He's best known for dabbling in the macabre, but when I talked to the 67-year-old director/musician John Carpenter by phone earlier this week, he told me he was "just delighted." We were discussing his new (and first) album John Carpenter's Lost Themes and the glowing reception it has received thus far. Carpenter is best known for directing horror movies like Halloween and 1982's The Thing, as well as gritty action fare like Escape from New York, but all the while he's been composing music (in fact, he has scored most of this movies, including all of the aforementioned).
Lost Themes is as moody, brash, and synth-based as his scores, but there are no actual movies attached to these pieces. "I want this to be a score for the movies that are playing in your head," is how he described the album, which was born of an improv session between him and his son.
Over the phone, I found Carpenter to be direct and combative (but playfully so—I think). Talking to him reminded me of interviewing Brian De Palma—both veteran directors are terse but open, self-assured but humble. Carpenter and I discussed his music, Taylor Swift, the state of horror cinema, and the folly of calling yourself an artist. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Gawker: How has it been doing press for this album? Music is not generally the art that people ask you about.
John Carpenter: It's amazing. It's much more fun than it is to talk about music than movies.
Why is that?
I don't know! Just opinion. It's because I've talked about movies for years and years and years, and suffered the abuse, so it's nice to have kudos now.
What kind of abuse are you talking about?
In the movie business? Oh please.
John Carpenter gets abused? Even to this day?
I've always gotten abused. Always.
You've been composing forever. Why is your first album just now coming out?
It was all a matter of luck, it was never planned. This began as an improvisation with my son and I playing. We improvised about 60 minutes worth of music and he went away to Japan to teach, so I just sat on the music. And then I got a new music lawyer. She asked me, "Do you have anything new?" I sent her the stuff my son and I had done, and a couple of months later I had a record deal. What the hell? This is easy.
The song titles are evocative: "Fallen," "Abyss," "Purgatory," "Night." Did you have any scenes or visual ideas in mind as you were improvising?
It was all about the music and then later I put the titles on.
Was it freeing to make music without having responsibility to an image?
You got it, that's exactly right. It's freeing not to have to work to an image, it's freeing not to have a schedule and a deadline. It was unbelievable. Just the greatest.
No, I'm not aware of it, but that's great. Maybe they'll share in their residuals with me.
What do you listen to?
All sorts of stuff. Scores, old rock and roll. I'm not into rap music very much. Modern pop music.
I really like Taylor Swift. She's really talented. Hans Zimmer is one of my favorites, too. He's unbelievable.
Is it cathartic to make themes? This music is emotionally blatant.
That's me! That's my career: blatant. That's all I've wanted to do all my life...Dude, I don't know. I don't think about these things. You want me to intellectualize about a process that's purely instinctual. Think of Grandma Moses.
Has technology affected your process at all?
Sure. The synths today, good god. They're great. My lord. We never had anything like this in the old days.
Is it because the old synths were temperamental and made it hard to replicate sounds?
They sound better! The sounds are incredible now. They've matured. They don't sound so cheesy. I know there's a big revival in '80s synths but please, they're nothing compared to what we have.
Do you feel you've been properly recognized for your music in the past, being that it's been so crucial to your films?
Sure. I'm recognized as much as I'm recognized. There is no "should be." In my mind, I should be anointed king, but that's not going to happen. I have to accept what's true and what's in front of me.
What do you think about the current state of horror?
Horror has been with us since the beginning of cinema and it continues to evolve and grow through the generations. It's going through a period of growth now. It exploded in the '90s and early 2000's. You had Japanese horror, you had torture horror. It's changing again. What's popular now is the low-budget supernatural stuff.
Do you like that stuff? As someone who likes horror, I think we're at a low point.
You know...I don't know, people go see it. So that's what the movie business is about. It's about commerce.
But what do you think about that? Are you idealistic at all, or just a pragmatist?
I'm pragmatic, but I always believe that horror movies can be reinvented with brilliance. A few years ago, there was a really fine Swedish movie called Let the Right One In. Man, that reinvented the vampire legend. It was great. So there are really good ones. But it's always been the same: Most horror movies are bad, a few are fair, very few are good, and every once in a while there's an excellent one.
Would you say that Halloween is one of the excellent ones?
I can't...I don't know! Why do you ask me those kind of questions? Just remember what I said: Why don't you anoint me king, that's all I can say.
The reason I ask you that question is because I don't really get to talk to a lot of people who have created objective masterpieces. It's interesting for me to hear what the creator of such a work actually thinks of it.
Well, it's a movie we made in 1978. I don't know! It's not up to me to say.
Does it ever feel like a curse that you made a movie that to this day, to this minute, are asking you about?
Hell no! It's wonderful.
Are you satisfied? It seems like you're in a phase of your career where you can do whatever you want, like releasing this record.
This is all about luck. I'm just standing in a blessed position. It fell into my lap. People seem to like it so far. Maybe I'll do some more. But I won't take it any further than that. Pragmatic is probably a good word. My day consists of watching NBA basketball, playing video games, and playing music. I don't ask for more in life. Except to be king.
What about movies? Are you actively pursuing making any?
Sure, sure. But slowly because I'm an old man now. I don't move as fast.
Does the changing movie industry make you feel at all disenchanted with it?
Well, it's changed a lot. It's just a different game now than it was in the old days. Single people aren't deciding what gets made, it's corporations deciding. It's a different aesthetic, which is fine. They still make a lot of money, and a lot of great movies still get made.
Do you think these corporations hamper the creative process at all?
No. It's just different. It's just different.
When you look at your career, are you happy with yourself, your life, your job?
My dream as a little kid was to be a movie director and I got to live out that dream. I'm the happiest guy in the world. Are you kidding? This is fabulous. I got to be John Carpenter. What the hell? What else do I want, except king?
I am. I'm hoping something will happen, but I know nothing's going to happen.
Have you listened to the remixes on the record, the bonus tracks?
Some of them, yeah, I have.
How are they?
Well, they're somebody else's interpretations. It's like someone else directing a movie that you've written or doing a remake. It's theirs. I don't know. It wouldn't be what I did, but it's fine.
You've also experienced that with Halloween. What did you think of Rob Zombie's remake?
Oh please don't ask me! Please, I beg you!
All right. I can put it together, because I know part of your original idea was to keep Michael Myers without a back story, so it did seem to be an affront to so much of what made Halloween ingenious.
Well, that's one way of putting it. Another is I really don't want to comment on it. It's all about commerce, my friend. They call it show business, not show art.
Do you think of your movies as art at all?
Oh come on now. Come on now. They're just movies. It's up to other people to tell you that you're an artist. It's not up to me to determine that. "Oh now I am an artist and I am the king!"
I live in New York, and I meet a lot of people that I wish felt the way you do.
Shocking, isn't it? You're not an artist until someone else tells you that you are. It's not possible.
Many people have called you an artist, though. Are you saying that you maintain a perspective, that you don't really let those opinions inform your self-image?
They don't have anything to do with it. I'm a realistic human being. Anything like that is like, "OK, fine." I've gotten called bad names, I've gotten called good names and none of it means anything.
Have you ever been hurt by feedback you've received?
I'm hurt by everything. I got used to it over the years. At the beginning I was shocked: what the hell is this? "Didn't they see the movie I made?" But what the hell can I do?
Imagine how much worse it would have been if you were coming up in the age of social media, when all of those voices were amplified.
Lord, man! But you can't take that crap seriously. You're gonna curl up into a ball.
The reason why it's hard not to is because, like you said, you have to rely on other people to call you an artist. So in a way, your worth, your contribution to society is in other people's hands.
Well...You win. I don't know.