We Asked John Carpenter (Almost) Every Question You Could Think of About His Career
The legendary director and composer opens about his iconic soundtracks, making music with his son, and what's coming next.
Despite the fact that it’s only a variation of three notes at its core, the main title for John Carptenter’s Halloween is one of the most haunting and infectious pieces of music ever created. It is through this music that Michael Myers and the film’s horrific atmosphere are born. In the nearly 40 years since its first appearance, the score has only garnished more critical praise. Kevin Bergeron, co-owner of Waxwork Records who specializes in horror soundtrack vinyl reissues, captures the transcendental nature of the track, “whenever I hear [the Halloween soundtrack] I'm immediately brought back to my childhood. It sticks with you. It's instantly recognizable.” Kevin goes on further to claim that Carpenter is the “punk rocker of horror film directors,” and while the fashioning of punk ideology onto non-punks has become a cliché, his observation is sound. Carpenter is a director that handles—in many of his films—all aspects of production: writing, producing, directing, and composing. He is as close to DIY as a Hollywood director can be.
Carpenter’s importance as a composer can’t be overlooked and, thanks to the resurgence in vinyl appreciation, his work has found a new—well, at least a refurbished—home. Starting with the reissue of Escape from New York, eight of Carpenter’s scores have been re-released on vinyl. Leading the way, Deathwaltz Recording Company is responsible for seven of the eight releases, (the eighth being Mondo’s re-issue of Halloween last October) prompting a rapidly growing marketplace for soundtrack vinyl releases. For Spencer Hickman, owner of Deathwaltz, Carpenter’s work is dynamic, “[John] took the familiar and played around with it to create something that very few other electronic composers and musicians have ever come close to. John's work has been with me throughout my life and I am absolutely honored to have…worked with him on the definitive reissues of so many classics.”
Along with collaborator Alan Howarth, Carpenter’s use of modern keyboards and synths helped break with the longstanding traditions. In an era where soundtracks were either derivative orchestral movements or upbeat and jazzy, Carpenter’s electronic aural assaults stood out. And while Carpenter owes much to his own influences, Sebastiaan Putseys, founder of One Way Static Records, points to Carpenter’s role in the composing and electronic scene, “the current wave of soundtrack (and even electronic music as a genre) composers owe a great debt to Carpenter/Howarth. I see the reference ‘for fans of Carpenter’ popping up in many band-bio’s and interviews.”
We got the chance to ask John a few questions about his career, his work in particular, and his opinion on the resurgence of vinyl popularity.
Before you began your work composing soundtracks, what was your musical background? Were other soundtracks an influence early on?
John: My father specialized in classical violin, and he was a music teacher. I grew up around music, it was around me all the time; I listened to it all the time. It just became second nature. It just became a part of my life; I never really thought about it. I loved soundtracks. I loved movie-music, but I also loved classical music and rock and roll. It was easy for me, essentially, to get into music. I had no problem; it was not a big stretch. I just channeled Bernard Herrmann and went to it.
Did you start on piano?
My father, unfortunately, decided that I should try the violin. The unfortunate part is that I had literally no talent. I was unable to play. It was a very sad, sad situation. So, violin, I played it for a bit. Then piano. Then I moved on to guitar, and just sort of tinkered around. But, my piano playing days are thankfully over.
Did you start on synths in high school?
I joined a rock and roll band in high school and into college. That started me on electric bass and guitar. I forget when it exactly was that I fell in love synth. They were starting to come in, just a little bit, in the mid ‘60s. That’s when I first starting hearing it, and I thought, ‘Wow what is this, there is potential for something here.’ I really embraced them in the ‘70s.
Originally, was the choice to compose your own work purely economic?
Absolutely. We had no money for a score. I was cheap. I was fast. I found somebody who had this very primitive set-up, extremely primitive. So, I recorded it there, and we had it. It was oh, I don’t know how many weeks of work; I was brand new at it. I just went with through the sound, and how it applied to the movie.
I’ve heard that early on you would live-score to the film, is that correct?
Actually, that is what it became. Early on, we didn’t have the sophistication of stitching the film and the sound together. So, I was just playing live. I began [playing live to image] with I think it was Escape from New York. That was my first film, playing to image.
The process of songwriting seems different from the process of composing. Can you take me through your thought process when tackling a soundtrack: from concept to execution?
Wow. Well, I hate to disappoint you, there’s not much thought. It’s kind of an automatic process; after a while it became that. I knew what the film was because I directed it, and sometimes I had written it. I would have no preconception about what the score should be. I would come in just absolutely blank. Just sort of start fresh, it was kind of exciting. It was exciting, because you didn’t have to worry about if you had something good. You’d just try it out and it went from there. Occasionally, I’d have a main theme, or I’d have a sketch, of something that I’d worked out at home, that I’d try. Occasionally, I’d do that. But, for the most part, it was all improvisation.
Your soundtracks have the feel of a full album that you would want to listen to separate from the film. Do you always build the remaining tracks off the main theme?
It depends, not necessarily. In the case of Prince of Darkness, that was absolutely it, because we started recording right at the open. Luckily, that theme came out pretty well. I’m very proud of that opening theme. So, I could borrow from it, and re-use it throughout the show. That was a very unified score. But that doesn’t always work.
The soundtrack accents the film's eerie, slow vibe perfectly.
I think the purpose of [soundtracks] is accentuating the story; accentuating what the viewer is watching on the screen. That is your whole job, to make that flow, and to make it better if you possibly can.
Do you have any horror stories from working on scores?
Sure but it is mostly just utter fatigue [iaughs]. You know it is hard to do. I realized after my last main score–which I think was Ghost of Mars— ‘Oh, man this is rough. This is killing me here.’
I can only imagine. It is hard enough to write a song, let alone an entire film of songs.
That’s the whole issue. It just drags you down. Everyday you’re constantly doing it. Now, if you love making music, it is fun. But, oh, I don’t know, it’s too hard. It’s too hard to do it all. When I was young it was easy and fun. Now, it’s too hard.
So, are you done?
You never say never in this business [laughs].
If you wanted to do it again would you be more inclined to work on someone else’s film, or would it always be for yourself?
Well, I could do either. I’ve been working with my son recently, not on soundtracks but on music. I would love to work with him; he is enormously talented. But sure, I’d do somebody else’s movie, that’d be fun to do.
John Carpenter's son's project is called Ludrium.
I wanted to talk about your collaborative work with Alan Howarth, how did that come about? Did either of you know each other prior to working together?
Alan came along through the film editor on Escape from New York. Alan did sound effects, and had a synthesizer set up. He had the sound, and wanted to do music; so that’s exactly what happened. Alan is a great engineer. Before I was conversant with synths, as I am a lot more today, he’d bring up sound, program certain computers, and he had a great setup. So, it made it easy.
So he engineered the records that you wrote. Did he do any writing at all?
He did no writing.
With The Thing, you again worked in collaboration on the soundtrack. Or, I guess I should say you had, for the first time, a composer score your film. What was it like working with Ennio Morricone? What were the decisions that led up to it?
The studio wouldn’t let me do the music myself. They never thought about, I never asked, and he was available. He is just an amazing composer. I loved it; he was a wonderful man. We didn’t speak the same language, so we had interpreters, but it was wonderful. He did a great job.
Moving to equipment, do you have a synth in particular that you hold close to you: an old Prophet, or another Sequential Circuits?
Well, some of the modern synths I hold a great deal of love for. I have a Korg Triton, which I love; it has an unbelievable sound. I have no, necessarily, no nostalgia for the old synths, but the Oberheim is a great sound I have to say. It is just a fabulous sound.
How has the rise in technology, and a lot of the digital implication in music, affected you in your career making music?
It just made it easier.You have so much at your fingertips than you ever did before. It is sensational. These are great times for music and great times for technology in general. You can’t ask for more.
My wife said something to me that is very true: ‘adapt, or die.’ You have to embrace the modern world. Things have changed, some for the better, some not. But, the pluses, sonically, of modern technology are amazing. It was like when we moved from laserdiscs into dvds: the differences are unbelievable. And now, with Blu-Ray the differences are even more unbelievable.
There seems to be resurgence in the vinyl community around soundtracks. I am sure you aware of Death Waltz, who have now reissued a few of the collaborative work between you and Alan. Did it come as a surprise to you that there is such a strong interest in vinyl soundtracks?
Well, I didn’t know anything about it. You have to understand one thing about my career: no one tells me anything. I was unaware of all of this.
When did you become aware?
I started complaining about the fact no one would talk to me. So, the head of Death Waltz asked if I wanted to write the album notes, and I said ‘Yea. I think so.’ But, no one ever told me. No one asked me.
You would think that, even if they didn’t need to go through you directly to obtain the rights, they would at least let you know that someone wants to put out your stuff, that you’d be told.
You would think so, wouldn’t you? But, no one tells me anything.
Have you ever, or would you ever consider playing live?
I would consider it. Sure, I’d consider. But, eh, that’d be tough.
Noisey: What are your immediate plans? Are you working on any new projects?
Yes, I am working on things, but right now I am recovering from two years of eye surgery. I had a lot of complications, but things are on the bend. I am doing ok.
Joe Yanick is holding out hope for another John Carpenter score. He's on Twitter - @JoeYanick.
Want more interviews with movie people who also make music? Check these out.