“The Synthesizer For Me, Has Always Been The Greatest:” John Carpenter on His Life in Music and Movies

“When I was eight-years-old, I saw a movie that changed my life: Forbidden Planet,” John Carpenter, the film composer, director, and screenwriter says from his home in Los Angeles. The film he is referring to is a 1956 science fiction movie about astronauts in the 23rd century investigating an ancient civilization of aliens on a distant planet while fighting their own “monsters from the Id.”

Not only was Forbidden Planet the first mainstream Hollywood movie to feature an actress in a mini-skirt, but it was also the first mainstream Hollywood film to use a soundtrack composed entirely of electronic music. Composed by Bebe and Louis Barron — who used homemade electronic circuit boards years before the first commercially available synthesizer was released — the soundtrack was referred to as containing “electronic tonalities” with its swirling, bleeping, booping, blurping, huming, wave-like sounds that were created specifically to enhance the tension and atmosphere of the exotic planet, and generally to add to the tone and mood of the film.
[jump] While the film and Bebe and Louis Barron’s score, are just now getting their appropriate historical recognition for revolutionizing both the science fiction horror film and electronic music, respectively, the effect the film had on young Carpenter was immediate.

“The film itself was great, but I remember being transformed by that score,” he says. “I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard. That’s probably where my love of synthesizers started…The synthesizer for me, has always been the greatest.”

As Carpenter tells it, being a young filmmaker and having no money for a proper score for his second film, Assault on Precinct 13, he found Dan Wyman, a music professor at USC who specialized in electronic music composition, who let Carpenter use his synthesizer to compose and record the music for the film.

“My father was a music professor, and he thought it would be a good idea if I played the violin,” Carpenter says. “The unfortunate thing is I had no talent; it’s a hard instrument to master. I eventually moved on to other things like keyboards and guitar, but with a synthesizer, I could sound big. That was the whole point.”

The resulting score Carpenter composed is a menacing, paranoia inducing, detuned synth bass line over a crackling, haunted, percussive sound, an essential element that added to the mood, tension, and rhythm of the film. Carpenter would continue composing synth scores for his films, and they have since become essential elements for many of his movies, including the original Halloween movie, Escape From New York, and, They Live, all of which he also wrote the screenplay and directed.
By the early 2000’s, Carpenter had stopped making films after 27 years in the business, occasionally coming back to direct TV shows and a single movie in 2010 (The Ward).

“The movie business has changed,” he says, “They’re not making a whole lot of movies that I was known for anymore.”

It was in this semi-retirement, while hanging out with his kids and playing video games (Sonic the Hedgehog has his favorite video game score), that Carpenter rediscovered his love of the synthesizer.

“My son and I had nothing better to do, so we decided to improvise some music in my set up,” he says. “So we would play some video games, and then we would go down stairs and play music.”

These jam sessions, made on the software program Logic Pro, instead of on the old, gigantic, fragile, analog synthesizers of the past, allowed Carpenter and his son to experiment with a wide variety of sounds, and as Carpenter says, make “soundtrack music for movies that hadn’t been made.”
In 2015, Sacred Bones Records released a full album of these tracks created by Carpenter, called Lost Themes. Lost Themes has the same mood, atmosphere, and thematic qualities that most of his film compositions have, and, as he says, “I like moody music. That’s what I grew up with.”

A similar set of jam sessions produced the recently released sequel to Lost Themes, Lost Themes II, which has prompted Carpenter, and his son, to tour the country, playing the music.

“Seventy-five percent of the live show is going to be old scores from the movies,” Carpenter says. “Twenty-five percent  will be from the new album. This is a career retrospective too. I mean, Lost Themes has done really well, but it’s not like Beyonce. So there will be the visuals from my own movies projected while we play, so in case we stink, you can watch the movies.”

When I ask if he ever plans to make another movie, Carpenter laughs. “I’d love to direct again, if the situation was right,” he says, “But you know, there’s basketball to be watched.”

John Carpenter will perform at 8 p.m., on Friday, June 17, at the Fox Theater in Oakland. 

Tags: ,

Related Stories