Horror Icon John Carpenter on Great Film Soundtracks and his Debut Album, “Lost Themes”

Movies Features Soundtracks
Horror Icon John Carpenter on Great Film Soundtracks and his Debut Album, “Lost Themes”

There are few auteurs in cinema whose works are more closely intertwined with music than John Carpenter. The legendary director of everything from Halloween and The Thing to Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China has long been celebrated by genre buffs and students for his filmography, but many viewers aren’t fully aware of just how involved Carpenter was in the crafting memorable, original film scores. In fact, he composed music for nearly every film he ever directed, with The Thing as one of the only notable exceptions.

Those scores adhere to a sort of auteur theory just as closely as Carpenter’s films, if not more so. Synth-heavy, atmospheric and pulsing, they range from simplistic to complex but almost invariably convey a brooding sense of dread, as in his classic scores for Assault on Precinct 13 or the famous Halloween theme. They’re intense, futuristic for their day in a way that has now mellowed into an easily appreciable nostalgia. They make great ‘80s party soundtracks.

Now, though, the 66-year-old Carpenter is back with a project he’s never attempted before: An album of original music called Lost Themes, which was released Feb. 3 on Sacred Bones Records. The music is vintage Carpenter, with all his synthy dread intact, but unattached to any film. Rather, as the album unfolds, it truly does sound like “the best Kurt Russell movie never made,” to quote the press release. It’s a coldly, cruelly captivating recording, and a great excuse to get Carpenter on the phone for a discussion on music and the movies.

Paste Magazine: I’ve read that your father was a music professor—did that mean a musical upbringing? When did you first play an instrument?
John Carpenter: Classical music was huge in the house. That’s all I listened to when I was young, classical music. My father tried to get me to play violin—I had no talent at it, but I played it anyway. Six string guitar was probably the first one that I really had a passion for.

Paste: So did you want to be a rock star, then?
Carpenter: Every kid wants to be a rock star, of course. I was in a band in college for 2 or 3 years called Kaleidoscope, we played cover songs and actually made some money. But I gave that up, there was no future for it.

Paste: In your earliest films, was composing something you wanted control over as a filmmaker? Or was it a cost-saving measure?
Carpenter: It was cost-saving all the way at first; we didn’t have any money for music, so I did it myself. The earliest movies, my first three features, they all involved me sitting down in front of keyboards and recording without any images, playing and then cutting them into the movie. Finally, in 1981 I started working with image on Escape from New York, but that was the first time.

Paste: That’s really sort of amazing. How did you compose without images to go on?
Carpenter: Well, most of them are simple but effective. The score for Halloween, I just thought about the 5/4 time signature my father taught me on the bongo, and moved it over to piano. It’s incredibly simple, but it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever written.

Paste: Of your film scores, is there one you feel really fits its film best, or was closest to how you imagined it should be?
Carpenter: Well, it’s hard to say because they each had a purpose or supported the movie, so they had different tasks. My music got more complex and developed as time went on. There’s a bunch of them that fit the movie really well … Halloween, Prince of Darkness, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China.

Paste: How did it come to be that Ennio Morricone was leading composition on The Thing, which was your highest budget film at that point? It’s still a classic soundtrack, of course.
Carpenter: Honestly, nobody at Universal asked me to do the score, but also Morricone is a genius, so why would I not want to work with him? In that film I only composed a couple of little connecting pieces; it’s really his score.

Paste: Was there an initial inspiration for the concept of Lost Themes? Or did you put it together from music you were already writing?
Carpenter: Here’s how it came about. So, in the last two or three years when my son and I would get together, we would play video games and then head downstairs to my studio setup and improvise music. We just kept doing that back and forth. The games would inspire bits of music. We had lots and lots of those recordings, little bits and fragments that sounded like a soundtrack sampler, themes to movies and games that were never made.

Cut to last year, and I meet the right people and suddenly find myself with a record deal. I thought the record business was hard! My son and I had talked about putting it up on Bandstand for free, but we didn’t know if anyone would really be interested. The recordings were simply born out of improvisational joy.

Paste: Do you see the pieces as themes to potential movies you never made? What kinds of movies do you picture, listening to them?
Carpenter: It’s less about what I picture and more what the listener pictures. This entire album is for the movies in people’s heads, the images running in our mind. This album is to score that. I personally see all kinds of stuff. Futuristic landscapes. A Hollywood street at midnight. Atlanta at midnight, I’ve got a score for that.

Paste:Do you have any difference in philosophy when it’s composing music for its own sake, rather than for a film?
Carpenter: When I do this, it all comes out from the inside; it’s very improvisational. It’s the product of all the hours and years I listened to music as a kid and an adult, swirling around in there. I think it’s very riff-driven, I just try to get a good chord progression going and take it from there.

Paste: In terms of modern movie music, is there anything you find particularly inspiring?
Carpenter: I like Hans Zimmer’s music a lot, I think that’s inspiring. And Trent Reznor is doing a lot of interesting things as well.

Paste: You mentioned games earlier, and a lot of the music on Lost Themes makes me think of games. In indie games today there’s a lot of retro ‘80s stuff, and I could hear something like “Obsidian” used in one for sure. Did you ever compose for a game?
Carpenter: I did have one game soundtrack in the ‘90s for a game called The Sentinel. Today my son and I, we’re big fans of the Borderlands games, shooters in general, and some RPG’s. I’m playing Far Cry 4 right now. I think games are still in their infancy even now as an art. They have a different purpose than the passive viewing of a movie; you really can’t evaluate them like books and movies.

Paste: It’s been an honor talking with you. Humor me with one unrelated question: What is the best thing about Kurt Russell as a performer?
Carpenter: He makes my job easy, that’s the very best thing. He’s the ultimate professional, perfectly trained, he hits his marks and never gave me any problems.

Paste: Never?
Carpenter: Never. He’s amazing.

Lost Themes is out now on Sacred Bones Records. Listen to “Vortex” below.

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