It’s 2015 and John Carpenter may be one of the few people around who actually seems excited about getting into the famously destabilized music industry. This week the 67-year-old director—best known for making cult classic genre films like Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing (and Big Trouble in Little China)—will release Lost Themes, his first non-soundtrack album. Notwithstanding a reputation for being someone who’s uninterested in wasting words or doing interviews in general, Carpenter has been tirelessly promoting Lost Themes. “It’s going fabulous so far, but I don’t know anything about the music business,” says Carpenter. “That’s what’s so great about it.”
Carpenter grew up in Kentucky playing music in bands and was monumentally affected when as an eight-year-old in 1956 he saw Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi film credited with having the first entirely electronic score. “I was astonished with how it sounded,” he says. “I’d never heard anything like that before.”
Starting with his 1974 directorial debut Dark Star, Carpenter began composing the ominous scores for his own films on synthesizers. The original decision to do so came out of necessity—with the miniscule budgets he was working with, he didn’t have the money to pay anyone else. Eventually doing the scores just became part of the gig.
Carpenter’s best-known musical works are minimal and dark—think of the tense Halloween theme that pierces the psyche like thousands of tiny needle pricks—and he’s continued to embellish that aesthetic on Lost Themes. The nine instrumental songs have evocative but opaque titles like “Obsidian,” “Wraith,” and “Abyss.” They’ve got the same doomed atmosphere of his best-known pieces, but now feature more propulsion and a heightened sense of urgency.
Carpenter started working on the songs that became Lost Themes a few years ago when his son Cody, who makes music as the prog rock act Ludrium, would come over to his house every few days. The two would play video games together for a few hours, then head downstairs to improvise music on Carpenter’s Logic Pro setup, then come back up to play more video games, and then keep the cycle going until they’d had enough. Carpenter eventually brought in his godson, the musician Daniel Davies (whose father is Dave Davies of the Kinks) to mix the songs he had made with Cody, but he started adding even more to them as they worked together. “I’m trying to exploit the children so I can become rich and they can serve me,” Carpenter jokes.
Carpenter didn’t have any real plans for what they were making until he hired a new lawyer to handle his already existing musical output. She asked if he had anything new and he thought about these sessions. “I sent it to her on a CD and a couple months later I had a record deal. It’s unbelievable,” says Carpenter.
It sounds like an exaggeration, but this recounting is not that far off from reality. Carpenter’s lawyer also represents David Lynch, another strange and beloved-by-some director. In the past few years Lynch has put out an album of his own new music and re-issued soundtracks from Eraserhead and Twin Peaks through Sacred Bones, a small independent rock label in Brooklyn with an appreciation for the experimental and the brooding. The lawyer passed them Carpenter’s tracks. “We didn’t have to get through the entire record to know that we wanted to do it,” says Taylor Brode, Sacred Bones’ label manager.
Many of the acts on Sacred Bones cite Carpenter’s work in film scores as a major influence, especially since he was one of the first musicians of any kind to embrace the possibilities of synthesizers. “He’s a pioneer of this genre,” says Brode. “The stuff that he writes isn’t “hooky” in the pop sense of word, but it’s so memorable. It really creates such a mood right away.”
Carpenter’s influence on culture is vast and can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Afrika Bambaataa, one of the three people usually credited as the originators of hip-hop, declares, “I’m a John Carpenter fan to the fullest.” This artist, who expanded the source material embedded in rap’s DNA through the songs he spun as a DJ and re-interpreted in his own productions, first became aware of Carpenter after seeing his film Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. A member of the New York gang the Young Spades before forming the non-violent and culturally forward Universal Zulu Nation organization, Bambaataa originally went to see the movie because it was about street gangs in Los Angeles. The main title theme’s bassline stuck with him and in 1986 he had it re-played with Carpenter’s permission on his single “Bambaataa’s Theme.” “It had been on my mind for years to do that song over and make it funky,” he says. Nowadays, Bambaataa puts Carpenter in the same category as techno pop innovators like Kraftwerk, Gary Newman, and Giorgio Moroder who were just as influential to developing his electro funk sound as James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and George Clinton.
As for Carpenter’s disciples from more recent generations, a large part of the draw to his music is the use of early synthesizer technology. While these artists often fetishize these instruments for the vintage futuristic sound they make, Carpenter has long since moved on from his old keyboards and instead only uses the most modern technology when making music. These younger musicians’ obsession with the artifacts of the past only confuses him. “I try not to look back very much, it’s better to keep looking forward,” he says. “I don’t look at my old movies, I don’t think about what I could have done. It’s just a losing game.” Still, tied to the album’s release, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will host “John Carpenter: Master of Fear” from February 5-22, a retrospective that includes showings of all 18 of his feature films.
As for the album’s title, Lost Themes is actually a bit of a misnomer. “It’s a score for movies in your head,” says Carpenter. “My recommendation to everyone is to sit and turn the lights down, put on the album and start fantasizing the movie you have in there.” Asked if he has his own imagined movies that each song goes with, Carpenter replies, “Look man, I’ve made so many movies in real life I don’t have to fantasize.”