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Cliff Martinez: Drummer As A Composer

cliff martinez

“Music at its best does the thing that only music can do, and that is to express the inexpressible. I don’t how music works, why it works, why you can listen to a piece of music over and over and always get something out of it – you can’t do that with a book or a movie. And when you’re really firing on all cylinders, that’s what the music contributes to a film.”

The art of film music made a quantum jump when composer Cliff Martinez made his big-screen scoring debut with the pulsing rhythms and otherworldly tones of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 Sex, Lies And Videotape. Martinez, who’d previously served as a drummer with rock and punk bands including Red Hot Chili Peppers; The Weirdos; and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, brought a pleasingly strange new tonality to his soon-to-be heavily influential scores, often derived from a plethora of exotic percussion instruments such as giant steel drums and Indonesian gamelans. His artfully minimal aesthetic of simple, haunting melodies and subtly dense harmonic textures has graced a legion of other high-profile Hollywood films, including Soderbergh’s Traffic, Wonderland, Solaris, and Contagion, and recent releases including Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, scored in collaboration with Skrillex.

And all of it is informed by his origins as a drummer …

DRUM!: When did you begin to play drums? How did you learn?
CLIFF MARTINEZ: I started around fourth grade, when I was 12. The public school had encouraged all the kids to take music instruction in anticipation of fifth-grade orchestra. My parents asked what I would like to play, and I had recently seen The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, so I said “guitar.” They took me to the local music store, who said, “We don’t have a guitar teacher,” so I said, “Okay, how about drums?” [laughs]

We all recall our first drum sets with love and affection. What was yours?
Gretsch drums, black pearl, 20" bass drum, 14" x 14" and 12" x 13" toms, just a 20" K Zildjian ride cymbal at first. So it was the Tony Williams setup, which is exactly what I have now, except the kick drum is an 18", and that’s so I can put them in the closet! [laughs] And they’re portable. Early on, one of my drum heroes was Tony Williams, so I still have the 20" K Zildjian ride cymbal – I can’t play like Tony Williams at all, but I still like that sound.

What did you like about Tony Williams?
If you took a young kid to see a drummer play, they would see Tony Williams and that would make him want to become a drummer. And like Buddy Rich, who had his own big band that toured when he was 11, Tony Williams was one of those prodigies – he was, what, 17 when he played with Miles Davis? His talent surfaced very young, and there’s something profound about his ability on that instrument. Plus, he played with Miles Davis, so he had some pretty good associates, too.

Any kid who heard the way Tony Williams played that kick drum would get into it.
Actually, my initial spark to play came from The Beatles and British Invasion bands, but my teacher was a jazz guy, so he always emphasized that style of drumming. If you play drums you’re drawn to guys that are the best, and even though I wasn’t that much of a jazz player, those were the drummers that really impressed me. I thought Joe Morello was a lot more interesting than Ringo Starr.

Another key experience: The local drum store would host visiting “Ludwig Clinicians,” and one of the first guys I saw was Joe Morello. I dragged my dad to the clinic two hours early so I could sit in front. Well, for about 15 years, in the back of the Ludwig catalog, there was an ad that said “Ludwig Clinicians,” with a picture of Gary Burton and a couple other drummer guys, and then it had a picture of Joe Morello shot from the back showing this big audience, and there’s me in the front row, looking dumbfounded – and my dad looking like he’s asleep. [Laughs]

Eventually you made your way to California, where you played in bands including The Weirdos, The Dickies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
Beefheart was the top of the resume for me; that was the Gary Cooper/High Noon music moment of my life. He was one of my musical idols, along with Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix – probably even more so.

How did Beefheart impact your playing? How much of your individual style were you able to put into his music?
There was a tradition of Beefheart-style drumming, down through his previous players Drumbo and Art Tripp, and I had studied that and knew it, so I don’t think I brought a lot of my own personality, though I did have a fair amount of freedom to interpret his ideas about the drums. Sometimes he would say something as vague as, “I want it to sound like giant blue babies meditating over the mountaintops – you know, like Fred Asparagus?” And then you’re kind of, like, on your own. [laughs]

But he often made reference to other compositions; he would say, “You know the beat from ’I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go?’ Just play it backward.” And then on a lot of material on that album [Ice Cream For Crow, 1982] there was a drum track that was already in place that was created by Drumbo, then rerecorded by Robert Williams, then Beefheart gave it to me to do again. I was always thinking about the history of Beefheart drumming in everything that I did in that band. I didn’t try to bring in my Joe Morello influence. [laughs]

What did you learn from playing with Beefheart?
The Beefheart thing was highly specialized, but there was nowhere you could go with it. I had a band for a while called Two Balls And A Bat, where I tried to continue that style, but as Captain Beefheart once said, “What can another artist learn from me? Maybe how to not make money.” I think he understood that what he had was very uncommercial. But the way he thought about and created music is still an influence on me today. Basically, he took his first impulse and chiseled it into something that was initially spontaneous and primitive, and said, “That’s the album.” That’s the way he did Trout Mask Replica; he sat at the piano for the first time, and for a short period of time, and wrote the entire album.

I’ve approached film scoring in a similar way: There’s a lot of instruments that I can’t really play, but I’ll make some noise with them and eventually sculpt it into something.

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