John Carpenter has not only directed a couple dozen feature-length films that reimagined genre concepts for decades to come, but he's done the soundtracks to 15 of them. And not only are some of those films stunning works worthy of multiple viewings — The Thing, Halloween, They Live, Dark Star, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Starman, and In the Mouth of Madness among them — but their austere and highly memorable, synth-driven soundtracks are so effective that they're a huge part of what drives and defines each of those wonderful films.
Carpenter, who's also worked as a writer, actor, producer, and composer on other's works, is currently enjoying a flowering of interest in his music. His older soundtracks have been reissued several times in the last decade in increasingly elaborate packaging. And he's now making his own music, for its own sake. The Brooklyn-based label Sacred Bones has recently released Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, his first records of original solo music not written for film.
Metro Times: What turns you on, musically?
John Carpenter: Oh geez, that's a hard question.
MT: Do you sit around listening to soundtracks, or do you have some guilty pleasures?
Carpenter: You're talking to an old guy right now, so I've listened over my years. Now, I just listen to whatever's on. What I do is mostly watch basketball. Your Pistons put up a great fight.
MT: Have you ever been to Detroit?
Carpenter: I have, but what's going on there? What's happening? I heard there is a teachers' strike?
MT: There was, yes. But when were you in Detroit?
Carpenter: It was years ago for a screening of Halloween. It was a great old theater downtown, but I can't recall the name.
MT: We only have a few theaters in the city; it's sort of a strange situation. Detroit was a different place then. That was in the early '80s?
Carpenter: No, it was later than that, because Shaq was a member of the Lakers, so it was probably in the '90s.
MT: That might have been at the Redford, then. So, you're getting into a musical career here, now, with these Lost Themes records.
Carpenter: It's my second act.
MT: Could you talk about the difference between music for film, and music for listening?
Carpenter: Well, one is a job, and it's hard. And the other is pure joy. The recent stuff is an absolute joy. It doesn't have to support anything, it's just on its own. It may evoke an image in your head, but it's not for a real movie. So, they're night and day.
MT: It sounds like you're having fun. And you're working with your son? How is that?
Carpenter: Son Cody [Carpenter], and godson Daniel [Davies], yes. You know, I've had a long career in movies, and movies are hard to do, and they take a toll on you. So I deserve this. I deserve some fun.
MT: I'm a musician. And for me, you occupy a real cool place in my record collection, outside of the films. I'm a real fan of the music. So it's cool that you're doing something more in that realm. I'm curious if it was a real deliberate intention to use synthesizers? Did you feel as a composer that you could evoke the same sort of feeling; was the synth/electronic element more of a deliberate choice?
Carpenter: That's a good question. I have a Logic Pro setup, and it has all these plug-ins and sounds, and synths have always been a way for me to sound big. By multi-tracking and getting strings and horns and all sorts of stuff, it's not that they're my instrument of choice. It's the keyboard, really. It's good to start with the piano and move out from there. Deliberately, I thought, 'well this is my stuff.' So I added guitars, and all sorts of things to it, and branched out. You can play anything with synthesizers. You're not limited. You can play classical-sounding stuff, rock 'n' roll, blues, anything you want.
MT: Do you like Goblin?
Carpenter: Oh hell yes; are you kidding me? [Claudio Simonetti] is a great guy. I've met him and know him. They did some amazing things. I'm very jealous of the things they've done. I'm gonna rip it all off.
MT: Anyone else like that?
Carpenter: Tangerine Dream, have you heard of them? You're probably too young.
MT: I love them. Come on, the Sorcerer soundtrack!
Carpenter: Are you kidding me? You weren't even born when that was out, give me a break.
MT: They're like the Beatles to me. We just lost Edgar Froese last year. Do you have a favorite soundtrack of yours, as far as being a stand-alone work?
Carpenter: No. It's all for a purpose. It isn't on its own. That's just not what it's about. It doesn't require me to be much of a musician. I have limited chops, believe me.
MT: You're trying to evoke a feeling.
Carpenter: That's all it is. You could be scoring your own movies.
MT: With these first two non-soundtrack albums of yours, the goal for you is to pretty much do what you want, right? You're trying to evoke some feelings. But the darkness is still present. Where's this darkness coming from?
Carpenter: There's darkness? [Laughs] I thought it was all happy stuff. When I grew up, I listened to classical music, because my father was a music teacher. And classical music can be pretty damn dark. But it's beautiful. And I'm attracted to that and movie scores. I love the scores of the horror and science fiction movies, and of Hitchcock, and Bernard Herrmann's scores. You listen to Taxi Driver and that's a fuckin' dark score, and maybe the darkest movie ever made.
MT: Do you smoke?
Carpenter: I used to, not any more.
MT: How long have you not smoked?
Carpenter: It's been over a year. I went to the hospital last year because I was pretty seriously ill. But when you're in the hospital they don't let you smoke. So I quit.
MT: What would you wish people would ask you but no one ever does?
Carpenter: Everyone has pretty much asked me everything I want them to know about me. But people never ask me about basketball.
MT: I've heard you're a big fan. what turns you on about basketball? Do you play?
Carpenter: Everything. And I used to play.
MT: I see you all are doing a good chunk of dates. Have you done any touring like this before?
Carpenter: Never, hell no. Just making movies I've traveled across the country, which will whip your ass. It'll bring you down big time. I'm semi-retired now.
MT: So you're doing this strictly for fun, it's what you want to do.
Carpenter: Yeah! Come and see me in Detroit.
Carpenter will perform themes from his classic works as well as new compositions at the Cathedral Theatre at the Masonic Temple on Friday, July 15; Starts at 7 p.m.; 500 Temple Ave., Detroit; themasonic.com; Tickets $35-$75. Entrance includes a screening of Escape From New York.