Horror Legend John Carpenter Discusses Making Cinematic, Spooky New Album ‘Lost Themes’: Interview
Film director John Carpenter has given us many unforgettable moments in horror and sci fi history, including Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing and They Live. And just as memorable as the moving images these titles conjure up are the effectively menacing electronic scores that Carpenter himself often created for each project.
Cut to this week, which sees the 67-year-old filmmaker releasing, yes, his first album. Despite its title, Lost Themes, these are not songs from Carpenter’s past films that wound up being unused; rather, each track is meant to enhance the imaginary movie that plays inside all of our heads.
Lost Themes (buy it on iTunes) kicks off with the suspenseful, highly John Carpenter-esque “Vortex,” and runs through eight more tracks that the director and musician worked on with his son Cody and godson Daniel. Below is our conversation with the legendary movie maker about the making of his debut album.
This seems like the ideal project for you, given that you’ve scored several of the films you directed. Jumping way back to the beginning, your father was a music professor, correct? JC: That’s right.
To what extent did you practice music as a kid? JC: Some of that was pretty painful. My father decided when I was about 8 or 9 years old that it was a good time for me to learn the violin. The only problem with that was that I had no talent. So I suffered through many, many, many years of this. Oh, god — it was awful. But, you know, I played a little bit. I played in college orchestra. It made me the mark for bullies in high school, because I carried my violin to school every day. So I associate the violin with a lot of pain. After that I picked up keyboards, guitars, bass guitar and such.
You obviously went on to find your niche, as many of your unforgettable electronic movie scores can attest to. Was doing music for your own films an aspect of movie making you typically enjoyed, or something you did to keep the budget of early projects like Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween tight? JC: Yes and no. It was for budget reasons, you’re absolutely right. That’s why I did it. We didn’t have any money in the old days. We didn’t have any money at all to hire a musician to score a movie. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So what I did, since I had a tiny bit of ability, I went out and scored it the best I could. Over the years, it became a part of directing, really. It’s really odd — it became part of filmmaking for me, so I kept doing it. And then I finally just quit after awhile. It’s just too hard. It’s really unbelievably hard work! [Laughs] It is crap. It’s just — ick. But now, this album is scored without image. That’s the first time I’ve done that. It’s really exciting.
You’ve said that the idea for this album, Lost Themes, came about while you and your son Cody were spending time playing video games. JC: That’s right. That’s how it all started. We’d play a video game for a couple hours, then we’d go downstairs to my Logic Pro setup and we’d improvise music for a couple hours. And we went through a lot of different feels for the music. I finally ended doing almost a soundtrack sampler of dramatic music. We just kept doing it and doing it and doing it. Finally I had about 60 minutes worth of music done, all improvised. I got a music attorney at the time, and she asked me, “Do you have any new music?” So I sent her this CD of the stuff we’d done, and a few months later I had a record deal! Geez, man — this is cool. How easy is this?
Before the label deal, was there a time where you were thinking this music would eventually become part of a film? JC: You never know. But basically, it wasn’t done particularly for that reason. It was just done for the joy of having music and making music. That’s the most fun we could have! It was awesome. But really this album, Lost Themes, is for the movie that everybody has in their head. Everybody has a movie in their mind, some sort of film they think about. So this is the soundtrack for that.
You’ve worked professionally with your son Cody in the past, and Daniel Davies is involved with this album, as well. JC: My son did the scores for my two Masters Of Horror TV deals. He did “Cigar Burns” and “Pro-Life.” [Daniel] is my godson. I raised him since he was about 12. He’s the son of Dave Davies of The Kinks. Daniel picked up his father’s genius for guitar. He’s a great guitar player! Recently I’ve entered into electronic music and doing all sorts of work on the computer, so he came over and we began to mix and work on new stuff that the record label wanted so that it could be sent out for remixes — which I don’t quite understand, but that’s fine with me.
How long did it take to make this album? JC: We didn’t do it as a job. We did it for fun, from playing video games. There were several years that went by. My son moved to Japan and began teaching English over there, various things, and now he’s back here. We’re still working on music together. But this was a long process.
Let’s switch gears to movies. Are you working on any film projects at the moment? JC: I always have something cooking, but these days it’s a whole different world out there. Right now I’m thinking of a couple projects I’ve got in development. But you know what? I’m happy the way I am. [Laughs] I don’t wanna have to do anything! If something comes along and drops in my lap and I don’t have to think too hard about it, I’d love to make a movie.
Several of your films have been remade or at least revisited in some manner, including Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, and yet the Escape From New York update has been in development for the better part of a decade. Any idea what’s going on with that? JC: I have no clue. No one tells me anything. See, Canal+ is a co-owner of Escape. That came along with [Dino] De Laurentiis, because he had Escape for awhile. They’ve been trying to get that poor corpse up on its feet for a while. First they had [producer] Neal Moritz attached for a little bit. That didn’t work out, for some bizarre reason — I don’t quite know. But now they’re beatin’ around, trying to get it set up somewhere. We’ll see. If they do, somebody has to pay me, which is great. [Note: As of January 2015, 20th Century Fox has acquired the film rights.]
Last October, the photo book On Set With John Carpenter by Kim Gottleib-Walker, a photographer of many of your early films, hit shelves. What was it like for you having that type of time capsule put out there? JC: It was really weird looking at pictures of all of us! But it looked like we were having a great time, which is good. I always thought Kim was a really great photographer. I’m very happy with it.
It’s a beautiful book. How did that whole project come about? JC: Dude, I don’t have the answer to these things! No one tells me anything. I don’t know anything. I’m just happy and stupid here. [Both laugh]
We’ll end on that note. Thanks so much for the chat. JC: Absolutely. Real pleasure, man.
Grab John Carpenter’s Lost Themes album on iTunes.