Outside of a modest house on a quiet side street in Hollywood, there’s a sign on the front gate that says “Beware of Occupant.”
The occupant is John Carpenter, director and composer behind such beloved horror and sci-fi flicks as Halloween, They Live and The Fog. With his white hair jutting out in all directions, the 69-year-old director is dressed in classic, no-fucks-given style: a T-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers. Inside the house, which functions as Carpenter’s office, posters for his films Assault on Precinct 13, Starman and The Thing adorn the walls. We’re settling in to discuss Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, a collection of his iconic synth scores re-recorded with his live band—which includes his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, the guitar-slinging scion of the Kinks’ Dave Davies.
Carpenter started performing his music live last year after the release of Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, a pair of albums featuring the same kind of killer sci-fi synth tracks he wrote for Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape from New York. As it turns out, he enjoys making music much more than making movies. In fact, he’s only directed two films since the turn of the century. “Why did I choose this profession? I ask myself that question all the time,” he muses. “I love movies, but why did I decide to direct? It’s horrible. It’s just the worst.”
Playboy spoke with Carpenter about his formative years in Kentucky, composing under pressure and why he can’t watch his own movies anymore.
What was your earliest musical experience?
My earliest music experience was twofold. My father was an accomplished violinist. He studied at Eastman School of Music, but he was a teacher also. Classical music was playing in our house all the time, so I grew up listening to it. And I went to the movies, so I grew up listening to the scores for movies. I forget how old I was—eight?—when my father decided it would be a good thing if* I* learned how to play the violin. Only one problem: I had no talent whatsoever at it.
The violin seems like an incredibly difficult instrument to learn.
Oh, it was awful. That’s the hardest instrument to learn to play. I half-ass learned, but it was horrible. Everything about it makes it tough to sound good. You sound screechy and bad when you’re trying to find the notes and develop vibrato. So I did that for a while and then I moved on to keyboards.
After keyboards, you switched to bass.
Yeah, I picked up bass guitar and started playing in a band. We were called Kaleidoscope. We did cover songs, and fondly we played a lot of fraternity parties in southern Kentucky. Oh, these people knew how to get drunk. Oh my god. They’d do the Alligator and they’d come up and sing with us. We actually got pretty good because we played so much. We mostly did R&B stuff, like [Sam and Dave’s] “Hold On, I’m Coming,” stuff like that.
What was your first rock concert?
I went to see a lot of classical concerts because my father was playing in the National Symphony, but I didn’t see a rock concert until I came to California in 1968. I saw Chicago Transit Authority before they became Chicago. I saw Albert King. I saw the Mothers of Invention. The most memorable was in 1969, when Canned Heat brought in the New Year. They arrived on a big purple elephant in the Shrine Auditorium. The guy who sang “Going Up the Country’” was so stoned on something. His eyes were half-closed and he was almost falling over, but out of him came that song and it was unbelievable.
Due to time and budgetary constraints, you were essentially forced into writing and recording the scores for your own movies. Were you writing music prior to composing your own soundtracks?
I was writing music all the time. I got inspired by the Beatles because they wrote their own stuff. So I was writing songs on guitar, but none of them were particularly memorable. My main love was movies, but I was conversant with music and I was able to play it. And, as you said, I was forced into playing music for movies.
You composed some of your most famous movie themes under extreme pressure. Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 were done in three days and one day, respectively. Do you think the tight deadlines helped make those themes what they are? The short time—one day for Assault and three days for Halloween—came down to how many pieces I could do. I didn’t have time to score the whole film, but I came up with four or five pieces for each movie. For Assault, I had to just dash it off. Halloween was a little more time, so I played around a little bit more. I don’t think the music came out the way it did because it was rushed. I’m a guy with limited chops. I don’t have a great enough depth of theory or musicianship. What you hear on my movies was the best I could do.
You obviously work well under pressure. Those scores are beloved around the world.
I don’t want to work under that kind of pressure anymore. I did it when I was young, and I did it for years. Directing is just… the anxiety that you live with is horrible. I don’t want to live that way anymore, so I’m just picking my spots now. I’m just doing music now, a few TV spots… a movie maybe. My last big movie I worked on was called Ghost of Mars back in 2000. There’s a making-of thing that shows me composing the music. It shows me at the beginning and then at the very end. When I saw the footage of me at the end, I thought, “My god—who is that old, pathetic piece of shit?” It’s me!
Sharing music with women is just awesome—or your loved one. Whomever you’re attracted to.
You’ve said you can’t watch your own films anymore because they just make you remember all the stress and anxiety you were experiencing while you were making them.
The stress is just constant. You work like a coal miner. You don’t feel like an artist. You can’t wait to get done. That’s why I don’t wanna look at ’em anymore. They only cause anxiety. If I sit and look at one of my movies, I’ll think, “Why did I do that? Why did I move the camera that way?” I can’t handle it. And then, you know, rehearsing the actors can be fraught. There are no actors, as Robert Mitchum said. There are only actresses.
It must be nice to make music at your leisure, then.
Oh, yes. It’s a whole different art form. It has different demands, but you can walk away from the music and come back to it the next day. With the [computer] programs that are available today, you have an infinite number of tracks and an infinite number of sounds almost. So it’s a lot better.
Do you think the leisurely pace changes the nature of what you’re making?
I see what you mean, but no—I don’t think so. It changes my lifestyle to a positive place, though. The three of us—my son, godson and I—have talked about scoring a movie. That’s something we might do, maybe something I’m working on, at some point in the future. We’d have to score the whole thing, and that’s a pressure situation.
Have you scored other people’s movies before?
In my student film days, I did. Here and there, because they just needed somebody to put music down.
When you were composing the material that appears on the Lost Themes albums, there was no movie to write to. Did that change your approach to the music?
Lost Themes was an accident born out of improvising and recording with my son over a period of months. It came from the joy of playing—that’s all it was. I describe Lost Themes as music for the movie in your mind.
You’ve said the best way to listen to Lost Themes is with a beautiful woman next to you.
The best way to do anything in life, pretty much, is with a beautiful woman next to you. Sharing music with women is just awesome—or your loved one. Whomever you’re attracted to.
Can we expect more Lost Themes?
We might do that because we’re all having such a good time playing together. My son and godson have their own stuff going, so they’re always working, but we might do another album. Maybe try something different. We’ll see.
You played your own music live for the first time in your life just last year. Were you nervous?
I was absolutely terrified. I had acted before—in high school—and I forgot my lines during a school play. That performing scar stayed with me.
What got you over the hump?
I don’t know. I can’t explain it. But I got behind the keyboard, we started playing “Escape from New York” and all of sudden—bang—it came. It just happened. I sorta started dancing and moving around. I didn’t expect to, but it came out fine.
Most musicians start touring in their late teens or early 20s. You jumped into the deep end of international touring at age 68.
I know; it’s crazy. But my kids convinced me there would be nothing to it. I don’t know why they did that. But playing with my son and godson—that was the reason I did it. How many fathers get to do that? Nobody. Now I’m 69 and about to do it again for this Anthology record. But I think every movie director secretly wants to be a rock n’ roll star. Everyone wants to be a rock n’ roll star. This is the closest I’ve ever come to it, and it’s really fun. It’s just the greatest.