This month, Sacred Bones will release Lost Themes, Carpenter's first album of non-soundtrack music, which finds him working with his son, Cody, and his godson, Daniel Davies, to deliver a set of complex instrumentals that expands the distinctive style he developed over four decades of soundtrack work. A deluxe version of the album comes with reworks from some of the artists he has influenced, including Bill Kouligas, Zola Jesus and Silent Servant. On the phone from Hollywood, Carpenter was relaxed and amiable, clearly delighted at the ease with which Lost Themes had been produced; a far cry, it seems, from the often turbulent world of movie making.
How did Lost Themes come about? What urged you to make an album of non-soundtrack music?
It all started a couple of years ago. My son and I would get together and play videogames for two hours, and we'd go downstairs to my computer music setup and we'd improvise music for a couple of hours. Then back to the videogames. Then back to music. This would go on for quite a while, and we'd play all sorts of different styles, we'd play some blues and rock & roll and we'd play score music, soundtrack music and improvise. So by the time he left for Japan to teach, I had about 60 minutes of music. So I did nothing, and sat on it. I got a new music attorney and she asked me, "Do you have anything new?" So I thought, "Wow, I've got the stuff that Cody and I did." So I sent it over to her to listen to and a couple of months later I had a record deal! Man oh man! This stuff is easy! What the hell?
So how long was the process from the beginning of the jams with Cody to the point where you had a finished album ready to release?
Well, it got more complicated. The music, the 60 minutes, at the point that they said they wanted a record album, where we made an agreement, my son was in Japan. So I enlisted the aid of my godson, Daniel Davies. We had to cut down a little of what we'd done and make some new music, so I made some new tracks. It was two years, I guess, and here we are.
Did Cody and Daniel have defined roles?
Well, everybody had similar roles. We were all co-composers, co-performers and co-engineers. The performing, the basic sketch composition of the music and the mixing, was all done by all of us. It was a very open and simple process.
Has music always been a shared interest between yourself and Cody?
Yeah. Ever since he was really little. His mom and I are both musical in different ways, we passed that along to him, and I think that's in the Carpenter gene pool. My dad was a music teacher. So yeah, it's always been a part. Cody's an accomplished musician. He's got some fantastic chops. Keyboards, drums and guitar. Me, I've got minimal chops.
Was your father a direct influence? Did he teach you music?
Sure. Oh yeah. Well, first of all, when I was young, I would listen to classical music all the time. It was always in the house, and then he decided he was going to teach me the violin, which was a huge mistake, because I had absolutely no talent at it. But I took lessons [sighs]. It was a painful time. I wasn't any good and I didn't want to play it. Violin is a hard instrument to learn. It's probably the hardest to master. I was never able to do that. So I moved on from there to keyboards and guitar.
You found that much more fulfilling?
Yeah. It was something I could do.
Did that period coincide with the emergence of rock & roll?
Perfect timing then?
It was great because I was a huge Beatles fan. And the British Invasion, the Stones, and the American rock & roll of the '60s and '70s. So yeah, I picked up a little music.
It's interesting that you mention The Beatles and other groups of that era, because there are moments on the album that gesture towards that lineage, such as "Obsidian," which has a touch of The Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds and Smile to it.
Oh sure, I'm a huge fan of The Beach Boys.
There are many labels who would have jumped at the chance to release a John Carpenter album. Why did Sacred Bones seem like the right choice?
I had nothing to do with that part of it. It was all done with me sitting in my living room playing videogames. I don't know that there's a lot of record labels who wanted to put this out. Sacred Bones is a really unique kind of label, they put out all sorts of different music: David Lynch's music, electronic music, oldies… they're real interesting. And very, very nice people. So they seemed like a good fit because this is an oddball record.
It's a good sign that Sacred Bones worked with Lynch, then. They have form when it comes to working with filmmakers.
It is a good sign! We're all divas, you know that.
There's a deluxe edition coming out with some remixes from the likes of Zola Jesus, Blanck Mass and Bill Kouligas. What's your opinion of these reworks? Is it interesting to hear your own work reconfigured?
It is. It's mystifying in some ways [laughs] and some of it is programmed more for dance music. But it's all fabulous, it's all interesting. It's all interesting stuff.
Do you have a favourite among the remixes?
No, I think they're all pretty good. They're just all different takes on the music. They took it in a different direction to the one I did. See I used synthesizers to sort of play orchestral sounds. There's a lot of strings and pads in my stuff. But a lot of the remixes eschew that for a more technological-based sound.
What kind of home studio setup do you have?
I have Logic Pro. Which is just a way of recording an infinite number of tracks. With all these plug-ins—they call them plug-ins, they're synthesizer sounds—I have everything. I have orchestral, I have synthesizers, I have electronic, bass guitar, drums, everything you can think of. I haven't even gone through it all.
Having such means at your disposal would have been unthinkable when you were composing and recording the soundtracks to Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween.
I was in a room with tube synthesizers, where you had to tune them up to play them. It was unbelievable. Ohhhhh those days were funny!
What was your first synthesizer?
When you say my first synth, I don't have any clue what I was playing on. But I was given a Prophet 5 way back when. I don't know whatever happened to that thing.
There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in electronic film scores, specifically for horror and sci-fi films. Do you view this as nostalgia or something more profound?
I don't know, because I'm not really aware of it that much. But I appreciate it, it's helped me to have my first record album. So it's great but I don't know why, I don't know if it's something profound going on or not. But there are very few synth scores for movies these days. Everything is orchestral.
Forward-looking. Yeah. Well Trent Reznor, his stuff is pretty forward-looking, too. Maybe there's a comeback in the innings, I don't know.
When you scored early works such as Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween, were you familiar with the work of artists like Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Subotnik?
No, I didn't know any of that stuff. I didn't. I was out on a little island, doing it all by myself. Because it was necessary. Because we didn't have any money to hire anybody to do music.
So was there a point you remember thinking, "How the hell am I going to score this film?"
I just did it. I just went ahead and did it. 99% of it is improvised. It wasn't planned ahead of time, I'd just sit down and do it. It was desperation! Necessity and desperation.
Did it occur to you that this might have been a risk?
Man, I must have been too stupid; I just wanted to make movies. So I wasn't concentrated on the score.
Were you aware of precedents? Bebe and Louis Barron's score for Forbidden Planet must have been significant.
Well that was the big one. That was the one that influenced me the most. I saw that movie when I was eight years old. The sounds of that movie and the look of it, after seeing it I was like, "I've just gotta be a director."
So you came into contact with the music of Tangerine Dream, Stockhausen and so forth after you'd created your early soundtracks?
Well, I remember hearing Tangerine Dream when I saw [William Friedkin's 1977 film] Sorcerer. I love that movie and I love their score for it. But no, I wasn't—Stockhausen? There was one thing he did with a bunch of cellists being dangled under a helicopter? Nah, I didn't listen to that crap. See, I was influenced mostly by traditional soundtracks from the '50s and '60s, mainly Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin. What they did, especially Bernard Herrmann, was take really simple little melody lines and then create this entire score around it. The Day The Earth Stood Still, for instance. Its basic simplicity, it was profound.
Have you ever been in contact with some of your '70s soundtrack contemporaries, such as Goblin?
I met [Goblin keyboard player] Claudio Simonetti a couple of years ago. Really nice guy. It was at a convention and there was a reunion of one of the movies they worked on. I met Simonetti and I also met Asia Argento. I was a lot more interested in Asia Argento, I have to admit, for obvious reasons.
Goblin were very much interested by the progressive rock of Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and there are elements of this on Lost Themes. Were you a fan of this kind of music?
I'm a big fan of Genesis. My son is especially, too. He's a really progressive rock kinda guy.
That's definitely audible in the music Cody makes as Ludrium.
Yeah. They're pretty good.
The scores to In The Mouth Of Madness and Vampires both feature the prominent use of heavy guitar riffs. Why did that instrumentation seem appropriate for those films?
Well, Vampires was sort of a western, it had a bluesy feel to it. So I got together a pick-up band, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn [guitarist and bassist of R&B group Booker T & The MGs] and Skunk Baxter [session guitarist famed for his work with Steely Dan]. It was a lot of fun to do.
They're heavyweight players.
Oh brother! Let me tell you… I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I played rhythm guitar and here's Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn playing with me. Wow!
How did the composition process work?
I'd bring in a few chords, that's basically all it was. We'd just improvise. It's all improvisation based on chords or a slight melody line. That's what it's all about. You get an idea at the start and then build on it.
So the same kind of process that resulted in the score to Halloween?
Absolutely. In that case, in the old days you used to just get a sound—you know, "Give me something deep and dark." I'd play a chord or something, and think, "Oh, this is great!" Then out of that would emerge music. It's a great process. Also Lost Themes is great because I didn't have image to control me. We just played music. It's just joyous, it's freeing. No pressure, no producers, are you kidding me? No people looking over my shoulder, "When you gonna be done?"
Inevitable drawbacks to filmmaking.
Well, it's just part of the gig. You have to truly love cinema. My love has been tested over the years [laughs].