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Director John Carpenter on composing his new album of original music

Known for his horror classics Halloween and The Thing, a master returns to his first love with Lost Themes

John Carpenter
Photograph: Kyle Cassidy John Carpenter
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Unusually for Hollywood, director John Carpenter has long been notable as a composer of his own original soundtracks: instantly recognizable, synth-heavy contributions to movies like Assault on Precinct 13Halloween and They Live. Their minimalism has influenced a grateful wave of electro musicians, including Boards of Canada and Cliff Martinez. Currently being feted at BAMcinématek with a complete retrospective, Carpenter now releases Lost Themes, his first album of new music. Not surprisingly, it sounds like the coolest ’80s horror film you’ve never seen.

Your new album doesn’t just dust off old cues that didn’t make the cut. This is all new stuff, right?
That’s correct. They’re not cues from movies I didn’t make—they’re lost themes for the movies that are in your head.

And like your movies, the album title bears your possessive credit, John Carpenter's Lost Themes, but this was a collaboration.
That's right, with my son and my godson [Cody Carpenter, of the band Ludrium, and Daniel Davies]. We'd improvise, my son and I. It was pretty 50-50—we both compose and play. I was kind of the musical director, if you want to look at it that way.

It must be nice to jam at home with family.
Yes, I want to exploit these kids so I can be rich!

Was it easier composing without a movie hanging over you?
Oh, man—yeah. This was all about joy. There’s no image to be a slave to, no deadline, no evil person standing over your shoulder.

Did you ever actually feel that from the studios when you were working on your films?
No, it's pressure from myself: to finish, to be good, to take responsibility, to make it better.

Composing something as simple as the Halloween theme must be harder than it seems.
I’m a musician of limited chops, let me put it to you that way. [Laughs] Nothing is easy—you have to work at it.

Even when I hear a score for one of your films by someone else, say Ennio Morricone's work on The Thing, it sounds stripped-down and minimal. Is that something you specifically ask for?
We had a meeting in Rome and he had some pieces worked out already. They were all beautiful, but I told him, "Do something with less notes." So that's where the main theme came from. But I'd like to point out that the rest of the score was this lushly beautiful, orchestral stuff.

Was it always your intention to create the scores for your films?
It was a necessity in the beginning. When you’re making a low-budget film, you don’t have money to hire a composer or an orchestra or a studio to record in. I knew I could do something with it.

And how exactly did that work? Did you have a bunch of keyboards in your garage?
For Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, I went to a man who taught synthesizer music at USC, Dan Wyman. He had a room full of these old tube synthesizers—you actually had to tune them up before you could use them, which was a painfully slow process. I didn't know how to do any of that, so I'd say, "I need a growling bass sound," or "I need a string sound." And he would do it. And that's the way I've worked for years.

Why do you think your music has become so popular these days?
There's a musical nostalgia for the synthesizers of the ’80s, the Prophet-5, those cheesebag sounds that we had back then. The sounds are so much better now, so much more dense and sophisticated. But there's a nostalgic movement these days, especially in dance clubs.

You didn't think the sounds were cheesebag back then, though, did you?
I thought they sounded great!

You work a lot more rarely now. Your last score was for 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. Where is your new creativity coming from?
It’s a second act. I never expected this—it’s a whole creative world that’s suddenly opened up. I just turned 67. You know, we senior citizens have to move a little slower than the rest of you guys!

Oh, I've heard this one before. You just want to sit around and watch basketball.
[Laughs] What's wrong with that? Why do you think that's a negative?

Call up Stephen King, ask him for a script.
Just like that, huh?

You don't like to get up at 4am anymore for a shoot.
Actually, I do. I wake up early now.

And you feel healthy?
I feel reasonably good, sure.

You know I'm just teasing you. We just wish you worked more often.
Oh, thank you. That's kind. You know, I might make another film here and there. We'll see. Not going to say no.

John Carpenter's Lost Themes is out on Sacred Bones. BAMcinématek's “John Carpenter: Master of Fear” is now in progress, running through Feb 22.

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