John Carpenter, Rock Star

Filmmaker as synth-pop pioneer horrifies the Moody Theater June 23

Howard Hawks, one of John Carpenter’s muses – ghost director of 1951’s The Thing From Another World – helped invent film repartee in Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday. Carpenter, 68, famed director of Halloween, The Fog, and Starman, bantered as quick as a tennis match in advance of his debut tour as synthesizer fiend behind many of his own film scores.

Austin Chronicle: Ever been to Austin?

John Carpenter: I was there, like, 10, 15 years ago, sure.

AC: Film revival?

JC: No, I was there visiting. I can’t remember exactly why. It may have been a film festival or something. I came to see Robert Rodriguez and Harry Knowles, and so forth. It was a beautiful place. Man. You guys are lucky.

AC: Did you ever have occasion to film in Texas?

JC: No. The closest I’ve gotten is New Mexico.

AC: That was Vampires?

JC: Uh huh, and then again in The Ghosts of Mars.

AC: I read a recent interview where you spoke about your father, who was a violin virtuoso and university music professor. You tried the instrument as well when you were young, but it wasn’t really for you. Through him, you must have grown up going to see a lot of classical music concerts, and rehears–

JC. That’s it. You got it. That was exactly it.

AC: Did that hold your interest as a youngster? Were you in awe of the orchestras, or were you asleep?

JC: Oh no, music was a huge part of my early life. What impressed me about music, what drew me into music was that because I loved movies so much, I could imagine [the concerts] as soundtracks. Classical movie soundtracks. I especially liked some of the darker and more exotic music. “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” for instance. Tchaikovsky, and things like that.

AC: Who are your favorite composers?

JC: There’s only one, I think, that’s my ultimate favorite, and that’s Bach. He’s just unbelievable [laughs in disbelief]. Unbelievable composer. But Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and a lot of the Russian guys. I don’t know, they’re all depressed, so that must be it.

AC: Is there a concert that comes to mind from the period where you came away having your mind blown?

JC: That would’ve been a little bit later in my life, when I went to hear the New York Philharmonic with my father. I heard that and thought, “Man, oh man. This is something else.”

AC: Where was the first real intersection for you of film and music? Or were they always the same path?

JC: Boy, that’s a tricky question. I think they probably came together for me when I was in film school. In film school, you just don’t have any money for anything. You were lucky to have each other. My classmates would be actors in our films, and so forth, and so on. Locations were the University [of Southern California]. So I would do music for various friends, fellow students. I think that’s where it began. It began there, and then I did my own music, and from there it branched out.

AC: If the violin didn’t work out for you, at what point did you begin playing piano?

JC: I took piano lessons when we were living in Kentucky [where his family moved to from New York when he was 5]. I’m trying to remember when that was. That would’ve been when I was in high school. I was still in high school. I remember piano lessons. My dad insisted: “If I’m gonna play something, I want you to know about it. I want you to be conversant in the form.” So I took piano lessons.

AC: Did you have a natural affinity for it?

JC: Well, it was easier than violin. Violin is probably – probably, I say – the hardest instrument to learn to play. To make it sound good, and not like a screeching, dying cat, is hard. So yeah, the piano is a lot better. I push a button and out comes a sound. That’s much more to my liking.

AC: Did your father want you to be a musician instead of a filmmaker?

JC: I think he secretly did. Always. I don’t think that he ever thought there was much of a career in movies. I remember he was always sort of doubtful, let me put it that way. That’s a nice way of saying it. He was doubtful that there was a career to be had there. But, I somehow made it.

AC: Did your father get to enjoy your success?

JC: My father passed away this February. He was 96 years old. He had a great life. He just passed away, and we’re dealing with his estate as we speak.

AC: Did he talk to you about your film scores? Was that ever a topic of discussion?

JC: No, but he did tell me that my movie music, the scores that I did, was the closest thing to me having a career in music. He was very proud of that. That made him very happy.

AC: Do you have to be math-centric to play music? Keys, octaves – sounds technical to me. I always thought an English major can’t play music, but a science major can.

JC: [Laughs] Ohhh, it’s not that bad. Most of it involves counting, so you’ve got to count the measures. You’re sitting there with an instrument on your lap, and you know you have to come in at a certain point. You just have to count. The conductor has to have a sense of time; how fast or slow to make something. Yeah ... It’s a little bit like math. I was a terrible mathematician. Maybe that explains the fact that I have minimal chops as a musician. I’m not a great musician.

AC: But you have to have a lot of technical skills to be a film director.

JC: Yes. Huge. Huge. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a marriage of technology and art, and it’s really tricky. I spent most of my time going to school over that very truth you just enunciated.

AC: For the layman, what’s more technical, a great classical composition or the art of filmmaking?

JC: More technical?

AC: Would it take more to understand a great Bach composition than it would X, Y, and Z about making films?

JC: Ah. Bach would be more accessible to you than filmmaking from the start. If you know how to play the keyboards, you can play Bach. But to make a movie, you have to know a lot more. You have to know the technicalities of filmmaking. It’s a lot more complex. Let me put it that way: Movies are more complex.

AC: [Laughing] When you were making movies, did you wish you’d been a better math student in school?

JC: I always wished that [laughs]. I always wished I’d been better. But I am what I am. There’s nothing I can do about it [chuckles].

AC: So then how much of your classical background is in your scores? Would your scores be the same if you had not grown up the way you did?

JC: No. And I’m afraid – I’m very fearful of this – that if you listen very closely you might recognize some classical themes in my scores [laughs]. I’ve probably ripped off a bunch of classical music in there.

AC: I always thought that you could draw an obvious line from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, famously employed in The Exorcist, of course, and your theme to Halloween.

JC: Ah. [Pauses] Well, I don’t know if Tubular Bells is in 5/4. It might have been.

AC: I feel like that piano pulse of his has permeated popular music, and I definitely hear it in the Halloween theme.

JC: I don’t know if I’d thought of that. And I would admit it if I did. There’s no reason not to [laughs]. That was an incredibly memorable theme. But Halloween is really based on my father teaching me 5/4 time. On the bongos. He got me a pair of bongos for Christmas one year. I have no idea why. It was just a percussion instrument, and I think he wanted me to learn a little bit of it. We were talking about time signatures, and I said, “I don’t understand 5/4.” So he sat down and taught it to me [scats the rhythm to the Halloween theme]. That’s Halloween.

AC: You’ve said your method of scoring is getting a keyboard out, playing the film, and improvising. Did the Halloween theme come out of that, or did you have a riff in your head? What’s the genesis of that particular piece of music?

JC: I don’t really know. I know that at some point I sat down at a piano and starting rocking some octaves together [scats the rhythm again], and going from there. Practicing the 5/4 time business. From there, it grew. I needed something for Halloween, so I used that.

AC: Did working with a genius like Ennio Morricone on the score to The Thing make you want to junk your keyboards and give up, or redouble your efforts as a musician?

JC: [Laughing] No, no, no, no. I knew better than that. I knew I could never attain anything on that level. He’s a complete genius. A wonderful man. Passionate, passionate man. I just sat back and went, “Wow. Look at this. Look at him go.”

AC: And that didn’t make you want to throw out your instruments?

JC: I would never, ever compare myself to him. My skills are at a much lower level. It’s not even funny. You can’t compare it. I wouldn’t dare compare myself.

AC: Did you get to witness him working, or did he just give you finished music?

JC: No, I got to see him work. I got to see him conduct an orchestra. It was great!

AC: As his score materialized, did you see it at all points, or did he give you a large chunk to go home and listen to?

JC: He scored little pieces of music that I could use wherever I wanted to. He said that was one way he could do it. The other way was to score the whole film top to bottom, but we didn’t have everything ready yet. He gave me eight or 10 pieces, I believe, just incredible stuff. Incredible.

AC: What was his reaction to the finished film with the music?

JC: I have no idea. I never saw him after he was done.

AC: You didn’t speak to him after that?

JC: I didn’t, no. I could barely speak to him, anyway. He didn’t speak English. I had to have an interpreter.

AC: Did the studio suggest you work with Morricone?

JC: The associate producer, Stuart Cohen, a fellow student and a friend of mine, he suggested Ennio Morricone. I hadn’t even thought of it. He said, “Why don’t we use him?” Morricone had been responsible for some of my favorite movie music ever. Especially Once Upon a Time in the West. The score from that was incredible. That’s where we got him.

AC: Are you aware of the contemporary synth-pop movement happening now?

JC: Somewhat, yeah. Well, synth-pop’s been around a while. It’s the basis of all this dance music. And all the dance music, frankly, comes from disco – the beats from disco. They’re just now electronic. Yeah, fun stuff.

AC: They say we’re living in this synth age, but it never went away. Synths were big in the Seventies – prog rock and fusion – and equally big in the Eighties with New Wave. “Electronica” came around in the Nineties. Synthesizers never went away and yet everyone’s focused on it like it’s this big sea change in music.

JC: It’s not a sea change. What’s happening is that the technology, the sounds, are getting much more sophisticated, much more advanced. Creating music with a synthesizer is easier than using a computer. It’s just amazing to work with. Dance music has brought a lot of that about, because you have to make that kind of stuff accessible to DJs and people who play at these parties. So I love the times because the sounds are just so great.

AC: Yeah, your music was made for these times.

JC: [Laughs] That’s good. I’m happy about that.

AC: Were you a fan of Tangerine Dream in the Seventies?

JC: Yes! Oh my God, are you kidding me? They’re one of my heroes.

AC: Ever see them back in the day?

JC: Never have, no. I just bought the score to [William Friedkin’s] Sorcerer and listened to it over and over again.

AC: I also like what they did for Michael Mann’s film Thief.

JC: Uh huh, right.

AC: We talked about classical music, but what was your first rock concert?

JC: Oh god. God, I can’t even remember. It was probably when I came to California in ’68. There was always a show a week in the Shrine Auditorium. There were so many.

AC: You must have seen the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix.

JC: I didn’t see the Doors or Hendrix, but I boogied in the New Year with Canned Heat in 1969. I remember that. And just a lot of Jeff Beck. So many groups.

AC: We also talked about Ennio Morricone, but what about the Italian group Goblin?

JC: Are you kidding? Are you kidding me? Claudio Simonetti? Of course. They were awesome.

AC: They’re being discovered by a whole new generation.

JC: Absolutely. Absolutely. They’re great.

AC: Funny that they’re out on the road just as you’ve dedicated yourself to music and have embarked on touring. It’s like some cycle from the Seventies has come back around.

JC: [Laughs]

AC: You helped inspire some of the modern synth movement and are now in the thick of it. The kids are crazy for it.

JC: I dunno, man. I’m taking your word for it [laughs].

AC: The tour you’ve undertaken for Lost Themes II is extensive!

JC: I know, for a guy my age it’s unbelievable.

AC: Your booking agent went nuts.

JC: That’s correct! I got conned into this thing. I decided, “Well, we’ll do a short tour.” My son and godson are playing with me, touring with me. We kept getting more offers, so we said, “Sure, why not?” Now it’s just stupid [laughs].

AC: Is that the live configuration, the three of you?

JC: It’s a sixpiece band. We’ve got the backup band for Tenacious D. They’re playing with us.

AC: How many shows have you played up to this point, the first volume of Lost Themes having come out last year?

JC: I haven’t done any yet. The first one’s next week!

AC: How are you feeling about that?

JC: I’m nervous! I don’t know what to think.

AC: Then it’s too early to ask which one’s better: being a rock star or being a major motion picture film director.

JC: I don’t know [laughs]. I don’t know yet. I can’t tell you yet, but let’s talk at the end of the year and I’ll give you a rundown.

AC: There was a theme on your new album called “Last Sunrise.” Just the title reminded me of Murnau’s silent film, Sunrise.

JC: [Bursts out laughing]

AC: Is that part of your background, the scores to German expressionism and the like?

JC: No, no, no, no. It’s a much simpler explanation. The first Lost Themes album, all the titles of the songs were one word. On Lost Themes II, all the titles are two words. That’s what we’re talking about!

AC: [Laughs] On DVDs now, you purchase a silent film classic like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and you’ll get a modern score along maybe with a vintage score. Are you a fan of that at all?

JC: Oh yeah. Sure. I know that Nosferatu has a James Bernard score on it that’s just amazing. Amazing.

AC: When the hell is someone going to reissue the soundtrack to your Big Trouble in Little China? That sucker’s hard to come by.

JC: I don’t know. No one’s brought that up. I’ll have to check into it.

AC: Now that you’re about to go out and be a rock sta-

JC: [Laughs] My friend, let me just explain something to you: This old balding guy is not a rock star.

AC: [Laughing] Are you having any flashbacks to working with Kurt Russell on 1979 TV film Elvis?

JC: Sure. Well, I’m having flashbacks to 1956 when I was 8 years old. I watched Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. You know, the above-the-waist business. I’m flashing back to my early youth, and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”

AC: Have you and Kurt Russell ever talked about having a band together?

JC: No! God no. You don’t ever want to hear him sing.

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John Carpenter, Howard R. Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, Harry Knowles, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Bach, Mike Oldfield, Ennio Morricone, James Bernard, Elvis Presley, Kurt Russell, Tangerine Dream, Goblin

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