Tell Me About It: John Carpenter – ‘I should be relaxing, but here I am, all fucked up’

A rare interview with the Horror Master and iconic composer who, at the age of 68, is going on tour for the first time.

Right from its first moments, 1978 slasher classic Halloween does a great job of instilling a pure sense of dread. Not so much because of the garish orange-on-black title credits, or the glowing pumpkin face menacingly staring down the audience through the screen, but because of the soundtrack. That initial high-pitched, minor-key piano melody is scary enough – and almost as infamous as the film it serves – but it’s when the fat analogue synthesiser bass starts that terror truly arrives.

John Carpenter’s directing work on Halloween rightly saw him crowned the king of low-budget horror and helped birth the modern slasher genre in the process (think Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer et al). In making the film, Carpenter employed clever techniques, like first-person filming perspectives and having characters seemingly come back from the dead; well-worn horror tropes today but ground-breaking in the 70s. A word-of-mouth success, Halloween ultimately grossed $70m on a measly $300k budget. Heading into the 80s, Carpenter consolidated his new position with follow-ups like The Fog and The Thing, as well as building upon the success of early sci-fi classic Assault on Precinct 13 with Escape From New York.

Yet for all his directing success, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Carpenter’s films from that period is the fact that he personally composed fantastic soundtracks for almost all of them too. Acting as both director and composer, Carpenter was able to create soundscapes that shared truly symbiotic relationships with their companion scenes. It’s hard to imagine Halloween being anywhere near as frightening, for instance, without its sinister stabs of synthesiser at all the right – or wrong – moments.

Alongside his directing career, Carpenter has been responsible for more than a dozen companion scores for films and even computer games, influencing perhaps just as many musicians as filmmakers in the process. The pieces are invariably synth-heavy and decidedly ominous-sounding productions, as though recorded by Giorgio Moroder wearing a ski mask. Even the great Ennio Morricone took his cues from Carpenter in producing the soundtrack to The Thing – another Carpenter flick.

Given his obvious pedigree as a musician in his own right, it’s surprising that it took Carpenter until last year – nearly 40 years after his self-directed debut film – to release ‘Lost Themes’, his first solo LP. Produced in conjunction with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies (himself son of Kinks singer Dave Davies), ‘Lost Themes’ came out of nowhere last February as an imaginary film score very much in keeping with Carpenter’s moody, analogue aesthetic. As one reviewer noted, “The more 80s it is, the more vital it sounds.”

He shouldn’t have waited so long. ‘Lost Themes’ went down a storm, already holding the distinction of being the highest-selling release for Brooklyn-based record label Sacred Bones. As if to make up for lost time, Carpenter is already back with a bombastic sequel, ‘Lost Themes II’, and potentially more releases to follow. Picking up where the last LP left off, this time Carpenter leavens the mood slightly with some tracks but still broadly operates within a sonic sphere of portent and foreboding. Even the track names are intimidating: ‘Windy Death’, ‘Virtual Survivor’ and ‘Last Sunrise’ are among the best of them, each sounding like they could accompany an 80s dystopian sci-fi blockbuster.

That said, there was no overriding theme or influence, Carpenter claims, as much as I try to dig deeper later on (“I hate to disappoint you,” he laughs). Whereas the first LP was the product of enforced virtual collaboration online (Cody was traveling during recording), this time the three architects worked eyeball-to-eyeball in the studio, which meant a lot of bouncing around improvisations and motifs and, as Carpenter tells it, just having a lot of fun together.

“Oh hi,” he says cheerily when I first call him in Los Angeles. I ask what’s on the agenda for today. “Oh nothing, just hanging out today,” he says in a languid drawl.

Yeah right. In the past Carpenter has spoken of his immense relief at slowing down in his advancing years (he turned 68 in January) but if anything he’s actually diving headfirst into a new career as a bona fide musician. This summer he’s off to Europe embarking on his first-ever tour, dropping in on festivals like Primavera Sound. Ultimately he’s scheduled to play upwards of 25 shows this year. Some retirement.

“It’s horrible, isn’t it?”

I’m touring the world. My kids were the ones who convinced me to do this. They said it’d be a great idea to do it. My wife said, ‘Look, how many people get to tour with their son and godson around the world?’ It just doesn’t happen. So I thought about it long and hard, I swallowed my pride and decided to do it. I should be relaxing, taking life easy and not worrying, but here I am, all fucked up.

“I’ve changed my tune!”

In the past I’ve joked around and stuff, or said I couldn’t do it, but I’ve figured out a way to play my music live. I mean, it doesn’t have to be identical to the record! So we’ve got a six-piece band – a great band that sound fantastic – and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I mean, obviously I’m a bit scared because I’ve never done this before and that’s the big thing – the fear of the unknown – but I’m doing this. I’ve changed my tune! I’ve changed my damned tune, alright?

“Everything is lighter”

It sort of evolved that way. The differences between the first and the second record are that the three of us were in town together to do this album, all at the same time. The last time my son was in Japan but this time we were all together. Being together I guess we just had a lot more fun and maybe that’s showing on the record. It’s not quite as dark and ominous, not quite – it still has that “feel” – but it’s not as bleak as the first record. I don’t know if that’s good or bad – I don’t know! We just improvised it – it came from inside. There was nothing more than our love of music that pushed this. Is it still influenced by the 70s and 80s? Maybe, I don’t know man – I can’t really evaluate it. It’s an imaginary movie theme.

“Making movies is hard”

Making movies and directing is very hard. It’s very stressful. I’m not going to say I disliked it because it’s the love of my life – I love directing and I love cinema. But especially the way things are today, in the modern movie industry, they’re different to how they used to be. Plus, nobody knows anything now, but I guess that’s okay – nobody knew anything back then either! Anyway, you get to a certain age and you think, you know, what the fuck am I doing this for? It’s such stress. The music side used to be part of the job but making records today doesn’t feel like a job, not at all.

“The pressure’s off”

Is music the sound of freedom? Oh God yes. Oh God yes! First of all, making music does not have to be enormously commercially successful. It’s as good as it is. So what the hell, this is great – the pressure’s off, man! I don’t have any pressure – it’s awesome. Plus, Sacred Bones is a great label full of nice people and they love music. They’re a small label and I get to have this resurgence in my career, this late in my life – I love it! People say there are no second chapters, right? But you can!

“My dad never heard the new album”

My father passed away, just recently. Because of him I love music like I love cinema. It was always part of my life. He was an accomplished man, very accomplished [Howard Ralph Carpenter was a prominent professor of music in America]. But by this point in his life he was deaf so he never got to hear the new record. It’s a shame but it’s all right.

“I would love to do music for another game”

Nobody’s asked me for a while, but I’d love to do it [Carpenter composed the whole soundtrack for the videogame ‘Sentinel Returns’ in 1998]. I played Far Cry Primal recently and enjoyed that a lot. I just finished Fallout 4 and that was really fun! [Virtual reality with Oculus Rift] looks interesting but none of that’s ready to go yet. The problem is with movement – the frame rate isn’t good enough so you can’t move fast or you’ll throw up! Seriously, you have to move very slowly. You can see the potential though, for sure. It’ll get there.

“One thing at a time”

I don’t know [about doing more music] yet; let’s just take it a step at a time. It’s the second album that I’ve done so we’ll see how it goes. It seems to be going pretty well so far, we’ll see how the playing live goes and the future might be bright or this might be it, I don’t know. I’m having a great time. Making music, on the level we’re making music, is just a joy. It’s all about joy – there’s nothing more to it than that. I’m in a great place right now.