“I grew up with a father who was a violinist,” says John Carpenter, one of the best film directors and film music composers of all time. “And I was around, I guess, 8 years old. And he decided maybe I needed to start playing the violin. And the only problem was, I have absolutely no talent. And that didn’t work out too well. So from there, I went to the keyboard and kind of picked it up, then the guitar, and I picked that up. See, I’m just sort of a bum in music. A second-rate bum.”
Carpenter’s self-deprecation continues.
“If you’re walking to school with a violin under your arm, you are a target for bullies,” he told SPIN. “And boy, was I a target. And it wasn’t fun. So not only did it sound bad, but I got beaten up. … I was a total wimp.”
Did that at least influence his movies?
“Well, let’s say that the heroes that I chose for a lot of my movies are kind of guys who say ‘fuck you’ to everything,” says Carpenter.
At least one other good thing happened to 8-year-old John Carpenter: He heard the churning, atmospheric, cold-as-space score for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which he still considers one of the all-time great film soundtracks. It was one of the first steps toward his own career as a filmmaker and music creator for films.
By now you’re probably humming the Halloween theme song in your head – probably the most famous of his film scores, which include the music for Escape From New York, They Live, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog. He’s known for ominous-veering-on-menacing synth-rich masterpieces that also allow an anxious sliver of hope. His scores created a whole genre of film composition. A second-rate bum? No.
Carpenter’s music is so beloved that his band — which consists of Carpenter and his son Cody Carpenter on and his godson Daniel Davies (son of The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies) — has just released its third album of non-movie music, and Carpenter’s first such album in five years.
The Carpenters play keyboards, while Davies plays guitar. Listening to their new album Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, you can almost hear the chilly blips and bloops of Forbidden Planet, sped up and energized and infused with Carpenter’s addictive blend of hot-blooded passion and bone-dry wit. This would be great music to run to, drive at night to, plot revenge to.
Even in a short talk with John Carpenter, you start to wonder if all his self-effacement is bone-dry comedy, too. He insists, for example, that he remains bad at playing music, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
“I have minimal chops,” he says. “Minimal. You know, I’m not really a great player. And my son is. I don’t pretend to be able to play guitar solos, but my godson can. If I hum a melody, my son can play it. So I don’t have to worry about how good I can play. So yeah, it’s perfect.”
I laugh. He doesn’t laugh. I point out that when he composed Halloween and his other film classics, he wasn’t humming.
“If you listen very carefully, they’re pretty simple,” he says.
He will at least concede one thing, which he discovered not long after giving up violin.
“I had a pretty good ear,” he says. “So it worked out.”