John Carpenter on Stage Fright and Why He Composed Scores for His Early Horror Films

John Carpenter brings a retrospective of his work to Mesa.EXPAND
John Carpenter brings a retrospective of his work to Mesa.
Courtesy of Stateside Presents

There aren’t too many points of comparison between Charlie Chaplin and John Carpenter. But both of them are on that relatively short list of movie directors who composed music for their own films.

If Carpenter can’t lay claim to any standards like “Smile,” the electronic scores he wrote and performed (often in collaboration with Alan Howarth) for many of his films are probably about as familiar to moviegoers from the '70s on. They’re a major part of the distinctive atmosphere of his most memorable work — the Philip-Glass-like minimalist patterns of his horror themes for Halloween and The Fog have almost a melancholy prettiness, until their obsessive repetition makes them sinister. The brooding tones of Escape From New York's music perfectly complement the badass manner of Kurt Russell’s “Snake” Plissken. And neither 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 nor 1988’s They Live would have nearly the same tension and wit without the bluesy thump and growl of Carpenter’s music.

In recent years, Carpenter has turned to composing for its own sake, releasing two studio albums, Lost Themes last year and Lost Themes II earlier this year. He’s taken to performing, too, in live concerts featuring both his movie music and his new stuff. His current tour, which has already played the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, Spain, comes to Mesa Arts Center at 8 p.m. on Sunday, June 19 (for details go to www.mesaartscenter.com).

New Times recently had the chance to chat with Carpenter, by phone from his home in California, about this show and other matters musical and cinematic.

How did you conceive this tour?
I didn’t conceive it. It was a family idea. My wife and kids said, "You know what would be great? We should go on a tour." So I get to perform with my son [Cody Carpenter] and my godson [Daniel Davies]. I’ve pretty much gotten over my fear. Because this isn’t my thing. I’m not a performer. I was terrified, utterly terrified.

What will people hear in this concert?
It’s about 70 to 75 percent music from the movies people have seen, and about 20 to 25 percent music from my albums … They [the Lost Themes albums] are scores for the movies in your mind. Everybody has movies going on in their minds. So I wrote the scores.

Was music your first love, or were movies?
Movies were my first love. My dream was to be a professional movie director. But I grew up around music. My father was a music teacher at Western Kentucky University. He was a classical violinist, and was very accomplished. So I was always around it.

Was writing the music for your early films an artistic or an economic decision?
Totally economic. When you’re a low-budget filmmaker, or a student filmmaker, you find that you don’t have any money. So what are you going to do? You can use music from other movies, or, in my case, I could just barely put together a score … Later, I didn’t always write it myself. For The Thing, it was by Ennio Morricone.

What is your approach to writing a score?
I’ll be really frank with you. Those scores were mostly improvised with the cut sequences, just improvising a musical foundation for whatever they needed.

Do you have a favorite of your own scores?
I do like the score I did to Big Trouble in Little China. I have limited chops, but I got better. It had a little more depth.

Do you have a favorite movie composer?
I have a lot. Bernard Herrmann, Dmitri Tiomkin. If you’re talking about now, I think Hans Zimmer’s great.

Upcoming Events

How about non-movie music?
Rock and roll! The Rolling Stones. Traditional rock and roll.

Any upcoming movie projects we should know about?
I always have a couple going. But right now I’m focused on this.

John Carpenter performs at Mesa Arts Center at 8 p.m. on Sunday, June 19. Tickets and details are available at Mesa Arts Center's website.

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