Auteur director, score composer and deadset creative genius John Carpenter talks evoking the creeps, the joy of imagination, and how you should listen to his new album Lost Themes III: Alive After Death for max effect.
Now that they’re three albums deep into the captivating Lost Themes project, John Carpenter says that himself, son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies have stumbled into a way of “communicating without words.” Is it a James Brown bandleader-type of scene, with Carpenter flinging cocked elbows and pointed fingers to indicate where the song’s going next? “Well!” the affable Carpenter guffaws over the (landline) phone from his home in California’s Hollywood. “Maybe like, either Cody or Daniel extending the middle finger? Yes, we communicate that way!” he laughs warmly, then adds: “You sense when it sounds right. We’ve worked together long enough now; when someone prefers a kind of sound, well, I just know that a slide whistle is not gonna work.”
The decorated, 73-year-old idol of horror, sci-fi and action fans the world over is about to release Lost Themes III: Alive After Death; it’s the third in a series begun in 2015 with Lost Themes (which also got a remix edition that year) and continued in 2016 with Lost Themes II, with all three bandmembers – Carpenter the elder, Carpenter the younger, and Davies – receiving equal composition, performance and engineering credits.
These records are intended to soundtrack “the movies in your head” as Carpenter puts it, and primarily use the pulsating throb of synthesizers – which have been Carpenter’s instrument of choice since his debut film, the 1974 sci-fi comedy Dark Star, all the way through his celebrated scores for his films Escape From New York (1981), They Live (1988), the Halloween franchise and many more.
And Carpenter is still pumped about synths, particularly the way they’ve evolved. “The synthesizer sounds that we procure, we download, the various plug-ins… the sounds grow over the years, and as the technology advances and gets better and better, people come up with more sounds,” he says with wonder. “It’s amazing what you can get now: there’s actually a [Interstellar, Inception score composer] Hans Zimmer orchestral sound. Old Hans is trying to make some bucks!” he laughs uproariously. “People are gonna buy this stuff and go ‘Oooh, I can sound like Hans Zimmer!’ Yeah, that’s not exactly how it works.”
The tracks are titled to give a loose direction to those scenes in your head – Dripping Blood, Vampire’s Touch, Turning The Bones, The Dead Walk – but Carpenter says they’re not serious markers: “We just wanted titles that were fun,” he says, “and that’s what it’s about for us – having fun!” And the enjoyment this trio took in crafting Lost Themes III is absolutely present when you listen; though sonically the tracks are dark, they summon all the thrilling terror of the best ‘70s and ‘80s horror films.
Closing track Carpathain Darkness uses the creepiest interval in Western music theory – a minor third – to wondrous effect, recalling Carpenter’s most famous theme: that of Halloween, also directed by the musician, from 1974. (Fun Fact: the two notes which comprise a minor third are also the sound the gargantuan tripods blast out over the landscape in the 2005 film War Of The Worlds – scored by Star Wars, E.T. and Jaws composer John Williams.) Just don’t get too technical when you’re describing these things to Carpenter. “A minor third? You’ll have to tell me the notes – I can’t read music,” he says. “Cody doesn’t read it, none of us read it. We fake it!” (He does assent, upon suggestion, that rather than ‘fake’ it, they ‘feel’ it.)
The musical relationship between Carpenter and Cody is of course years in the making, but Davies’ inclusion seemed destined. “Cody and I originated [Lost Themes],” says Carpenter, “and then Cody went off to Japan. I think it was a girlfriend, I’m not sure. So I had to finish what we had. I asked Daniel to come over and help. I said ‘Daniel, why don’t you play a lead guitar part in here?’” Those wheeling electric guitar lines lend a wildness and humanity to the otherwise electronic compositions. “Daniel’s an incredible lead player,” Carpenter says. “He gets it from his family – his dad is Dave Davies of The Kinks. So we started down the road, and Daniel got onto the computer and its possibilities. Then when my son came back, well, he’s a virtuoso on the keyboard. He has his function, and we all mesh pretty well.”
One theoretical thing Carpenter does enjoy discussing is the unexpected use of major chords in these tracks – major being that ‘happy’ sound, as opposed to a minor’s ‘sad’ sound. The wonderfully creepy-but-poignant Dead Eyes – with spectral female chorals, a tinkling harpsichord melody and a synth-stringed bassline which sounds like wind through a redwood forest – contains a middle section of lilting major chords which instantly lifts the song’s journey into this hopeful territory (the victim tells the killer she understands his sad history! There seems to be empathy between them – maybe the bloodbath is over!) before sinking back into macabre reality (the killer’s nature takes over his humanity; his eyes turn black, and it’s curtains for our poor victim).
“Yes, very good, hope – and to change it up for a minute there, and go in a more positive direction,” says Carpenter. “The [song]titles be damned – the music will tell you what movie you’re supposed to start up in your head. It’ll tell you what you’re seeing. A lot of this music is very dark, and it carries you to a very dark place. And I personally am excited by that, because I grew up with horror movies. I was fascinated by darkness – not serious darkness, I don’t want to personally hurt anybody – this is all imagination. So you know, in your imagination, you can afford to go to these places – ‘Take a ride with me.’ The world is bad enough as it is,” he laughs a little sadly. “We might as well have a good time; we might as well go, safely, to a dark place.”
If you’re ready to immerse yourself in the Lost Themes world, Carpenter has a suggestion on how to step through the stargate. “I recommend you take the album, and go and sit in the dark, and then put the album on,” he says. “Just let your mind go, and just start imagining. That’s where you’ll have a great time. That’s exactly how to do it.”
Lost Themes III: Alive After Death by John Carpenter is out Feb 5 via Sacred Bones Records.
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