Feature Stories

John Carpenter Talks About Performing His Horror Movie Soundtracks Live

They just don't make directors like John Carpenter anymore. A legend of both horror and sci-fi filmmaking, he was responsible for such 1970s and '80s classics as Halloween, Escape From New York and They Live. But Carpenter wasn't just a director; he scored most of his own films as well, which has rarely happened before and has become almost nonexistent since.

Carpenter's soundtracks have become as influential as the films themselves, and can be considered standalone works of art. He's released two albums without films attached, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. Now Carpenter is bringing a live performance of old and new music to the Majestic Theatre on Friday.

Dallas Observer: There have been several elaborate vinyl record releases of your soundtracks in recent years. You have generations of fans who are interested in your music, often as a completely separate body of work from your films. How and when did you find this out?

Carpenter: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure that I even know about it. I’m aware that a lot of my music has been released. But I’m just not aware of how many people have been listening to it. It’s a weird thing. I don’t quite get it. These are old movies and old soundtracks. I think it has something to do with a synth wave that started a few years ago. There’s a nostalgia for old synthesizer sounds.

You must have had an idea if you decided to release albums and tour, right?

That actually all came about by accident. My son and I were improvising on my Logic Pro setup. Over a period of weeks and months, we accumulated about 60 minutes of music. Then I got a new music attorney who said, “Do you have something new?” I gave her that stuff and then all of a sudden I had a record deal. It was that simple.

Did you ever imagine you would be putting out albums and touring like a rock star?

No. Not in my wildest dreams. It’s a little bit of my second act, I guess. I didn’t ask for it, but here it is. It’s great and I’m loving it. I’m getting used to it.

How was making music for an album different than making music for films?

These are like soundtrack samplers, little passages of soundtracks for movies that don’t exist. But the purpose of the music on the albums is the music itself, it’s not to support a scene, which is a vastly different thing. Music in a movie is to underscore and brand a sequence in a film. These albums are just for the music and it’s liberating. 
What can we expect from your band on Friday night?

This is a retrospective, so I’d say about 70 to 75 percent of what we’re playing are scores from the movies I’ve done. The rest are cuts from the two albums. We have scenes from the movies playing. It’s a lot of fun.

I doubt many expected they would ever get the chance to see you perform this music live. How are audiences reacting?

It’s been extremely great. I’ve loved it. The audiences have been wonderful and we’ve had a great time.

What came first, your love of music or film?

That’s hard to say. My father was a music teacher, so I grew up with music all around me. But I fell in love with movies when I was 4. It was probably simultaneous, but love of cinema was the stronger of the two.

Which soundtracks influenced you the most when you started scoring films in the ’70s?

I was influenced by all the old-timers, the composers I heard growing up: Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin did classic movie scores. But then the modern era too: Walter Carlos and Tangerine Dream.

So you liked electronic music. I wasn’t sure if it was just practical for scoring your own films on a budget.

It was definitely pragmatic. I started with student films and low-budget films and there was never enough money to hire a composer. That’s where it started. I could get by using a computer. I was able to sound big with multi-tracking synthesizers.

Rock 'n' roll also influenced many of your soundtracks.

It was a huge influence. I was around when Elvis was on Ed Sullivan. I love the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the music of the ’60s and ’70s. That was the soundtrack of my youth.
It’s rare for a film to have a main theme that is immediately recognizable to virtually anyone, like the main theme from Halloween. Was that something you considered when you scored the film?

No, I didn’t think about that. The Halloween theme was based on my father teaching me 5/4 time on a set of bongos he bought me. I’ve always remembered it and all I did was use octaves on a piano, rocking them back and forth. It just seemed like a piece of music that got in your head and stayed in it. That’s what I wanted for Halloween.

As you continued to score your own films, did it influence your approach as a filmmaker?

Not at all. Scoring movies comes after directing. I don’t think about the music at all when I’m directing.

What makes a good score for a horror film?

There’s no rule. The score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was memorable and that was just string instruments. Sometimes you have to remember to not use music and use silence. Sometimes that’s more effective. It all depends on the movie. Sometimes you score a character or a sequence. Sometimes you can do five or six themes and use them throughout the film.

Are you writing and performing the music for the new Halloween film that was just announced with you on board as executive producer?

Could be, yes. I may well do it. 

JOHN CARPENTER performs his Lost Themes II Tour at 7 p.m. Friday, June 24, at Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St., $50-$350.
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Jeremy Hallock