Monday, 26 September 2016

John Carpenter: Taking the show on the road

Master of Horror John Carpenter is facing a tour schedule that would scare the fainthearted. But then, this is the man who brought Halloween mainstay Michael Myers into our nightmares and established a synth sound that still resonates today. He may be in his sixties but he’s pretty laid back about what the year is likely to bring and is looking forward to hitting the road to perform to his fans.

Take a look at the reviews of successful recent movies like It Follows and Midnight Special and you’re likely to find mention of the soundtrack channelling John Carpenter or being ‘Carpenteresque’. His is a style that’s synonymous with 80s synth sounds – repeating motifs overlaid with ominous chords – and not only did it influence his fans, it clearly resonated with composers who are now providing homage to this soundtrack sub-genre in their own work. And while one might reason that the resurgence in the distinctive sound might be down to the lack of new product, nothing could be further from the truth.

In February 2015 he unleashed John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, an album of tracks for movies that never existed. Quite simply, these were snippets and sketches from movies-yet-to-come, or would only ever live in your mind. A collaboration between the composer, his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, the album made enough of an impact to warrant a follow-up a year later, and this time they’re taking the show on the road.  

While this might be his first tour, it’s not the first time that John Carpenter has been in a band. You might remember the music video to Big Trouble in Little China featuring a performance by Coup de Villes with Nick (The Shape in Halloween) Castle and Tommy Lee (Halloween III) Wallace supporting Carpenter. He chuckles at my suggestion that this new tour is really a front for getting a reunion of the group, conjuring up images of ‘The Blues Brothers’ antics in getting the band back together. “Yeah, that’s it,” he deadpans. But did the experience of working with the Coupe de Villes help ground his expectations of what the forthcoming tour might bring. “I have no idea what to think. I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he confesses. “I have no idea. I’ll just take it as it comes. It won’t always be perfect and it won’t always be great. It’ll be up and down… but we’ll see.”

We caught up with the composer in the week that La-La Land released its 30th anniversary edition of Big Trouble in Little China and his first gig on the tour officially sold out at LA’s Bootleg Theater. If ever he had any doubt that there was an audience for these gigs, this surely put that fear to rest? “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.” It’s an optimistic caution that will be prevalent during our conversation. As we go to press, Los Angelinos still have the opportunity to grab a ticket to see the show at the Orpheum Theatre in June.

The tour is evenly split between major cities in the US and European venues including Germany, France, Italy, Iceland and Greece. Tantalisingly, the London gig falls on October 31st – what better way to spend your location for Halloween? – while the German gig is part of Oberhausen’s Weekend of Hell Festival.

Let’s pause for a moment – the composer has gone from never touring before to 30 gigs in a year. In fact it grew from 26 to 30 in the two days between me looking at the schedule and could well have grown by the time you read this. “That’s quite a schedule isn’t it?” Carpenter offers. “Quite a lot of time on stage, but there are interruptions along the way.” As opposed to the lengthy ‘living from a suitcase’ press junkets he’s previously experienced. “It’s not as intense as talking about the same movie, all day, every day. We’ll perform for a few days, have a week off and go back again. That should make things a little easier… I hope,” he chuckles.

International tours of this nature don’t just ‘happen’, so what was the catalyst? “It started off with my son and godson who said ‘Hey, why don’t we tour this?’ I spoke to my wife and she said ‘You’d better do it’ and then it just grew…and kept on growing… and here we are!” For someone who has always had a passion for music, it would be easy to assume that Carpenter had always held a desire to tour, and this might the last chance to do it. “On no, not at all,” He gently corrects me. “It was just an opportunity for me… at my age… to go out with my kids and play. And why not?”

It’s not unusual for a performer to bemoan the fact that the crowd are only there to hear a certain signature song, and that must be true for many of the fans who have purchased tickets to hear the main themes from Halloween and Escape from New York. But with a tour that spans seven months isn’t there a chance that Carpenter himself will tire of playing the soundtrack of a certain Haddonfield serial killer for the umpteenth time? “Oh no, I don’t see THAT happening,” he counters. “Hey, it’s going to be fun. THIS is all fun.” Ask him what tracks the band will be playing and he’s understandably tight-lipped, but does reveal the likely ratio split in the material. “I would say it’s 75-80% soundtracks and 20-25 % from the Lost Themes albums.”

Fellow band members Cody and Daniel are co-composers on the Lost Themes albums and by being one step removed from the original movie soundtracks they are able to be impartial and suggest improvements for the live performances. “They help with everything,” Carpenter clarifies. “They help adapt [the score] to make it work well live. Hey, we’ve got a six-person band on the stage.” Inevitably, concessions need to be made between what can be recorded in a studio and what sounds good performed live, but this doesn’t trouble him. “You have to adjust for a live performance – it can’t be exactly the same. You have to make certain changes, but it’ll be close – it’ll be as close as we can get it.”

Carpenter has a presence on social media, boasting active accounts on both Twitter (nearly 120k followers) and Facebook (over 260k followers). In a recent post he asked his Facebook fans to let him know what tracks they’d like to hear performed live. The 700 comments were a great way to confirm what he probably already knew were the favourites (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13), while less expected was the request to include the underscore from the deleted bank robbery scene from Escape from New York! “Ha, yes, I saw that,” he recalls. So does it amaze him that out of EVERYTHING in his oeuvre, that one track should be singled out? “Does that amaze me?” he repeats the question. “Everything amazes me now. I’m just so happy to be around doing this.” And of the immediacy of social media? “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not going to influence what I do,” he confesses.

In April 2016, Sacred Bones released John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II, a follow-up to the previous album which re-established ‘the Carpenter sound’ to a chart audience. The composer recalls how it all happened “The story for the first one is that Cody, Daniel and I were ad-libbing some music that we’d put together and created what was a basically a score sampler.” The tracks were composed and compiled over a number of years. Cody had previously scored his father’s ‘Cigarette Burns’ and ‘Pro-Life’ episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, as well as contributing music for Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Daniel, among other projects, had co-scored horror feature Condemned. “I’d got a new music attorney who asked me if I’d got anything new,” Carpenter senior continues. “I sent her this stuff and four months later I had a record deal [with independent label Sacred Bones Records]. It was that simple,” he shares.

Popular enough to create demand for a sequel, the new release was put together at greater speed – something that Carpenter is used to (he famously had one day to score  Assault on Precinct 13 and three days for Halloween). He also directed the music video for lead track Distant Dream, his first directing gig since 2010’s horror flick The Ward. As with most contemporary releases, Lost Themes II has also been released as a limited edition vinyl – in raspberry swirl! The fact that both Lost Themes albums are sequenced with a Side A and a Side B I wonder if Carpenter yearns for the days of the 12-inch record, or is he happy to embrace the latest digital mediums? “I love ‘em all!” he emphasises. “Vinyl reminds me of the old days. But it doesn’t matter what the format is – everything’s good when it involves music.”

John Carpenter’s father, Dr Howard Carter, was a music professor and a founding member of The Nashville Strings. It’s little surprise that John has such a passion for music, which he has passed on to his son. “I grew up with music. It’s always been there,” he states matter-of-factly. I recall an incident the previous week on public transport where someone’s cell phone rang in a packed train carriage – it was the main theme from Halloween? Does he witness events like this, and what does he make of a 38-year-old improvised score still making its presence known today? “Yeah, that also happens to me! My wife (producer Sandy King) has it on her phone, but that’s fine - it’s ALL great.” But surely that’s just being too modest?

Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows and David Wingo’s for Midnight Special have a sound that critics are very quick to describe as ‘Carpenteresque’. Is imitation the greatest form of flattery and is he happy to take the compliment? “I’ll take any compliment anyone want to give me,” he admits. But is it lazy journalism to compare any 80s throwback synth score to Carpenter’s work. “Man, I don’t really know. I just do what I do, and that’s a particular sound on a synthesiser. Other than that I don’t really know what it [the comparison] means.”

Carpenter has frequently described his greatest music influence to be the great Bernard Herrmann. I ask him what that legacy was. “I think that everybody has learned THE Bernard Herrmann chord. Other than that, it’s that every one of his scores just was a signature for the movie. The only person close to him in modern times is composer Hans Zimmer; his scores provide a signature – he’s amazing.”

Looking back at his early movies in the mid-1970s it’s astounding to see that John Carpenter not only wrote the movies, he directed them and composed the scores.
Was self-composition out of necessity because there was no budget for a composer, or was it a choice job that he wanted to hold onto for himself? “I was there, saying ‘I don’t have any money for this.’ I could do something simple but make it SOUND big with the synths.” In much the same way that Carpenter uses anamorphic lenses to give his movies a widescreen feel, he used synths to make the films sound like they cost more than they really did. “That’s something you’re always trying to do,” he reasons. “It was just me trying to service those movies, to support the big scenes and give them some feeling.”

Official video for Distant Dreams for Lost Themes II

While Carpenter predominantly scores his own movies, on occasion he handed over duties to others – Shirley Walker for Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Jack Nitzsche for Starman and Ennio Morricone for The Thing. Was it hard to do this when he himself could have tackled the task? “I never thought like that. A lot of the time it was such a big project and I needed that help. In the case of Morricone… I got to work with Morricone!” The Italian maestro recently had two of his unused tracks from The Thing soundtrack used in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Does Carpenter feel that music should transfer between movies in this manner? “I haven’t seen The Hateful Eight. He used the same tracks? Hmm, he’s done that in other projects too.” So, it’s not something that he would do? “Who me? Oh no, that’s just not my style.” Being a huge western fan (and writer of TV movies Blood River and El Diablo), might we one day get to hear a western score by him?  “I don’t know.” Pauses. “There’s probably one resting in there somewhere.”

Our time is drawing to a close, so a couple of quick-fire questions. At the end of the tour, and after a well-deserved break, might there be a Lost Themes III? I couldn’t say one way or another. You never know,” he offers. What’s coming up next? “I’m working on several things but I can‘t share any of them with you right now,” he apologises. But he’s not planning on retiring any time soon? “I’m semi-retired now, but I’m loving life,” he laughs.

I sign off with the promise to catch up with Carpenter and the band at his London gig on Halloween, looking forward to hearing the date-perfect rendering of his seminal score. “Oh, really?” he mock teases at the suggestion he wasn’t going to play it that day. I warn him, in the words of Brit pop band the Kaiser Chiefs, that if he doesn’t play the track then I predict a riot. “Oh, OK, I’ll remember that,” he suggests, making a mental note, though somehow I think that Michael Myers’ theme was always going to be present and correct this October.

Official John Carpenter website

This interview original appeared on FSMO. Subscribe now to the industry's premiere film music resource.

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