Cliff Martinez’ warning: ‘The Knick’ season 2 will be ‘darker,’ but how?

Cliff Martinez is hard at work on the score for “The Knick” season 2 for Steven Soderbergh, is mulling music for Nicolas Winding-Refn's “The Neon Demon” and has at least seen the script for Harmony Korine's next “The Trap,” which is perhaps his next firm gig.

Those names have been, erm, instrumental to Martinez' rise as an in-demand composer (though for some reason he just can't seem to hold down those outside, one-off commercial projects, dang it). Weaving organic, odd instruments in with electronic sources, the musician/writer has found natural creative companions in equally odd, forward-thinking and intuitive directors.

Martinez has been in these pages before, after massaging a cold, macabre and grand score out of bloodlusty “Only God Forgives.” His electronic soundtrack for Cinemax period drama “The Knick” is so gorgeous, the tracks stand boldly on their own.

Below is an abridged version of my interview with Martinez, simply catching up on how he's doing with all the gore; how ad guys are like Tio Salamanca from “Breaking Bad”; and learning to live life with a theremin.

How has your working relationship with Nicolas changed since “Only God Forgives?”

I worked on his wife”s documentary about him and the making-of “Only God Forgives.” I don”t want to say it was a Nicolas project. It was a Liz project. But it was all about him and the process of making the film. So it was something I was very close to.

And then we”ve done all the Lincoln motorcar commercials with Matthew McConaughey. In the commercial world, the directors and the music department don”t seem to see much of each other, which is the reason I”ve gotten fired from most commercials I”ve worked on. They bring me on and then somebody else steps in and goes “Well whose idea was this? I don”t like this guy.” I think I”ve done half a dozen commercials and I think I”ve gotten fired off of four or five of them. And the Lincoln motorcar was the one surviving, with my music actually making it to the finish line.

But I haven”t really started on “Neon Demon.” I”ve seen the script but it”s always a very different product.

“Only God Forgives,” he sent me early scripts, early drafts of the script and I saw all the dailies and really saw it being built from the ground up. And I know — at least from that film — that the script doesn”t mean a whole lot to Nicolas. At least with the last one, there”s a lot of changes and improvisation, and it didn”t resemble the script all that strongly. I suspect the same for “Neon Demon,” or he actually said as much the other day. I don”t know. I”ve seen the script. Who knows what the film looks like? I haven”t dived in yet.

I”m very curious about the way he describes it to you before and then after you actually start seeing the materials. Is there ever a shock of before and after?

Well there was with “Only God Forgives,” because there was dialogue in “Only God Forgives” in the script form. It was virtually a silent movie by comparison when I saw it. A lot of sort of character development was gone. A lot of the storyline was kind of gone. It was a more visual film and it was more stylized and it wasn”t quite as in-depth, much like a novel that translates to a film gets simplified. “Only God Forgives” was practically an art installation.

So I don”t know what this is going to be like. He”s already warned me that its relationship to the script was kind of tangential. So we shall see.

Do you ever find that you choose sounds and music influences based on the actors and actresses he chooses to work with?

Gosh, I don”t think so. I mean I think in “Only God Forgives” I think. I”ve heard Nicolas talk about Ryan”s influence on some of the songs in a a musical direction. But I've never met Ryan Gosling, so if he had an influence on that film, it was indirect.

You know, actually no. I wouldn”t say it”s the casting. I think I”m influenced by the characters. I”m influenced by the story. I”m also influenced by the setting where it takes place, when it takes place.

I just read an interview with Giorgio Moroder. He made a joke, he said “I was surprised when I heard the soundtrack for 'Drive.' Couldn”t they have just taken some stuff from Cat People?” I was wondering if Giorgio Moroder ever had an influence on you? Had your read that quote before?

I don”t remember the “Cat People” score.

Oftentimes people come up to you and say that kind of stuff. I remember when I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and some music scholar came up to us and said, “That is so cool that you guys are way into emulating The Meters. They”re my favorite band.” And none of us ever heard of The Meters. I know for our second album, we did a Meters cover song because we all fell in love with their music after-the-fact.

I”ve heard that comparison before. And only kind of retroactively have I started “Scarface” and Giorgio Moroder”s score with “American Gigolo.” So I”ve only recently listened to them or re-listened to some of the scores of Giorgio Moroder. I see the similarity, but I don”t know. I wasn”t trying to imitate him at the time but I think the whole “Drive” thing is – I definitely agree it”s not a totally original sound or style. It”s a bit of an homage to the ’80s and that was intentional.

I love your score to “The Knick” because it is to me the score and even the sound in general is so wildly different from the period. Yet it feels like very native. Are you working on the second season right now? Or are you finished with that?

No I”m not close to finishing. I”m just scratching the surface. I just got a first assembly of the 10 episodes in the middle of [May]. So I just started.

I”ve been watching it for a while. I”ve been watching the dailies. But now I have the scripts so I”m just now digging in. It”s similar to season one I think. It”s got drugs and gruesome surgeries. A lot of the scenes are still there. The theme of massive integration at the turn of the century, technological innovation, racism, male chauvinism. All those things are there.

All the things the kids love.

All the great dark stuff is there. But like a lot of shows, I think it seems like all the characters” storylines are getting more and more developed. It seems to me that it”s not quite as Clive Owen-centric. It seems like everybody else is getting in on the act now and it has a bigger, longer grander storyline. Steven directed all ten of these episodes, too, so it”s really got the same flavors.

Have you gotten any tips on how Steven wants the score to change or stay the same? What notes did you get?  

Well the only big note I got was Steven said it will be darker. He said “Continue in the same vein but there will be places where things get darker.” And I haven”t seen that yet because I don”t think you can get any darker than, like, the pregnant woman, and killing the mother and the physician shooting himself. I haven”t seen anything like darker than that.

What were some of the challenges working on the first season that you”re able to nip in the bud for the second one? What was the hardest thing about working on so many episodes for a cable television show?

I guess two things. I think with any project it”s the blank page. It”s like when you define the style, the approach, the instrumentation, the harmonic language. All of that is pretty big stuff and then we did make mistakes. You come up with ideas that don”t work and throw them away and go back to the drawing board. So the first few pieces of music define the musical vocabulary for the show is the hardest.

For “The Knick” it was hard because of the idea about going modern and electronic. It didn”t come from Steven but it came from somebody else. But it didn”t come from me. So that”s what I do, you know, I”m comfortable in that genre. But it was jarring to have it in a period drama. So I wasn”t totally convinced. It wasn”t until I got through like two, three episodes that I just felt comfortable with the whole style and felt confident that it was working.

But then I would say the biggest challenge about going from a feature film to a television series is the work load. Brewing my coffee every day and then doing basically a 10-hour movie. At a certain point it was one episode a week. I had a little running start and at a certain point you”ve got to crank out an episode every week. You just give up your social life. You give up a good night”s sleep and you don”t do much of anything except eat, sleep and work. And I think it was just from the standpoint it was just harder than a feature film.

So you signed up for more.

I think the second season – that first thing about defining style – that”s done. So I think a big part of the basic requirements often involves strength and stamina, just trial and error. So I”m hoping it”ll be, in some respects, simpler because we know exactly what the style is. It”s going to be the same but different.

You eat, sleep, work. What would you define as a habit in your life that you do that works for your creative flow?

I think that parking your creative time periods close to your sleep periods work great for me. I think you”re closest to your subconscious, which is where all the good stuff comes from.

So when I wake up in the morning — before I answer email or make breakfast or shower or do anything — I try to go downstairs and continue working on whatever it is I was working on. As they say sleep on it. The answers usually come in the morning and your mind is just kind of open and empty at that point. And then all my best stuff seems to come very, very late at night just before I go to sleep

You have such a close association to work with Refn and Soderbergh. Who else would you love to work with?

I usually answer that by saying that I want to work with the next Nic Refn and the next Steven Soderbergh. A lot of guys who”re at that level already have a monogamous relationship with somebody else. I don”t want to go, yeah, I want to work with David Fincher. That”s just like picking a fight. But whenever I see a really great film with somebody that I”m not familiar with, I go “Gosh, I”d love to work with them.”

Over the weekend I saw a great film from 2006 called “The Host.”

“The Host” [by Joon-ho Bong], yeah.

That”s a guy I would love to work with. And then the weekend before last, I saw “Ex Machina.” That was a guy I wanted to work with. And then the weekend before that I saw “The Babadook” and there”s a [gal] I”d like to work with. It happens all the time.

Obviously you”ve learned to play so many different instruments over the years. Is there anything that you”re really trying to master?

No. No, “master” is too strong a word for the way I approach musical instruments. I”m a working ex-punk-rock musician. I don”t pick up the guitar and go “I”ve never played this before.” I”m going to start a band. And that”s kind of how I regard most of my instruments.

Do you have any instruments that you”re super pumped about owning right now?

I got a theremin this year.

Oh great. That” sounds frustrating as hell.

The most minuscule, the most minute movement of your hand will change the pitch and the notes will go sharp or flat. But it”s kind of an amazing instrument. It”s the only thing that”s played spatially with hand gestures. It”s quite phenomenal and interesting and kind of the earliest electronic instrument. And there”s nothing else like it. I can”t think of any other instrument that”s played with hand gestures. It”s impossible to master so I just use it to make some real rude sounds for the most part. I”d like to do better with that.

For “The Knick” I”m going back to the Cristal Baschet which I”m far from a master of playing that. I just put it together, reassembled it last night. That”s the other thing that I actually would like to have some degree of technical proficiency on.

I play Indian flute on “The Knick” a couple of times. I think I”ll do some more of that.

I have an electric ukulele. I couldn”t fit an acoustic one in my suitcase when I went on vacation in Hawaii. They”ve got a lot of ukulele stores there. It”s like Starbucks over there. Everywhere you go you”ll see like a guy with long hair having a ukulele strapped to his back. It”s just the weirdest thing. I was in Hawaii for a week and I was like “Alright, when in Rome.” So I don”t know about that one. That”s going to be a tough one to shoehorn into my next score. I don”t think electric ukulele has “The Knick” season two, but you never know.

Just blow it out with some distortion. It”s no longer a ukulele, it”s just another thing you trash.

Yeah, exactly. By the time we get to season three: bagpipes.

“The Knick: Bagpipe years.” Are you talking to Harmony [Korine] at all about his next film “The Trip?”

Yeah I have. He sent me the script. I don”t know what the status of it is. He sent me some music from some obscure electronic artist. So we kind of exchanged a few ideas and exchanged about the script. I don”t know where that project is at. So I hope to be working on it. He”s kind of dropped out of sight.

This piece is really just about paging Harmony. Have you pinged Judd Apatow or anybody involved in the new Pee-Wee film at all? That was your springboard for getting onto Soderbergh”s radar right?

This is the first I”ve heard of it. Is it – is Paul Reubens involved?

Yes. It”ll be out through Netflix.

That would be really cool. I mean I would love to – but then you kind of stand in the shadow of Danny Elfman, who”s in the place I”d like to be. Because he defines the sound of the show.

I would love to revisit my childhood. That was ’88 I think. That was the first thing I ever did. And I keep badgering my agent, that I would love to do a film that”s lighter. Something where nobody gets stabbed or does drugs or cut open while pregnant.

“You know, what I would really love is to work in a film that has no gore.”

Unless it”s funny, yeah.

Why do you assume people don”t like what you do and you always get fired from commercial projects?

Well, if I knew the answer to that I could probably prevent myself from getting fired.

I”m going to blame other people for that. I think what”s different about the process is that because I work primarily directors I know. I”m all about the one-on-one relationship with whoever it is that”s hired me. And usually if I”m happy and the director”s happy, it”s done.

The commercial world has a whole hierarchy. I don”t even get to meet  the people I”m supposed to work with, and I get the feedback second hand. But basically I”ve been brought into the commercials by way of a director. Harmony”s got me some commercials and Nic got me a bunch of commercials. And they seemed happy after they shoot it.

If an agency producer likes something I do, it goes to the next level which is the agency that shoots the commercial, and the agency has to answer to the client themselves, you know, Adidas, Coca Cola or something like that. I”ve never met any of these people but I suspect that they bend to whatever the client says. I imagine that the client is like that guy in the rest home in “Breaking Bad”: in a wheelchair, on oxygen and an inhaler. He looks at the commercial and hears the music and he sits there like he can”t speak but it turns into outrageous. Steam comes out of his ears. And then I get fired.

That is a very specific image of what ad guys are like.

I have no idea why I get fired but that”s what I imagine.