Track by Track is a recurring new music feature in which an artist offers a comprehensive rundown of their new album.
John Carpenter doesn’t watch his own movies. That’s not surprising; not a lot of filmmakers do. What he does revisit, however, is his music. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller at heart, which is why he’s been tickling that fancy for the last few years by recording new music and hitting the road with his son, Cody, and his godson, Daniel Davies.
Now that he has two solo albums behind him — 2015’s Lost Themes and 2016’s Lost Themes II — he’s back with a greatest-hits-of-sorts he’s calling, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. Due out today via Sacred Bones, the album collects 13 re-recorded renditions of his most popular themes, from Halloween to The Fog to Ennio Morricone’s The Thing.
It’s a collection that sums up Carpenter. As I wrote in my glowing B+ review from earlier this week, “[The re-recordings] may prove to be a little uncanny valley for veteran fans who grew up seeking out his soundtracks in vintage shops and MP3 blogs, but it also feels like a celebration — for us, for horror, and especially for Carpenter.”
To keep that celebration going, we spoke to the Horror Master himself, who walked us through each theme off the album, offering anecdotes and patiently answering our dumb fan theories like a total champ. This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken to him, so we were well aware of how short he can get. Still, it was a fun afternoon.
Stream the album now as you read on below.
01. In the Mouth of Madness
This is another one of your collaborations with Jim Lang. Was he the one that brought the hard rock out of you?
Not necessarily. Jim tried his hand at a main theme, and it just didn’t go. What I really wanted was … I wanted Metallica. We tried to get “Enter Sandman”, but we couldn’t afford it, or they wouldn’t give it to us. I can’t remember what it was, but probably that they wouldn’t give it to us. I sat down and developed this theme on my own because I wanted something that gets up and goes there, you know? Not some spooky music. I wanted something to sound like heavy metal, and that’s what you hear.
Who’s doing guitar on it?
That’s Dave Davies.
The film’s all about New England novelists. Are you a big fan of Stephen King or HP Lovecraft?
Yeah, Lovecraft is what it’s about. I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft; he was really influential. I’m still a fan of his stuff.
Do you have any particular stories that you remember loving most?
“The Rats in the Walls”, there’s one.
Did you ever read “The Colour Out of Space”?
Of course! Are you kidding?
02. Assault on Precinct 13
I read you had a single day to record this theme…
I had a single day to record the whole soundtrack. [Laughs.] We didn’t have any money; this was a low-budget movie. We didn’t have any bucks for this. You can probably tell by listening very carefully to it, it’s a rip-off, an homage, or whatever you want to call it to “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.
At the time, do you think you worked well under pressure? Especially when it came to music?
I don’t know if it’s “well” if I had no choice. I had to. I had to do this; I don’t get to choose. I didn’t know until later, when I worked on my first studio film. I went, “Oh my god! Look all this! We have all this time, and we get to do things.” Ah, it’s amazing. So, I didn’t know.
Do you remember the day at all?
I remember it. Yeah, yeah, I remember it. You know, it didn’t seem that insurmountable at the time. It just didn’t seem that incredibly hard; it was just “Oh, okay. Let’s do this. This is what we have to spend, and that’s it!”
With the main theme, what came first: the bass line or the synths?
The bass line. It’s usually the bass line first, but in this case, it definitely was the bass line. That started me down the path, so it was that, and then everything else was just kind of icing on this cake. I’ll put it that way.
How much influence did Darwin Joston’s Napoleon have on Snake Plissken? Seems like they share some similarities.
They do. They definitely do. I would say he does have a bit of influence, yeah. The attitude is very similar. It’s well thought. I agree with you.
What is it about anti-heroes that speak to you?
God, I wish I knew. I don’t know. In high school, my friends were anti-heroes in a sense. One of my best friends was a model for Snake Plissken.
Yeah, a lot about him, and, I suppose, I romanticized it for myself because I always wanted to be like that. I always wanted to never give a shit. I gave too much of a shit. I never wanted to. I always wanted to be able to not care.
03. The Fog
This film wasn’t easy to make.
Oh, it was tough! It was grim and tough.
What made it so tough?
I had to go back and reshoot some things to make it scarier and better. That was hard to do because it was just nerve-wracking. I don’t know how much I’ve learned out of it; we kind of escaped ruin in that movie. It turned out alright, and it turned out very cool, but the first version of it was not that good. It wasn’t scary.
How do you look at it now?
I feel good with it. I must be really frank with you: I never watch my own movies, so I haven’t seen that thing since, you know, 1980. I just don’t want to watch them again. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, let’s move on. Every once in awhile, I’ll see it on television and I’ll stop by … and it looks pretty. Dean Cundey is great.
Love Dean Cundey. He’s one of my favorite cinematographers. Wish he was still working with Spielberg.
He’s doing some independent films now. He still works occasionally.
I’ve read that Stonehenge played a huge part in the conception of The Fog. How so?
Debra Hill and I went to Europe; we went to the London Film Festival and just kind of tooled around and looked to see what we could see and what was happening. We went to Stonehenge, and it was just mysterious. The fog was rolling in, and it was just really moody. Fog is a tremendously cheap effect to do, so I thought, Oh, maybe we can do something with this – or make a movie out of this. That’s kind of all how it came about.
The Fog was pretty much the first Halloween reunion before Halloween II. Do you recall having that same magic on set that you did when you were filming Halloween two or three years prior?
Magic? There’s no magic.
There’s no magic?
No! [Laughs.] God no, are you kidding? There’s just hard work. There’s never been magic. We’ve had good times, but that was one year after. One year after we shot Halloween, we were shooting The Fog. It did well; it helped propel my career onto the next movie. It was hard. It was very hard.
Is it just because it was such a bigger world than what you had been used to?
I still don’t really know. It just wasn’t scary; that’s the whole thing: it has to be is scary. It wasn’t. It wasn’t at all … it fell flat. So, I had to fix it to make it scary in order to make it work. We did. I just wasn’t sure what was going on.
There’s a fun fan theory out there that Jamie Lee Curtis’ character is actually a runaway Laurie Strode.
At the time, you were thinking of doing an anthology of stories for Halloween. Did you ever think The Fog might exist in the same universe?
No, I’m sorry to throw water on that theory, but no. Jamie’s character in The Fog was really based on one of my early girlfriends, Elizabeth.
Oh, interesting. Did your girlfriend ever know that?
No, this was long ago. I hadn’t spoken to her in 20 years at the time, so I don’t even know if she knew.
You should call her up sometime and be like, “It’s Halloween, you should watch this movie. I wrote this character for you.”
Yeah, well… [Laughs.]
04. Prince of Darkness
A couple of years ago, you told Rolling Stone you’re really proud of this score. Why’s that?
I can’t explain why I like it; it’s just a damn creepy score. I’m really proud of it.
Prince of Darkness is the second film in your Apocalypse Trilogy. How did this trio of films come to fruition? Did you draw the lines together later down the road? Or did you have the idea going into this movie?
Well, I think I realized, and I’m not quite sure when it was — probably during The Thing — that the movie is about the end of the world. Then it came time for Prince of Darkness, and that’s about the end of the world, too, in a different way and in a different sense. I think that’s where it started. It wasn’t something that I planned out. But that’s when I realized, That’s what I’m making. I didn’t realize the implications before. It’s just the end of things in different ways.
Is the end of the world something that has been a fear of yours over the years?
It wasn’t a fear exactly, because I’m not really fearing it. Scientifically, that’s quite a ways off. When I was in elementary school, they still read us the bible — they hadn’t taken it out of schools yet. So, I remember being kind of stunned at Revelations.
What the hell is this? I’m fascinated, fascinated by it. So, I think that’s always been a fascination of mine: the end of things. It goes with the territory. If you’re going to make movies about evil, that’s one of the things you have to confront — the end of everything.
That’s interesting about Revelations. I was in a similar boat. I’m from a Jewish family, but I had to go to a Catholic school growing up, and I was so fascinated with Revelations. I would sit there in church every day and just keep reading these passages and all my teachers were like, “Oh look! He’s reading the Bible. That’s so nice!” But really, I’m just reading these awful things, and it was terrifying. I’m surprised nobody’s really made a movie about it yet.
I don’t know why. It’s because it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Did you see the movie called Rapture?
Oh man. Now, that’s the closest that’s come. That was made in the late ’90s, I think. It was really good. The guy who made the movie about the Hollywood writer with Tim Robbins in it.
Oh, yes, The Player.
Yes! That’s it! Anyway, it’s very cynical. I like it!
I’ll seek it out for sure. That’s a story that has always stuck with me.
Yeah, I’m with you.
Do you think that had the anthology plan for Halloween gone forward might Prince of Darkness been included?
Not really, no. Prince of Darkness was a movie that was inspired by a Dario Argento movie called Inferno. I loved Inferno, but the thing that was inspiring to me was it was just so free. Narratively, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that didn’t matter. The movie was so profound. I thought, Well shit, I want to do something like this. So that’s what my inspiration really came from.
Well, you succeeded.
I haven’t ever told Dario that. I should tell him.
05. “Santiago” (Vampires)
“Santiago” is another rocking theme. Did James Woods’ leather jacket have any influence on that?
The [idea for] guitar and pedal steel comes from an old movie that I love dearly called Rio Bravo. That was made back in the 50’s — ’59 I think it was. Part of the story of Rio Bravo was that the bad guys played a song called “Deguello”, which was a song played at the Alamo, and it meant, “no quarter.” In the movie, it was re-written by Dimitri Tiomkin. It was just beautiful, I loved it. So, I wanted to do my version of it, so that’s what “Santiago” is. On the original, I played the guitar part and Jeff Baxter played the pedal shield guitar. You’ve heard of Steely Dan? He was one of the original members; he’s been around a long time.
06. Escape from New York
This was your first collaboration with Alan Howarth. How did the two of you meet?
My editor suggested that I get together with him. He said Alan is a sound effects guy who has a lot of equipment, and I think you’ll like his electronic sounds. So, Alan was the engineer, and he had a lot of equipment, and I was the composer/player. And it worked really well while it worked. For several movies, we worked really well together.
So, basically he had a playground of equipment.
He did. I didn’t know anything about this shit. I didn’t understand how to program; I didn’t know anything. Just give me a sound; that’s all I’m interested in. Nowadays, I know my way around, but then I didn’t.
That’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of synth artists recently, especially those who have been influenced by you, and they all say the same thing: “You know what, I just sit down and I try to do whatever I can.” It’s not like they’re ever trained for it; they just try to find sounds.
With the new equipment, the new technology today, I mean, you can spend hours looking for sounds. There’s incredible libraries of stuff. Just amazing shit. Where was this in the old days? I could have used all this!
So you don’t mind the digital elements?
Oh no, god no. I love it.
But the analog element is still essential.
You’ve talked about how Death Wish influenced Escape from New York. Did that carry over into the music?
No, not the music, just the vision of New York. The vision of New York in Death Wish was pretty hellish.
You filmed in East St. Louis, Illinois, right?
St. Louis, what a place. They had this big fire, and it burned out the middle of the city, and it was perfect for us.
I read that you struggled to find a theme for this movie, though. Were you trying to find something timeless or something that would stick for Snake Plissken — maybe for future movies?
I don’t remember why. We wanted something that said the future is coming and it’s dangerous. So, I don’t know where it came from. I tinkered it out on the piano.
And this is after filming, right?
Yeah. We weren’t recording. I was sitting at home; I was just playing around.
Do you always score to picture?
Ever since that movie.
So for Halloween, you weren’t scoring to picture?
Oh no, hell no, god no. For both Assault and Halloween, I go into a studio and depending on how much time I had, I’d do several pieces. For Assault, I had a day; for Halloween, I had three days.
One of the most iconic themes of all time and you came up with it in three days. Unbelievable.
Not the theme, the whole score. That theme was done in like an hour. We moved on.
You’ve remarked about being influenced by Bernard Herrmann, but there also seems to be a parallel between Halloween and Spielberg’s Jaws. Much like the shark, The Shape brings a darkness to his environment, and the music tends to embellish that fear of knowing he’s nearby but out of sight.
Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe you’re right.
Was it similar to Assault, where you came up with a main theme and then worked from there?
Halloween was my dad teaching me 5/4 time, and I just used it on the piano. My father taught me on the bongos. To me, that was revolutionary, 5/4 time.
Other selections off this score are just as iconic, what with “The Myers House” and “Laurie’s Theme”. For the tour, would you ever entertain the idea of dusting off some of these deeper cuts? Maybe from your other scores, too?
Well, we could, but when we go on tour, it’s a six-piece rock and roll band, so we go for the rock and roll. I think we’re going to go for the main themes, you know. I don’t think people know some of the side themes. They don’t remember them .
With the new Halloween coming out next year, would you want to try to write new themes or would you rework the old ones?
I would talk to the director about it, see what he needs. Although there are several ways of doing it. We could refurbish the old score, we could maybe do a brand-new score, we could do a combination. It all depends. So, that’s something I’ll sit down with him, spot the movie, and decide what to do.
You recently said this film’s ignoring every sequel, but you and Debra Hill wrote Halloween II. So, what are your thoughts on nixing that one altogether?
Well, that was hard to write. I just didn’t think there was any more story after the first one. And I had to come up with a story, so I’d get a six-pack of beer and sit down at the typewriter every night. I mean, it was horrible. It was awful. I’m not really a fan of the sequels. But what the hell, they pay me. They pay me money, so I can’t knock it.
I do remember, and this is a long time ago, maybe back in the ’90s, reading that one of the ideas you had for a follow-up to the original would be set at a college campus with Laurie, and it would have a little more of a spiritual element to it? There’s a lot of stuff that you come across on the Internet, but I always wondered if that was true.
I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t entertain it. Spiritual world, huh?
Like I think that she was supposed to be haunted by a ghost of Myers or something.
Maybe she finds god at the university. I don’t know; I don’t think so. Doesn’t sound right.
Oh well! [Laughs.] How involved are you with the story for the new one?
I’m not involved, particularly. I’m just the guy who comments and throws my two cents in, and they take it or leave it. It doesn’t matter.
08. “Porkchop Express” (Big Trouble in Little China)
Why do you think Big Trouble… became such a cult classic? The following behind this one is so strange. I went to a screening last year, and people were just standing up and shouting out lines.
I know, it’s unbelievable. I think it’s because it’s such a silly film and the hero is such an idiot. It’s got a lot of kung-fu in it, which is always fun; it’s got a sword fight in mid-air … I mean, what do you not like about this movie?
The song that you’re listening to on our album, “The Porkchop Express”, the editor used a temp track. He used ZZ Top’s “I Just Got Paid Today”. So, that was my inspiration for the song.
How long did it take you to shoot that insane music video for the titular song?
One night. All night long.
That’s crazy. [Laughs] They played that right before that screening I mentioned, and we were all going nuts. I love it.
09. They Live
This one has a total old-school Western vibe. Did you see Roddy Piper as a cowboy?
Well, it was more of a blues piece. One 4/5 blues with harmonica and various things. No, [Roddy’s] just a working guy coming into town, and he’s kind of down on his luck, looking for a job, so I thought the blues would work. We didn’t have anything like that on the album, so it seemed perfect.
You wrote this screenplay under the pseudonym Frank Armitage. Why?
Well, I remember seeing a poster for Christine on Sunset Boulevard, and I looked at it and my name was everywhere, and I was embarrassed. I thought, Well, what the fuck, take your name off it idiot. I’m being a showoff. So, I then decided that somebody else wrote it.
There’s an inherent rage to this story that bleeds from the script. Like you were incredibly pissed off.
Oh, big time! Big time, dude! There was a scream in the night, that’s what it was, because you know, I’m an old lefty from the ’60s. What is this shit? I just didn’t understand. So, I was screaming, which brings us to today … Oh my god, I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, onward.
Would you want to make another film that comments on today?
Well, it would be the same movie. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s hard to believe. At least these aliens, what they were doing, were competent. They could pull it off. Anyway…
10. The Thing
This is the first of two covers on Anthology. Looking back, how do you think the score for The Thing would have changed had you done it?
Ennio [Morricone] did a couple of things for me. He did this opening theme that’s on the album, and he did that in a very sparse electronic style, which I loved. I loved that theme. Very moody, very dark. But he did this lush, orchestral stuff for me, too. It was just incredible. So, it was a real contrast; he did a bunch of different things. No, I’m pretty happy with the damn score, I think. It’s great.
You’ve said in the past how you wanted Morricone to go more minimal, and how the two of you connected musically, but did you ever give him examples of your own?
No, I never did that, but I have to confess that the final version of The Thing, there are a couple of incidental mood pieces that are done by somebody other than Ennio. There’s an album out with his music on it. It will be re-released next year with these additional pieces on it. They’re nothing — I’m telling you, it’s incidental.
Jack Nitzsche originally did this one. Why did you decide to revisit it for Anthology?
Jack Nitzsche was recommended to me by Michael Douglas. He said he’s a genius. Jack Nitzsche co-wrote one of my favorite rock and roll songs with Sonny Bono called “Needles and Pins”, and he was a piano session guy with The Rolling Stones, so his background was in popular music, and he was incredible.
So, I wanted to see what was going on with him. He hooked up with a synclavier, and at the time, that was a brand-new sampling keyboard. He sampled his wife’s voice — Buffy St. Marie — I can’t remember what note, but he played her. So, the original theme is her.
It’s a theme to a movie that I’m very proud of. My only romantic comedy, so why not.
Had there been any discussions for you to do the score?
It was Jack. It was always Jack. They would let me do a horror movie, but not a love story.
Worried about the romantic element, huh?
Well, yeah. Hell yes. That’s fine.
12. Dark Star
By this point, you had already scored other student films, right?
Yeah, I had. A few.
Would you say Dark Star was an anarchic experience?
Well, no, I don’t know; you talking about the music part? I was trying my best with the music to emulate Bernard Herrmann’s chord changes, and he has one chord that he uses a lot. But we didn’t do it. So, we refurbished this Dark Star piece and made it a little bit more modern and complex because it was pretty simple.
There’s a lot to love with this version, and it adds such a sophistication to the score.
Well, thank you. That’s very nice of you. You’re being very kind! When are you going to get cruel?
“Christine” closes out Anthology, and I wondered what was your impetus for wanting to highlight the theme. You even directed a promotional music video for it. Would you credit the latest Stephen King renaissance?
It was just fun to play live, so we decided to do it. It’s simple. We wind up our show with the new “Christine”.
This score sounds so similar to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is incredibly underrated.
Halloween III is kind of an unknown album.
Which is so unfortunate. That’s one of my favorite scores of all time. It’s so moody and atmospheric. I wondered if you tried to incorporate some of those sounds into this one because you knew it was going to be more of a mainstream film.
No, I didn’t. Halloween III was just me sitting down doing the music and was just … God, I haven’t heard that album in a long time. But, you know on the special edition of Anthology, there are two more tracks that aren’t on the vinyl. “Village of the Damned” is one of them. We’re going to play that live, and I can’t remember the other one. You get two extra tracks if you buy it on CD.
Rock and roll is such a vital part of Christine. How did that inform the theme of this film? Did you maybe see rock and roll as a villain?
Well, the story kind of called for it because it was a ’58 Plymouth Fury, so we would go back and pluck some gems from the past and George Thorogood of The Destroyers gave us this great track, “Bad to the Bone”. This was the first time it was used. Everybody’s used it since, but I got it first. So, it had a spirit to it. But really, “Christine” on the Anthology album is from the electronic score. It’s not so much from the rock and roll; we just made it a rock and roll piece.
Both the film and the book came out within months of each other. That must have been chaotic in terms of conceptualization, no?
It did? I didn’t realize that.
Similar to your fears with The Fog, you thought this wasn’t very frightening, but you also saw this as a studio job. In retrospect, is it something that you are kind of proud of?
Oh, sure, I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the performances in it, and I’m proud of some of the sequences with the car. Sure, I like it. It’s not my best movie, but it’s not my worst movie, so what the hell.
I like the idea that there’s no origin to the car, which is a good change from the actual book.
Yeah, they didn’t have the dead guy in the back seat talking.
Did you work with Stephen King at all during production?
No. He just said do what you wish.
Have you ever got to meet him over the years?
Oh, sure. George Romero introduced us, and Stephen King invited me to the 1992 induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So, I saw The Doors get inducted, I saw Creedence Clearwater; it was amazing.
So, you’re with Stephen King watching Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore. That is amazing. [Laughs] I also read that you were originally supposed to do Firestarter, right?
I would have loved to do that one. That was a great one.
With King being as big as he is now, are there any of his old novels you would want to do right now?
No, oh, hell no. Are you kidding? That’s work. I don’t want to do that.