Blood Brothers: Inside the Music of 'The Knick'

Composer Cliff Martinez and director Steven Soderbergh explain how they achieved hyperrealism for the medical drama

By
Cliff Martinez at Cannes, 2013. Victoria Stevens

When Steven Soderbergh began work on The Knick – his gritty, historical medical series for Cinemax, set in New York City in 1900 – he enjoyed replicating the era's look, fashion and stomach-churning surgical practices. But one of the few things that was far too ghastly to replicate was the music. "Oh, it was horrible," he says with a laugh. "Aesthetically, it's a really cool period, but the music was absolutely boring and not interesting. Ragtime had just started – and there's a tiny bit of that in the background of some scenes – but other than that, there was nothing good."

So the director turned to the only person he thought could give The Knick a unique sound: his frequent collaborator, Cliff Martinez. As the director filmed the show, he had been using shimmery EDM flourishes that Martinez had written for the 2012 teensploitation flick Spring Breakers and some of the composer's wiry synth lines from his own 2011 pandemic disaster film, Contagion, as temporary music to guide the composer. It made for a completely different vibe for a show whose biggest connection to recorded sound was the demonstration of early phonograph cylinder recording.

"I had some reservations about it at first," Martinez says. "You're trying so hard to place the viewer in this time and this place, and the music is really fighting something that everyone else in the show is trying to achieve. But as the episodes started coming in, and seeing that it had all this electronic stuff that was mine, I realized that it was working. So it gave me the confidence to do it." 

Ultimately, Martinez fashioned the most compelling soundtrack on television right now. A complete anachronism, the composer constructed a postmodern and curious through-line for the series with droning, minimalistic synthesizer and guitar lines, warbling bass and chimes that seem to swoop down from nowhere. When accompanying images of hustling, bustling turn-of-the-century Manhattan, as well as the occasional blood-sopped aortic aneurysm operating-room scene, it makes for hyperrealism and a sense of urgency that the era's hits, like "I Want to Be a Military Man" or "Ma Tiger Lily," would ruin. 

Still from 'The Knick'.
Still from 'The Knick'. Mary Cybulski

But the big reason why the soundtrack, which is available digitally and will come out as a CD on September 16th, works so well is because Soderbergh and Martinez have been operating on the same wavelength starting with their first collaboration: the director's 1989 feature debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Since then, the pair have worked together on almost a dozen projects with different approaches, including the crime thriller The Limey (1999), the all-star drug-war drama Traffic (2000), and the sci-fi character flick Solaris (2002), among others. It's a relationship that started in the oddest of ways, when Soderbergh heard a raunchy sound collage that Martinez had put together for an episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. "He always delivers," Soderbergh says. "It's been fun working with Cliff and watching his ideas expand."

Martinez's own musical history is just as diverse as his film scores. Born in the Bronx in the Fifties and raised in Ohio, the composer made his way out to Los Angeles right before punk exploded in 1976 and just in time to join the Weirdos as their drummer. He then went on to play a short-lived stint with no-wave provocateur Lydia Lunch before winning the drum stool in Captain Beefheart's final incarnation of the Magic Band. Martinez passed that audition after reportedly spending 72 hours straight playing drums and impressing the avant-garde blues singer, known offstage as Don Van Vliet, by being the only stickman up to the challenge of playing Beefheart's herky-jerky 1970 experiment "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go." It went on to become an experience that Martinez found both influential and memorable.

"The first thing that Don said to me was 'You didn't like playing with that little girl did you?'" Martinez says. "And I said 'Uh...oh, Lydia? It was fine. We were waiting to go to Europe and it never happened.' He goes, 'Oh, you wouldn't have liked Europe, see this?' And he points to this scar, which is a hole in the side of his nose. 'You see that? I did that with a Number 2 lead pencil, not because I wanted to look like a Picasso painting but because I was bored, man, because there's nothing to do over there.'"

Martinez went on to record the drums on Beefheart's swan song, the 1982 record Ice Cream for Crow, an experience that forced him to expand his perceptions of sound. Sometimes Van Vliet would ask him to create drum lines that approximate "the sound of giant blue babies taking over the mountaintops" or "red asparagus dangling through a teacup." At one point, Beefheart gave him a cassette with a beat he said he wanted Martinez to learn; it turned out to be a recording of a running faucet – on both sides (you can hear the beat he came up with from that on Ice Cream's "Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat"). Another time, Beefheart sent him on a quest to find the perfect glass washboard to make the record's "The Witch Doctor Life" "a hit." Martinez returned with six options, none of which were right to Beefheart's ears.

I was a little disgusted, but by the 500th time you watch it, it kind of settles in.

The Magic Band intuited that Ice Cream for Crow would be Beefheart's final record, since he was disinterested in touring, so Martinez quickly found another gig with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea had remembered Martinez from the Weirdos and, after founding drummer Jack Irons quit, asked him to join just in time to record their 1984 debut, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although that record has not aged well in the Peppers catalog, due to disinterest from Flea and Anthony Kiedis ("Somebody at a film festival in France last year asked me, 'How did it feel to know that you've played on the worst Chili Peppers album ever,'" Martinez says), he had another revelatory experience that would influence his later work recording their second record, 1985's Freaky Styley, with producer George Clinton.

"It was a real game changer to see George in action," Martinez says. "We really looked up to him and to see that making record could be a fun party or should be a fun party, rather than an antiseptic and sterile experience, was enlightening. Like Captain Beefheart, he didn't censor his own creativity. Another thing he taught us was the recreational use of drugs as a stimulant for making music." The composer laughs.

"There were always drugs floating around, but George was the first producer who ever encouraged it and brought it into the studio," Martinez says. "It just benefitted the performance. I don't know if that's a great thing for me to be saying in print but everybody in the band at that time was using these things recreationally and George not only condoned it — he encouraged it."

During the early part of his stint in the Peppers, Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill – who produced Red Hot Chili Peppers – introduced him to his first drum machine. "That's when I got a whiff of my own imminent extinction as a drummer," he says with a laugh. "The drum machine was really a wakeup call." Martinez would exit the Chili Peppers in 1986, though he played with the group again in 2012 when he was inducted with them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

Cliff Martinez and the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Cliff Martinez and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 27th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 2012. Jason Kempin/WireImage

During the mid-Eighties, Martinez indulged the ethos of experimentation that permeated that period of his life and, feeling "repulsed," embraced the future by getting a sampling drum machine, allowing him to record his own sounds and program them. "I would just make rude body noises into a microphone and play it like a drum machine and come up with strange, not entirely musical sounds," Martinez says. "That music or noise was the basis for me."

Martinez got his first music department credit thanks to one of these sound collages, which appeared on his demo reel. It was for Pee-wee's Playhouse.

"There was an emphasis on fart sounds, they did play a role," he says with a laugh. "I used to have friends come over to my house and we would take turns stepping up to the microphone and try to make the most bizarre vocal sounds, and I would put it into the drum machine and program it. Among my circle of friends, I had a 'find the fart' contest with my one episode of Pee-wee's Playhouse. I had a seven-foot long Tibetan horn that straddled the line between a musical tone and flatulence, and I used that for a few fanfares. I don't think anybody found the fart but they're in there."

Steven Soderbergh discovered Martinez after his Pee-wee episode aired in 1987. At the time, the director was getting ready to make a movie he had written, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. "I remember him calling me after seeing the Pee-wee episode and saying, 'This'll be perfect for my next movie,'" Martinez says. "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.'"

"The way I remember it was he was working for some friends of mine, doing some source cues for a bar scene in a movie called Alien Nation," Soderbergh says. "I remember walking into the mixing room at the sound-editing facility where all my friends were hanging out, and I was sitting in the back of the room, listening to this cue that I thought was really interesting, and that's how I was introduced to Cliff. 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?' He was the only person I knew who wanted to do that." 

Cliff Martinez and Steven Soderbergh
Cliff Martinez and Steven Soderbergh, year unknown. Courtesy Cliff Martinez

Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered in August 1989. Made on a shoestring budget of about $1 million, it would go on to take in nearly $25 million at the box office becoming the de facto kick starter for the next decade's indie-film revolution. When Soderbegh began work on his next movie, 1991's Kafka, he turned to Martinez. He would continue to do so on his next four features and kept returning to Martinez as the years went on. They analyzed atonality when making Solaris – "Break down for me why I'm attracted to this sort of sound," Soderbergh remembers saying while making the film, one of the most challenging musically to nail – until they arrived a György Ligeti-style score, and they arrived at a minimalistic score for Contagion to make it function more like a horror film than a drama.

"My belief in Cliff was total from the get-go," Soderbergh says. "I've never felt the need to be in the room, looking over his shoulder and saying, 'What about that?' It's not necessary. We had a similar approach to process, and that's as big a reason as any why we've maintained this long-term relationship." (Incidentally, many of Martinez's out-of-print soundtracks, including those for Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka and Traffic, are available on the composer's website as free downloads.)

I didn't get squeamish," Martinez says of the gore throughout The Knick. "One of the first things I did was I wanted to put music in the surgeries, which Steven had not asked for. So the first one I did was the pregnant woman. I wanted to show it to some friends and nobody would watch it." He laughs. "They were all like, just play me the music without the imagery. To me, it's a movie and maybe at first I was a little disgusted, but by the 500th time you watch it, it kind of settles in."

"One of the things I liked about the material was how non-nostalgic it was," Soderbergh says of the series. "I think that's something Cliff picked up on, too. At no point does the show take the position that it was a nice time to be alive. There's no nostalgia. Your overwhelming sense watching the show is one of happiness that you're living in 2014. I wanted to make sure that's what people were feeling."

Accordingly, the soundtrack album for The Knick features song titles that might seem more appropriate on an album by a death-metal band like Carcass than at TV series: "Abscess," "Aortic Aneurysm Junior," "Placental Repair," "Pretty Silver Stitches," "Son of Placenta Previa." "With The Knick, I decided I should name some of the things after the procedure that they accompany," Martinez says. "They're meant to be practical. I also go to the BMI website, the royalty collection society I belong to, and make sure nobody else has the title; you'd be amazed at how off-the-wall titles can be duplicated throughout the world. 'Son of Placenta Previa,' nobody had that yet. I may not have bothered to look that one up."

Martinez crafted most of the music for The Knick using electronic software emulators like synthesizers. He also used a baschet cristal instrument – which combines vibrating rods and fiberglass plates, a favorite instrument of musique concrète composers – and electric guitar. It all worked with Soderbergh's vision of an electronic score for the series, an idea influenced by the score to the 1981 film Gallipoli, another period piece that used electronic music. 

Cliff Martinez playing the Baschet Crystal
Cliff Martinez playing the Baschet Crystal, an instrument he uses often in his work. Robert Charles Mann

"I imagined that Clive Owen's character, John Thackery, felt all the time like I feel now when I step out of my house in New York and get caught up in the flow of the city," Soderbergh says. "It was as vibrant and as fast-paced for him as it as for us. I just wanted to make sure that the score really made you remember that, that for somebody living in Manhattan past a certain point in time, it was the crazy energetic place that we know it to be now."

At this point in their working relationship, the director and composer have a mutual understanding of what the other one wants. When it came to The Knick, Soderbergh's cues from Martinez's recent scores suggested the emphasis on electronic music for the show but it also dovetailed into some of the unspoken aspects of their relationship, including the use of space and minimalism.

"That's the product of working with Steven Soderbergh for 26 years," Martinez says with a laugh. "That's a part of his storytelling DNA and a part of mine, mostly from working with him. First of all, he usually says he doesn't really like to use music." Martinez laughs. "For [the 1993 movie] King of the Hill, he's like, 'Sorry, I'm not going to use you for this film.' A few weeks later he's like, 'I would like to have a little music, like 10 minutes.' And then it ended up being 50 minutes of music. It was the exact same pattern for [1995's] The Underneath."

"In The Knick, there was very little music in the temp score," he continues. "He's been a minimalist in terms of the amount of music he puts into a project and I know that he wants the music to leave something to the viewers' imagination, burn some calories with interpretation in regards to what they're seeing and hearing."

Additionally, thanks to their partnership, Martinez has adopted a style of writing minimal music so as not to compete with a film's dialogue or imagery. "Ten years of my scoring career were almost exclusively Soderbergh pictures, so it just became a part of my style," the composer says. "I tend to keep it very, very simple."

"I think what ended up happening on The Knick was initially I was scoring it a little less until all of this material started coming in from Cliff," Soderbergh says. "Then I just started feeling like there should be more, because I was really liking what his music was doing for me. What Cliff likes to do occasionally is play the music against the image. We're always looking for those opportunities. It can be either a rhythmic thing, where you have a scene in which, let's say, a series of images are passing by very slowly but you have a very accelerated piece of music or vice-versa. Trying to look for ways to counter what's happening sometimes with the images of the scene."

"I also want to leave some room for the audience to do a little bit of the work," the director continues. "I view the score as the equivalent of a close-up: I use them very sparingly and to achieve a very specific effect. It's such a powerful tool that if you go to a close-up all the time, you end up diluting its power. So I try to dole them out very carefully. I think that Cliff and I look at the music the same way. We're not afraid to get big, and we're not afraid to get emotional, but we really want to be discerning about when we want to get big so it has real impact."

In total, Martinez said he spent about six months on the score, forcing him to work at an intense pace. It's something he'll be ready for when The Knick returns for a second season, continuing his relationship with Soderbergh.

"It was funny to me that the premiere of The Knick, the first week of August, was 25 years to the week of the premiere of Sex, Lies, and Videotape," Soderbergh says. "It was funny to have the show and to have people talking so much about Cliff's score 25 years to the week after our first project was released. I was proud of that, that we'd kept our relationship. That's a long time, a quarter of a century."

"Monogamy has its benefits," Martinez says. "You get to know somebody better and they know you better. They know your strengths and weaknesses."

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