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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Making the transition from Beefheart’s Magic Band to other, more conventional bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers must have required major readjustments.
By the time I got out of the Magic Band, I was pretty jaded, and nothing seemed to be very interesting to me. Then the punk rock thing came along, and that did interest me. Punk rock, I knew, had to be loud, aggressive and Neanderthal; the Chili Peppers was like that, except funneled punk rock energy into a rap/funk style. Flea and I both were punk rock scholars – I had been playing with The Weirdos, he was playing with Fear – so we both had that in common, and initially the punk rock thing was a big influence.

You’ve had a longtime interest in MIDI percussion instruments and drum machines.
For my film scores, I often use the drum KAT MIDI percussion controller, but I don’t really try to play the “drum set” sound per se, because it doesn’t sound quite the same. But I’ll play a lot of melodic things or other percussive things. I love playing pitched things with drum sticks. That’s a lot of fun.

Along with gamelans and other non-traditional “real” instruments, your film scores often feature steel drums, which you’ve used in almost every score since Solaris.
I’ve got 18 of them in the house, in three different rooms.

But you’re using the steel drums in odd ways, often to the point where one couldn’t identify the source of the sound as a steel drum. How are you processing them?
My favorite thing to use on the steel drums is the filter delay, which makes the lines and rhythms more complex, and creates a harmony as well, like the Edge does with his guitar work in U2. I have bass steel drums, too, and sometimes I’ll EQ one of them a little bit differently to bring out the metallic sound, and I’ll emphasize the bass so it has a warmer, lower frequency. Other than that, I don’t like to disguise the steel drums with too much processing, because they’re organic instruments. I do a lot of stuff with electronic instruments, like soft synths, so when I do use something that’s a genuine acoustic instrument, I like to leave it fairly exposed as an acoustic instrument.

You mentioned the unfamiliar harmonies that steel drums produce with electronic filtering. Does the gamelan offer similar effects?
The gamelan is often shaped something like a vibraphone or tubular bells; I have one with round bars and one with flat bars. I use the gamelans a bit more to outline melodies, and I process them a lot more than the steel drums. One of my favorite tricks with the gamelan is to electronically take off the attacks, so all you have is the ringing tone; I mike them very close, remove the transient, and get an ethereal, sustaining texture. I used that and other effects in my score for Solaris.

How much freedom do you have to express your individuality in a Hollywood film score?
A great deal, I think, although oftentimes the style or approach is dialed in by the director or picture editor who has cut in other music to edit the film to, because it’s very difficult to edit a film with zero music. Soderbergh, though, always challenges you – he’ll cut his film to the music of John Williams, and then ask me to do John Williams in my own way. Or, like with Contagion, he put in Don Ellis’ score from The French Connection.

So many film scores are literal-minded, as if the goal is simply to amplify what the images onscreen are conveying. How does a film composer avoid that redundancy?
It depends on what the film seems to need. Sometimes you do just magnify what’s there, if what’s there isn’t convincing or isn’t believable, or isn’t there in the right amount. If you’re trying to do something that’s intended to function as suspense and there isn’t enough suspense there on the screen without the music, then your job is to emphasize that intention.

But film music is more interesting when you don’t need to be repetitive, when the images are sufficient to convey what the dramatic intention is, and the music gets to do something different. Spring Breakers is a good example of a film where I used the music to create contrasting intentions or emotions. A lot of the scenes in Spring Breakers were intended to be shocking or threatening, and I used the music to iron out that threat or even remove some it.

You and Skrillex collaborated on the Spring Breakers score. While you wrote the more ambient, moody instrumentals, Skrillex did his trademarked electronic freakbeat type of thing. Did your individual styles rub off on each other?
We collaborated on several levels. Skrillex was brought in to contribute to the score before I was, and he had several songs that were signature pieces in the film, such as “Scary Monsters And Night Sprites,” one of his more well-known pieces. When I heard that in the opening scene, I thought, That’s the blueprint. So I took some of that song’s chord changes and melody, and scattered them throughout the score that I did. There were a lot of scenes that Skrillex scored on his own, and there were some scenes that I scored on my own, but we both had to keep in mind that we were trying to make not a schizophrenic soundtrack but a cohesive one, that stylistically all the material had to complement the other material.

You’ve recently scored Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep. How much input did he have with the film’s music?
Robert Redford was very hands-on and very astute about the music, as you can imagine, being the icon of filmmaking that he is. I’m a big fan of his movies, one of which was All The President’s Men, which Steven Soderbergh actually referred me to as a reference point for Contagion. I watched All The President’s Men, and [laughs] there must have been, like, ten minutes of music in the whole film, and I thought, That’s so Steven. But shortly thereafter I met Robert Redford and I asked him about that score, and he said, “Oh, that was such a shame, I really wanted more music in it but I didn’t have enough time to work with the composer. So he did it all on his own, and when it came time to mix I didn’t feel that much of it was appropriate, so there wasn’t much music that ended up in the film.” But Redford and I worked together very closely. He flew me out to Santa Fe for three or four weeks running, where they were editing the film, and I would bring about a half-dozen pieces of music and we would go over it. Then he changed the base of operations to L.A., and I was thrilled to have him come out to my house here in Topanga and we would get together once a week.

You’ve used your drummer’s unique facility for hearing and playing new timbres and tonalities to create film music that sounds gloriously unclichéd. Could it be your drummer’s ears that have pointed the way?
The most important thing I got from playing drums that I was able to bring with me into the world of film composing is the mindset of an accompanist: There’s no great band in the world that has a lousy drummer, and that the drummer’s job is to make everybody else look and sound good. And that’s how it is with film music: The music should not draw attention to itself; the music is supportive of the story. Some people never get that through their heads [laughs], but I did right away. That’s probably why the music I do is so stark and minimal, and leaves a small dramatic footprint.