters and the story’s general direction. Certainly, with directors like Refn and Soderbergh, it can be tough to truly understand the nature of the film until something is shot, but nevertheless the script gives Martinez an idea on where to go. And along the way, the directors poll Martinez for his insight. Overall, they’re rewarding working relationships for the composer, and, it seems, the directors.

What Once Was Old Is New Again

In the 1980s, Martinez was able to get into film scoring because of technology and his fascination with it. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he’s perfected his craft, and one of the standout truths about this time is that technology has had a major impact on his work.

“I was really a drummer; I really couldn’t play a pitched instrument very well,” Martinez said. “I kind of noodled around on the keyboard. But the renaissance of computer-generated electronic music made it easy for people like me, who had decent instincts but no real technical facility on a musical instrument, to write music and compose.”

Over time, as music technology moved from hardware synths to digital audio workstations that used more and more comprehensive software, and ultimately to a point of being able to compose on a phone, tablet, or laptop — all with virtually unlimited options — some have said something was lost in the creative process. Creativity can sometimes suffer at the hands of unlimited options.

For Martinez, technology “became kind of a burden, because it was overwhelming to keep up with.”

But what’s old is new again, and Martinez and his contemporaries have over the years been moving back to hardware synthesizers, especially of the analog variety, and related gear. The zeitgeist has effectively set aside standard in-the-box (on a computer) composition and “put back into your hands a big block of steel and plastic knobs. It’s kind of more fun to twist around knobs than click around on a screen,” Martinez says.

There’s also an unpredictable quality that appeals to a musician like Martinez, who still retains his punk sentiments.

“Some of the hardware stuff is a little bit more dangerous in that you can really make some rude and ugly noise with it,” he says.

The score for Hotel Artemis has its share of that, helping to create moments befitting a noirish, dystopian story that largely centers on a criminal element.

But for Too Old To Die Young, Martinez is going even further away from the box and further into dark and unsettling places.

“I’m trying to be a little more unexpected,” he says. “I think that’s the one thing I really like in movies and really like in music is to have your expectations defied somewhat regularly.”

Too Old To Die Young isn’t Drive, it’s not Only God Forgives, it’s not The Neon Demon — “I’m not sure what it is,” Martinez says. “[Refn’s] style is unmistakable and mine probably is, too, as much as I try to break the mold.”

“I’m trying to capture some of that early mad scientist, early-days-of-synthesis feeling.”

For this show, he’s going back in time to find something new. He already tapped into electronic music of the ’80s with Drive, and so he’s going back further: for Too Old To Die Young Martinez is going back to ‘50s — think Forbidden Planet.

“I’m in some ways trying to reference the early days of synthesis,” he says. “In the early days, there were a lot of guys that were really kind of cerebral composers. They didn’t try to take these weird new instruments and make conventional music with it. They took weird new instruments and made even weirder music with it.”

“I’m trying to capture some of that early mad scientist, early-days-of-synthesis feeling,” Martinez says.

He has a theremin plugged into an amp in his bedroom — such an instrument, with its eerie, otherwordly bending pitch, is deeply associated with sci-fi thrillers of the Eisenhower era. It’s a tough instrument to play, because it relies on your touch-free and exacting hand movements. One false move and you’re off key.

“It’s very fussy, but it’s got a great kind of primitive electronic sound,” he says. “I’m gonna try to shoehorn that into the score in one way or another.”

He’s also taking advantage of the added space in his new home by bringing in more acoustic/organic instruments along with people to sing.

“I’m embracing the wild and crazy concept of mics and human beings playing real instruments, and combining that with the electronic stuff,” he said. While The Knick had a certain expression of the dichotomy, expect more of it this time.

Over the course of his career, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee  has consistently defied expectations about what a film score or a character’s theme should be. He’s played soft when the scene was hard, and atonal when a viewer was expecting something more melodic. He’s teamed up with Skrillex, used synthesizers to score a show set in 1900, and, with Hotel Artemis, played poundingly bombastic when people associate the principles of stark atmospherics with his work.

Even if Martinez is constantly defying expectations — with great artistic benefit to society — there’s one thing you can rely on: he’s not going to be content to do the same thing twice or give you a conventional score.

“… The Weirdos, The Dickies, The Chili Peppers — our whole ethic was if you’re not pissing some people off with your music, then you’re probably not trying very hard or doing anything very interesting. I can’t think of too many people who are the equivalent of the Sex Pistols in film music, but every once in a while I feel like I should try.”

Hotel Artemis Original Motion Picture Soundtrack will be available from Lakeshore Records in digital stores on June 8, the same day the film hits theatres. A CD follows shortly thereafter. The vinyl release is coming in August.


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