To put it simply, John Carpenter is a man that needs no introduction. In fact, for much of the last 50 years, almost every facet of popular culture has been in some way impacted by the work he has had a part in creating.
Launching his career as a director in the ’70s, Carpenter found his commercial breakthrough by way of 1978’s Halloween, which went on to become not only an iconic entry into the horror genre, but spawned a highly successful franchise which is on track to continue with the Carpenter-produced Halloween Kills later this year.
However, while Halloween also resonated in part due to its famous soundtrack, the success of the film also shone a light on Carpenter’s skills as a composer. In addition to creating the now-iconic score to the film, Carpenter is noted as having composed the music to almost every film he’s created to date, with his musical talents extending onto other projects as well.
In 2015 though, the respected auteur embarked upon a new venture, with the album Lost Themes – a collaboration between Carpenter, his son Cody, and godson Daniel Davies – serving as his debut studio album. The response was wildly positive, with the record itself showcasing something of new side of Carpenter’s genius due to the compositions themselves designed to serve as the “soundtrack for the movies in your mind”.
Another volume followed in 2016, as did a run of global tour dates, allowing Carpenter to fully embrace the lifestyle that comes with this new career as a musician. After a three year gap though, Carpenter revealed he not only had new music, but a new album on the way.
Dubbed Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, the record is officially released today, and provides a far more immediate and engaging experience than the first two volumes in the Lost Themes series. In anticipation of the album’s release, Carpenter spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about his nascent musical career, and the creation of music in a pandemic.
The first Lost Themes album arrived in 2015, and the second volume arrived the next year in 2016. Was there originally a plan for it to turn into a series?
There wasn’t a plan for anything originally, man. It was my son and I improvising some music on my home computer system, and then playing video games, and going back and improvising some more music. This happened over a period of six months, eight months until we had a whole bunch of music.
And I got a new music attorney, and she said to me, “Do you have anything?” And I sent her what Cody, my son and I, had done and two weeks later I had a record deal. I was like, “What? Man oh man…”, and they wanted to release it. That’s where it started, and it’s been great; the greatest!
What made you decide that it was time to work on a record like that? Had there been always been desire to do something like that outside of the soundtracks?
Oh yeah, it’s fun! But I hadn’t really tried anything [else], and [I wasn’t] going anywhere with that for years, and then this came along. It’s great, plus I suddenly have a second career in my life. I’m a director and now I’m a musician [laughs]. It’s great!
When the first album came out, I wondered how it would be received by fans. Despite being described as a “soundtrack for the movies in your mind”, I felt that a lack of an immediate visual element may divide some folks who come for the John Carpenter name. Have the albums been well-received so far?
They were. I was just like you, I didn’t know how that was going to work; “How’s this going to work again?” No one knew, but everybody seemed to want to listen, so hey, I’m up for it.
For these records, you teamed up with Cody and Daniel. They’re obviously fine musicians in their own right, but what do they bring to the equation?
Well, they bring two different things. Daniel, my godson, is a virtuoso on guitar. His father is Dave Davies of The Kinks, the lead guitar player. So Daniel inherited that, and he brings that to the table. He also has his own computer synthesiser setup… All three of us do – Cody as well has his own computer synthesiser setup. He’s a virtuoso on keyboards, and I’m just sort of a bum in the middle.
You’ve obviously worked with other artists on soundtracks in the past, but now that you’ve found this winning combination with Cody and Daniel, do you see yourself working with other artists again?
Sure! I’ll work with anybody. I’ll work with you if you if you want to play with me.
A few years have passed since the second volume of Lost Themes and this third one. You’ve obviously not been lazy in that time, but when did work start on this latest release?
We did the soundtrack to the new Halloween movies – Halloween and Halloween Kills – so it was sort of in between there. And then we toured, which was fabulous. We’d come back from touring and play some music. It’s just all the time, we’re always playing.
I’ve found that most records coming out in late 2020 or early 2021 have been impacted by COVID in some way. Did you have much of your work impacted by the pandemic at all?
Well it’s just three guys [making music] in isolation; y’know, just withdrawing from the world. We tried not to get [COVID], so that’s really the only way it influenced [the album].
So does that mean there’s a lot more music that was created which is still to see the light of day?
Well yeah, we’re still working on stuff. Always working on stuff.
Was there specific decision to do something different to the first two volumes? This new album feels much more immediate, the songs are shorter, and it has a bit of a stylistic change to the first two.
No, not really. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it may have been part of what happens when you mature and things progress. We didn’t consciously say we were going to change; it just happened.
What I find really remarkable is that from the second you begin to listen to this, and despite it being a product of the three of you, it sounds like something John Carpenter has been involved in. Do you feel there’s a distinct sound, or at least a musical thread that ties your music together?
[Laughs] Sure. I’ve always recognised that there’s a distinct sound. I don’t quite know what it is, I don’t want to quite analyse it, but there is; I recognise it.
Is there a specific approach that you all take towards the creation of this music? You once said in an interview that a soundtrack’s job is accentuate the story on screen, but given the fact there’s no physical cinematic component to a project like this, I imagine it would be an entirely new approach to creating?
It is, but I just can’t tell you… the approach is instinct. It just comes out of… Well, for me, it comes out of a giant pot of my experiences, the movies I loved as a kid, the classical music I grew up. All mixed together, it’s a mélange [of influences] and it all comes out of there.
Going on from that, were there any specific artists or soundtracks that resonated with you during your early days as a filmmaker and composer?
There was a bunch of them – a bunch of classical albums that I had and my mother had. I remember one soundtrack I got was of horror movies – this must have been the ’50s, late ’50s, I guess – but they had the James Bernard Dracula [score]. And they had a lot of the Universal monsters. It was great, just fabulous stuff. So I was in love with that, just the way it was put together.
Is it more difficult to create music like this, or is it much like filmmaking in a sense that at the end of the day, you’re there to convey and elicit emotion and feeling from those that consume it?
Yes, that’s well said.
Likewise, you were an early adopter of synthesisers, and you’ve not been scared to evolve as musical technology has either. Could you ever have imagined yourself being part of an album like this when you began composing?
No, no [laughs]. I was barely there. But it was so crude back in those days. The technology just carries you like a river, and you just go with it because technology is advancing so fast, and it’s so amazing. If you just let it take you, it brings out things in you.
On the flipside though, creation in that era makes you want to look beyond the limitations, whereas it feels that composers might almost feel a little spoiled with the vast amount of technology they have.
Yeah, but I prefer the spoiled part – it’s much more fun [laughs].
You mentioned before that you toured for the first time as a musician following the first album. Are there any specific memories you have of that first tour?
Well yeah, I have a lot of them. But one that just stands out was in Paris, at the Rex Theatre [Le Grand Rex]. Oh my God, what a palace! It was a full house – it was three balconies worth of audience, and it was a dream. I mean, people cheering… It was a dream! I can’t tell you, it’s just amazing.
Experiencing something like that, did it make you wish you’d started this career as a musician even earlier?
No [laughs], I’ll just take it as it comes [laughs].
Had this record been released in more conventional times, could we have seen you touring again?
Sure, absolutely! And we’ve talked about it, too. We may go back out if the world comes back.
John Carpenter’s Lost Themes III: Alive After Death is out now via Sacred Bones Records.