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John Carpenter

The Horror Master on his recent movie themes album and tour

Nov 03, 2017 Web Exclusive Photography by Sophie Gransard Bookmark and Share

Few filmmakers have impacted an entire genre to the same degree that John Carpenter has had an effect on horror. With 1978’s Halloween, he set the template for the hundreds of slasher films that would follow in its wake. Approaching its 40th anniversary, Halloween has yet to be topped by any of its imitators.

Across an incredible run of fantastic films that includes The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), They Live (1988), and others, Carpenter not only influenced the way genre films should look and play out, but the way they should sound. Also a keyboardist, Carpenter initially composed his own film scores because he lacked the budget to hire someone else to do it. In time his minimalist, electronic style sparked a subgenre all its own. His influence can be heard in many of the current synthwave acts and in the scores to recent films such as It Follows and The Guest, or the Netflix series Stranger Things.

For someone with such a looming influence on both film and film music, Carpenter doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the past. He quite famously doesn’t watch his films once he’s finished them, and offers modest, straight-forward answers when pressed about hsi past works. And thus, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974 – 1998 – a new album on which Carpenter re-recorded many of his best-known film tracks with his son, keyboardist Cody Carpenter, and godson, guitarist Daniel Davies – may be the closest thing we ever see to Carpenter reflecting on his career. The record – which comes on the heels of Lost Themes I and II, both albums of new material – expands upon his well-known film themes, upgrading them for 21st Century sound systems and exploring their further potential once separated from the images they were created to serve.

Now, Carpenter is midway into a tour that sees him performing the themes from his iconic films (as well as select cuts from the Lost Themes LPs) for audiences across North America. He took some time to chat with us about those upcoming dates, revisiting his classic film scores, and how the master of horror spends his Halloween nights.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: A lot of people were looking forward to seeing what John Carpenter would do for his Halloween show out in Los Angeles. How did it go?

John Carpenter: It went very well. We had a great time!

Did you do anything special to commemorate the date?

We performed, and the show went very well. [Laughs] Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves, so that’s a good start.

If you weren’t on the road, what would you have been up to on Halloween?

I’d have been watching the Lakers game.

So, it’s just like any other day?

Yeah. [Laughs] I do like Halloween. It’s a great time, but I don’t do anything I don’t do every other single day.

You’ve still got three more weeks of touring ahead of you. Are you having as much fun as you were the last time we talked, when you were on the road for Lost Themes?

This is even more fun! It’s unbelievably fun. I’m just having a blast. I can’t believe how sensational it’s been to do this.

Your son and godson are in your band. I have to imagine that touring feels a bit like a family road trip.

It does. It’s the whole reason to do this, to play with them and cut loose. You know, it’s tiring. I won’t lie. But it’s absolutely worth it.

It’s very well-known that you don’t go back and watch your movies after you’ve finished them. Would you say that listening to all of your old scores for this album the closest thing you’ve ever done to looking back over your career?

Well, I guess it is. I’ve revisited several of my old scores, and that’s an interesting exercise. Good, and bad. Some of them, I’m kind of shocked by how crude they sound to me. But, I’m also pleasantly surprised sometimes. I think, “Well, that’s pretty damn good. Better than I remember it.” It’s fun to do. And when we’ve been able to make them sound good in our performances, that’s when I get really excited.

When you say that you found some of them to be crude, did you mean in terms of sound quality?

They were simple. That’s what I started out to do – I didn’t have enormous chops myself, personally, so I would make music that was basic and could just fill the bill. It had to support the image of the movie. That’s what I’d set out to do, and now I’m revisiting it and performing it, which is a little bit different. When you do music to be heard in a movie, then it’s buried behind an image and fulfilling a function. But now, it’s out front and you’re listening to it without the images, so I’m interested in how complex or how simple it is.

Re-recording these songs, and playing them live, does it trigger any memories? Does it ever take you back to when you were working on these films?

Well, it takes me back to when I was doing music for those films. I don’t really think much about the music while I’m making the movie. But it does take me back to doing the music, and choosing “Oh, what’s this going to sound like? What’s that going to sound like?” That kind of thing.

Stepping back and looking at your themes from a wide angle of your entire career, did you learn or discover anything new about yourself, or your style?

Yes, I did. I learned several things about myself and my style… which I’d prefer to keep to myself. [Laughs] Well, I can tell you one thing. I realized I have a love for octaves. I use a lot of octaves in my compositions, which was really interesting.

Given how averse you are to dwelling on your past work, was it more interesting to you to go back and work on tracks like, say, Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Thing, as it’s more like a cover song?

Yeah, that’s okay, because someone else wrote it! I’m just trying to make it sound great. That’s fun. It was fun working on [the theme from] Starman, Jack Nitzsche’s theme for my one-and-only-ever love story. That was really cool, just fun to do.

Your son, Cody Carpenter, and godson, Daniel Davies, are your main musical collaborators. Exploring and expanding your old themes, did they come up with ideas that hadn’t occurred to you?

Yes, they did. A lot of the music that you’re listening to is done by both of them. My son, especially – he’s a keyboardist, so he tracked the Nitzsche piece, and the Morricone piece. The recording techniques came out of them, as well, like how we made it sound. The other thing is just the communication between us. We know each other so well that we don’t need to talk a lot. That part is great. There’s a lot of intuition going on.

Are there specific moments on the record you can point out where we can really hear what the two of them brought to the music?

Well, the guitar part in “In the Mouth of Madness” is all my godson Daniel. He’s closely tracking what his father [The Kinks’ Dave Davies] did when we first did the music. It’s great. And if you listen to “Starman,” that’s all my son doing it. I’m very proud of that. He was jetlagged one morning, we had come back from touring. We got up at four in the morning and we tracked “Starman.” [Laughs] That was amazing.

When you listened to your themes, was there one you were most eager to take a second crack at? A do-over?

Yeah. I’ve always loved it, and so I enjoyed taking a second crack at a track from Vampires, called “Santiago.” It’s kind of a Western-themed guitar piece. I’ve always enjoyed that one, and I’m proud of how it came out.

You’ve talked before about how much better the synths and music gear is now, compared to when you first composed these songs—

Oh my god, there’s no comparison. It’s unbelievable.

Returning to the camera – like you did with the “Christine” music video, and it sounds like you’ll be doing soon with some TV stuff – are you finding the same level of improvement in film tech?

There is, and it’s very interesting to me. With any kind of camera or visual system you have to be careful of certain things. But I’ve really enjoyed shooting digitally. It’s fun, it’s quick, and there are some lenses that are very fast. You can shoot at low, low light. I’m very impressed! Man. [Laughs] I just remember all of the pain and the suffering in the old days. That’s kind of gone now, and it’s great. And, you know, the images are beautiful now. It’s a brand new day.

You’ve said before that no one asks you to do scores for their films, which is surprising.

That’s changed just a bit these days. I really can’t say that anymore.

Do you think there could have been some intimidation factor there? I would think that a young horror filmmaker might been horrified by the thought of John Carpenter looking over their movie…

No, I don’t think that was the case, but it’s very kind of you to say. I don’t believe that, though. What it was, I think a lot of people would listen to my scores and not be certain whether they could trust me working on their film. That’s just because of the nature of those scores. They’re minimal and electronic. That can scare people. I think that’s a lot of it. I’m now being asked, though. I did the score for the TV show Zoo. It has changed, and I get a bit of credence in that world now. People think I’m okay.

Working on somebody else’s images, rather than your own, will that change the approach you take with a score?

It’s different. Just different. There are challenges. It’s fun. I just look at it – it’s going to be the director’s movie, and not mine. Once I’ve agreed to do a movie with someone else, then I just try to serve it and make it as good as I can. That’s what I did with Zoo. These aren’t my images or ideas, but they’re to be respected and I just do the best I can for the vision of the director.

I just have to mention this while we’re talking now, but I took my daughter trick-or-treating last night –

Did you have fun?

We had a great time. The local fire department here in Queens had one of their trucks going up and down the streets playing the Halloween theme over its PA system.

[Laughs] That’s very cool.

It’s a piece of music that’s so effectively chilling without being very complex, and you hear it everywhere this time of year. It’s become a default go-to for spooky music, and almost as much a part of Halloween the holiday as it was Halloween the movie. How does it feel to have composed a piece of music that’s so synonymous with a holiday?

It feels fantastic! I can’t tell you how fabulous that feels. It’s just luck, in a sense, but yeah. God, it feels great.


John Carpenter’s latest album, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, is available now from Sacred Bones. His tour continues in San Francisco on November 4th, and then travels east over the next two weeks. For tour dates and ticket information, head to his website.


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January 15th 2019

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