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Still from The Neon Demon

Soundtracking Nicolas Winding Refn’s new supermodel horror

Cliff Martinez, the man behind the music of Drive and Spring Breakers, tells us about his punk past and how he scored The Neon Demon

Cliff Martinez is one of the most distinctive composers working in Hollywood right now. In recent years he’s crafted the acclaimed scores for films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, mixing abstract, ambient sound designs with pulsing, electronic drums and visceral sub-bass, but his career actually extends back to the 1980s, where he took a pretty unconventional route into Hollywood.

Starting out in the Los Angeles punk scene, by the middle of the 80s Martinez had played drums for a score of influential underground acts, from first-wave punks The Weirdos to underground icon Lydia Lunch and avant-garde pioneer Captain Beefheart. He ended up joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their early years, playing on their first two albums before being fired – a blessing in disguise, as it was after these events that he first entered the world of film composing.

His first job was creating an unorthodox soundtrack for an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a surrealist children’s show that often invited renowned experimental musicians to work on it. Later, he collaborated Steven Soderbergh (at the time an up-and-coming indie filmmaker) on his first feature film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which would be the start of a creative partnership that’s lasted for ten separate projects and is still going strong today.

The only other director that Martinez shares a similar bond with is Nicolas Winding Refn, who brought Martinez to the attention of a new generation of audiences with their work together on films like Drive and Only God Forgives. Martinez’s most recent score is for Refn’s The Neon Demon, a satirical horror that follows an aspiring model through the dark underbelly of the LA entertainment industry. Speaking in a central London hotel ahead of The Neon Demon’s release, Martinez discussed his experiences in the punk scene, his early fascination with music technology, and the nature of his relationship with Refn.

Coming from a punk-rock background, how did you develop an interest in electronic music and music technology?

Cliff Martinez: I think ground zero was the first Chili Peppers album. The producer, Andy Gill (of UK post-punk band Gang of Four), wanted to replace me with a drum machine on one of the tracks. He introduced me to the LinnDrum machine and asked me to learn how to program it. It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘I’m a dinosaur. I’m gonna be extinct shortly.’ At the same time, I was kind of amazed by the machine, and I realised I’d have to evolve or perish.

Why did he want you to play it?

Cliff Martinez: He had a fascination for it. He had done the fourth Gang of Four album, and it really had that Human League, European techno beat. I think he just liked that sound – it was part of an emerging musical fashion that he was embracing. The machine impressed me; I’ve always been a gadget freak. Later, in ’88, I bought one of the earliest budget sampling keyboards and one of the first sequencers. I was just fascinated by this stuff. There was no application for it in the Chili Peppers, who detested music technology and electronics, so I kind of went my own way with it. And at the time, it seemed like all those tools pointed you in an experimental direction.

And you were always involved in the experimental music world too, playing with people like Jim Thirlwell and Lydia Lunch.

Cliff Martinez: I was drawn to the people who didn’t know how to make money in music, like Captain Beefheart and Jim Thirlwell and Lydia Lunch. I was drawn to the fringes of popular music back then. The Los Angeles music scene embraced things that were avant-garde or unusual. I mean, Jim and Lydia weren’t from LA, but there were a lot of other experimental groups, electronic or not, that thrived in Los Angeles. They never got rich, they never made famous records or famous videos, but there was a lot of it going around. I had a band called Two Balls & A Bat, which was me, a guitar player and a second drummer, and we played with a Roland TB-303 bass machine...

“Los Angeles had an interesting music scene. The punk-rock movement opened the way to more avant-garde, adventurous things that never achieved any kind of commercial success” — Cliff Martinez

...which obviously became quite an important instrument in acid house.

Cliff Martinez: Yeah, but not in the way we were using it! We hooked it up to an Arp Odyssey (synthesiser), had double drums, guitar and some singing. I wouldn’t say we were popular, but we played for a decent crowd. Los Angeles had an interesting music scene. The punk-rock movement opened the way to more avant-garde, adventurous things that never achieved any kind of commercial success – although Devo might be the best example of a commercial band (emerging from the avant-garde scene).

One of your earliest jobs was on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo also worked on that, as well as Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo. All of you guys were making pretty subversive music at the time, and now you’re all successful film composers. How did you end up getting that gig?

Cliff Martinez: When I got into it, the director was Stephen Johnson – he directed Peter Gabriel’s ‘Big Time’ and ‘Sledgehammer’ videos and was a pretty adventurous guy. He was friends with the Chili Peppers; that was my connection to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. My guess was he did the episodes where you had The Residents, Mitchell Froom and Mark Mothersbaugh (composing the music). They just seemed to deliberately want to have an eclectic approach to the show. Why they chose to go that way, I don’t know – but (it was) good for me, because they let me do one episode and that was what started the whole thing for me. I think Danny Elfman was destined to be an 800lb gorilla in Hollywood, (but) I certainly never would’ve foreseen Mark Mothersbaugh going mainstream. It was still unusual for rockers to be dominating film music at the time.

Do you think you’d have ended up working in the film industry without having had that early room to experiment?

Cliff Martinez: Probably not. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was wide open to experimentation. But so was Soderbergh, to a degree – much more than other directors I’ve worked with. I think if I’d been asked to score television sitcoms or a soap opera or something, I’d have probably got discouraged and dropped out. So yeah, my early experiences welcomed and encouraged an experimental approach, and I think that’s what encouraged me to continue.

You’ve done a lot of films with Soderbergh and Refn. Is there an advantage to working with a regular collaborator?

Cliff Martinez: Definitely. My favourite scores are Refn and Soderbergh scores for that reason. Steven only hires me for things he thinks I’m good for, and so far I’ve been good at those. A creative shorthand does take place. I guess for me, the most important thing is having the support and confidence of a director – they don’t ask you back if you don’t have that. Both of those guys want something that’s… I wouldn’t say experimental, but certainly atypical of what comes out of Hollywood. And that means everything to me, because if I tried to sound like everybody else in Hollywood, I’d probably embarrass myself.

Have you ever tried?

Cliff Martinez: Yeah, in some of my earlier films I felt like I was obliged to try and sound normal. It didn’t work.

What’s your working relationship like with Nicolas Winding Refn now that you’ve done a few films together?

Cliff Martinez: It feels like we talk a lot less. There’s a bit of a shorthand, where we’ve got a bag of tricks to draw on. Nicolas will say, ‘I liked that bit you did with the plastic pig mask and the hard-boiled egg, just give me one of those.’ So the familiarity moves things along. We also try to do something different every time. He always says, ‘We’re gonna try something totally different – completely different to Drive.’ And then we do something that’s, like, 80 per cent different. I don’t think either one of us is capable of reinventing themselves 100 per cent, but we always have that intention. We know that our tricks and devices are effective.

Refn often leaves a lot of space in his films for the music to dictate a scene.

Cliff Martinez: I never did a nine-minute sequence until Drive. To me, three minutes was the longest I’d ever done.

“Nicolas is one of the only directors that’s courageous enough to leave a film in a state of incompletion knowing that it’ll be completed by music” — Cliff Martinez

Do you get a lot of freedom there? Does he talk to you about what he wants for those nine minutes, or is he relatively hands-off?

Cliff Martinez: He was probably more hands-off with me on Demon than he was on previous films. What’s unusual about Nicolas is that very few directors will cut a scene that’s in a state of incompletion that’ll be completed with music – (a scene) that’s really long, with no dialogue, that feels like it’s going on forever. Nicolas is one of the only directors that’s courageous enough to leave a film in a state of incompletion knowing that it’ll be completed by music. Of course, you could screw it up and not do it right, and sometimes that happens, but for the most part he welcomes the large role that he affords to music. Most directors want the thing to be complete without the music, and the music is something that’s added on – but with Nicolas, the music is integral.

Do you see your music as complementing the film? Or is it something that has to stand on its own when heard outside of that context?

Cliff Martinez: No, I don’t really enjoy film soundtrack music. I don’t have many soundtrack records because for the most part it’s designed to accompany something. And if you take away that accompaniment, images to dialogue, usually it feels incomplete – and I include my own music in that category. I think it’s really tied to the film.

Do you make music for yourself any more?

Cliff Martinez: No. Singer-songwriters are just getting clobbered by the music industry. Illegal downloading made the idea of an album impossible to make money with. I think film composers are the last frontiers of guys who receive a cheque for musical services. When people say, ‘Do you wanna make an album?’, I just say ‘What’s in it for me?’ I can’t think of any reason to do it. I do have leftovers from films, and maybe I’ll throw it all into an incoherent album release. I play instruments, but I wouldn’t sit down to try to write great music without any stick or carrot going on.

The Neon Demon is out in UK cinemas on July 8