Apr 11, 2016
Lost and Found: Talking with John Carpenter about His Latest Album, Soundtracks, and Donald Trump
John Carpenter has never heard a Suicide record. I’m chatting on the phone with the absurdly influential horror director about the music he made for his genre-defining films of the 70s and 80s. Given how close his brutally minimal, synth-based score for a movie like 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 feels to the savage, proto-punk music made in New York around that same time, I’d always wondered if Carpenter was aware of it. “Sounds like what?” he asks. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Have you ever heard [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Immigrant Song’? That’s what ‘Assault’ is…’bum bum ba da da dum, bum bum ba da da dum.’”
It’s characteristic for Carpenter to shrug off a key bit of his own work as low-budget mimicry.
He’s consistently kept a humble remove from the still-growing influence his work as a film composer has had. It’s gone well beyond changing the sound of American horror films, to become a founding text of underground electronic music. In his telling, “I just did what I did, depending on the movie. You try to enhance the scene, make the scene better. You try to support the scene in what it’s trying to do. That’s the whole purpose.”
Others aren’t bound to that soft sell. “The Halloween theme basically invented the horror movie soundtrack,” says Caleb Braaten, founder of Sacred Bones. Last year, the Brooklyn label released Lost Themes, Carpenter’s first ever album of music made outside of the filmmaking process. The record, made with Carpenter’s son Cody and godson Daniel Davies (the son of Kinks’ icon Dave Davies) has provided a perfect excuse to reconsider the director as a musician, distinct from his movies. “The music he was making for his films was bigger than that,” says Braaten. “They are standalone albums, regardless of whether he wanted them to be.”
“I just did what I did, depending on the movie. You try to enhance the scene, make the scene better. That’s the whole purpose.”
When Sacred Bones began talking to Carpenter, an album of brand new, original material was not something they thought possible. A music lawyer working with the label’s other legendary director/musician David Lynch, connected them. Braaten says his only idea was, “I wonder if he has any old songs that were cut from films, kind of bits and pieces laying around so we can throw something together. That’s when he told [the attorney] he was working on new stuff, and asked if we wanted to hear it.” “They sent it to us in as an unmarked CDR in a mailer,” says label manager Taylor Brode. “I asked Caleb, ‘What’s in this packaging?’ He was like, ‘This is a John Carpenter solo record.’ I said, ‘What???’”
Brode confirms that Carpenter’s humility extends past discomfort with giving himself too much credit as a musical innovator. “He’s the lowest maintenance artist we’ve ever dealt with, which is insane to think about,” she says. “If we need to talk to him, we can, just… call him… on the phone. For someone who is as established as he is and has been doing music and film for as long as he’s been, that’s unbelievable.”
The timing was good. “Soundtracks are having a huge resurgence right now,” says label manager Taylor Brode. “We started to work on Lost Themes two years ago, and between the time we started working on it and the time it came out, all this stuff had started changing sort of organically as far as horror movie soundtracks being very trendy and a lot of current electronic musicians citing horror soundtracks and scores as influential. There’s several soundtrack reissue labels that are popping up. We would have worked with John regardless of what’s happening in current music, because he’s, you know, a gifted legend and its an honor to work with him,” she says. “But we got really lucky there.”
Carpenter’s record went well beyond a respectable showing for a niche genre. “It’s one of our best selling records of all time,” says Brode. Lost Themes debuted at number 44 on Billboard’s album chart in the UK, and number 1 on the Dance and Electronic Albums chart in the US. So, when Carpenter surprised the label again with news that he’d recorded a sequel, agreeing to put it out wasn’t a hard call—Lost Themes II is released April 15th. “We would love to be able to support John Carpenter’s music career as long as he wants us to.” says Braaten.
As soon as that first record was announced, Sacred Bones was flooded with questions over whether Carpenter would play live shows and unprompted offers from international festivals and promoters trying to secure one. As Lost Themes took off, a talent agency came on, purely to sift through the waves of requests that kept pouring in. “John was very adamant that he was not going to do that,” says Braaten, “and then he changed his mind.” With a hit record, and continuing proof of fan demand, Carpenter’s kids got him to cave. “I never had rock star aspirations,” insists Carpenter, “not really. But my son and godson convinced me it would be really fun to do. How many times do you get to go play live with your son and godson, as an adult?”
They’ll play New York City later this summer, and around thirty dates across the US and Europe throughout the year. The shows will pay homage to Carpenter’s soundtrack work as well as a career-spanning greatest hits spectacular, loaded with iconic movie clips projected as their themes play live. It’ll be the first time Carpenter’s performed any creative work with that kind of immediacy, in front of a crowd who’ll react in real time. It’ll be a vastly different experience than the long, deliberate process of movie-making. “I’m not expecting anything,” he says. “I’m just going to get up there and do it.”
“It’s much more fun making the kind of music we’re making now than it is making a movie, let me tell you that,” says Carpenter. “Lots more fun. The stress level is just non-existent. There is no stress.”
Outside of the music, he’s maybe feeling just a bit. While I had him, I felt compelled to mention They Live!, the loopy 1988 B-picture that stands out as most overtly political film he ever made, a clear-eyed critique of capitalist rot at the end of the Reagan era. Something about his sinister business dudes, secret grotesque aliens under their bold ties and hair-sprayed coifs, seemed newly relevant in the age of Trump?
“No screaming shit!,” says Carpenter. “Yes, he is the epitome of that. It’s unbelievable. A lot of people are buying that shit. That’s what I can’t believe. I don’t have the answer to that. People just take They Live! as a low-budget science fiction movie, which is fine. But it’s the way things are now! It’s bad news,” he says. “Hopefully, it’ll be alright.”
“Hey man, I’m just happy to be alive.”
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