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.