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John Carpenter
John Carpenter

John Carpenter: a conversation with the horror master

The cult director and soundtrack artist sits down to discuss his new album Anthology, a reworked selection of his greatest film scores

When it comes to genre cinema, nobody does it quite like John Carpenter. Bringing a blue-collar, stoically arse-kicking flair to his films that has made him one of America’s leading pulp-fiction exponents, the midnight-movie veteran is a no-frills visionary who embodies his craftsman’s name.

Beyond his achievements as a director, Carpenter is also a soundtrack artist whose influence on today’s pop culture is perhaps only rivalled by Angelo Badalamenti and Vangelis. Busting down the doors for synthesised music at a time when Hollywood was still wedded to the traditional orchestra setup, his classic themes for Halloween, Escape From New York and The Fog helped shape the sound of the 80s just as his films helped define its grungy visual aesthetic.

Now, the horror stalwart is teaming up with his son, Cody, and godson Daniel Davies (son of Kinks musician Dave) to rework a selection of his scores for Anthology, a greatest-hits set that serves as a follow-up to his Lost Themes albums, which saw the trio conjure all-new soundtracks to a suite of imaginary films. It’s a timely reminder of his towering influence on today’s crop of soundtrack artists, from Drive’s Johnny Jewel to It Follows music-makers Disasterpeace and, of course, SURVIVE, whose theme for Stranger Things nods to the Carpenter school of pulsating synth menace.

Not that the 69-year-old director, a straight-talking character lifted straight from one of his movies, gives a damn about any of that. A self-described “musician of limited chops”, he only started writing the music for his films because he was too broke to hire a composer. “I never thought of what I do as particularly great,” he says. “It’s background music, is what it is. But there’s nothing wrong with that.” 

Carpenter is living proof that necessity is the mother of invention, achieving in a few short bars of the Halloween score what hundreds of classically trained composers spend a whole lifetime trying to.

Hi John. First of all I wanted to ask how you got the idea for Anthology – did it grow out of the shows you did for Lost Themes?

John Carpenter: It did, yeah. We were playing some of the music from my movies and the audience really dug it, so we came up with the idea of doing a soundtrack album of my stuff from the old days. The label seemed to like it, so off we went. It was that simple.

Were you surprised by the reaction to the tour?

John Carpenter: Yeah, delighted! Man, oh man, I love it. It was a lot of fun to do and I think everybody enjoyed the blast of nostalgia that comes at you. I began to see some patterns in my old stuff. Apparently I’m in love with octaves, which I had not been aware of before. But I guess everybody else already knew about that.

Did you feel like you were able to unleash your inner rock star, in a way? You’ve been in bands since your high-school days up to your stint in the Coup de Villes, who did a very Hall & Oates-type music video for Big Trouble in Little China...

John Carpenter: Hall & Oates? (laughs)

The look, anyway…

John Carpenter: Oh the look, sure... The Coupe de Villes are guys I was friends with from film school; we were an acoustic guitar band. I took it to another level with the music video which was great fun. It was all night long. And yeah, it made me feel like, ‘How cool am I!’ It was great.

“I never thought of what I do as particularly great – it’s background music, is what it is. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m very proud of it” – John Carpenter

You’ve said before you have a very utilitarian approach to your soundtrack work, did the response to the live shows you’ve been doing make you feel differently?

John Carpenter: I’ve always had a utilitarian view of my work because that’s what it is. I’m there to make the movies go a little bit better, to provide dramatic intensity and so forth to the scenes. That’s my one job! I never thought of what I do as particularly great – it’s background music, is what it is. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m very proud of it.

How did you first get interested in synth music?

John Carpenter: Way back there was a record called Switched On Bach (by pioneering synth artist Wendy Carlos) – I was really impressed by that, and that’s where I think it started. The first electronic music I ever heard that blew my mind was on a movie called Forbidden Planet. It was astonishing! I remember being eight years old and thinking, ‘What the hell is this?! This is the greatest sound!’ It was just so moody. It was a husband-and-wife couple that did it (Bebe and Louis Barron) and they did it in a very old-fashioned way, but that was the first one.

Your father was a music professor at Western Kentucky University, what did he make of your soundtracks?

John Carpenter: Well, he was a classically trained musician so I don’t think he examined them too closely. But he was proud – I think he was happy about the fact I at least had a hand in music. He didn’t think it was any great shakes, but we didn’t really talk about it.

You’ve said before that your son, Cody, is a much better musician than you – are you a proud musical philistine or do you secretly wish you could play better?

John Carpenter: Philistine, huh? (laughs) I don’t know, my son is an accomplished pianist, he’s just amazing on the keyboard. I love playing opposite him, in the band he plays lead synthesiser and my godson (Daniel Davies) plays lead guitar, which works out really well for us. Daniel provides the soul, and Cody provides the precision.

What made you decide to score your own movies when you were starting out with your career?

John Carpenter: When you start as a filmmaker you don’t have enough money for a proper score or an orchestra. The one way I could sound big was to play on synthesisers, (where I could) do numerous tracks and sound something like an orchestra – not exactly, but close. When I moved into features I kept doing it because, again, I didn’t have any money, it was low-budget. But then I just kept doing it. Occasionally I sought out a composer to work with – Ennio Morricone, Jack Nitzsche, Shirley Walker. But it was still just functional, utilitarian.

The Nitzsche track on the album, from Starman, is very beautiful and stands out as different for you. How did the score come about?

John Carpenter: Michael Douglas, who was executive producer (on the movie), suggested Jack Nitzsche. He said he was a stone-cold genius. I thought, ‘Wow’, so I did some research and (it turns out) he wrote one of my favourite rock’n’roll songs of all time, ‘Needles and Pins’ (by The Searchers). Jack was just great. This was the very beginning of the Synclavier era, and he sampled his wife Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice, which became the theme for Starman. It was really beautiful.

You directed a music video for ‘Christine’, which is the first time you’ve directed in a while. How was that?

John Carpenter: I enjoyed it! It was hard, because these were all-nighters and I don’t like staying up that late. But it was fun.

Someone says in the making-of video for that clip that when it comes to making movies you ‘turn into an eight-year-old boy’. Do you feel the same way about music?

John Carpenter: Big time! Making music is absolute joy, I can’t describe it. I never thought I’d be doing it this late in life, but I’m delighted I am.

“When you start as a filmmaker you don’t have enough money for a proper score or an orchestra. The one way I could sound big was to play on synthesisers” – John Carpenter

Have you ever lost that feeling with filmmaking?

John Carpenter: Well, my first love is cinema, and I still love it. I don’t love the stress and consternation that come with the work and the industry. But I love cinema itself.

Recently we’ve lost some of the great horror filmmakers of the 70s and 80s in Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. Does it feel like the end of an era in a way?

John Carpenter: What it feels like is we’re all getting old! Because I hate to break it to you, but it is an inevitability, and it’s called death. They were my friends; I really mourn their loss. I mean, it’s terrible. I was really upset when Toby passed away, he was a wonderful man. George I knew had been ill for a while and I wasn’t surprised, but with Tobe I was surprised.

It does feel like the genre films of that era are more of an influence than ever now, though, with things like DriveStranger ThingsIt FollowsThe Guest and Green Room. Do you watch a lot of new films?

John Carpenter: I watch some. I’ll catch up on films at the end of the year with the Academy screeners that I get. But I don’t go to the movies any more, I stay home. I watch a lot of news, just because it’s an incredible (deep sigh) reality that we’re facing over here in the United States… It’s unbelievable. So I watch news... and basketball. A lot of basketball.

How did David Gordon Green’s upcoming Halloween remake come about?

John Carpenter: (Producer) Jason Blum came and talked to me about doing a remake, and I agreed to come on board. He wanted to make it good, as opposed to what it had been. So that’s the direction it went in. I think we have a shot at making it really good.

I heard you might be soundtracking it too, is that right?

John Carpenter: Maybe! It may just work out. 

How do you approach an iconic piece of music like that?

John Carpenter: There are several approaches. First of all I’m going to collaborate with my director and see what he wants, because I can refurbish the old score and make it new again. Or I can do a newer score – it all depends, there are many ways to go about it. When he’s here we’ll do a spotting session, and we’ll ask him what he wants to do. We’ll see!

What inspired you with the original theme? Was Mike Oldfield’s score for The Exorcist somewhere in your head when you wrote it?

John Carpenter: It was, because that was a really famous horror piece, but I couldn’t even get near that. What was rattling around in my head was my father teaching me the bongos, teaching me 5/4 time. So that’s what it was, but sure, Mike Oldfield’s score was beautiful.

Were Goblin and Claudio Simonetti’s soundtracks for Dario Argento a big influence on your work?

John Carpenter: Sure, I loved that stuff. It’s really neat (the way Argento uses music). And he’s a totally underrated filmmaker, I think.

“I don’t go to the movies any more, I stay home. I watch a lot of news, just because it’s an incredible (deep sigh) reality that we’re facing over here in the United States… It’s unbelievable” – John Carpenter

Which of the pieces did you most enjoy working on for the record?

John Carpenter: My favourite is one I’ve loved since we first recorded it, it’s a piece called ‘Santiago’ from Vampires. In the original I played the synthesised guitar and Jeff Baxter played the pedal steel. I loved the way it came out, and it came out really well on the album too.

Why haven’t you made soundtracks for other people?

John Carpenter: They didn’t ask! No one’s asked me.

Really? I find that hard to believe!

John Carpenter: Well, I’m sorry you don’t believe me but it’s true. I think people think I’m risky, because they don’t know what they’re gonna get, and I agree with them!

Is there a film of yours you wish more people had seen?

John Carpenter: All of ’em! I have no particular favourites, I just kinda put it away (once I’ve finished work on a film), I don’t wanna know about it. It’s too painful – I look at old movies of mine and start critiquing myself, like, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ It’s awful. I just think I could do so much better now, but that’s me.

John Carpenter’s new album Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 is out via Sacred Bones now