John Carpenter is happy that he's talking music. “I've done 40 years of movie interviews,” he says by phone, “so I don't need anymore.”
With Carpenter, though, it's difficult to treat the movies and the music as two separate parts of his career. For years, the famed director of films such as Halloween and Escape From New York also made the music for his movies. That music — minimal and synth-heavy — helped pave the way for the electronic music explosion of the late 20th century.
Now, however, Carpenter's music has evolved into a second career. Last year, the 68-year-old composer released Lost Themes, his first album of music that wasn't created for a specific film. On April 15, the sequel, Lost Themes II, will be released through Sacred Bones Records. Carpenter will embark on his first music tour in May. He's thrilled about the career shift.
“It's fabulous because I don't have to go through the pain of making the movie to then sit down and record the score,” Carpenter says. “This is music for its own sake. This is music because the music is fun to play. It's an absolute joy now and it's come along at the right time in my life to have a second career.”
Carpenter's father was a music teacher and musician who taught him violin when the future horror film legend was only 8 years old. “The only problem was that I had no talent,” he says. Instead, he gravitated toward other instruments, including guitar and keyboards.
When he started making movies, he scored the films with a synthesizer out of necessity. “When you're a student filmmaker or a low-budget filmmaker, you don't have money to pay for composers,” he explains. However, with a synth, he was able to create pieces that sounded as though they were made by a larger group of musicians.
Technology has changed how Carpenter works now. Where once he used cumbersome tube synthesizers, now he has a Logic Pro setup and uses a lot of plug-ins. He also is collaborating with his son, Cody Carpenter, and godson, Daniel Davies. The three worked together on the first Lost Themes album as well.
Though the instrumentals on the Lost Themes albums sound like an extension of his film scores, the process, he says, has been different. “Your biggest job as a director is to tell a story,” he says. “Once the directing is done and the movie is cut together, then you think about enhancing the storytelling, enhancing what you've done. That's where the music comes in.”
But, Carpenter adds, his stand-alone music isn't without accompanying visuals. It's just that the images and stories that unfold while listening to the Lost Themes albums stem from your own imagination. “It's not exactly taking the music away from the movie,” he says. “Everybody has a movie running through their heads. My music is the score to that.”
The music sparks Carpenter's imagination, too. “As I'm playing the music, I can see things. And I'm not crazy, either,” he says. “It's just because the music is inspiring.”
There's an unsettling beauty to Carpenter's Lost Themes II. “Distant Dream” races like a car chase. It might fill the listener with anxiety, but it's the sort of anxiousness that comes with a thrill. “White Pulse” mixes creepy, tinkering keys with soothing strings, before an action-packed rhythm takes over the track.
Carpenter mentions a few of his own favorites from the album: “Distant Dream” is one. “Angel's Asylum,” with a lovely melody temporarily interrupted by a drum crash before the tension soars, is another. “I think those are two of my favorites, just because they're moody,” he says. “I'm especially fond of 'Dark Blues,'” he adds, “just because it's so different-sounding.” On “Dark Blues,” the synths take a sinister blues-rock turn. It sounds like you've just opened the door to a party where cobwebs hang over people dressed in black PVC and someone flashes a set of fangs in your direction.
This is what's so compelling about Carpenter's work. He's not triggering emotions so much as wild, vivid scenes. Those scenes may be tied to our collective experience of watching films and television, but they become personal visions that can evolve as the tracks flow together and change upon subsequent listens to the album.
But this isn't just listen-at-home music. Carpenter is preparing to hit the road. For the first time in his career, he's performing live. He'll be joined by Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies as well as members of Tenacious D's band. “I have a little bit of stage fright coming up,” says Carpenter, adding that fear can be a good thing. “It keeps you on your toes.”
Stage fright aside, Carpenter is feeling good about the upcoming tour. Actually, everything about his musical career is exciting for him. “Doing this music is so much fun,” he says. “I'm loving it.”