Most of us are fans of Cliff Martinez, we just didn’t realise it. A former Captain Beefheart and Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer, and composer of rapidly increasing mainstream repute, Cliff’s compositions have spanned 25 years across films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, NARC, Traffic, Solaris, Drive, Spring Breakers and Only God Forgives. Drive, as he himself admits, marked a tipping point; the moment the man behind the music became almost as prominent as the directors and actors hitting the headlines. But it’s not Drive and its Gosling-fuelled frenzy we’re here to talk about; it’s the ambient masterpiece, Solaris.
Over a decade on from the original film and soundtrack release, the music is being given a loving, vinyl second life courtesy of Invada Records — the label run by resident Spotify hater and Portishead honcho, Geoff Barrow. Indulgently pressed in three different, limited edition vinyl versions, it’s a resurrection that has collectors on edge as we hurtle towards the end of the year.
See, where Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic take on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel split opinion, the appreciation for the deep, cerebral score that complemented it so perfectly has endured.
Characterised by the darkside of baritone steel drums and the natural warmth of orchestral ambience, in hindsight, Solaris should have been the score to raise Cliff’s profile to a new level. That he’s had to wait a decade could have made him a little bitter; instead the growing, belated acclaim continues to come as a welcome surprise.
Reef Younis: It’s been over ten years since the original film and soundtrack; do you know what instigated the re-release? How involved were you with the process?
Cliff Martinez: I didn’t instigate the idea of re-releasing it but I’m glad somebody did. They stepped forward and volunteered to re-release it, which I embraced enthusiastically. That was the extent of my involvement, but I better get a copy [laughs].
The steel drums are a big influence on the score and you seemed to find this dark side that’s the polar opposite to upbeat calypso rhythms. What made you even consider using steel drums in that context?
Sometimes you’re influenced by the film or input from the director but there were two things that influenced the overall sound.
One was the orchestra playing these slow moving, layered canons as harmonics and that came about because Steven [Soderbergh] used temporary music to cut the film to and I really fell in love with a piece called ‘Lontano’ by György Ligeti. That was kind of a role model reference that I thought was a beautiful example of ambient music played by an orchestra.
In the meantime, I’d always just had a fascination with steel drums and it peaked around the same time I was working on Solaris. I’d had too much Tequila to drink, I had a credit card in my hand, and I hit ‘buy now with one click’ for a company in Trinidad that made steel drums. A couple of days later the delivery service showed up with these huge wooden crates that had to be opened up with crowbars and hammers, and inside were the baritone steel drums.
I was just determined to shoe horn that sound into the film somehow, and it took a fair amount of exploration to make it work, but at that time, the baritone steel drums were just the coolest instrument I’d ever heard.
The whole idea of Ligeti’s was deliberately designed to avoid any sense of rhythm, so I was looking to subvert that formula. Oddly, when you have this bottom layer that’s completely free-floating and beatless, you can superimpose a rhythm over it very easily. It’s an interesting paradigm of ideas because if you steal one idea from one artist, that’s considered plagiarism, but if you take two different ideas and put them together you come up with something original. So calypso music and the ambient orchestral music of Legetti: put them together, shake them up and you end up with something unique.
I can vividly remember watching the Volkswagen ‘Night Drive’ advert with ‘Don’t Blow It’ playing in the background as Richard Burton read an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’. It was a bit of a perfect storm for me…
Yes! I remember that ad, what a surprise! There was also a Nike ad with Lebron that used ‘Don’t Blow It’ too so that track’s had a second life. You write this stuff in such complete isolation with a short feedback loop between you and your director, and the Solaris soundtrack seems to have had a life of its own, certainly in a few commercials. I do get beaten over the head with it in temp scores with other films [laughs].
I’m amazed at how versatile it was because it was designed with a very specific purpose as it was written for an esoteric, existential remake of a Russian science fiction art film. To see it in a Volkswagen commercial or a tennis shoe commercial, and a few other places, is a pleasant surprise. I guess it shows how universal music is, and how it speaks to a listener in one way. I thought it was strictly sci-fi music but clearly people appreciate it in a different way.
You say you’re surprised by its broader appeal but have you ever heard your music in a context where it hasn’t felt right?
I haven’t heard Solaris in a context that felt like it was incorrect to me but I’ve heard a lot of my other music, like music from Drive, that’s been used in rough cuts of other films. I guess I’ve got such a big head about my own music I just think “that’s great”. I’m very easily impressed with myself [laughs].
The other day I saw a film where they had used music from Spring Breakers in a very, very graphic, erotic homosexual love scene with five men [cracks up laughing] and I looked at it and I went,“I didn’t think of that.” But I’ve got to hand it to them, it worked beautifully, it’s perfect, so I guess I’m the go-to guy for music that’s 80s and gay [laughs again].
You mentioned the isolation which must make composing such a personal experience. Do you get overly attached to your music?
Writing music for film, I compare it to raising children. I know nothing about that from experience but you’ve got to be dedicated and passionate and put your heart and soul into it, but when your daughter turns 20, and she wants to marry an abusive alcoholic hillbilly, you just got to say, “hey, I did my best, you’re on your own now”, and so it is with film music; you’ve got no control over whether it’ll be accepted, how it may be edited, how it will be used, or not used, and it’ll go through hands less sympathetic than your own. I don’t get beat up that often but it happens and there has to be a time where you feel dispassionate about it.
With that in mind, is it important to like the film you’re working on?
It makes a difference. I don’t say no to many projects because I don’t like them, and I’m fortunate it seems that I attract films that seem to be well suited to my particular artistic personality. I don’t get many films I don’t like but you inevitably do like some more than others, or feel more inspired by others, but I’m so self-absorbed, and I like what I do, that once you get immersed in it, I’m inspired.
I find the process of putting music to picture an interesting thing because if you’re doing a good job, it usually transforms the film, for the better, so I get really excited by that process. Sometimes, when the smoke clears, and you get to see the film in theatres and it doesn’t get the response you hoped for, you realise it wasn’t that great a film [laughs].
I tend to get pumped up and enthusiastic about the films when I’m working on it but I’ve stopped making wagers on a film’s success anymore; all bets are off and I keep my mouth shut.
So is there a set of criteria or filter of sorts you apply when choosing a film or project to work on?
Yeah, the biggest filter comes into play when someone says, “We have no money but we can pay you in frozen shrimp” [laughs], when that happens, the filter kicks in. It’s not an easy job but it’s a fun job that I enjoy.
At the short end, it can be five weeks but it can also be three months of your life, and a five day/seven days a week job, so I have to take that into consideration. In the past I never had that many job offers so I’d say yes to anything but since Drive, now I sometimes have to pick and choose from time to time.
I like to think I don’t do things for the money, unless it’s a lot of money [laughs]. I think the biggest thing is not how much you like the money, it’s how much you believe in it because you’re going to have to sit down and work out every molecule and watch every frame forwards and backwards every day, for the next two months.
Having gone through that process and being able to look back, is there a piece of music that you think “yeah, that was the one”?
I think Drive was the high watermark in terms of success because it was a small, low budget film that exceeded everyone’s expectations, so that was the biggest surprise I’ve had in terms of public acceptance and specifically the music getting singled out in a film. That’s unusual because most people couldn’t care less about the film soundtracks, let alone the personalities that create them.
Artistically, I’d have to say Solaris. I wish I could roll out of bed every day and write music like Solaris… not only because it’s one of the only scores I can listen to and enjoy but because it seemed to have come from a place beyond that doesn’t even sound like me. Usually I’m so familiar with the music, it has no element of surprise but I still listen to it and think “wow, that’s really cool”. Before I worked on it, I was having a lot of self-doubt about whether I was any good at film scoring but once I finished Solaris I felt like if I could do that again at some point in my life, I’d be a real composer.
Do you feel like that now? Do you think the role your music plays has changed over your career?
I think it varies from film to film. Sometimes the music plays a really important role in a film such as Only God Forgives where there’s so little dialogue and it’s very abstract. When you’ve got something like that, people really turn their attention to the music to be cued, and music assumes a very prominent role, like a leading role, like a character.
But then there are other films like Sex, Lies and Videotape where it’s very incidental and the music has a minor role. In terms of the function, I think that varies too. In Solaris, the music had a hand in helping explain the story so it was very obtuse and cerebral. Other times, in the case of Contagion, one of the very important functions was pacing, because even though Contagion was a big disaster-horror movie, it was also a talking heads movie with people sitting in their rooms just talking.
On a macro level, I think the purpose of music is to universalise a story, to take something that’s generally out of the ordinary that some people can’t experience, and turn it into something relatable. Spring Breakers to me wasn’t necessarily about teenage excess and drugs and bikinis and firearms, it was more about the time in anybody’s life when there are no rules and everything’s perfect but because there are no boundaries, it turns out to be hell.
I think when film music is really firing on all cylinders it’s explaining the part of the story that can’t be explained by the images or dialogue. I just try to look at the film and use the music to make some kind of theme or idea that everybody can relate to. Perhaps that’s the greatest thing that music does.