The Thing About John: Geoff Barrow on Carpenter

As John Carpenter prepares The Ward – his first feature-length film in almost a decade, Geoff Barrow explains his hold over Portishead

Feature by Geoff Barrow | 29 Oct 2010

My first encounter with John Carpenter's music was most probably hearing it in an early hip-hop track that sampled it. I had a weird flexi-disc of Bomb the Bass called Mega Blast – they’d sampled Assault on Precinct 13. I can always remember thinking ‘that’s a wicked riff,’ with the synths, it was this dark electro hip-hop. That was also the first film of his I discovered. I was aware of Escape From New York, but it was Assault on Precinct 13 that had the most impact on me.

I’d be interested to find out if some of the guys from the early synth pop bands were aware of him, and what he did for them musically. You get something like Being Boiled by Human League, the first demos were around '78 – Assault on Precinct 13 was 1976, which means it was mostly in production in '75.

I can understand where he was coming from because his riffs are quite thriller-based, dark and doing what traditional strings would’ve. But the sparseness of it just created a massive atmosphere, outside of picture, if you’re just listening to the soundtracks. What an influence, it was always very menacing but also full of pathos – like the Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone [who would later compose the music for The Thing with Carpenter] scores, but it’s also very discordant and basic. That’s what brings the menace.

We’re pretty magpie-like, almost too much sometimes I think. Take our track Roads on the album Dummy – I'm trying to play the bit of incidental music after the girl got shot beside the ice cream van. Because I didn’t have the soundtrack I didn’t know what it went like, which helped me write something original rather than me just trying to copy it.

Adrian [Utley]’s always collected – and I have as well – a lot of keyboards and synths that have just got that warbly thing, but we’re totally aware as well that the discordance is a real important part of the sound. Making that on the computer wouldn’t sound quite the same; you need to put it through an amp.

Escape From New York [1981] became a lot more, he’d progressed by that time because there were lots of sequencers going. I think that, with the way the technology developed, it would be interesting to hear what inspired his musical stuff: was it just budget and necessity that constrained it to synthesizers, or was he fully immersed in synthesizer music by then?

Portishead once did a little stint living in London for nine months, working in the studio of our manager. We had one track that directly sampled Escape From New York, and that was the basis of the tune. I put a beat behind it, but basically the synth was just a straight lift. It never made the record, but it pretty much would have if we had to release the record back then, that was our strongest tune. It came from sampling vinyl rather than knowing how to actually work a synthesizer – hopefully we’ve gotten past just taking other people's music! The [distinctly Carpenter-like] riff at the end of Machine Gun [from 2008 album Third] was going to be a tune, but I just thought ‘You can’t do it that blatantly.’

If you want homage, go to YouTube and look at Portishead’s The Truly Spectacular Conference Film. We made a film specifically for the Universal Conference in 2006 and it’s basically just pure Carpenter.

• In interview with Dave Kerr