Music, Madness and Mutants: A Conversation With Horror King John Carpenter

The prolific movie director speaks about leaving film behind for music. Courtesy of the artist

John Carpenter is the master of the campy horror film, responsible for classics such as Halloween and Escape from New York. The king of dread, now age 66, hasn't made a film since 2009's The Ward but is now creating music. Carpenter has composed the score for each one of his films, besides The Thing. But his debut album, Lost Themes, a synth-driven dive into hell is intended, he says, to score that horror movie in your head. The album was inspired by playing too many hours of video games with his musician son, and has long been sitting in a "vast repository in [his] head, waiting to come out."

The Brooklyn label Sacred Bones (whose roster includes another film auteur, David Lynch) will release Carpenter's Lost Themes on February 3. The horror visionary will celebrate by making an appearance at Brooklyn Academy of Music the night of February 5, and will be joined by NPR's Brooke Gladstone for a conversation about music, film and horror.

Newsweek spoke to Carpenter about segueing from film to music, post-apocalyptic worlds and what scares him most on this Earth.

What prompted this venture?

It started in a very kind of banal way. My son and I (this was a couple of years ago) he would come over to my house, and we'd play video games for two hours. Then we'd go down to my computer, which has Logic Pro set up on it, with a lot of plug-ins and synthesizer sounds and keyboards. And we'd improvise music for a couple of hours, then return and play video games, again to write music. We did this...oh, for months on end.

Then my son went to Japan to teach English. I didn't think a thing of it. Then I got a new music lawyer, and she said, "Do you have anything new?" So I sent this over to her. A month or so later, a record label wanted to release it!

What kinds of video games were you playing then?

Borderlands. It's one of the great games.

You've spoken about how you build suspense in your films by letting the audience in on something that frightens them. Did you take the same approach for building suspense for listeners with Lost Themes?

Well, not exactly. We weren't making music to images; we were just making music. I like to think of it as… most people have a movie in their heads that they're running. And well, this is the score for them. So what you can do is sit down, turn down the lights, put my album on, and you can start playing that movie in your head and I will score it for you.

Seems like you've been busy...

Oh sure. But this was not done with anything in mind, or an end product. It was created for the joy of making music together. And my godson got in on the act, too. He did a lot of the engineering, co-composed some of the tunes. A whole family business here.

What do you and your son listen to together?

When I was raising him, he listened to a lot of classic rock and roll. Which is what I grew up with. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Doors, Elvis before that. But I come from a musical background. My dad was a music professor, and my son studied music. It was part of the gene pool here. We don't listen to a whole lot of music now; I mainly watch NBA basketball and play video games. This stuff is, the music is sort of sitting in the vast repository in my head, waiting to come out.

You played in a band. Do you remember the first song you learned to play?

My father tried to teach me the violin when I was young. The problem was I had no talent. I wasn't good at violin. I got much better when I started playing guitars and keyboards. But later I played bass guitar in a rock and roll band, we did cover songs. So the kind of popular R&B, rock and roll at the time—would have been the '60s—that's what we played.

What made you pick up a bass?

The band needed a bass player, so it was all about necessity! And the bass is a real fun instrument to play. To be really good at bass is a real trick though, to bring a uniqueness to it.

When was the last time you were stunned or scared by something you listened to?

Oh, I don't get frightened by that. Things in real life frighten me.

Like what?

I had a lot of eye surgeries in the past three years. I've had retinal detachments. So the idea that I might go blind is terrifying. That's the most frightened I've been since I was young.

Have you seen any films lately that have electrified you?

Electrified me! A few years ago I saw World War Z, and I really liked that.

What did you like about it?

It was a great zombie film. Zombie movies and zombie television shows all, basically, copy the George Romero movie from 1968 [Night of the Living Dead]. It's just all xeroxing, there's nothing original about it. It's a shame. But this basically reinvented the zombie movie. I liked Gravity a lot....

Say it's the end of the world. You're the last surviving human. Who would you rather face in a standoff: mind-controlling aliens, the Thing, a starved vampire or Michael Myers?

I'd pick the one that you have a chance against. The vampires. I mean, you got a shot against them. The Thing? No. The others? They're almost unbeatable.

I apologize if this is a morbid question, but have you ever thought about what music you want played at your funeral?

No, I haven't! I'll have to start thinking about that. It might be "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen.

What's your ringtone?

I have no idea!

But it's not the theme of Halloween?

No...but that's my wife's ringtone.