When talking about composers that currently have very high stock, Cliff Martinez is certainly up there. With new series The Knick getting rave reviews, Cliff talked to us about scoring for TV and how much coffee it made him drink…
Charlie Brigden: Hi Cliff! How are you doing?
Cliff Martinez: Good, good.
CB: Have you unwrapped your Drive LP yet?
CM: I’ve unwrapped it, I haven’t played it, and my turntable remains unconnected, my brand new USB turntable is collecting dust I’m afraid. And I’m amassing a very large vinyl collection I must say, since Drive I’ve got Solaris, Arbitrage, Only God Forgives seven inch special record store day etched copy [laughs], but no, I haven’t played any vinyl. Although oddly I did a record signing at a record store in Silver Lake [in LA] for Only God Forgives, and I pretty much asked everybody if they owned a turntable, and at least half the people said no. People just like to have these things regardless [laughs].
CB: So, The Knick – How did you and Steven Soderbergh decide on the anachronistic tone of the score?
CM: Well, I can’t take any credit for that idea, it came pretty much by way of a rough cut of several episodes with music from Drive, Contagion, Spring Breakers, and Only God Forgives used as temporary music while they’re editing. I didn’t even have a conversation with Steven prior to getting these episodes, so I looked at a few and first it seemed like it was kind of a risky idea, I mean an idea that had the possibility of being a bad idea, or at least I thought. So I don’t know how the idea came about, I assumed it came from Steven, maybe it was one of his producers, or maybe he had been watching Chariots of Fire. It felt suspicious at first, but honestly now after about three episodes that was the appropriate character for the show. And had he come to me asking me to do music that was influenced by the period – the progressive music of the period might have been ragtime or something – if I had tried to do something like that I no doubt would’ve fallen on my face and it probably wouldn’t have come to me at all, so I guess it all worked out.
CB: I suppose you could have put some almost-subliminal Scott Joplin in there.
CM: Maybe! I think about the only thing that I thought of being of the period was, well I was trying to think of the sound of the period, and I kept thinking of the musical instrument the Calliope, so there were some electronic synthesisers and the Baschet cristal, that kind of reminded me of this old fashioned sound. But beyond that, I didn’t make much of an effort to conjure up the period. I’ve done two period films with Steven – one was King of the Hillset in 1933, and in that there was a fair amount of people that had record players so there was source music, there were people listening to music. But this is 1900, I don’t think anybody had a record player, so there is nobody driving past you with the radio turned on. There’s a piano playing down the hall in the brothel, someone practising piano in one of the morning house, and there’s the one vocal piece in episode nine or ten, but aside from that it’s all kind of this tinkertoy Kraftwerkian electronic music.
CB: It’s the Cliff sound.
CM: Well yeah, I couldn’t help but do anything but. Fortunately that’s what Steven wanted and we made it work.
CB: Going back to time periods, is there any kind of music of a period you’re interested in personally?
CM: I went through a period of really being obsessed with the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, which were from like the late twenties to the early thirties, mostly because of him as an artist and the style of music that he created. I suppose there’s something about how people covet vinyl and I think it’s partly because of the medium, the sound, the scratches, the surface noise, it kind of evokes a bygone era to a lot of people. And there is something about old 78 [rpm] recordings and acoustic recordings where it wasn’t electronically recorded, there is something about that sound that takes you back in time. I think that’s about the only thing I can think about, although when I was a kid, one of my first records was Meet The Beatles, but I also inherited a record collection from my mother that were 78’s and the minute you put them on, they just transported you to an earlier generation. I do have a fascination with stuff that just sounds old.
CB: How different is it scoring for TV versus film?
CM: The biggest difference for me was just the speed with which you have to get everything out. I had a running start with an advanced warning where I had the scripts, but at a certain point it had to be a one-hour show a week for ten weeks, and I consumed a lot of coffee to just work at that pace. That was the most distinguishing feature of episodic television, but the other thing is that it’s a ten-hour movie, and I think that presented a few unique challenges – I remember my agent told me it would be simple becuase they’ll hire a music editor and you’ll just cut and paste all your themes and recycle all your music and it won’t be writing that much. While I did found I did re-use a lot of material, I didn’t use it verbatim very often, so there was always the challenge to rewrite a new piece of music utilising the same material, same sounds, chord progression and melody, but it had to suit a different situation. Now I’ve never gotten to kind of exploit and reuse so much music before, but it’s a rewarding challenge. And then there’s the sprawl of it. Clive Owen’s character Thackery is the central character but there’s a lot of subplots, more so than a feature film, that you have to design music for, so that was a little more spread out. But really, for years I kind of looked down my nose at television and now we’re in a period of Homeland and Breaking Bad and The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and House of Cards and television has really become a pretty formidable artistic force, so it was a little intimidating to me, I knew there was a lot of great television out there know and it felt to me that I couldn’t slump it off, I couldn’t mass produce, I really had to take the same care and attention for a ten-hour movie that I did for a two-hour movie.
CB: A lot of composers are now going back to TV, so was the ablity to develop music over a longer time frame an attraction?
CM: Was that an attraction? Well, I’m going to have to take a really deep breath before I do it again [laughs]. I’ve passed on a couple of TV shows immediately following The Knick because I was just exhausted, but I guess there’s gonna be a second season and I hope to do it, but yeah, I’d think twice before committing – I have a couple of composer friends that do multiple TV shows and I just don’t see how they’re able to do it and have any hair left.
CB: One thing I picked up on having only just seen the pilot is the lack of music in the operating theatre scenes. Was there ever any to and fro as to whether there should be music in there?
CM: What the surgeries?
CM: In fact, that was actually the first thing I tackled. Steven had indicated where he wanted music in his rough cuts of the series. But usually, Steven starts out with the music being used very sparingly, and then as I start to write the music a fifteen- minute score turns into a forty-minute score, and so the first few episodes that I had had very little music in them, and I of course just thought that the big important scenes were these gruesome surgeries, so I wrote music for them and it didn’t get used, it got used elsewhere. But yeah, I always thought that was the place for the music, but I think a lot of them are very effective without music as well. I think one of the very first pieces I did was the opening ‘Placenta Previa’ moment, I had a four-minute piece of music for that, I think it was the first piece I wrote, and that piece never got used there, but we certainly got a lot of mileage for it being used elsewhere, in fact it’s used for the opening scene with Thackery in the carriage shooting cocaine, that used to be the music for the surgery.
CB: I notice that’s the first piece on the album. Was it more difficult compiling a record from ten hours of footage or so as opposed to the one or two hours in a film?
CM: Yeah, from a standpoint that you have to kill your young. Usually I’m lucky to have forty or fifty minutes of music that’s presentable for a soundtrack, but for The Knick it was somewhere around three hours of music. So yeah, I had to throw a lot of stuff away, but Milan are going to release a double-vinyl LP for the finale of the season, so there will be eighty minutes of music for those hardcore score fanatics.
CB: It’s funny because we’ve just had Hannibal come out, and season one has two volumes, and season two has two volumes of Brian Reitzell’s music. There seems to be a real demand for these scores.
CM: People have to be pretty excited about it to do that, for me personally I don’t have much of an attention span for listening to a film score, my limit is about thirty minutes. I actually liked the days of the LP’s, where you listened to something from beginning to end for about twenty minutes, that’s about the ideal length for me. But I thought fifty plus minutes was just about right for The Knick, and I pretty much used the greatest hits, but the double vinyl will be cool too.
CB: Going back to the surgeries, were you grossed out at all?
CM: Only for about the first five hundred viewings [laughs]. I watched this stuff so much that every frame, every molecule of the film is with me, but I guess the first time, yeah. I remember I was showing it to a friend of mine because I was very proud of the music I had done for the opening surgery, and she got all of five seconds into it and they pulled back the sheet and showed her belly and the knife comes out, and she goes “Alright, turn it off,” [laughs] and that happened a couple of times, a couple of people who I wanted to show off to refused to watch the scene, so I guess I’m insensitive in some ways. It doesn’t really bother me. I knew that was one of the intentions of the show though, to put people on edge. The Knick kind of has this hardcore speed, it really accelerates towards the climax of the season, and the series and the music gets better towards the end I think.
CB: The first episode was superb, and your music had a great texture, even where the music we now know isn’t written for certain scenes. Like the first cue, there’s a real evocative feel of the high from the cocaine Thackery is taking.
CM: I guess that speaks to the idea that there’s a high to be gotten when you perform surgery, I don’t know but I think the exhilaration and power of the life and death situations and the superhuman power that mainlining cocaine gives you. To a degree, I tried to get into character but I didn’t do any cocaine, but I gotta say in part because of the gruelling schedule, but I did drink an awful lot of coffee just to keep up with the pace.
CB: It’s always big news when Steven says he’s going to stop making movies, was it nice to see him come back with this?
CM: I don’t have any comment on that, he’s never said anything to me about it and as far as I know that’s like the press jumping to conclusions. He’s never said to me that he’s gonna take some time off, I mean he didn’t even slow down really, I can’t remember, but during that period when that was sort of out there that he was retiring, I think he did Beneath The Candelabra, Magic Mike, The Bitter Pill (Side Effects), Contagion, and now The Knick, so I don’t know what that was about.
CB: Maybe it’s because he “only” did four films and they thought he was slowing down.
CM: Yeah, exactly. He needed time to do some extra things like sleep and eat or something, I don’t know [laughs] but he’s signed on to direct ten episodes of the second season so, so much for retirement, and he’s also overseeing Magic Mike 2 at the moment.
CB: Is that going to be all needledrop again?
CM: I haven’t been invited to score it, so I guess it’s gonna be another songfest. But I don’t know too much about it.
CB: So what’s next for you after a ton of sleep?
CM: I’m working on a video game called [REDACTED], I’ve never completed a video game score before, the first video game I did was called Criminal and the company went bankrupt, and I’d worked on that for about a year. The second video game was called Spore and I got fired and replaced with Brian Eno, which to me is like your girlfriend cheating on you with Brad Pitt, I was completely okay with that. The video game I’m working on now I’ve been doing for about a year now, and the incubation period for video games goes on forever, but that’s the next thing. I’m doing some commercials by Nicolas Winding Refn for a new car by Lincoln starring Matthew McConaughey, so we’re very excited about that. This is the year of branching out, I’ve been doing video games, commercials, and television, oh and I did some ringtones so I’ve sold out.
CB: I don’t think many people would blame you!
CM: Well, you know. Gotta pay the rent.