It may seem strange to score a period drama with synthesizers. But The Knick— with its grim turn of the century setting, opiate-addled doctors and gory operations— is not a typical TV series by any means. For the perfect soundtrack to those bleak scenes, director Steven Soderbergh enlisted Cliff Martinez, who wrote the music for most of the esteemed auteur’s films, from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Traffic and Contagion (and he also scored acclaimed flicks like Drive and Spring Breakers for other directors). On The Knick, one of our picks for Best New TV Shows of 2014, Martinez’s minimalist synths palpitate like the wounds its protagonists tend to, before humming and sizzling like the aged setting’s unstable electrical currents.
“It was all Steven’s idea, I give him full credit,” Martinez says about the decision to give The Knick an electronica backdrop. He adds, “The reason to go in that direction wasn’t explained. Steven usually doesn’t communicate a lot… but I think it was because he likes to do unexpected things.”
The composer went on to open up with Paste about working for Soderbergh, performing with rock stars, and writing for a variety of mediums—including those Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials.
Paste Magazine: So, how do you cope with an uncommunicative Steven Soderbergh?
Cliff Martinez: For Sex, Lies, and Videotape [released in 1989] he’d come over to my apartment, and we’d talk it all out. Now he’s a busy multi-tasker, so we’ll have a handful of conversations. But a lot of my favorite scores are for his films, because he wasn’t breathing down my neck.
Paste: Does he let you experiment with different hardware?
Martinez: Yeah. On The Knick I was trying to select textures that reflected the period, something that sounded ancient, even though he wanted overtly synthetic songs. But aside from electronica, he also agreed to incorporate my cristal baschet. I’ve used it on all my scores since [2011’s] Drive. It takes up a lot of space in my living room, so I like to put it to good use [laughs]. I also used an Indian flute on The Knick. For every project, I usually pick up an instrument I don’t know, and figure it out.
Paste: What scene inspired you to use an Indian flute?
Martinez: You can hear it pretty clearly when Dr. Edwards [played by Andre Holland] beats up a guy, and then gives him some antiseptic. I was trying to convey his troubled interior. But I try not to analyze these things too much. At the time it just sounded spooky and weird, and I thought Edwards was a twisted character.
Paste: How has The Knick challenged you?
Martinez: Early on, I wanted to set a precedent that the operating scenes would have loud, aggressive music, just like the surgery. Steven didn’t like it, and it got thrown out. But that’s not unique to The Knick. Kafka was going to be all accordion music, and that didn’t work out. A number of things get tossed, either because they’re bad ideas, or they’re poorly executed.
Paste: But TV must have some unique difficulties, compared to film, right?
Martinez: TV deadlines are unrelenting. It meant I had to work quickly. It was like recording for an album, and going with the first take. But going with your first impulse is good.
There are things I’d like to do differently. My composer friends watch their shows as they air, while they’re writing music for the next episode. I didn’t experience that, because The Knick was all in the can, and then broadcasted. I think it’d be useful, working on a series while you see the episodes air.
Paste: Who are some of your composer friends?
Martinez: Mac Quayle, who scores American Horror Story, Nathan Barr from True Blood, and Dan Licht from Dexter. We get together every month or two, and just complain about the business.
Paste: How has their work inspired or influenced you?
Martinez: I don’t know, I don’t watch much television. We just coincidentally live in Topanga [California], which is weird. But the Los Angels area is packed with people that work in entertainment. I remember first coming here as a drummer in a rock band, and it felt like the only people I was meeting were drummers and singers. There does seem to be a disproportionate number of composers in Topanga, though.
Paste: Why did you switch to film composing?
Martinez: When I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers [from 1983-1986], our producer introduced me to the Linn drum machine. It was kind of an affront, like, “We’re going to replace you with this machine, and we’d like you to program it.” But I was also excited. The technology seemed to encourage unusual ways of composing.
Paste: How did your rock drumming background influence your composing?
Martinez: Captain Beefheart was my childhood hero, and I got to play on his last album. He taught me about expressing myself with limited technical facility. He told me about writing [1969’s] Trout Mask Replica in hours, after sitting in front of a piano for the first time. It’s kind of like me with the Indian flute for The Knick—I never played it before, I just picked it up, made a bunch of noises, then sculpted that into music.
Paste: Your instrumentation is eclectic, and so are the mediums you work in. What was it like scoring the new Far Cry video game?
Martinez: When I write for a movie, the director’s rough footage always defines the music’s structure—where it comes in, where it stops, and the dramatic turns it takes. None of that applies in a video game. The structure of the music is determined by the player. So you have to write in chunks that get assembled as the player plays. I haven’t seen the game yet, so I don’t know how it worked out.
Paste: Are you a big gamer?
Martinez: I got hooked on Dead or Alive 4 a few years ago. Then I went online and started playing 12 year-old kids from Japan, and never landed a punch for weeks. That diminished my interest [laughs].
Paste: How do other mediums compare to working on Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials?
Martinez: I’ve gotten fired off a lot of commercials. The problem is your music will make one entity happy, then a new one steps in, and hates it. But Lincoln only had one group, and it went much smoothly.
Paste: What did you think of Jim Carrey’s Saturday Night Live parody of them?
Martinez: I like all the parodies of those commercials. The first one I saw was on Conan, where they incorporated dialogue from True Detective. The next one I saw was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and she actually highlighted my music—she’s in the backseat and says, “What’s with this weird guitar?” before reaching up and switching the channel. I think it’s great. You know you’ve connected when your stuff is spoofed by SNL.