Cliff Martinez, one of the veteran drummers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and an award-winning film composer, started off 2012 with a bang. He was a judge in last month’s Sundance Film Festival, and in April he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his formative three year stint with the Chili Peppers from 1983-86.
“I’m just worried about what I am going to wear,” says Martinez about as casually, but as humbly, as if he were a friendly, unimposing neighbor asking for advice. “My role is quite small in the span of 27 years. I’m honored that they made the decision to include me.”
Although Martinez calls himself an introvert, it’s not hard to knock down any walls he may have up. He rather welcomes you warmly into his world of hidden surprises – such as did you know that his first composing job was for Pee Wee’s Playhouse? And, can you believe he does not know how to compose music on staff paper?
“I never had training,” says Martinez. “I really learned as I went. I’m almost completely self-taught. In my film career, I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my background. But mostly I’m a musical Neanderthal.”
His grandfather immigrated from a small village in Spain to the U.S., but Martinez was raised in an English-speaking household in Ohio. After more than three decades of living in Los Angeles, Martinez, 58, now considers the City of Angels his home.
He says his favorite part of drumming for the Chili Peppers’ first two albums were making the records.
“I went through the lifestyle of smoke-filled vans and traveling,” says Martinez. “I didn’t enjoy that much, but I did enjoy the recording process and making music.”
He says he also learned during that time, while collaborating with George Clinton, that unintended accidents in music can result in unexpected gems.
“When we were overdubbing guitar parts, there was a mistake and George said play that back,” says Martinez. “It was definitely a mistake, and George says, ‘No that’s the funk, let’s cut it up and fly it around elsewhere in the track.”
Martinez says that although he enjoyed his time with the band, he felt he never fully fit in.
“For me it was a tough thing to fit into socially,” says Martinez. “We could never come to an agreement on our look…basic issues of band image.”
As he grew out of the band, Martinez says he became fascinated with music technology in the 1980’s.
“Music technology got me started,” says Martinez. “Pop music always felt very narrow to me. Film felt much broader. My taste in music was always left of center.”
He says his favorite album is “Trought Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart, which he had the honor of working with as well. Now, instead of traveling the country in smokey vans, Martinez happily spends a lot of his time waiting on his couch for inspiration.
“I usually lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling for a few weeks just thinking what general approach I would take,” says Martinez about what he does when a director approaches him to compose a score for a film. “I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, sometimes it comes in front of a keyboard, but sometimes washing the dishes or driving a car.”
He says the process for creating a score ranges from about one to three months, and the director is usually hands on as well. He is currently working on “Only God Forgives,” set in Thailand, with director Nicolas Winding Refn.
“I think the favorite spot I’ve ever composed in was in a hotel room in Thailand,” says Martinez. “I placed Singha beer cans to prop up my 15-inch laptop and miniature keyboard.”
He says nowadays you don’t really need a big studio to compose film scores.
“You don’t need a lot of equipment anymore,” says Martinez. “I met Nicholas Refn for dinner, and he said ‘I hate L.A. I’m going to Copenhagen,’ and so we spoke via Skype. In 2009-10, I did two French films, and I didn’t even meet the director. We just communicated telepathically.”
Martinez says the work he’s most proud of is the score for “Solaris” (2002), because it was the first time he used a 90-piece orchestra, and it is the only one he can still listen to and it still feels new and fresh.
“I’d like to think of myself as versatile, but I might fall on my face if I tried to do Broadway or a cereal commercial,” he says.
For now, he’s concentrating on speaking at SXSW (South by Southwest) in March – 10 days of conferences and festivals where filmmakers and musicians unite to discuss the most influential cultural happenings of the year. He says it seems most people want to know about the soundtrack he did for “Drive” (2011).
“Public speaking is one of my phobias, but I’ll make sure I dress for the occasion,” says Martinez.