“This is John from Hollywood.”
I didn’t ever expect to have the opportunity to speak to John Carpenter. I grew up with his films; I have vivid memories of sitting in front of the faded color television set watching Halloween and Escape from New York with my parents. I distinctly remember counting the days until In the Mouth of Madness was released and tracking all the way to Showcase Cinemas in Walsall (it was a ways away and I wasn’t old enough to drive) – I wasn’t disappointed. What linked Carpenter’s films together for me wasn’t just the rich, innovative visuals, it was the unforgettable scores. Whether it was Assault on Precinct 13’s doomy synth motifs (which have been the source of inspiration for techno artists ever since) or Halloween’s ubiquitous piano theme, Carpenter’s scores were arguably just as important as his direction, and they’ve become an important part of his legacy in recent years.
In March, Carpenter issued his debut album proper on New York’s Sacred Bones imprint. Titled Lost Themes, it was the first time he had put a selection of tracks together that weren’t intended for a score. He produced it alongside his son Cody and his Godson Daniel Davies, and to hear Carpenter writing without sitting in front of a rough cut is a rare treat. I got the opportunity to chat briefly to the self-styled master of horror, and while he clearly had better things to do, and has already been interviewed more times than most musicians are likely to be in their entire lifetimes, he was charming, funny and cynical.
Explore FACT’s beginner’s guide to John Carpenter to hear more of the director’s classic compositions.
“How do you hear about my music being influential? I don’t know anything about it.”
I wanted to begin by asking if the influence of 50s and 60s science fiction films – Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Vampires – were an influence on your decision to use synthesizers in your scores?
No, my decision to use synthesizers was born out of necessity. And because when you’re a student filmmaker or a low-budget filmmaker you really don’t have any budget, so you can’t afford to hire a great composer or an orchestra and a recording studio, so what I decided to do was use a synthesizer because you could sound big with just a keyboard – with multiple tracks – so that’s how it started. Then over the years it evolved into another form of directing, another form of creating.
In recent years, though, we’ve gone back towards orchestral scores, because it’s easier to make those without an orchestra now.
Well, everything is pretty much orchestral but they mix and match a lot now. There’s a lot of sound design and computer music effects mixed in with orchestral effects, but the orchestras can be huge. You get this huge sound and a lot of the style of composing has returned pretty much to the old days. What I’m talking about is “Mickey Mousing.” Mickey Mousing began when films began to have sound on them, and the ultimate example of Mickey Mouse scoring is King Kong, which is a great soundtrack but the musical score sounds like footsteps [Carpenter makes “bom bom bom” sounds to illustrate the point] – it scores everything. Nowadays emotions are scored a great deal – heroic, sad – it’s Mickey Mousing once more, as opposed to a lot of the synthesized soundtracks that I grew to love in the 70s, like you’re talking about, which gave more room. They struck a mood but they weren’t defining the emotion instant by instant.
It’s weird, I think at the moment the really innovative soundtracks I’ve heard have been on TV, like Steven Soderberg’s recent series The Knick.
[excitedly] Yes, oh yes, that’s very good stuff. I saw that. But yeah, people like Trent Reznor are doing great stuff, it’s here and there.
From my very small amount of experience, I’ve found that financiers often request a bland orchestral score at the last minute, even if there’s a more unusual score in place.
That’s right – that’s just how it goes now. But what can you do about it, you know? You can’t do anything!
Go totally independent?
There’s nothing to be done, nothing to be done.
I found it quite interesting how, in the last decade, interest in your music has soared. Do you know any specific reason for this?
I have no idea! How do you hear about my music being influential? I don’t know anything about it.
I’ve noticed it because I fell in love with electronic music from watching your films, and I think a lot of people shared that early experience – hearing eerie synth music.
Who knows man, I don’t know. But it’s all great – there’s nothing wrong with it.
I wanted to ask about the new record. You collaborated with your son?
And my godson. I want to exploit their youth and become rich.
“It seems like modern electronic music is reverting to the ‘80s.”
What did they bring to the process?
Well, it all started with my son and I just spending time together improvising music just for fun. We did this over a period of months – we’d play videogames for two hours, we’d then go downstairs to my Logic Pro music setup and we’d compose and perform for two hours and go back to the videogames and back and forth. And over a period of time we developed about 60 minutes of music. My son took off for Japan and I didn’t do anything with it, it was just for fun, and I got a new music attorney who asked me if I had any new music. So I sent this stuff over to her and two months later I had a record deal. Jeez. I’m ready to have Beyoncé open for me.
Have you considered performing the material live?
Yeah, but that would be expensive, because to sound like that is not easy. Unless we just reinvented it as rock ‘n’ roll, you know?
You said your setup was Logic Pro. That’s a lot easier to use than the old analog setup, I’m assuming?
It’s great! Plus you can buy this gigantic sound library of plugins and oh my god – some of the sounds they have now, it’s unbelievable. I wish we had those back in the old days. Oddly enough it seems like modern electronic music is reverting to the ‘80s, like Prophet 5 crap. Do they know what they have at their fingertips? I don’t get it. I just don’t get anything.
I think people fetishize stuff that they haven’t had direct contact with. When I was growing up those synthesizers were too expensive, so to have massive libraries at your fingertips for such a low cost, it’s such a resource.
Yes it is, it’s amazing, it’s great.
You used to have to have a record deal to afford a studio.
I hear you, and that’s happened in all forms. In movies too – you can make a movie now on your own.
You said the basis of the record was improvisation?
Yes that’s right.
I was reading that when you were working on Halloween III: Season of the Witch, there was an element of improvisation with that score too?
[Laughs] There’s an element of improvisation with every single score I’ve done. Every single one of ‘em. It’s all out of instinct, that’s where it comes from. Every movie since Escape from New York, I watch the footage and record the score. It’s all the same process. Halloween III was a movie I didn’t direct, I just sat down and came up with the score for it by watching the scenes and trying to support them and give them what they need. But that’s always been the process.
So when you were improvising the new record you could distance yourself from having to think about scenes, etc?
It was fabulous, it was freeing! It was like a liberation. I just felt great. There’s no schedule, there’s no deadline, there’s no producer looking at me. It was great.
Had you done it before?
No, no one’s ever asked me! No one wants me to work with them.
So it was a totally new process?
It was brand new.
Is it something you want to continue doing? Have you got any more plans?
Oh hell yes man, it’s fun! Are you kidding me? It’s great fun.
I know you’re a big gamer and I wondered if you’d considered doing any sound work with video games?
I’d love to, and I did a video game back in the 90s. It was Sentinel Returns. I was shooting a movie [1998’s Vampires] in New Mexico and they asked me to do the music. I went to a studio one Sunday, my day off, and just knocked out something and gave it to them. They seemed happy, so, fine. I never saw the game. Nobody told me how it was, I don’t know anything. No one tells me anything!
“If they don’t pay me, fuck ‘em.”
I can imagine there are so many people involved that you can end up losing control.
Yes, you can, unless you try to stake out control for yourself. It’s a life-long process. But people don’t care about that any more, it’s really weird. I’m serious, I’m dead serious – when I was in film school the precious thing to do was to get final cut. That was it, that’s the ultimate. Directors don’t give a shit now. They don’t care, they just wanna get hired. They’ll do whatever they’ll told. It’s unbelievable – what the hell happened to you guys? You fuckin’ sell-outs!
People have to fight. I’ve had it – I don’t think I have it any more if somebody hired me, but you only get final cut in reality if you make a lot of money for people. That’s the only way to get it, and the times that I’ve had it I’ve had to fight tooth and nail. But it’s worth it to fight – it’s your movie! Well, it is to me, but I’m just an old-timer now. Just an old-timer, man.
Do you have anything in the works right now?
You know, I have movies I’ve been developing. Looking for money, working on scripts. And if it comes to pass that’d be great.
I read about the Escape from New York remake.
Aha. And I’m having a meeting on that today, I have no idea what they have in mind. I really don’t – I’m gonna meet the producers and see what kind of movie they wanna make. As long as they pay me money it’s OK with me, but if they don’t pay me, fuck ‘em.
What sort of music were you listening to when you were recording Lost Themes?
Movie scores, game scores, the occasional pop song on the radio. That’s really it – I don’t immerse myself in a whole lot of music.
Are there any scores that have stood out to you recently?
Hans Zimmer’s scores stand out to me. He’s one composer I recognize almost always. I can hear his chord progressions. He’s sensational and well paid!
What about in games?
You know, I don’t sit through the credits so I don’t know who composes for games but they do a lot of orchestral stuff. It’s all the same now, it’s all Mickey Mouse, like I told you. The Borderlands games always use some rock ’n roll songs which is pretty good.