Film director, writer, actor and composer John Carpenter is one of 20th-century Hollywood’s most prolific creators. Born in New York but raised in Kentucky, Carpenter fell in love with western and horror movies at a young age, and this love for dark humor and suspense would come to define his most famous works over the past 40 years: The Halloween series, Escape from New York, The Fog, They Live and The Thing, among many others. A major element of Carpenter’s filmography is his composition work, as he scores most of his original films himself. His style is recognizable for its distinct noir feeling, rooted in eerie keyboard chords and electronic synths. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat on Red Bull Radio with Frosty, Carpenter discusses minimalism as a result of musical limitations, collaborations and his approach to music.
I’m curious about people’s first sonic epiphanies. Is there one you recall, either purely sound-based or musical, that pushed you to explore sound?
I grew up with a music teacher, a professor of music. [My father] got his PhD from the Eastman School of Music and was a virtuoso violinist. There was a lot of classical music played in my house, and in my early memories, lots of classics were played. I remember my father playing Peter and the Wolf for me and explaining, “This is the introduction to various instruments and the orchestra. This is the heroic sound, and here comes the evil one.” It was a very permeative early experience. I enjoyed it.
But then there were some deeper experiences that began to affect me as a person. I did a lot of fantasizing when I was young because I didn’t fit into the world I lived in, so music was a part of that fantasy. Movies were a big part of it, too. I remember Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky being especially influential. They were the soundtracks for the movies in my head at that time.
Were you actively putting on albums in the house?
I was. It was me putting music on the turntable. My father, mother and I lived in a log cabin on the museum grounds in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It was some sort of a museum piece. My father rented it out for $50 a month. It was an amazing place to grow up. I only knew historical figures who lived in a log cabin. This was in the Jim Crow South the early ’50s. I was very much an outsider, and living in a log cabin cemented that status. This was where I listened to music as a little kid and imagined things.
The story of my early youth was creation.
Were you creating fantasies or specific storylines in your mind when you listened to Peter and the Wolf, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky?
It was very much like the video games I love playing. They call them “open-world,” where you can go anywhere and do anything. This music, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky, allowed me to go anywhere and imagine anything. I was either in a science fiction, horror or western movie. I was the hero of my own fantasies. I was more connected to that world than I was to the world that I lived in.
Were you also making music? Were you writing or drawing?
Very early on, my father told me, “What you need to do with your life is create something. I don’t know what it is – it doesn’t matter what it is. But you need to fall in love with it and create it.” I would draw, I would write little stories. My dad had a movie camera, so I made little movies. I did all sorts of things. They sometimes would go to completion, and sometimes they were just fragments. But the story of my early youth was creation.
Do you remember the first film score that you specifically connected with?
I was eight years old in 1956. I went to a movie called Forbidden Planet down at the Capitol Theater down in Bowling Green. That movie changed my life. One of the things it changed was my idea of what music could be and was, because it had an electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron. To this day, if I listen to the Forbidden Planet score, I’d be transported beyond time and space. It was profound to me as a kid.
Plus, the movie itself was profound. It was a widescreen, color, MGM science fiction space opera with an invisible monster. I think that was a turning point for me in my life for two reasons. One: It made me want to be a movie director. Two: The potential of what I heard was so different than the orchestra, piano or violin that my father played and the conventional music that I had heard. It was amazingly futuristic sounds done very crudely. That was transformative.
What was unique about the Barrons’ sonic texture? How it did it propel the picture?
I don’t think there had been anything like Forbidden Planet and its score before. I recommend anyone – a musician or just a casual listener of music or somebody who’s interested in movies – to watch that film. The music takes you to another galaxy, another planet and another time. The music was used later on in a terrible movie called From the Earth to the Moon, and it just didn’t work. Electric guitars were becoming very popular at that time, and they were electronic music, too. But [the electronic Forbidden Planet score] was a whole different feeling.
Speaking of the electric guitar, can you introduce your connection to Dave Davies?
In the mid-’80s, I got a letter from Dave Davies of the Kinks. He was the lead guitar player and the founder of the band. He said he liked my work. I responded, and we met in Los Angeles. He and I became really close friends. Dave is essentially an instinctual guitar player. It’s in him. His guitar playing is savage and great. We worked together on a couple scores for movies, like Village of the Damned and Mouth of Madness.
What are the most important assets in a collaborative partner for you?
Throughout my career – both in music and movies – I’ve had a lot of collaborators. There are different kinds, different personalities, and they have different talents. I presently make music with my son, Cody, and my godson, Daniel Davies. They bring different talents to what we do. My son is a very accomplished keyboard player. He’s an amazing musician. He far surpasses me in terms of ability. I have limited chops and I’m a lazy musician, but he’s not. Daniel is more instinctive, kind of like his dad.
Those are two different kinds of musicians working with me, and you utilize their talents in different ways at different times. Sometimes you need that precision and the steadiness of a session guy. Sometimes you need the savage screaming his head off. It depends on what you’re doing. Sometimes in the ebb and flow of the music that you’re doing, you’ve got to feel this stuff. It’s got to be inside. That’s what I’m looking for.
I’m looking over your shoulder right now, and I see Starman, a film you directed. You didn’t score it – Jack Nitzsche did. Can you talk about Nitzsche, that project and your collaboration with him?
I made Starman in the ’80s. The executive producer was Michael Douglas, who said to me, “Consider Jack Nitzsche as a composer for your film, because he’s a stone genius.” So I checked out Jack, and – oh my God. He’d done amazing stuff in all sorts of areas. I met with him, and he and I get along great. Jack used the Synclavier, a sampling machine, to sample his wife at the time, Buffy Sainte-Marie. That’s the melody in Starman: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice “ooh”-ing the melody.
What were your conversations like with your collaborators? How did you get on the same page?
With the composers I’ve worked with, like Ennio Morricone, Jack Nitzsche and Shirley Walker, it’s very difficult to talk about music in verbal terms, because music is nonverbal. Music is like describing the wind. You can’t – you feel it. You know it’s out there. It’s also like describing what it’s like to be in love. It’s invisible, too. Powerful. It can overtake you. That’s the magic of music: It’s hard to talk about. So I tried not to.
When Ennio Morricone and I talked about the opening scenes of The Thing, he had some really brilliant stuff that he had written as an idea, but it was too elaborate. I said, “Just do something with fewer notes.” That was the only way I could express it to him. He knew it was going to be a monster movie, and he did this brilliant electronic piece for me. I think I said to Jack Nitzsche, “Let’s do something romantic.” That’s all I said. His response was a very simple but beautiful piece of music using Buffy’s voice and other parts of the sampling process. It was just genius. Amazing. But the simplicity of Jack’s work is also what’s so great about it.
Minimalism is a result of my limited skills as a musician – I can’t play anything more complex.
Were there specific projects by Morricone or Nitzsche that had won you over? Say Morricone, for instance. Why did you choose him to make the score for The Thing?
Ennio Morricone is legendary in Hollywood. He’s done a number of different things, but he’s probably best known for the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. But Morricone was an experimental musician. I think one of the greatest musical scores of all time was his score to Once Upon a Time in the West. Staggeringly beautiful. He recorded all that stuff before the movie was shooting, and Sergio Leone would play the music on set to get the actors in the mood. What an unbelievable idea. What a great idea. But the main title theme to Once Upon a Time in the West is just stunning. I remember when I first saw the movie – it’s jaw-dropping. It’s a western opera. That piece of music is transformative, like many others.
Have you ever tried something like playing the score on set in order to set the mood?
No. Talking with Sergio Leone was difficult because he didn’t speak English, so a translator had to be there. That can get confusing and ridiculous if you’re not specific. I never asked [Morricone] how it was to work with someone or what he did for something else. We just focused on the work right in front of us. This movie was about the end of everything, and his music suggested it. It was like, “We’re doomed.” He put more power in my film.
People sometimes say, “Morricone’s score sounded like your scores.” No, it didn’t. Listen to the orchestral stuff. Listen to the music playing when Kurt Russell’s character, MacReady, comes into the Norwegian camp, goes down the stairs and there’s the ice block that’s been opened up. It’s beautiful. [Morricone] did that on his own with basically no direction from me. I just said, “Bravo.”
Are you someone who likes to fill your space with sound, or do you like to appreciate silence?
I spent my early life listening to classical and movie music. But now that I’m an old guy, I don’t pick out a whole lot of music to listen to. I play a lot of video games, and those are scored as well – sometimes orchestrally, sometimes with synthesized music. I watch movies. I obviously hear scores. And I watch NBA basketball, which doesn’t have a whole lot of music to it. My wife listens to a soft rock station, so we listen to that when we’re driving together.
I’m not as driven as I was. You get older and you get wiser and more relaxed in life. The savage beast in me has calmed a great deal. I don’t feel like an outsider anymore. I truly love Los Angeles and Hollywood. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. My dream in life was to become a movie director, and I got to live my dream. I got to become me, John Carpenter, beyond my wildest dreams.
Do you remember the point where the “savage beast” was still in you and still vicious?
When I was a young man, I fell in love with the Beatles, like many in my generation. I listened to them all the time. Then there was a confluence of events that took place in the ’70s, when I was struggling to write movies and come up with ideas. I was listening to a lot of music then and struggling with my own demons. That was probably the most intense time in my life. In those days, a beast was on the prowl in big ways. I’d hear the radio or pick up music, and the beast would be satiated a bit.
Let’s talk about the Halloween theme. Tell us about the score for that and how the idea for it came to you.
One of the [most notable] things about Halloween was its main title music, the theme that everybody’s familiar with. The origins of that are my father teaching me the 5/4 time signature on the bongo when I was 13. That was essentially the Halloween theme played on a piano – rocking octaves. It was really simple. It’s repetitive. It goes down a half step and then another step. It repeats. It’s got a chilling nature to it. It’s something I could play in those days. I can’t even play it now because it’s beyond me. I played around with it on pianos before I made the movie. I wasn’t sure what it was I was playing. Was this movie music? Or is it just music? When the time came to do Halloween, that was available to me because I had it and played it. It’s really simple stuff – not very complex.
Do you consciously pursue minimalism in your creation or editing process?
I used to tell myself, “Boy, I’m really sharp. I’m doing this minimalistic stuff.” I have to admit that the minimalism is a result of my limited skills as a musician – I can’t play anything more complex. I can’t read music. It has to be simple. If I’m on a synthesizer and I’ve got a string pad, I can play around and make something interesting and more complex with it. My work doesn’t get more complicated than Halloween.
Let’s talk about synthesizers. You’ve embraced them in your work, and iconic scores inspire people interested in minimal synth music, which has a considerable following today. When did you first realize that synthesizers could be a powerful tool for you?
Forbidden Planet was the first electronic business I heard. The score was very much saying, “I’m electronic; I have electronic sounds.” It wasn’t pretending to be anything else. But I thought, “I could sound big all by myself if I got a synthesizer. I could do violins and horns and all these things.” I heard Switched-On Bach, which also telegraphed its synthesizer origins. I wanted to sound like a rock band or an orchestra, but with electronic sound.
I listen to it now and I think, “Hey pal, that’s electronic music. It’s not orchestral.” But that was my thinking at the time: “Oh, I can be more than this one guy with medium abilities. I can actually sound good.” That was why I got into the synthesizer. I rarely heard what I was thinking about in my head: Somebody who was trying to emulate a string session. It always sounded tinny.
What most appeals to you about composition?
The way I approach music is to think about all the influences that I had as a kid, whether it’s classical or movie music. In order to get a feel for the music that influenced me, I would recommend listening to James Bernard. He’s the composer for Dracula and Frankenstein as well as two from the Quatermass series, which were known under different titles in the United States. The British titles were A Creep Unknown and Enemy from Space. Here they were called the Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2.
I got to know James. I brought him downstairs in my house and turned on my synthesizer and I said, “Let’s work a little bit here.” He showed me how he did the theme from Dracula. He would sing the title of the movie, and that would be what the score was. He used seconds. He said, “That’s supposed to be a mistake, but the seconds start rubbing against your spine. It’s just wrong somehow. Yet, if you control the seconds, you could do something really spine-tingling.” Every time I hear it, I get chills because it reminds me of being a little kid sitting in a theater. The music was more powerful than the images.
Can you talk about working on the 2018 remake of Halloween?
The new Halloween is directed by David Gordon Green. It’s a very different movie than mine, but David was a big fan of the first movie. I guess it was influential to him. He knew a lot about it. He constructed a movie that was unique on its own but hearkened back to the original. My job was to use the music from the original movie and bring it into the 21st century with modern technology and synthesizers. The new sounds are just amazing. You can’t hear them all because there’s so many of them. If you find the right instrument, the right synthesizer, the right program, the right plugin, you’re in business.
But there [also] had to be new music. Some of it had a connection to the original material, and some of it was brand-new. There’s one particular piece I’m very proud of called “The Shape Hunts Allyson.” It’s a little piano bell piece that I worked out with my son. He started playing an arpeggiated piano line, and I said, “Let’s make it a little more complicated. Do two measures of this and then go off here or there.” He created it. It’s a great new piece of music, and I’m very proud of it. David Gordon Green guided us through spotting sessions, which are when a composer sits down with the director of the movie, who says, “I want music here.”
He was very musically literate and knew what he wanted. He knew when he wanted that main theme and where he wanted something different. We just tried to make him happy. When we finished the score, we sat down with him and played it all the way through, and he had some notes – a lot of notes. We changed a few things, made a few things darker, made it more savage. Then we just kept refining it. [Green] keeps refining things all the way to the very end in terms of mix and the cutting. I’m really proud of it. It’s a great-sounding album. It has that old feel to it like the original Halloween, but a brand new feel [as well].
You’ve also been about to revisit old works and bring that brand-new feel to them with your releases on Sacred Bones. Did the label come to you for the music?
My late-life musical career began with two things. One is that my son Cody and I spent months writing new music, ad-libbing and coming up with stuff. We would record some music, and then we’d play some video games. It was done over a long period of time. Eventually I had about an hour of music. Then I got a new music attorney who said to me, “What’s new? What have you got?” So I sent her this. The next thing I knew I had a record deal with Sacred Bones.
When I talked to them on the phone, I was stunned. They wanted me to do some more music. They wanted a couple of tunes that Cody and I did. They wanted stuff that was melody-driven, chorus-verse-chorus-verse songs. Daniel [Davies] joined the party along the way. He became my technician, but he also composed one of the things on there and played lead guitar. It grew organically. I didn’t know about Sacred Bones; that was my attorney. She was a genius.
You’ve also been performing those new works live. Has that been a good experience?
Performing live is just unbelievable. I was scared at first because I had never done it. I’ve never been a frontman for a live act – only in my imagination. I got over the stage fright pretty quickly when we started playing. It’s the greatest. The rhythm system in my band is the rhythm section for Tenacious D, so they’re professional musicians. And all this happened late in my life. There’s a famous clichéd saying: “American lives have no second acts.” Well, guess what? Mine did.
My first love in life is cinema; cinema is my mistress. But she’s a harsh mistress. It’s so hard to make movies. It destroys you emotionally. The anxiety, the stress, is tough. After a number of years, I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to stop.” But making music in this present form – oh, what a joy. I feel more in touch with the unspoken world, the spiritual world, because again, music – you can’t verbalize about it. There it is. It’s pure – the purest art form there is. I’m just a lucky man. Second act, here I come.