Variations on a Theme: John Carpenter interviewed

'The Master of Fear' John Carpenter meditates on recording Lost Themes, going digital, and who should be the next Snake Plissken (spoiler: nobody)

Feature by Dave Kerr | 30 Jan 2015

“This is Hollywood, California…” John Carpenter whispers down the phone line with a sarcastic lilt – a certain mistrust of Tinseltown dripping off his tongue. But he’s still living there. Burned out by the film industry after 40 odd years of redefining cinematic suspense with genre-blurring thrillers like Assault on Precinct 13Halloween and The Thing, somewhere in the Hollywood Hills the cult composer-director enjoys all the NBA playoffs and Xbox binges that semi-retirement has to offer. “They’re just for fun,” Carpenter chuckles. “I play the shooters…” he tumbles off into a roll call of his favourites. “Borderlands 2The Last of Us, the Far Cry series – you name it, I got it.”

It was here – in the pursuit of a simpler life – that Carpenter struck upon an unforeseen new work ethic. “My son and I would play videogames for two hours, and then improvise music for two hours at our home studio, then return to the videogame, and so forth,” the straight-talking Kentuckian explains in that familiar rasp. “This just went on and on over a period of around six months.”

Serendipitously, Brooklyn label Sacred Bones – already a haven for the esoteric likes of David Lynch and Zola Jesus – contacted Carpenter’s lawyer with a request for any un-used score work he might be willing to release. It just so happened that the record button was pressed during those months of jamming. “A delightful accident,” he affirms. “This was all improvised stuff, so nothing was planned out ahead of time. Man, it’s all based on instinct; you just dig down and see what’s there… see what feels right. That’s the way to intellectualise it. There was no image to play to… it was just playing for joy. Absolute joy.”

"This is music for the movies in your head" – John Carpenter

‘Joyous’ might not necessarily describe the dark matter that the pair produced, which ultimately provided the basis for Lost Themes [reviewed here] – a record that comprehensively spins through Carpenter’s wheelhouse of tension and terror with reassuring aplomb. Without the old familiar purpose of writing for a particular scene, did his gaming habit provide a certain stimulus? “No. Hell no!” he laughs. “This is music for the movies in your head; every track has its own imaginary narrative that plays out differently every time you hear it.”

Yet music-making is not a heady process for John Carpenter; there’s a temptation to paint the 67-year-old as a carefree tinkerer, but to do so is a disservice to his legacy as an understated visionary, responsible for unlocking many of the emotive possibilities to be found in synthesised music. “I’m not a hobbyist,” he says, before modestly snatching that remark back. “I’m just a musician with minimal chops.” Although minimalism is certainly an enduring feature throughout these nine compositions, with his son Cody and godson Daniel (Davies, whose father happens to be The Kinks’ Dave) on board, there’s more flesh on the bones of Lost Themes than fans of those earlier stark instrumentals may be prepared for.

Just as it was when he began, sound design is no longer a solitary pursuit for Carpenter. “It’s a team effort now – and a family team effort, which is the greatest,” he enthuses. “Y’know, when I was scoring for movies I had to team with an engineer – often that was Alan Howarth – because I didn’t understand the synthesiser in those days. I didn’t know how to get sounds up; I didn’t know anything. So I would just do the playing and the composing and somebody would have to turn the buttons.”

That less-is-more technique has endured. Whereas later contemporaries would blaze their way through ostentatious scores, with a maximalist approach that seemed to operate in tandem with the escalating ambitions of the era’s blockbusters, Carpenter skulked in the shadows. The icy chill of his barren, repetitive motifs and eerie codas kept more in common with the earliest of Kraftwerk’s analogue experiments – which had developed almost concurrently.

Advancements in audio technology over the intervening decades – specifically in digital sequencer Logic Pro – have side-lined much of the knob twiddling that characterised some of Carpenter’s most notable work. Despite this transition to the digital realm, he makes a pretty convincing fist of emulating those old modular synths on Lost Themes. “We use a lot of plug-ins,” he says. “There are these amazing libraries of effects you can get now and we’ve downloaded a hell of a lot. We never had anything like this in those old days – never.” 

Innumerable groups and producers have professed respect for Carpenter’s unique feel over the years – from Boards of Canada’s ambient passages to Portishead lynchpin Geoff Barrow, whose DROKK project in 2012 played out like an open letter of appreciation. Carpenter is quick to play down any aesthetic similarities. “Occasionally, people will tell me ‘so and so is inspired by you’ and I think ‘very nice.’ But it seems to me that they don’t play what I do. It’s all different.”

It’s not just Carpenter’s way with a synth that’s been propagated. Over the last decade, some of his most celebrated moments on celluloid have been circled for another round at the till. From a so-so re-tread of Assault on Precinct 13 and Rob Zombie’s surrealist stab at the Halloween franchise, to a belated prequel for nihilistic sci-fi masterpiece The Thing, it seems no Carpenter flick is safe from the jaws of Hollywood’s bankers. Just days before our conversation, he’s announced as an executive producer for a proposed Escape from New York remake. Who could he accept inheriting the eye-patch from Kurt Russell’s wisecracking anti-hero? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I don’t care. It’s just a way for the studios to make money. I hope it’s a good movie – that’s all I hope. But there’s only one Snake Plissken.”

Although certain moments of his career have at times offered a challenging counter to the zeitgeist (The Thing infamously emerged at cinemas a fortnight after the infinitely cuddlier E.T.), many have come in for retrospective praise. “Am I surprised by how the meaning in They Live has endured?” Carpenter scoffs. “No. To me, it was a documentary of the time.”

You suspect that although his last shot behind the camera – 2010’s The Ward – was met with ambivalence, there are a few future classics left in the auteur yet. He has openly expressed a desire to work in television, direct a gothic western and tackle an adaptation of the Dead Space series in recent years, but today he remains tight-lipped about his dealings in film. “I’m developing a couple of things, so we’ll see. It’s nothing I’m ready to go into production over though.”

Could this second wind for his musical career be the jumping off point for similar projects? If he has his way, we’re about to run out of dry ice. “I’m working on a bunch of different things right now – sort of a follow-up to Lost Themes, and then there’s another album, Dark Blues. But we’ll see – maybe nothin’ will come out, maybe something will.”

With his old collaborator Howarth out dusting down some of their old compositions in concert from time to time, has he given any consideration to following suit? “Sure, for a million dollars I’ll play live,” he deadpans. “If I play live… it wouldn’t be easy to replicate this record. There’s still a lot of gear, which would be complicated. It wouldn’t be a simple thing.”

The Skinny wonders, despite all contrary evidence that he enjoys a cheeky game of Sonic and a good pop tune as much as the next horror director (“Well, I like Taylor Swift for instance. She’s really talented”), is John Carpenter most naturally inclined towards a dark path? “I don’t know so much about that…” he lingers. “Do you want my music to be happier? I promise you, I will make a happy album!”


Carpenter fields questions from his disciples...

Clint Mansell (COMPOSER)

The Thing score is very Carpenter, even though it’s Ennio Morricone at work and credited. Did you also work on it? If so, how did the two of you get on in the studio?
“Me? Most of that score in The Thing is a lush orchestrational score. People have misunderstood it. There’s one piece of music that was synthesised, which was the opening theme. There’s nothing else really like that in the whole movie. That’s all Morricone; I just suggested he play a piece with fewer notes. We met in his apartment in Rome, he had a translator with him as he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian. He played some things for me and I said ‘that’s beautiful, but try something with fewer notes.”

Geoff Barrow (Portishead/DROKK/BEAK>)

You have massively influenced my musical career so the question is: Who influenced yours, musically speaking?
“Musically speaking, it would be my father. He was a music professor so he introduced me to classical music at a young age. From there, I came to appreciate some of the great scores of the 50s, from Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin, but I also found influence in The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Both classical music and rock ‘n’ roll are part of my musical language, which is riff-driven.”

Lost Themes is released via Sacred Bones on 2 Feb