By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Max S. Gerber|
Cliff Martinez looks pale, and his eyes are darting around the sound booth at Stage 1 on the 20th Century Fox lot in Culver City. He’s dressed in black, black like the quart of coffee in his fist, black like Halloween, which is today, almost a year ago. Funeral black, and it’s Martinez’s funeral. Scary time. Time to finish up the music he’s created for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. How’s he feeling?
“Exhausted and terrified.” And that’s an improvement over yesterday. “I was an absolute wreck. Headache, blood in my urine. I feel great now that I can see how it’ll all work together.” A small smile dents his face. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy. He always smiles like that.
Sudden hubbub. What’s the row? A taped crowd gabble accidentally bumped up? No, the engineer pushed the monitor button for the sound stage. Now we can’t ignore the 90-some musicians jostling on the other side of the glass. A full symphony orchestra makes a lot of noise even when it’s not playing.
On the conductor’s podium, the bald-yet-shaggy guy in the T-shirt is Bruce Fowler, formerly a trombonist with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. And over there, isn’t that his brother Walt, Zappa’s trumpeter? The connection: Martinez himself used to drum with Beefheart. But this room is the heart of the Hollywood glitter factory. What are all these freaks doing here?
When Martinezrolled into Los Angeles in 1976, he was a Top 40 band drummer from Columbus, Ohio. There, he says, “The apex of a musician’s career would be to play Vegas. My good gigs were playing Ramada Inns, 10 Neil Diamond cover songs a night.” His voice is a high whistle; he manages to come off both confident and shy.
This solitary man has become a prime weaver in a new generation of soundtrack composers who spin ambient and electronic music into abstract atmospheres. James Cox’s Wonderland, the 13th movie he’s scored, has just hit theaters. Soderbergh has called on Martinez for all his films except the mainstream hit Erin Brockovich. Two years ago, for the Soderbergh-directed Traffic, Martinez even got a Grammy nomination — but he was a few minutes late for the awards show’s start. “I was on needles and pins. An hour later, somebody said, ‘You lost.’”
The path from the Ramada Inn to the Staples Center Grammy gala has been exceedingly indirect. Fresh in L.A. 27 years ago, Martinez enrolled in the Dick Grove Music School and later joined a combo that tried to find work playing George Benson covers. In 1980, he and his bandmates were rehearsing at Wilshire Fine Arts, the cheapest of our metropolis’ crappy rental warrens, when an ungodly noise assaulted them through the tissue-paper walls.
“Everybody stopped playing and held their noses. We wanted to see what was making this awful cacophony.” Luckily, the adjacent room had a window. What the spying jazzbos beheld was an original L.A. punk band, the Screamers, notable for their lack of guitars and for the maniacal onslaught of vocalist Tomata du Plenty. “Tomata’s face was beet red,” says Martinez. “Veins were bulging out of his forehead like thumbs. I thought the music was an affront. It was threatening to me; I hated it. Then I saw how sincere and how passionate they were about it, and I just turned on a dime. I went from hating it to loving it. And that’s when I started checking out punk rock.”
In a minute, Martinez himself was an underground musician, and thrashed with the Tenants, the Weirdos, Lydia Lunch, Two Balls and a Bat, and Butch — that one featured Sherry the Penguin, who had a day job as a dominatrix. “One guy in the group had a pretty rowdy gay lifestyle. I went over to his house to get a haircut one day, and, like, three guys jumped out of bed. I was from Columbus, and that kind of spooked me. But there was something about the seedy part of punk rock that I was always attracted to.”
Martinez briefly enlisted with Beefheart, thumping the tubs on 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow, the last album Beefheart made before the Captain retired to the life of a painter. When Martinez was younger, he’d admired Beefheart’s music. The actual man, though, was somewhat less safe than milk.
“He was a real abusive tyrant, always blaming me for ‘psychic interference.’ He would get really angry: ‘Man, he’s puttin’ tinfoil in my radar!’”
The punishment of a musician’s life was beginning to bury the rewards; the only thing that kept Martinez in the game was rent control. “In the Weirdos, I was always getting food stamps. A package of hot dogs and a can of Dole pineapple juice was all I had for an entire week. That’s the way I lived for 10, 15 years.”
That’s show biz: “You have to be willing to stand at the slot machine indefinitely and wait for the jackpot.”