Q&A: John Carpenter
You’ve seen his directorial genius in films like Halloween, Starman and Escape from New York. But much of John Carpenter’s brilliance isn’t visible, but aural: He’s scored most of his films himself. Carpenter’s darkly mysterious synthesizer scores are practically characters of their own—and he’s bringing all them out to meet us at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel on October 29, where he'll play backed by a heavy metal band. Recently, the master filmmaker talked to Las Vegas Magazine about that distinctive Carpenter sound.
What compelled you to reinvest yourself in your music?
Well, it was kind of accidental. The first album that I put out (2015’s Lost Themes) was really just an experimental situation. For several months, my son Cody and I were playing around on the music system we have downstairs. We'd play video games and we'd run down and play a little music and go back and forth, just having fun. We'd just do little snippets of soundtracks that we'd come up with. But Cody went off to teach in Japan, and I was sitting around. I got a new music attorney, and she asked me, "Have you got anything new?" So I sent her over this thing that my son and I had done. And lo and behold, a couple of months later, I had a record deal. Man, this is easy.
Your latest album, Anthology, features re-recordings of your classic themes. Were you tempted to tweak them, to update them?
We actually copied some of the old tracks. Because (synthesizers) have improved, we had to kind of denigrate the sounds to get them to sound like the old versions. I'm trying to stay real faithful to everything I did in the old days.
Do you listen to other electronic music artists for inspiration?
I have. There was a group several years ago called, oh God, what was their name? Crystal Method!
Nice. That’s a Vegas group.
They're great. I love their stuff.
What possessed you to begin scoring your own films? Was it a matter of practicality?
Absolutely. It's what we did in film school, because when you're making theater films, you don't have enough money for a score. And I found that I could sound big by tracking with a synthesizer. I could have strings; I could have whatever sections I wanted. I will say, though, the synthesizers in those days were really crude. I did a couple scores with tube synthesizers, which you had to tune up every time you used one.
When you go back and listen to your early stuff, is there anything you can't believe that you did? Music that surprises you?
All of it. I mean, in my mind's eye I remember this stuff being really complex. And I listen to it and I say, “What is that? It's a joke.” But I can't listen to my stuff, or watch my own movies. I'm too critical. … I like the stuff I did for Big Trouble in Little China. That was kinda good.
Did the scores ever influence the storytelling? Would you hear the themes in your head while you created the films?
No. But what I would do is play music that I liked, and then sometimes I'd visualize scenes. The Rolling Stones would inspire me. But no, I never heard my own stuff. All that stuff is work. I have to do a theme, so I sit down and do it.
You didn't ask others to score your films very often, but one of the times you did, you hired the great Ennio Morricone to score The Thing. Did you just want to hear what he would do?
Oh yeah. I just wanted to work with him. He's staggeringly talented, and one of my heroes. He did just a fabulous job for me.
Did he work differently than you did?
Well, very differently, because he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian. We had a translator there and we had to communicate mostly in a language of music. I first went to Rome to visit him and he played me a couple pieces that he'd been working on. He said, “Does any of this work for you?” And I said, “Well, it's beautiful. But can you do something with less notes?” Because that's what I did. I made real simple, repetitive phrases. So he did, and it's just great.
Your Halloween theme belongs alongside John Williams's Jaws and Bernard Herrmann's Psycho as a sonic shorthand for creeping terror and I hear it everywhere. Are you proud of the way that one has endured?
Yes, I am. And the movie, too. I'm proud of that. When that movie first came out, it was released across the country, regionally; it wasn't a big release. And as the movie moved from the west coast to the east coast we kept getting these horrible reviews. Oh my God, it was just awful. But then it got to New York and the Village Voice gave it a great review. A legend was born, after I ate sh*t for months. It was unreal. “John Carpenter has no talent with actors.” Wow. Jesus. Directors remember every slight. We need to forget that stuff.
So, given a choice between making a new movie or a new record, which would you choose?
Oh my God, there's no question. The record! It's more fun, it's easier, I get to work with my family members, the stress is less. It's just all joy. Why would I want to (make a movie)? It's like going to the proctologist or the dentist. It's horrifying.