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The Sound of Violence

Cliff Martinez isn’t a big name, but as the composer on much of Steven Soderbergh’s and Nicolas Winding Refn’s work—and most recently, his TV series ‘Too Old to Die Young’—his impact is immeasurable

Getty Images/Film District/Amazon/Ringer illustration

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the score glides. It shimmers. A steady octave pulses, a stand-in for the getaway driver’s heartbeat as he glances between his wristwatch and the door of a building. Eight years later, in Refn’s latest project, Too Old to Die Young, the sonic palette is noticeably more extravagant, as scenes of brutal violence are accompanied by a glitzy piano run straight out of Liberace’s catalog. Cliff Martinez, the go-to composer of filmmakers like Refn and Steven Soderbergh, is trying to become a maximalist.

“I often get these compliments like ‘This score was so good, I didn’t know that there was any,’” Martinez tells me over the phone. “I don’t want to be taken for granted—to be the guy that gets so far out of the way that you don’t even know that there’s any music there.”

To be honest, though, nobody’s taken Martinez for granted since 2011. That year he scored Soderberg’s Contagion, a horrifying thriller about a global pandemic, and Refn’s breakthrough hit, Drive. The first had a breathless electronic pulse, rippling with distorted drums and radioactive synthesizers punctuated by orchestral swells. Drive put Martinez on the map for even more people. In between songs like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” and College’s “A Real Hero,” he placed a retro-synth score as cool and shiny as the neon-soaked streets of Los Angeles. In no time, he was a mainstay inside subwoofers.

“Nicolas, I think, demands a more maximalist approach,” says Martinez. “I never really like to think about the music as a stand-alone listening experience, like a CD or a soundtrack download, but I found that the maximalist stuff makes for a sexier soundtrack.”

In the near decade since, Martinez’s sound has exploded across the big and small screens—making teen crime sexy in Spring Breakers, transforming turn-of-the-century operating rooms into synthwave nightclubs in The Knick, and accompanying Refn’s increasingly maximum dive into stylish shock-and-awe with equally provocative music. Martinez may not have the name recognition of a Hans Zimmer or a Trent Reznor, but his impact—on scores and music as a whole—is perhaps as large. And his work in Refn’s TV series Too Old to Die Young, which premiered last Friday on Amazon, is his latest masterpiece.

It took Martinez the better part of a year to score Refn’s languid epic about a homicidal L.A. cop played by Miles Teller. On TV, “You have to kind of pace yourself so you don’t get burned out creatively, or burned out energetically,” Martinez says. “I find that you have to treat it as a 10-hour, or 12-hour, or 15-hour movie. The challenge is to develop and elaborate on existing themes and keep everything cohesive throughout the entire show.” Thankfully, Refn is on a similar wavelength in terms of how he sees Too Old to Die Young. Though that didn’t make the work any less laborious. “I did kind of tell Nicolas,” Martinez laughs, “I’d rather he do a feature film.”

Born in the Bronx in 1954, Martinez and his family moved to the quiet suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, where he spent the rest of childhood. It was a pretty basic life in the heart of Americana—which is probably why he ended up the way he did. “I have a not-well-thought-out theory about people that grow up in what are thought of as culturally uninteresting places,” says Martinez. “I think if you have sort of idiosyncratic tendencies, they are magnified by that environment, because you don’t find like-minded people readily. You just get weirder and more eccentric.”

Like seemingly every other musician his age, Martinez was activated by the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He knew right away he wanted to be a Beatle, though drumming wasn’t an immediate urge—he didn’t necessarily want to be Ringo. But fate stepped in when Martinez’s parents took him to the local music store and he asked the owner if he could learn guitar. “They said, ‘Well, we don’t have a guitar instructor here,’” Martinez recalls. “I thought for a second, and I said, ‘How about drums?’ ‘Yeah, we have a drum teacher.’ So it was really kind of random.”

Random, but irresistible. After drumming his way through high school, he moved to L.A. in the late ’70s and joined the punk scene. Rotating through a parade of local bands, he found spots on a larger stage banging the beat for the likes of Captain Beefheart and the Weirdos before eventually landing a steady gig with the Chili Peppers. He played on their first two albums and in the meantime discovered the magic of music technology in the form of the E-mu SP-12, a drum-sampling machine. “I would invite friends over and we’d make rude body noises, and then cut them up and sample them and then put them on a drum machine,” he says.

With his newfound “gizmos,” Martinez started making wacky, experimental music that didn’t fit anywhere in the increasingly commercial-sounding Chili Peppers. One day, though, he caught an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse on TV and realized the show could be a perfect home for his weird sound. Stephen Johnson, a music video director and friend of the band, made an introduction, and Martinez composed his very first score for a 1987 episode titled “Why Wasn’t I Invited?”

One person who saw that episode was a Louisianan director preparing to make his first feature on a shoestring budget. Sex, Lies, and Videotape—which starred Andie MacDowell, James Spader, and Peter Gallagher in a grown-up tale encapsulated by its title—launched Soderbergh’s career and the indie film genre as we know it. “I remember him calling me after seeing the Pee-wee episode and saying, ‘This’ll be perfect for my next movie,’” Martinez told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I got a rough cut of the film and called him and said, ‘It looks great, but I don’t think this Pee-wee style stuff is going to work.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, no, we’ll do something different.’”

“It was really a case of ‘Well, I need a composer. Oh, I met this guy that wants to be a composer, why don’t we hire him?’” said Soderbergh. “He was the only person I knew who wanted to do that.”

Per Soderbergh’s direction, Martinez abandoned his rhythmic inclinations, and composed a score in the vein of Brian Eno’s ambient minimalism with some remnants from his sample-happy playhouse. “Steven has a very unique aesthetic, and a very unique philosophy about music, and that kind of rubbed off on me—the whole ‘less is more’ aesthetic,” says Martinez. “He’s a big surpriser. He definitely wants to defy your expectations more frequently than fulfill them. He’s kind of punk rock in the sense that he kind of has a disdain for mainstream Hollywood. I came to music through punk rock, [which] was more about what it didn’t like and what it was against than what it was for.”

After Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Martinez realized that his left-of-center sound would always be more fit for film than radio; still, his metamorphosis into a film composer was gradual. For a while, he still felt like an imposter. “I realized I was under-equipped in many ways,” he laughs. “I mean, it’s one thing to be distinctive and have your own voice, and it’s another to achieve that voice by subtraction. You know, by limitation rather than by choice. So I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence.”

There’s a noble tradition of rockers and poppers making the transition to film scoring—from James Bond composer John Barry, who started out in a rock band, to synth wizard Vangelis, who won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982. Martinez arrived in cinema just a few years after another former punk—Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman, who also got his start by scoring a Pee-wee adventure—had transformed into an A-list film composer. (Elfman had already written fantastic scores for Beetlejuice and Batman, but it would take him years to win the respect of the film-composing community and the motion picture academy.) Trent Reznor and his Oscar-winning score for The Social Network were still 20 years to come.

But Martinez found a simpatico collaborator in Soderbergh, whose off-center films throughout the ’90s welcomed unconventionality and experimentation. For Soderbergh’s second film, Kafka—starring Jeremy Irons as an insurance clerk in 1919 Prague—Martinez wrote a mysterious, exotic score primarily for cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer instrument from Eastern Europe. It was, he says, the most difficult score he ever wrote. Though he has only himself to blame for that: Instead of hiring a cimbalom player, he had a friend write a computer program that would allow Martinez himself to “perform” the instrument via MIDI percussion controller. “I just went out of my way to do it the hard way and be a bit of a dumbass about it,” he says. “It was completely alien-style.”

In the 1990s, Martinez bobbed and weaved with Soderbergh through a variety of genres: King of the Hill, a drama set during the Depression; crime thriller The Underneath; the impossible-to-categorize comedy-fantasy Schizopolis; and a violent noir, The Limey. None of the scores sounded alike. None of them made Martinez a star. “A lot of my film soundtracks,” he says, “they go extinct within weeks after they leave the box office.”

Soderbergh soon began to work with other composers—David Holmes, a former DJ, scored the Ocean’s Eleven films, and Thomas Newman scored Erin Brockovich—but not before commissioning two of Martinez’s best works. Traffic, the interweaving, Oscar-gilded drama about the drug war, had a thrumming electronic engine teeming with electric guitars, which earned Martinez a Grammy nomination. And for Solaris, a quasi remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s head-scratcher starring George Clooney, Martinez played to the outer space story’s bittersweet nostalgia with elegant, pulsing grandeur and a cascade of overlapping chimes, bells, pan drums, and electronics.

Refn was thinking about how much he loved that score when he asked Martinez to score Drive. By that point, the director had already curated his list of synthwave songs he wanted to use in the movie—the Kavinsky, College, and Chromatics tracks—even though everyone around him hated them. “They wanted me to change them,” says Refn. “They would tell me ‘Young people don’t want to listen to that kind of music—it’s too European.’ Obviously they didn’t know anything about young people. But I refused to change it, and so I asked Cliff what he thought, and he loved them. And I said, ‘Well, welcome to the partnership, brother.’”

Martinez hopped onto Refn’s weirdo wavelength immediately, bathing the hyperviolent L.A. noir in complementary electronics and the shimmering tones of the Cristal Baschet—an instrument made of metal and glass rods that are played with wet fingers.

As they got to know each other, the two men spent hours on Skype discussing how the music should sound. Martinez was still trying to understand the Danish director’s mind, and he inquired about the scene where Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” visits the pizzeria run by Ron Perlman’s mob boss. “I said, ‘Why is he wearing a rubber mask? I mean, at this point he’s got blood all over his jacket. Does he really need to conceal his identity?’ And Nicolas just said, ‘He’s wearing a mask because it’s cool.’”

In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Gosling protects Carey Mulligan from one of Perlman’s stooges in an elevator by ... kicking his skull so hard that it caves in. Martinez scored the lead-up, a slo-mo embrace and kiss between Gosling and Mulligan, with his elegant, churchlike love theme on the Cristal Baschet, lulling the audience into a state of serenity right before the onslaught of head-bashing violence.

“That’s why we’re a great band,” says Refn, laughing.

The two have gone on to collaborate on each of Refn’s subsequent projects. In 2013’s Only God Forgives, Martinez outdid himself by scoring the big fight scene between Gosling and Vithaya Pansringarm with a dark and stormy club track, using arpeggiated synthesizers and church organ to hypnotic, almost sensual effect. In 2016’s The Neon Demon, he stepped out even more, setting a fashion show scene to a head-banging electronica track that throbs and soars in equal measure. “That was the last piece he composed for that film,” says Refn, “and he just—first try—knocked it out of the fuckin’ park.”

“It feels like I get a leading role rather than a supporting one,” Martinez says of working with Refn. That’s certainly true of Too Old to Die Young. Beyond just the Liberace-inspired material, Martinez dared to push beyond the “musical vocabulary” he and Refn had established on the previous films, “and for me, it was keeping it on a very synthesizer tip, but also integrating some organic sounds like piano, cello, and flute, and things that were foreign to the other scores I had done for him.”

Refn says he sometimes just writes “Cliff” into his scripts to create space for the composer. On Too Old, he didn’t cite anything he wanted the score to sound like, he merely said: “Surprise me.” When I ask Refn for a moment when he was surprised, he quickly answers: “That opening theme is fucking amazing.”

Martinez’s phone has hardly rung since he finished working on the series in February. “Maybe I’m retired and don’t know it,” he says jokingly. “It’s kind of weird. I thought I was a popular guy, but apparently not.” The composer’s notable one-two punch in 2011 drew the attention of other directors, notably Robert Redford (The Company You Keep) and Todd Phillips (War Dogs). He collaborated with Skrillex on the score for Harmony Korine’s teenage fever dream, Spring Breakers, and juiced up the outrageous black comedy in last year’s instant classic, Game Night. But he still, happily, remains not for everyone.

“I don’t turn down much stuff, but I would definitely prefer, you know, a Neon Demon to, I guess, a superhero movie,” says Martinez, quickly adding that no one has yet offered him one. “I don’t mean to imply anybody’s beating down my door to score the next superhero movie. The Harmony Korines tend to call me more so than the Steven Spielbergs.

“I don’t know if I’m up there with Captain Beefheart and Devo, but I have always tried to create my own voice, my own personality in music,” Martinez says. “And that’s kind of the punk rock ethic, I thought, which was to try to be the best version of you that you can be. And don’t worry about sounding like John Williams.”

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