Passion and Freedom in Music: A Conversation with John Carpenter

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John Carpenter interview

Mood is a strong component John Carpenter’s music. Much like the fantastical films he has directed throughout his career, his music also has a transformative quality; the low hums and striking pitches of synthesizers and melody create abstract visuals eliciting otherworldly planes. As an artist who has devoted much of his creative time to the genres of horror and science-fiction, Carpenter has a special kinship with that of the spooky and surreal.

Since the release of the last film he directed, 2010’s The Ward, Carpenter has embarked on a creative shift. Though he had scored his own films in the past, he immersed himself in creating his own music. In embracing his passion for electronic sounds, Carpenter began crafting new compositions, blending elements of industrial and synthwave. The world would get its first major taste of this material in the form of 2015’s Lost Themes, released by Sacred Bones. Accompanied by his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, the three presented not only a captivating presentation of electronic music, but a collection that called back to Carpenter’s earlier scores.

In the years since, the trio followed up that release with a second offering in the form of Lost Themes II; later they would put out Anthology: Movies Themes 1974-1998, a reimagining of Carpenter’s old film scores, as well as join forces on the soundtrack for 2018’s Halloween. Now a few years later, Carpenter and crew are back for Lost Themes III: Alive After Death. Not only does the record continue the trio’s trademark sound of electronic mysticism, but it also displays an elevated form to their technicality.

In a phone call with Treble, Carpenter spoke about Lost Themes III, the importance of having fun with creativity, and the difference between creating personal music and scoring films.  

Treble: How was it going back to scoring for film? Specifically speaking to the 2018 Halloween score you, Cody, and Daniel worked on.

John Carpenter: It was fun. It was a lot of fun. We had a blast. We already finished Halloween Kills. It’s coming soon, it’s great by the way. I didn’t direct it, so I can say this. 

Treble: [Laughs] That’s fantastic. Given my understanding, it has been a long time since you’ve scored a film. What was that like shifting from making personal music to scoring for film again?

JC: It was easy. You have muscles that you remember how to do it. We score to image, so it’s just easy.

Treble: Whether its movie scores or your own personal material, what has been your attraction to electronic music? Is there something that it does emotionally for you? What do you find aesthetically pleasing about it?

JC: I suppose it all goes back to ancient times—by that I mean when I was a young kid growing up in a classical music household. I was filled with music; it was the greatest. But I was a movie fanatic. I saw a movie—I was eight years old in 1956—called Forbidden Planet. It was a big color production [with its setting taking place in] outer space. It had an all-electronic score by the Barrons [the electronic auteur couple Bebe and Louis]. But oh my god, the music just moved me. It was just perfect for the movie. So I think there was an emotional response to that, to the sounds. They didn’t have a synthesizer; they had a couple of tape recorders. Pretty primitive, but the effect of that was unbelievable.  

Treble: Did you find that, at a young age, the music was transformative and brought you into that fantastical world?

JC: Boy, you can’t say it better than that! That was it. I never in my life heard anything like that. 

Treble: Over the past few years there has been a massive resurgence of eighties pop culture—everything from Stranger Things and other works paying homage to horror and sci-fi cinema of the era. As well as electronic music. Why do you think art from that decade has had such a lasting impact? 

JC: I have no clue.

Treble: Do you think it is something deeper on a political/social level?

JC: Maybe? I don’t get it. The ’80s were great—weren’t the greatest. I go back to the ’50s; the culture of the ’50s and the ’60s too, because I was an enormous fan of The Beatles. They still excite me.

Treble: What was the desire to release a third installment of Lost Themes?

JC: I don’t know. We did a bunch of music. We keep doing music for fun. The label, Sacred Bones—they are brilliant—they keep wanting to release [our music], so we keep saying, “Oh yeah sure, why not. Sounds good.”

Treble: A popular quote I’ve read about the first Lost Themes record is something you said along the lines of it being a soundtrack for the movies in your mind. Is that a concept you’ve approached all your personal material with? Do you find yourself intrigued trying to elicit visuals of fantastical atmospheres within your work? 

JC: Sure. I would think that’s an apt description. 

Treble: With Lost Themes III, was there anything the three of you set out to do differently? Such as new instruments, technology, revisit old ideas that didn’t make it onto other albums.

JC: We did a little of that, a little of revisiting old themes. We took them, shook them out, and played them again. There are always new sounds; we’re always trying out new sounds. Plug-ins we are getting from my computer system are fabulous these days. You can be Hans Zimmer, get his plug-in of strings. It’s just incredible. We use anything we can get our hands on.

Treble: Can you speak to anything in particular that excited you to do differently on this record?

JC: It’s not that [the process is] different, it just comes out. I think the three of us, Daniel Davies, Cody, and myself, have just gotten to where we can, working together really well. We each bring things to the table. It just keeps getting better and better.

Treble: What was a typical scene like during the creative process?

JC: What was the scene like?

Treble: Yeah, what was a small snippet of the day?

JC: Well, we get together. There’s a lot of laughter that goes into it. We fire up the computer. See where we are. I mean, it’s a relaxed working environment. Just as you would expect and hope. That’s what we have; I don’t know how we developed it, but that’s what we got.

Treble: It must be truly freeing, and creativity must come much more naturally when you don’t feel the restraints to answer to anyone and it is pure fun. 

JC: Yeah, that’s the whole secret. There is no pressure. There is no pressure, which I think makes the whole thing work pretty well. When there is no pressure on you, then you don’t have horrible deadlines to meet. It is just great. 

Treble: You have decades of work behind you in both film and music. And I’m interested hearing what artistically drives you still, and specifically with music. How do you keep the act of creating music still engaging and fresh for yourself?

JC: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I know the answer to that. It just comes out. It’s just something that has always been there with me. Sometimes it’s more effusive than other times, sometimes it’s easier. It has always been there. It comes from my parents, how I grew up. It’s a big well of creativity that keeps replenishing itself; I’m overjoyed by it. I can’t explain it to you.

Treble: That’s beautiful to hear. I ask because you’re such a talented film director and you’ve made so many iconic films; yet, at some point, you did make the decision to step away. Have you ever thought about returning to film, but doing it as an indie project where you have full control? No answers to anyone else. 

JC: That’s the whole idea, that’s probably what I will do. My first love is movies, it has always been movies. So I will probably get back to them. I’m just happy doing what I’m doing now. The world’s gone crazy; none of us are getting back to anything. Not for a while. We are having to hunker down and try to survive. But yeah, what you described is what I would try to accomplish [with movies].

Treble: Do you have any recent horror movies you’ve seen that you find fascinating or challenging the status quo? 

JC: The last horror movie that I saw that I really liked was a Swedish film called Let The Right One In. And I thought god, the first movie that’s re-done the vampire myth and done it well. I liked it a lot. And with modern horror, I don’t get to see a lot of it, as much as I would like. But I get to see some.

Treble: Are there any other current films that interest you?

Here and there I see things I like. The Chicago Seven Trial movie was good. And I love Borat; you can’t not love it. His new actress [Maria Bakalova], wow is she good.

Treble: I found this interesting note I never knew about you, that you originally wanted to do westerns…

JC: Yeah.

Treble: If given the opportunity, would you like to create some kind of western of today? Or an old timey western that was more modernized? 

JC: I don’t know, maybe. Yeah, I love westerns. They just don’t make them and people don’t want to see them anymore for some bizarre reason. 

Treble: What about films that embody the western spirit? I don’t know if you’ve seen any of James Mangold’s films like Ford v Ferrari or even…

JC: Ah ha, I know what you are talking about. I know exactly what you are talking about. Sure, I try to stick a little western in every movie I make.

Treble: Do you have a favorite western film?

JC: Rio Bravo.

Treble: Is there anything you are looking forward to in 2021? Besides the release of Lost Themes III?

JC: Everything is very basic these days. I’m just looking forward to waking up every morning. Getting up and doing things and living. That’s what I’m hoping for. 

Treble: Do you think that mindset—what you just said—do you think that element of being able to just look forward to the day, do you think that adds greater depth to one’s artistic pursuits? 

That’s how I learned to be creative. When you have a lot of empty time, if you fill up your life with shit, stuff to do, you’re never going to be able to think, dream, fantasize, and make up stuff. That’s a big positive thing. 

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