John Carpenter on ‘Lost Themes IV: Noir’ | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

John Carpenter on ‘Lost Themes IV: Noir’

The Horror Master on Film Noir and Family Jam Sessions

May 03, 2024 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It’s been almost ten years since John Carpenter released his “debut” record, Lost Themes. It feels silly to describe the album that way, considering that he scored the bulk of his own films—from Assault on Precinct 13 to Halloween, Escape from New York to They Live—but it was certainly the start of a new phase in the legendary horror filmmaker’s career. Now 76 years old, Carpenter is deep into what has been his most prolific creative period as an artist, and there’s no sign that it will slow down any time soon.

Since having joined forces (in a pro musician manner, at least) with son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, John Carpenter and family have put out four albums of original songs, two collections of re-recorded movie themes, one compilation of remixes, two EPs, a vinyl single, and four new film scores. Amid all of that they’ve toured the world, followed each new NBA season, and somehow kept up on many of the latest video games.

The trio’s latest, Lost Themes IV: Noir, is out today on Sacred Bones Records. The album takes its inspiration from the classic era of film noirs such as Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, and Touch of Evil. These ten new instrumental tracks conjure images of silhouetted figures in dark alleys, petty criminals and crooked cops, dangerous women and fast-talking private detectives.

We spoke with Carpenter over the phone about his latest record.

Austin Trunick [
Under the Radar]: The inspiration for this album started with a book of film noir stills you were given by your wife. How did the idea come about to make music around this theme?

John Carpenter: Daniel was looking through the book and, well, he’s not as conversant in film noir as I am, because I’m older and I’ve seen most of them. We were talking about the images and the images brought up interesting ideas, musical ideas. The musical ideas brought up interesting titles. We looked at some of the film noir titles and it all went together. We just started it. Had a great time—a great time.

The three of you have been releasing music now for a decade, and god knows how many years you were playing together before that. You’ve clearly found a groove that works for you to make music together. I don’t want to call this a concept album, but you were working within a theme. Did that change your process at all?

No, no, no. The process is always the same. It’s always a creative process and it comes from the music. The music is all—it’s inside us. I mean, that’s the only way I can put it. We are inspired by many things, but we play music and it just comes out. We choose which ones we think are the best. We love what we’re doing. I mean, it’s just so much fun.

It’s even cooler that collaborative process is with your family.

Oh, yes. Now we have a second language. It’s really fast now. We had to learn each other in the beginning, but now it’s all second nature, which just makes it even more fun. I mean, just amazing fun.

You mentioned language there. I imagine you’re giving each other feedback constantly. Have you found that directing fellow musicians has had any similarity to, say, directing the performance of an actor?

Not exactly. It’s a whole different thing. Talking to an actor about performances, you’re dealing with human emotions. Talking to one of my kids about music is just different. It’s about music. The issues are different. The things you can say are different. It’s a little easier to talk about music than it is about emotions because emotions are very personal. You get down deep with actors about their feelings and how they feel about the part. Music is simpler.

How long did it take you to make this album? From the noir idea to—

I don’t remember. God, you’re asking all these questions to task my memory. I don’t remember. A couple of years, I guess. I don’t know.

Sorry if this is another memory lane-type question. You’ve mentioned—

Why do you have these memory lane questions? I’m curious. Why do you task a poor old guy like me?

I’m sorry! [Laughs] With this record, I mean, you were reaching into the past and being influenced by movies you saw a long time ago. I have a feeling a lot of these questions are going to—

Yes, okay. All right. I accept it.

Forbidden Planet is a movie you’ve talked about having a big influence on you early in life. It makes sense, especially considering your science fiction films, how that would have knocked your socks off as a kid. Are there any particular film noirs that really shook you?

Let’s see. Sunset Boulevard certainly did. There’s a mind-blower. Out of the Past did. God, a bunch of them. They were just really powerful movies. They were about the doomed. That’s the one thing I remember: the doomed and the damned. They were great. Normal movies weren’t. It’s always the same. In noir, all of this got darker and darker. I loved them.

You’ve described this series of albums as “soundtracks to the movies in your mind.” I love that. That’s a fun challenge, as a listener, to see what images I dream up with when I put the albums on. When you hear the songs, are there movies playing in your head to go with them?

Always. Always. Always.

That’s cool.

The scenes are playing in my head. I don’t connect them to movies necessarily. Yes. Certainly.

I’ve gotten a sense that you don’t love to go back and re-watch your films. Is music similar? Or is it easier, or more appealing, to listen back to your previous records?

No. I listen and I say, “Wow, who did that?” It always surprises me. No, I enjoy listening. I grew up with music. My dad was a music professor. I grew up with it in my house. It’s always been second nature to me.

Your dad [Howard Carpenter] played on “Crying,” for Roy Orbison, and on some Johnny Cash recordings. Those are just a couple bullet points in a long list of his accomplishments. As a kid, being around that, did you get excited about hearing those names?

Yes. Oh, yes, sure. Roy Orbison was — I saw him at one of my dad’s recording sessions a couple times. It was really weird. He had a guy, and they both wore sunglasses, they both sang. They both sang into the same microphone together. They were singing in harmony. It felt fantastic. I didn’t understand it, but it was the height of cool for me.

Maybe I’m trying to compare apples to oranges, but can you find any similarities between his session work and filmmaking? I’m curious if you think watching your dad do that stuff somehow rubbed off on you later when you got into movies.

It is a creative process. The whole thing was — they had drums and guitars and backup singers and violins and violas. It’s an ensemble deal going there. In that sense, yes.

My father told me really when I was really young, he said, “Create. I don’t care what it is, create something. Music, write something.” He wasn’t thinking about movies at the time, because that wasn’t available to most kids. “Create something.” That’s what I did.

I know you leave a lot of room for improvisation when you’re recording with your son and godson. I imagine you still hit a wall now and then—

Oh, all the time. Oh, yes.

What do the three of you do when you hit burnout at the end of a long day?

Usually we figure that out before we get together. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we just start suggesting things. It’s a pretty equal-voice situation here. Just jump in with ideas, try things. There are no rules. Just make it sound good.

Did you play with your dad much?

Oh, yes, I did.

What was that like?

Well, it was unequal for a long time because my father was so accomplished, and I was just learning and I wasn’t any good. I really wasn’t any good at the violin. He thought I should learn that. It’s the hardest instrument there is. Why should I learn that? Something easy, like anything, but he made me try that. Oh, God. I never sounded very good on the violin. It’s hard.

When [Cody, Daniel and I] played together, when we started, they caught up really fast and then they surpassed me. They went further than I did, both in technique and ideas. Now I’m the guy sitting on the couch saying, “Can I play something?” I love it. I’m loving it. Love it. It’s just a joy. I cannot tell you what it’s like. It’s just extraordinary.

While you guys were working on this record, did you sit down and watch any of the old film noirs together?

No, it wasn’t like that. There’s basketball to be watched, and video games to play. I mean, we don’t have time for that.

Do you see places where noir influenced your movie work?

Of course. I love the darkness—the visual darkness of it all. It’s just terrific. You can watch any number of the films and that shows. Just check out Sunset Boulevard, or check out Double Indemnity. Oh, my God. Talk about doomed characters.

In those two, you know the hero is a goner as soon as the movie starts.

But it’s great. You can’t stop watching it.

I’ve always wondered what your original Eyes of Laura Mars looked like. I know that got rewritten, but I wonder if your first script might have had a noir influence.

Well, they got some things wrong, I thought. The original idea was that, for whatever reason—you can make it psychic, whatever—this woman begins to see through the eyes of a murderer. She sees through his eyes. If that were true—if that really happened—all sorts of things would happen to her. When the killer moved, she wouldn’t be able to. She’d be on the floor, fall over. It would be a visual that’s not controlled by her. There are all sorts of things you can do to heighten the suspense. They just fucked it up in that sense. The explanation was on a TV set, as I remember. They pointed to it. “I see this.” Come on. But it’s easy for me to say, I’m on the outside. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. That’s all in the past.

We talked a little about how Forbidden Planet had a profound effect on you early on. The original Invaders from Mars was a movie that Tobe Hooper loved as a kid. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds . . . I feel like a lot of the filmmaker who saw those movies as little kids in the Fifties grew up to make the sci-fi movies that rocked my childhood in the Eighties.

Is that right? The Eighties? Wow. That’s just so shattering. I’m sorry.

No, I apologize.

It’s all right. I know you can’t help that you were born late.

Why do you think that period of sci-fi had such a profound effect on you and other filmmakers from your generation?

Oh, it’s hard to say. Everybody has a different story about that. I don’t know. What got you about it? About whatever sci-fi. E.T.?

Not necessarily E.T., that didn’t scare me. But I remember seeing Tobe’s remake of Invaders from Mars. All of those amazing practical effects, for one thing, the aliens looked very real to my young eyes.

That’s the point. It really works when you’re young, all of that stuff, and it stays with you because you’ve never seen anything like it before. That’s terrifying, but when you get older, you know a lot about what to be scared of. It isn’t necessarily big martians. Although, that would scare me if it walked in a room. I’ll tell you that right now, I’d be terrified. What? Wow. It always works when you’re young, and that’s the best time to see these movies, and they stay with you. The memory of that stays with you.

I guess martians get replaced by more mundane fears as you get older.

When you’re young, you can believe. I remember a movie I saw when I was a kid, in 1959, called The Fly. The Vincent Price version. That terrified me. Oh, lordy. When the wife pulls the hood off her husband’s face, and there’s a fly head under there? Popcorn went flying. I was up and on my feet, ready to run. Terror! Oh, god, it was scary.

You’re very open about your video gaming habits. I love that. What got you hooked?

My son hooked me basically, early on. When he was young, he got this game called Base Wars. He and I would sit down and play it together. What it was, it was a baseball-themed deal, so you’re at a plate with a bat, and this robot pitches at you, and you’re supposed to hit the ball at a certain place. If you don’t, and you strike out, there’s a little cutscene where this robot beats the hell out of you, and it happened to me over and over again because I wasn’t any good, and my son would roar with laughter. It was so much fun to play.

Then I was finishing a movie, and I was at my house in Northern California—Inverness—and my wife had gotten a Sega Genesis. Here was Sonic the Hedgehog, and I started playing then. Oh, man, I was hooked. It was the movement, the colors, the sounds, even the music. From then on, I’ve been a player. I’ve improved over the years. My hand-eye coordination has gotten better.


Lost Themes IV: Noir is out now on Sacred Bones Records.



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