The Prog Interview: John Carpenter on stage fright and Ennio Morricone
This month, we get inside the mind of the dean of American horror cinema and soundtracks, John Carpenter, who arguably invented the slasher genre with 1978’s Halloween.
John Carpenter’s reputation was sealed by the series of films he made in the 70s and early 80s. Filmed on a budget of $300,000, 1978’s Halloween became one of the biggest indie hits in history, grossing $70m worldwide and more or less inventing the slasher genre. The Fog, The Thing and Christine may have been less successful at the box office, but they remain cult classics.
Carpenter’s other great area of excellence is sci-fi, his visions of a bleak, dystopian future tempered by a sly wit in movies like Dark Star (1974), Escape From New York (1981), Ghosts Of Mars (2001) and 1988’s satirical swipe at the mass media, They Live.
Yet Carpenter is far more than just a writer-director. His self-composed soundtracks have always been a key component of his work. Inspired by his violinist father, a music teacher at Western Kentucky University who was also an in-demand session player, Carpenter began scoring his own shorts while studying cinema at the University Of Southern California in the late 60s. Hallucinatory western The Resurrection Of Broncho Billy, on which he was writer, editor and composer, won an Oscar in 1970 for Best Short Subject. A year later, he began work on Dark Star with classmate Dan O’Bannon (who would go on to write the screenplay for Alien). When it came to making the film, Carpenter shaped an electronic score on a VCS3 synthesiser.
The music for 1976 thriller Assault On Precinct 13 was suitably menacing and lean, though Carpenter achieved maximum effect from the most minimal of tools on his follow-up, Halloween. Its title theme is one of the most memorable motifs in modern cinema, created using just three notes. The inspiration, says Carpenter, was a 5/4 bongo rhythm his father had taught him as a 13-year-old. The rest of the soundtrack was suffused with a similar sense of impending dread.
There was some other great stuff around in the 70s too though, like Tangerine Dream. Sorcerer is a very underrated movie, with an incredible score. It still sounds like nothing else I’ve heard.
The experience taught Carpenter a valuable lesson. “I screened the final cut, minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century Fox,” he recalled. “She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to save it with the music.”
Having added the score, he ran into her again six months later: “Now she too loved the movie and all I’d done was add music.”
As fellow filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has observed: “Carpenter’s scores fluctuate with his films. Listen to them – they embody the spirit of each film perfectly. They are his final auteur voice.”
It should come as no great surprise, then, to discover that Carpenter has been making non-soundtrack albums of late. Now aged 68, this year saw the release of Lost Themes II, the sequel to 2015’s Lost Themes, both of which are instrumental collaborations with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies.
Lost Themes II is expansive and organic, driven by Carpenter’s eerie synth riffs and embellished with acoustic and electric guitars. Foreboding techno, dark blues and avant-garde ruminations are rolled out onto a prog landscape shaded by Tangerine Dream, Cluster and Carpenter’s own back catalogue. The acclaim has been such that Carpenter and a five-piece band (including Cody and Davies) recently made their live debut on stage in Europe, before heading off to America to tour. Reviews have bordered on the ecstatic, with Carpenter and co playing selections from his most iconic films, with accompanying clips on a backdrop, alongside choice selections from both Lost Themes albums.
He’s also just reissued the themes from Halloween, Escape From New York, Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog on spanking new vinyl. Luckily for us, he’s headed to these shores this October. Halloween, to be exact.
How did Lost Themes II develop?
We decided to do another record and this time around, Cody and Daniel and I were all in the same town at the same time. The difference was that the first Lost Themes album was done over a period of years. We would record some stuff, then Cody went off to Japan to teach English. So when we got the record deal, Daniel helped me finish it up, while Cody would send sketches over from the Far East via computer. When it came to this one though, all three of us being in the same town together meant it was a much more immediate experience. That said, the idea is basically the same – every person has a movie running in their head and this is the soundtrack for it. We all brought sketches of ideas and our own stuff into it, so it was a real collaborative effort.
Lost Themes II sounds heavier and more organic than its predecessor…
Look, we’re naturally rocky people! It just sort of worked out that way.
Some of the titles alone are intriguing: Persia Rising, Angel’s Asylum, White Pulse – and not forgetting Windy Death…
[Laughing] That’s Cody’s. I decided on the names of these songs, incidentally, much to his chagrin. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the titles on Lost Themes were all one word. The titles on Lost Themes II are all two words. We’ll have to see if there’s a Lost Themes III and how they’ll work out.
Tell me about Bela Lugosi, another great piece…
That’s essentially Daniel’s inspiration. Daniel provided the impetus for the song Night, from the first album, which is very similar. He has a very unique approach and I just love to come along and play with him.
Dark Blues is a standout from Lost Themes II. How did that come together?
That was all based on hearing this arpeggiator on the synth [an arpeggiator creates a pattern from ‘listening’ to notes being played]. I thought, “Wow! Listen to that!” We started working with it, but the problem was that the arpeggiator was playing in triplets, so we all got screwed up. But we finally made it sound good. I love the blues, I love that kind of feel. Daniel brought his incredible skills as a lead guitarist there. He knew exactly what to do. Then there’s a song like Distant Dream. I always wanted to do something that kicks ass and it’s partly a homage to Tangerine Dream. If you listen closely you can hear a little of Sorcerer  creeping in there.