John Carpenter, the man behind genre films like “Halloween,” “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Escape From New York,” may not be every critic's idea of an auteur, but Carpenter's movies are unmistakably his own. That's because he's not only a director but often a writer and even a composer whose use of synthesizers and rock guitar gave his films a moody, pulpy ambiance. The plinking piano line that shivers through “Halloween” is arguably one of the most famous film scores of all time.
Carpenter is the subject of a retrospective, "John Carpenter: Master of Fear," at Brooklyn's BAM Rose Cinemas through Feb. 22.
The 67-year-old director also released his first solo album, “Lost Themes" on Feb. 3 through Sacred Bones Records, a label that has released music by David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Despite the title of "Lost Themes," its tracks are all originals, not leftovers from past films. A deluxe edition of the album includes remixes by underground artists like Zola Jesus, ohGr and the industrial-rock pioneer J.G. Thirlwell.
Carpenter recently spoke by phone from his home in Los Angeles with Newsday's Rafer Guzman about his musical influences and his newfound status as a recording artist. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
Rafer Guzman: When you released your first film [1974's “Dark Star”], you were the director, writer and editor. Why did you compose the score as well?
John Carpenter: Well, this all goes back to one of the problems of low-budget filmmaking, which is that you have no money. It's all about necessity. We had no money to hire a composer, or an orchestra, or a place to record the orchestra. So, John does it. And he works for cheap.
Synthesizers figure prominently in your scores. What appealed to you about them?
You could sound big with just a keyboard in front of you. You could sound like an orchestra, with enough tracks. And you could get sounds that were unusual. I'd much rather hire a brilliant composer who actually has some musical chops – not like me. But I could fake my way through it. I had a feel for it.
You've said that classical and rock music are both influences on you. Who are some of your favorites from both fields?
I have to say, from classical music, you can't get any better than Johann Sebastian Bach. Have you heard of him? Alright. In terms of musical scores from movies: Bernard Hermann, Dmitri Tiomkin. For rock, The Beatles, Stones, Doors, Byrds – '60s rock.
As a film composer, you're essentially an instrumentalist. Have you ever tried your hand at writing lyrics?
Well, if you notice on “Big Trouble in Little China" , the end title was sung by the Coupe De Villes. That's me and my friend from cinema school. And if you get the special edition, you can see the music video we did that played on MTV. And you can laugh your [expletive] off.
Did you ever imagine that all these years later, you'd be releasing your first solo album? And with DJ remixes?
This has all been sprung up on me, and it's been awesome. I got a music lawyer who said to me, “Do you have anything new?” So I sent it over for him to hear, and a couple months later I had a record deal. I thought, “Jeez, that was easy. There's nothing to this!”