From Halloween’s ominous masked killer Michael Myers to Escape From New York’s dogged veteran-turned-convict Snake Plissken, filmmaker John Carpenter has masterminded some of Hollywood’s most memorable creeps. He’s also responsible for some of the most suspenseful and influential soundtracks this side of Bernard Herrmann. Now the 66-year-old is releasing his debut album, Lost Themes: 10 whirring, warbling, urgent-sounding instrumental electronic soundscapes with intriguing titles like “Abyss,” “Wraith” and “Vortex” that could easily complement any one of his thrillers.
Infinitely casual, Carpenter tells Rolling Stone that Lost Themes evolved over the past couple of years in breaks between playing video games (“The best game I’ve played in years is Borderlands 2, but right now I’m playing Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” he offers) when he would futz about with the digital audio workstation his wife bought him. Along the way, he got some help from his son, Cody Carpenter of prog rockers Ludrium, and his godson, Daniel Davies, who wrote songs for I, Frankenstein. “This was all really sort of an accidental thing,” he says. “Someone sent it to [record label] Sacred Bones and they said, ‘Let’s make an album.’ And I thought, ‘Well, great.’ I’d never thought of it.”
When Lost Themes comes out on February 3rd, the album will be available on a variety of colored vinyl formats, and the iTunes edition will include remixes by Skinny Puppy’s ohGr, Zola Jesus, Foetus’ JG Thirlwell and more. Moreover, days after the record’s release, Carpenter will be the subject of a lengthy tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: John Carpenter: Master of Fear, which will include a variety of screenings and a one-on-one conversation with the moviemaker about the music on February 5th.
The filmmaker recently spoke to Rolling Stone for a wide-ranging chat about how he made the jump from soundtrack composer to making music that could stand on its own.
This is your debut album. Why did you title it Lost Themes? People might think it’s unused soundtrack music.
Well, that was not my idea. But think of it this way: It’s lost themes in the sense that we were scoring the movies that many people have in their imaginations. The perfect way to listen to this would be with a beautiful girl next to you — but if you can’t have that, turn the lights down, start the album up and let the music sink in with the imaginary movies in your mind.
After you put down the video-game controller, how does a “lost theme” start?
It starts with a chord. I don’t write music. I don’t read music. It’s all improvised. It starts very simply with an appealing sound.
Even though you weren’t working with visuals this time, your music came out very dark.
Some of the most beautiful music is the darker stuff.
Your dad was a music professor. How much has he influenced your music?
I grew up listening to music my whole life. When I was about eight years old, my father taught me how to play the violin. It was a bad decision because I had no talent, and that’s really the most difficult instrument to play. I played it for a few years and then moved on to keyboards and guitars. But movies were my first love.
What does your dad think of your music?
Oh, I don’t really know. He’s just happy that I had my hand in some music. He hasn’t heard the record yet. Well, he’s deaf now. I don’t know what he’ll think of it.
You said that movies were your first love. Why did you start doing the scores, too?
It started in film school because when you’re making a student film, you have no money. You get your friends to act and you get the cameras. So people would ask me to score stuff, and then for my first feature – when again we had no money for music – I went ahead and did the score.
I started with low-budget films, and I was cheap and I was fast. I could get it done and cut it in the film, and it was somewhat effective. And then I just kept at it, to my own chagrin, because as I went on with my movie career the scores got more complex, and they took longer to do. So the issue is that you have to work hard as a director, and then you have to work hard as a composer. I started hating it. But the great thing about it has been that there’s another layer of creativity, another storytelling technique beyond just a director’s eye.
You’ve said you were a fan of film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Dimitri Tiomkin and Hans Zimmer. What is it you like about them?
I can recognize Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin immediately upon hearing them, and I don’t even know if they’ve scored the film. It’s unbelievable. With Herrmann, I just love the emotion. Look at the scores for Vertigo and North by Northwest. Case closed.
You got to work with Ennio Morricone on The Thing. How would you describe that experience?
He’s fabulous and just genius. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Italian — but we spoke the language of music. [Laughs] Oh god, that’s awful.
After you heard his ideas for the score to The Thing, what did you say?
I said, “Fewer notes.” If you see The Thing, the ultimate theme is the result of our conversation: really simple, synth-driven, effective.
Going back to Herrmann, you’ve cited the Psycho score as a huge influence on your music for Halloween.
That isn’t quite true. One of the main influences on the Halloween score was the score that Goblin did for Suspiria.
I understand your father played a role in the Halloween score, too.
Well…that’s a functional thing. My father taught me how to play the bongos. He taught me 5/4 time when I was about 13 year old. All I did was sit down at a piano and play octaves and went up a half-step. That’s the Halloween theme.
It’s very simple.
It has to be because I’m playing it. I have minimal chops as a musician.
Chops aside, your music has always been very minimalistic in general. Why is that?
In thrillers or horror films, you’re trying to create suspense, this sense of, “What’s coming?” Think of the Jaws theme. It’s two notes. It keeps you in suspense.
What film score are you proudest of?
I’m prouder of the stuff I did later in my career because it’s a little more complex: Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness. I think those are two good scores.
In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about synthesizers. I still don’t know a whole lot about them, but I knew that they had a particular sound that appealed to me. I suppose I got real excited about synthesizers when I heard the score that Tangerine Dream did for [1977’s] Sorcerer. That’s just a really highly underrated movie with a brilliant score. It was all synths. It doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard.
You were doing synth scores before Sorcerer, however, notably in your 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13. How did that one come about?
I had one day to do that score. That’s why it was so simple. I just had to hit it and leave. I remember I had three or four pieces of music and then spread them out through the [whole] film.
When did you begin scoring to image?
On Escape From New York. The music came about the same way, going scene by scene. The main theme for that one didn’t come out for a while. I noodled around a little bit at home with this progression, and then sort of developed that into it.
One of the things that separates Lost Themes from your scores is a lack of what you’ve called “cattle prods,” those stingers that accentuate something horrific — like Michael Myers appearing with a knife. Did it feel liberating to work without them?
You know it, dude. Oh hell yes. It’s just freeing altogether because it doesn’t involve movies and the structure of motion pictures. It’s all music. Music is one of the pure art forms. It’s not polluted like movies.
What music do you listen to most these days?
I don’t listen to a whole lot now. I’m an old-school guy — I still listen to the Beatles and the Stones. As far as classical music goes, I love Bach. He’s probably my favorite composer; it’s just that it’s unbelievable stuff when you realize that he scored a lot of the pieces just to test the organs in Europe. What?!? That came out of that task? It’s stunning. I also love Mahler, Tchaikovsky, all the classical guys.
What did your son contribute and what did Daniel contribute to Lost Themes?
“Purgatory” begins this really beautiful, eerie, mournful piece; my son composed that and sent it to me from Japan. There’s a hiss on there, if you listen carefully, so I tried to cover it up with some synths; but that’s him. Daniel Davies is my godson. He’s a virtuoso on the guitar, and my son is a virtuoso on the keyboard. It’s just unbelievable. So I use their talent and take credit for it. That’s what my job is.
I got to become a movie director! What the fuck?
What are you working on next?
Right now my son and I are in the middle of a dark blues album.
What is “dark blues”?
Well, all blues is essentially dark at this point. You’re talking about the blues. It has that little rock & roll edge to it, but it’s a lot of blues, moody shit. I love the way the Stones incorporated the blues into their stuff.
Is that what you would compare your dark blues music to?
It sounds like nothing. It’s unique. I don’t know if we’re going to release that. We’ll see what happens.
Are you working on any films?
I’m developing stuff, but my time schedule is slower because I’m older, you see. Old people go slowly. Hollywood has changed a great deal. It’s harder to get movies going, especially when you’re my age. Hollywood’s for the young. It always has been.
Is your love of movies still strong?
Yeah, but my love of getting up at four in the morning is not. That love fades through the years. And I have this career behind me. I got to live my lifelong dream. I got to become a movie director! What the fuck? I didn’t know I have to keep doing it. I can do it when I want to.
It seems like you are doing what you want to.