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John Carpenter: Memoirs of an Influential Man

on January 29, 2015, 5:00pm

It’s a late December evening when we speak with John Carpenter. Snow is dusting the streets, colorful Christmas lights glaze every window, and the holiday buzz is near-deafening. Despite the seasonal fanfare, the 67-year-old filmmaker and composer sounds exhausted on the phone, though he has every right to be. He’s been bombarded with a string of interviews by multiple publications, all excited about his debut studio album, Lost Themes.

That’s not surprising. After all, it’s rare that Carpenter’s name ever pops up outside of a nostalgic essay or someone’s list of influences. He’s been out of the spotlight for years and any attempt to get back in has been met with derision (see: 2010’s The Ward). But Lost Themes is different; the album’s the most exciting thing he’s released in decades. Yet it’s also quite timely, surfacing amidst a year that has seen a handful of popular scores riff off his cultish work.

Read ahead to hear Carpenter discuss the album’s title, how it was conceived, his iconic filmography, and the state of the Los Angeles Lakers. Mind you, this all took place prior to Kobe Bryant’s recent season-ending injury. Sorry, John.

Justin Gerber (JG): The title of the album really interested me right off the bat. Does it refer to some themes that you never used in earlier films or themes you may never use because you’re by and large done with making movies all the time?

Lost Themes refers to the fact that the music on this album is meant to score the movies in your head.

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Michael Roffman (MR): By not having a film or a project that this is tied to, it really freed you up, time-wise and creatively. When you were creating this, did you come up with stories that you might want to write down or that you would actually want to see produced?

No, this was all improvised. My son and I would get together and play video games for two hours, then go downstairs to my Logic Pro music setup and play music for a couple hours, then back to the games, and back to music, and over the course of time we got about 60 minutes of music, which was like a soundtrack sampler, little fragments and bits and pieces of dramatic music that again are meant to conjure up images in your head.

An empty street at midnight, a barren landscape, all sorts of different things. And because I was seeking a new music attorney, I found one, and she said, “Well, do you have anything new?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I got this stuff my son and I did.” I sent it to her, and a couple months later I had a record deal. Jeez man. How great is this?

MR: A lot of these tracks feel like they could’ve definitely worked with some of your previous pictures. Originally, did you have demos you worked on? Is there anything that traces back 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ago, or is it all just brand new?

Dudes, no, it’s new. Nothing of this goes back to anything. It’s all brand new. This came flying out of our heads.

MR: On “Vortex”, you capture the menace within your early work. I hear a lot of Assault on Precinct 13, especially the bass. 

That all started with a piano riff, which is bom bom ba bom. That’s all I had, which is sort of building it from there.

JG: Conceiving these songs, did a lot of it mirror your process of 30 or 40 years ago, when you first started composing? Basically, has the structure stayed the same?

Most of the stuff is riff-driven, or just some sound or a chord progression, or occasionally my son would bring in a little sketch of something he was working on. I asked him to give me a sketch or something, so he’d do some part of the album. The most recent stuff we did, he was in Japan teaching English over there, so he’d send stuff via computer, and I’d put it up here and add stuff to it.

JG: Going back to the idea of these songs functioning as scores for movies in our own heads, I remember in the press release you stated that, in a way, you hope these scores can influence future filmmakers. Do you mean that literally? Would you like to hear somebody out there, like a Ty West or an Adam Wingard, use some of these themes in a future film of theirs?

Sure. As long as they pay me, sure. I’d love it, sure

MR: Did this album spark something in you to continue as a composer?

Oh, it’s the greatest. Look, it’s the greatest. I don’t have the stress or the pressure of the movie business. I mean, my first love will always be cinema. I fell in love when I was a kid, but this is just unbelievable because the creation of it is just pure. It’s just, “Does it sound good to me?” Yes. I don’t have to worry about anything. I don’t have to undergo stress and bullshit.

MR: You’ve been in rock bands previously…

Yes, I’d been in a couple bands. It’s different now. My music has developed over the years and matured from where it started, but it still has the basic core to it. Like I said, it’s a lot of riff-driven stuff, chord progressions, sounds. But my taste has matured, and I’ve gotten older; that’s what happens when you get old, dude.

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Artwork by Steven Fiche.

MR: I still hear tons of rock and roll in this album. “Obsidian” has a bit of a pop rock sound. I think “Mystery” sounds like Rick Wakeman on speed. Even the closer, “Night”, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Daft Punk album. All of it feels ready for the stage.

I would love to perform this stuff live. That would be so much fun. All I need is a million dollars, and I’ll do it; I’ll show up at your wedding. Seriously, it would be fun to do. I would be down to do a concert sometime with my son and my godson. Daniel Davies is my godson. I raised him along with my son. Starting a band around this and doing some of my old scores and some of the new stuff, that would be a lot of fun to play live.

JG: I think this could be a great Kickstarter campaign.

I don’t want to have to do anything.

JG: You wouldn’t have to. It would be a two-minute video.

I just want to show up and play. I don’t want to have to worry about raising money.

MR: I think it could happen in a heartbeat. Your music is incredibly influential. Have you heard of a label called Italians Do It Better?

No, I haven’t, but it’s a great title.

MR: It’s hilarious. But, go listen to some of their albums, specifically Chromatics’ Kill for Love. Your jaw will be on the floor. Point is, they played every festival a couple of years ago, so I could easily see you being able to front a band and getting out there and doing this for sure. I’m sure promoters could see it, too.

Yeah, but then there’s also the problem: When anything becomes a business, it sucks. We’ll see. I’m just going to stumble along in my old age, watch the NBA, play videos games, and play music. I’m having a good time, guys.

JG: John, I’m happy you brought up the NBA. I’m a lifelong Phoenix Suns fan.

Oh, they’re good this year.

They are good this year. They’re definitely on the rise, and I have to ask you, what do you think about the Lakers this year?

Well, we’re not very good. I’m sad. I’m extremely happy when we win, as we did last night, but then I think there are a lot of games we should win, but we don’t. Our defense sucks, but Kobe’s getting old. Look, this is what happens to old people. You’ll find out one day, too. You’ll find out. Then you’ll say, “Oh, John Carpenter told me, but I didn’t listen.”

JG: I’ll never forget. Although, Kobe Bryant’s playing at such a very high level for a person who is quote unquote old. I mean, he’s still playing.

Oh, he’s pretty good, I know, but you know he’s missing a lot of shots. I don’t know, guys. I think we have a lot of talent on the team. We’re just not playing defense. We’re not clicking yet.

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MR: If Cleveland can snap out of this winning streak they just found themselves in, Kevin Love might actually entertain the idea of going over to the Lakers.

I’d love to have him. He’d be great.

MR: Hey, I’m a lifelong Miami Heat fan, so I would love to see that happen to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year. No, that would be great.

My favorite team this year is the Golden State Warriors, just because I just love watching them play. They’re so much fun. [Pause.] So what else can I tell you dudes?

MR: What are a collection of albums that you’ve never really grown tired of?

The Beatles, all The Beatles. A lot of the Stones’ stuff. I’m an old ’60s guy, so that’s where I was. I love The Doors, so that’s where my heart is.

MR: How about any new records today?

Not records, necessarily. The music business is so fragmented, splintered. It has gone off in so many different directions, so it’s hard to know. I listen to some techno stuff, some electronic music. A lot of old synths are involved, which surprises me. Why go back to those old sounds when you have such great new sounds? But hey, what do I know?

JG: That actually leads me to my next question. A lot of the new horror films of today, like It Follows or The Guest, kind of hearken back to your old late-’70s synth scores.

Do they?

MR: Absolutely.

JG: Do you think it’s more of a nostalgic kick for people, or do you think maybe people should try a new sound?

Well, I don’t know, man. Everybody comes along with their bag of tricks. In movies, the sound and what you do is there to enhance the image and enhance the story that people are watching. There’s some really incredible composers that do that. My favorite movie composer is Hans Zimmer. He’s extraordinarily talented.

JG: Some of the stuff that Trent Reznor’s been doing has been really interesting. It’s very minimal, just little touches of piano here and there and some droning bass.

Oh yeah, I agree, but it’s for an effect. That’s what you have to appreciate.

MR: Going back on some of your older themes and older works, are there some scores that you look back on now? I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of the reissues that have been going on. I know Mondo and Death Wish do a ton of series based on your works, and they’ve done amazing vinyl covers for all the Halloween scores and a variety of other horror movie covers. Do you ever revisit some of your scores, and do you listen to any of them now and go, “Ah, I kind of wish I could tweak that or re-do it”?

You got to understand something. I don’t watch my old movies. I don’t want to listen to my old scores, because if I do, I say, “What the fuck was I thinking? Why did I do that?” So I don’t pay attention to that. That’s all in the past, my friend.

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MR: What about the experiences? Say there was a deadline or a short timeframe, maybe that short spurt of, like, “We really need to get down all these tracks, and we have to be as creative as possible in this short window.” You might not look at the score, but you look back at those moments when you were up against the wall, where you were like, “Shit, I have to put this score together.”

You’re asking me if I look back on deadlines nostalgically? Are you crazy? You insane?

MR: [Laughs.] Maybe the accomplishment itself.

No, no, the stress of the movie business and finishing a movie is unbelievable. I don’t look back on that with nostalgia. That shit aged me, man. It brought me to my knees. I had to say I’ve got to quit this; I can’t work this hard. At one point in my life, I was making a movie a year.

MR: That’s why I asked. You were pumping out scores nonstop.

I know. “God, I got to stop and relax. I can’t do this anymore at this pace.”

JG: You’ve spoken about your absolute love for producers and people up in the offices.

Absolutely, deep abiding love.

JG: You can’t miss it, to be honest.

No, no.

JG: As a youngster, coming up, getting into Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, were you ever discouraged by producers when you decided that you wanted to score your own films? Did they try to encourage you to reach out to other people, or were you insistent?

No, they didn’t. In the beginning, especially because nobody had any money, it was all because I was cheap, and I was fast, so that was why I did it. Nobody seemed to mind.

MR: I do love that, and I actually didn’t learn this about the score for Halloween until recently. When it was first shown to the original producer … wait, was it a producer? I can’t remember.

Yeah, I know the story you’re thinking about. It was an executive. I was looking for another job. I showed the movie to this executive who said, “This doesn’t scare me” because I didn’t have music on it. So the music did influence the viewing of the film. That executive did come back later and say, “You know, I was wrong about that,” which is really cool. That’s cool.

MR: That was months before that was supposed to hit cinemas.

Yeah, oh yeah. I needed a job, man. I needed that. My first love of my life was cinema. That’s what I fell in love with. That’s what I dedicated my life to.

JG: You talk about that executive coming back to you and saying, you know, “OK, actually that was good,” but something like, for instance, the Halloween III soundtrack — not even the movie — is getting reappraised 30 years later. People seem to really love it a lot. Does it confuse you why people would like something 30-plus years later and they maybe just didn’t get it back in 1982?

Yeah, well, that’s the way it goes. What can I do about it? I made a movie called The Thing, and it came out in 1982 and it was hated and hated by the fans.

JG: Well, was that because E.T. had been released around that time, too? Isn’t that right?

I don’t know. There’s a variety of reasons for it. But they thought I had raped Madonna. I’m telling you, it was unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, Well, this is one of my best movies, and they shit on it. What can I do?

MR: It’s funny you brought up The Thing. I listen to this podcast by author Bret Easton Ellis, and he was talking to Ti West; he had just mentioned The Thing as the one film that basically let him know there was never going to be another horror movie that was ever going to scare him again. He had seen it as a kid, and he was like, “Yep, that’s it. I’m an adult now.”

It’s about the end of humanity. It’s about the end of everything. I think part of the problem that the audience maybe had was that halfway through the movie, it’s hopeless. These guys are never going to survive, and I just went with it.

MR: Could there be a Lost Themes 2? Maybe another sort of compendium of compositions that you would do?

I have already been working on music with my son and godson. We’d love to do that, but no one’s asked us yet, so we’ll see.

MR: I hope they do.

I hope so, too. That would be a lot of fun.

MR: And there’s no possible return to the silver screen anytime soon?

No, that’s not true. I may. I have a couple projects I’m working on now, but they have to be the right conditions. Or, in other words, it would have to be enough of a budget, try to minimize the pressure, and just make my own film. But we’ll see. We shall see, gents.

Lost Themes hits stores on February 3rd via Sacred Bones. Pre-order now. In case you missed it, we recently ranked and dissected Carpenter’s films from worst to best, which you can revisit here.

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