There's no professional reason for John Carpenter to release new movies or music these days. The director-writer-producer-composer—who's shot, financed, and/or scored dozens of lauded cult films, including 1981's Escape From New York, 1982's The Thing, and 1988's They Live—has earned plenty of respect and more than enough money from those quiet hits, not to mention the endless licensing of his most influential soundtrack: the ominous keyboards from his signature 1978 horror classic, Halloween.
And while the 66-year-old iconoclast has definitely slowed down—he hasn't directed a film since 2010's The Ward, and hasn't scored one of his own since 2001's Ghost of Mars—he hasn't quite come to a stop. Hence his first proper solo album, Lost Themes (out soon, and streaming in full right now over at NPR), which came about while messing around with his 30-year-old son, Cody, who records idiosyncratic electro-pop under the name Ludrium. The results are quintessential Carpenter: nine sonic suites that sound like Tangerine Dream's worst nightmare, with the auteur's characteristically primitive piano riffs and rhythmic doom turned up via modern digital tools.
Speaking from his Hollywood home, the ultra-cool songman and macabre storyteller detailed the record's evolution, not to mention his own.
When did Lost Themes mature from pet project to public consumption?
My son and I would get together and play video games, and then we'd go downstairs and improvise some music, and then back to the video games, and back to the music. And this went on for quite a while. We had about 60 minutes worth of music, but one style we were working on was little bits and pieces of soundtracks that I never included in any movie. I got a new music lawyer, and she asked me, "Do you have anything new?" and I thought, "I'll send this over." A couple months later, I had a record deal! Wow! Who said this business is hard?
Not John Carpenter.
Oh man, not for me, not this time. I was just really lucky.
Did you have any reluctance to make it more of a formal endeavor?
Hell no. What, are you kidding?
Well, c'mon man, I've spent my entire career working in the movie business with high pressure, high stress, and this is just pure joy. I mean, to be able to work with my son and my godson [Daniel Davies of the band Year Long Disaster] on an album? Wow.
Was it a fresh start, then?
Well, it's a whole new adventure. I've had my soundtracks released before, but all the soundtrack work I've done was to images, and this is the first time I've ever done anything without an image. This album is designed for the movies in your head. Most people have a movie playing, and sometimes they see the images come to life, and this album is for you, for those images. It just puts you in a mood, it takes you someplace else. That's what music tends to do, is transport you some places.
"Moody" means different things to different people. What does it conjure for you?
It's a culmination of a 30-some-odd-year career in doing this, and a musical background that goes way back to when I was a little kid. So I know the difference between happy music and suspense music and sad music. Those are all pretty evident to me.
In a sense, is Themes what pop music sounds like in your head?
It does. It sounds like rock 'n' roll, cause a lot of my stuff's riff-driven. It's simple in its setup, cause I have minimal chops as a musician. It's not like Beyoncé pop. It's all inspired by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and the Old Age, you know. I'm an old guy.
Did the album inspire any revisionist thinking about your movie soundtracks?
You're suggesting I'm a person who looks back? I don't ever look back at the movies that I made. I don't wanna watch 'em again. I've seen them enough. If I watch a scene out of a movie that I've done, I say, "What was I thinking? What was wrong with me? Why did I do it like that?" So that's all done. I see new images.
What are some of the images these new songs summoned for you?
There were a couple of times I could see a dark street at midnight with kind of a black car rolling along. All sorts of things like that, that just comes out of nowhere and is just random.
Is your hope that Themes inspires filmmakers to run wild with their images?
Absolutely. That's what I did when I was young, everything from movie scores in the old days to classical music. That got me started in movies. I would see images based on the music I was listening to. And I want the young filmmakers to take my music and use it and then pay me for it!
When you weren't producing your own movies, was it harder to have control over the scores?
For most of my career, I scored my own movies cause we didn't have money to hire a composer. In a couple of very specific cases, there was enough money. For instances, I made a movie called The Thing in 1982. The studio didn't even ask me to score it, and I was fine with that, and I got to work with Ennio Morricone, who's a stone genius. Well, c'mon now. And I worked with Jack Nitzche on Starman, so I got lucky. He's unbelievable, rest his soul.
How have digital recording tools changed your composing process?
Oh my god, what a difference. It's just advanced so much, the sounds you can get. I work on Logic Pro, and there all these plug-ins you can get for it, various instruments, anything you want. And the depth of the sounds is unbelievable, I never had that with scoring. It's really just gone so far.
Is it difficult mining the soul from that technology?
Not at all. All it does is it provides sounds for you to play on a keyboard, but the soul of it comes from your heart and your fingers being able to play it. That's what it's all about.
So in your order of credentials, where would you prefer that "composer" reside?
Oh, I will always be a movie director. I fell in love with cinema when I was a little kid, and that love has not gone away. However, I get to have a second act in my professional life, and maybe only for one album, but we don't know. But I'm still a director. That's what I am.
Kenny Herzog is a former editor for brands including CMJ and HEEB, and a present-day pop-culture writer currently contributing to Rolling Stone, Vulture, Made Man, and many more. He's on Twitter.
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