John Carpenter on his newfound life as a rockstar
John Carpenter is having a late-in-life career swerve, taking a break from cinema while he dips his toe in the music business. He tells us how life as a rockstar is both joyous and terrifying
Name a god-like carpenter with the initials JC? If you’re a movie disciple the first deity to pop into your head should be John Carpenter, the don of genre filmmaking, and with the recent deaths of George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper, undoubtedly the finest horror director on this green earth. The 70-year-old Kentuckian is of course the mind behind classics like Halloween, Starman and The Thing, but two years ago he added a new string to his bow: he became a rockstar. And no one is more surprised and delighted by this development than Carpenter himself.
“It's fabulous, fabulous,” says a bright and breezy Carpenter, who’s fresh from his morning routine of coffee and video games when we call him at his LA home and ask him about his new life as a live performer. “You know, I'm not really that used to it yet. It's new for me because I come from the movie business where the directors do everything but no one cares about us that much, you know, I'm just sort of off screen somewhere.”
Of course, Carpenter’s reinvention isn’t a complete surprise. As well as writing and directing, he also composed the darkly atmospheric music for most of his films, from his lo-fi student sci-fi Dark Star to David Gordon Green’s new Halloween sequel, released this month, for which Carpenter has thrillingly reworked his most famous compositions. He points to the experimental German band Tangerine Dream as one of his chief influences early on. "There's one great score they did for a movie called Sorcerer," he says. "It's almost unbelievable; I couldn't get enough of it." We quickly do the maths in our head and point out Carpenter was making inventive use of synthesisers and drum machines in Hollywood long before Sorcerer's 1977 release. "Yeah, you're right," he says after a pause. "I was there at the beginning. I'm an old guy."
Suffice it to say, Carpenter didn’t expect to be playing these songs live to huge crowds when he initially wrote them. “God no, I never, never, never imagined it. It wouldn't occur to me. Why would I do that? But times have changed so much. One thing you never say is, 'I'll never do that.' You just don't know.” However, it turns out getting Carpenter to take his songs on the road was pretty straightforward. “I was asked, 'What would it take to get you out on tour?'” he recalls with a wry chuckle. “And I said, 'Well, I don't know, some money would help. If you pay enough money, I'll go do it.' So that was kind of that.”
One thing's for sure, performing live beats the slog of making movies for a living. “Well, when you are a director you work like a dog, it's awful. I mean, you really work like a coal miner and the stress is unbelievable.” He says his love of being on stage didn't come easy, though. “At first I was terrified, just terrified, man.” Carpenter’s first ever live show couldn’t have been more public: the debutant was squeezed between Vince Staples and LCD Soundsystem at Primavera Sound 2016. He was, shall we say, slightly bemused at the situation. “It was surreal,” he recalls. “I thought, why are all these kids out there watching this old bald guy? What the hell?” Not that you’d have spotted any of this trepidation during his performance. If you missed the set you can find much of it on YouTube, with Carpenter looking extremely nonchalant on stage as he plays his gnarly synth; a few minutes into his first track, the theme from Escape from New York, he even slips his left hand into his jeans pocket. “At this point in my life, playing in front of crowds is just joy. Plus, I'm playing with my kids. It doesn't get better than this.”
Those “kids” are Carpenter’s 34-year-old son Cody, who produces music under the name Ludrium, and his godson Daniel Davies – “I’m exploiting their youth to make myself richer,” Carpenter jokes. The three have been playing together since Cody and Davies were in their teens. “We would just spend time together improvising music for fun,” he says. This is very much the Carpenter process: approaching a song from a technical or theoretical standpoint is not his bag. “You have to understand, my whole process is I'm improvising," he explains. "So it's finding a sound first, or an arpeggiation or something that gets me started up. Usually it's a bass sound, you know, and I start working from there. I just start playing and recording. It's really not very complicated.” From this tinkering with his son and godson came Carpenter’s knockout album Lost Themes in 2015 which was quickly followed up by Lost Themes II the next year.
Following that appearance at Primavera in 2016, Carpenter played ATP Iceland and then embarked on an international tour which included a performance at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. Of the Scottish crowd, Carpenter recalls them being “energetic” but he’s not wild about seated gigs. “Sometimes if the audience is seated they’re too polite, you know, especially in Europe. But if they're standing up, if it's like a standing room only deal, people go crazy. It's great. There's more energy. I can flirt with the audience a little bit.” With Carpenter's upcoming Scottish date at the decidedly more raucous Barrowlands, expect to be flirted at hard in Glasgow.
It’s ironic that Carpenter should find himself swapping movies for music at this moment in time, given that his stylish brand of fat-free genre filmmaking has never been more popular. Barely a month passes in cinema without a film being released that owes him a debt. Of today’s young genre filmmakers, Ti West (The House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (The Guest), David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) and Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) are the Carpenter devotees who initially spring to mind, and his DNA is all over the Duffer brothers’ Netflix hit Stranger Things, particularly in that sci-fi show’s dreamy synth score by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of electronic outfit Survive.
Sometimes this homage spills over into bare-faced larceny. In 2015 Carpenter won a plagiary case against Luc Besson, with the courts agreeing the French filmmaker ripped off Escape from New York with 2012 sci-fi thriller Lockout. Meanwile, Hollywood producers continue to make remakes of Carpenter’s best films. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing have all been reheated for a new generation. The latest of his films being rehashed is Big Trouble in Little China with Dwayne Johnson playing Kurt Russell’s character Jack Burton. To date, none of these remakes have been able to recreate the original films’ magic.
In UK cinemas this month you’ll find mint fresh new Ultra-HD restorations of The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Escape from New York and They Live. All four essential viewing, with They Live in particular growing in stature since its 1987 release. “Yeah, I know,” says Carpenter. “But that’s because that was a documentary, my friend.”
We ask him to explain: “Well, it never ended – the Reagan era I mean. It kept going, it’s still here. Now we've got Donald Trump... uhh, but I don't want to talk about that.”
The current US president is not the only thing Carpenter is reluctant to talk about. Ahead of our interview, his publicist suggested steering clear of his projects from decades ago as he’s reticent to discuss past glories – although Carpenter certainly wouldn’t describe them in those terms. While the world seems more in love with his movies than ever it seems Carpenter’s passion has cooled. “Don’t get me wrong, I love movies,” he says. “Cinema is my first love; always will be. But, you know, I'm not driven by the same youthful intensity that I was, and it's not necessary for an old guy to be that intense.”
With Gordon Green's Halloween sequel out this month, we ask Carpenter if he returned to his original Halloween in preparation for his reworked score and he’s practically aghast. “I don't ever want to see my old movies again,” he says. “I can't watch them. I see the mistakes. I hate them. But I had to watch Halloween a year ago or so. So that's enough of that.”
Come on, we protest. Your films are great and you clearly think the music is up to scratch; you’re touring it after all. “Well, yeah. It was fun to go back to the old music, I guess. It's a little crude, but it's OK. But we're adding to it.” If we had a longer interview we’d have spent it trying to convince him he’s crazy: many of his films are masterpieces and the music may be simple but it’s full of atmosphere and emotion.
It’s no wonder Carpenter is down on his own work though. For years critics and awards bodies were indifferent too. Carpenter famously summed up his lowly status in his home nation by saying, “In France, I’m an auteur. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the UK, I’m a horror director. In the US, I’m a bum.” Does he still think that?
“Of course, that's absolutely true, except America is starting to come around a little bit more now.”
That must feel nice, though? To be finally vindicated. “No, I think it's great. We genre filmmakers, we’re becoming respectable...” He hesitates for a second. “It does worry me a little bit, though. I don't want to get too respectable. We were all outlaws, man, and that's the way I prefer it.”
John Carpenter plays Barrowlands, Glasgow, 19 Oct – tickets available here
They Live, Prince of Darkness, The Fog and Escape from New York are rereleased on new 4K digital prints from 26 Oct by StudioCanal
John Carpenter: Master of Horror film season plays at Glasgow Film Theatre in Oct and Nov, details at https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/john-carpenter-master-of-horror
Halloween (2018) is released 19 Oct by Universal