When he was 8 years old, John Carpenter picked up the violin. His father, a violinist himself and a music teacher, was his tutor. “The only problem,” Carpenter cackles on the phone from his office in Los Angeles, “was I had no talent.” That might be a bit of a misstatement. Young Carpenter went on to become a legendary horror director, writing scores for many of his most iconic movies. His eerie synths are now as much a part of his legacy as his visuals.
Still, he never imagined he’d become what he is now: a full-time professional musician. Carpenter released his last movie, The Ward, in 2011. In 2015, he made his official solo debut with Lost Themes, released by the critical darling label Sacred Bones, home to Amen Dunes, Zola Jesus, and Jenny Hval. (As Carpenter puts it, “They specialize in all sorts of weird-ass stuff.”)
Two more Lost Themes installments have followed. He played his first ever live show at Athens’s Greece Piraeus Academy in 2016 and has gone on to play throughout Europe, the UK, and the US. Every installment of David Gordon Green’s new Halloween series, including this month’s Halloween Ends, has come with a score written by Carpenter in collaboration with his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies.
After the violin debacle, Carpenter would move on to the piano and guitar. But it was hearing the soundtrack to 1956’s Forbidden Planet that changed everything. “It had electronic music!” he says now, still amazed. “This was a husband and wife, the Barrons. The score was transformative for me. It took me someplace that I didn’t expect ever to go.” Hoping to follow in the Barrons’ path, Carpenter eventually found his way to the synthesizer.
“Cut to film school,” he says. “You’re making a student film, you have no money. So what better thing to do than to do the score myself. And the same thing applied when I was a low-budget filmmaker.” Carpenter remembers thinking, “Well, one day, maybe, I’ll have some money.” In the meantime, he grinded out the scores himself. “It was purely a requirement of the moviemaking, and it just caught on as another creative element.”
His theme for Halloween, his third movie, is still his best-known, but take a stroll through his discography and you’ll be amazed how well his movie music holds up. (Escape From New York’s surprisingly low-key, surprisingly groovy theme is a personal favorite. It’s perfect for feeling cool as you walk around pre-apocalyptic New York.)
Carpenter started falling out of love with cinematic storytelling back in 2001 with Ghosts of Mars. Earlier this year he told The New Yorker about seeing himself in a behind-the-scenes featurette from Mars and being shocked at how tired he looked. He remembers thinking, “I can’t do this anymore. It was too rough.” Still, the transition into musician was “a total accident,” he says now.