"I can't afford to waste any time": Horror legend John Carpenter on making albums in his 70s

John Carpenter
(Image credit: Sophie Gransard)

John Carpenter has a self-deprecating interest in his age. “Who’d have thought that at my age [he’s 73] I’d be lucky enough to have a second career? But here I am!” he says with a laugh. 

The quietly spoken Carpenter has long been acclaimed as one of the all time masters of the horror movie genre, thanks to directing iconic films such as Halloween, The Thing and They Live. He’s also shown his versatility with Assault On Precinct 13, Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From New York

But in recent years, he’s eschewed the familiar role behind the camera to concentrate on his musical abilities. Carpenter had already displayed a talent for electronic themes by composing the soundtracks for a number of his movies (“It was cheaper for me to do it, rather than bring in someone else,” he says). But with the arrival of the Lost Themes album in 2015, he suddenly became a significant and serious musician. 

Maybe that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, his scores for Halloween and Assault On Precinct 13 have long since been regarded both as pioneering and a major inspiration for the whole synthwave movement. Yet mention his importance to this style of music and what you get from him is almost a shrug of the shoulders. 

“Really, you think I’ve inspired some young artists through what I’ve recorded? That does amaze me. I guess it’s something of a compliment. But you know what? I just don’t have the time to sit back and soak up this sort of thing. I’m getting on a bit now, and can’t afford to waste any time.” 

Yes, Prog is back onto the age business again! But moving beyond this, Carpenter has recently released the third volume in the Lost Themes series. Lost Themes III: Alive After Death sees him once more teaming up with son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, whose father is guitarist Dave Davies of The Kinks. And, as with the previous two (Lost Themes II came out in 2016), this one was developed from jam sessions. 

“When we came off the road a couple of years ago from our first tour we had a load of ideas for a new album. So, we began to get together and play through these to see what worked and what should be ditched. It’s never left to just one of us to kick off these jams. We all had sketches in our heads which may have made decent tracks. 

“It’s always so much fun for the three of us. We love playing together. It never seems like work to us. Just three people who get along very well playing music for the love of it.” 

It won’t have escaped Prog readers’ attention that all three Lost Themes albums have been released under John Carpenter’s name. This gives the impression that these are solo records, but the man himself insists this isn’t true. 

“When the first Lost Themes came out, our label, Sacred Bones, thought it made sense to use my name on the cover, because I was well known and that could help the sales. But there’s no way that Cody and Daniel should merely be seen as background guys. The three of us have always been equals, And I reckon musically they have gone beyond me now, and sometimes I struggle to keep up with what they’re doing. 

“We haven’t talked as yet about the idea of having a band name, instead of using mine. But this could come about sooner rather than later. I have one possible name in mind and that is The Chairs. If we use that then maybe that’ll allow me to sit down onstage. And given how old I am, the opportunity to do this would be a relief! Ha!” 

The way this project initially came about was almost by accident, as Carpenter gleefully recalls: “Cody and I began to improvise together and in the process we came up with a lot of music. But it never occurred to me that we should release any of it. Then I got a new music attorney, and hearing this music they thought it was too good to keep private. So, a deal was done with Sacred Bones, who are such a cool label for this type of electronic music. 

“At that point, what began as me and my son just having some fun in the studio became a lot more serious. So, we started to shape an album. Then Cody had to go off to Japan where he teaches, and I asked Daniel if he’d help me finish the album. But he did more than that. Daniel had great musical ideas of his own, which we worked into the album. So, suddenly we were a trio.” 

John Carpenter

(Image credit: Sophie Gransard)

Despite the current global situation, the three managed to get into a studio for the Lost Themes III… recording sessions. 

“We worked at my home studio in LA. Was social distancing involved? Well, as far as was practical. I can’t tell you how long it took us to record the album, because we were also working on another project simultaneously.” 

This ‘other project’ was the soundtrack for the movie Halloween Kills, which is due to open in October 2021. 

“We had no set pattern in place as to which of these was worked in a session. It’s not as if we alternated between the two. If we fancied doing the album on any particular day, then that’s what we did. And if  we had some ideas, which fitted in better with the film, then we’d run footage in the studio and that’s where our efforts were concentrated. It was all very spontaneous. 

“Inevitably, there were ideas we had for Halloween Kills, which ended up being moved over to Lost Themes III…, because we felt it was a more appropriate home for these. And the same happened in reverse. One track began on the soundtrack, but ended up on the album. Which one? I’m not going to tell you. Let’s keep it a secret and see if anyone can work it out when they listen to it.” 

Lost Themes III: Alive After Death feels like a very joyful album, which is certainly odd when one considers the dark tone it strikes throughout. But anyone listening can tell that the three loved what they were doing. And that’s something Carpenter is keen to emphasise. 

“It’s wonderful for me to have such a strong bond with Cody and Daniel on a musical level, and what I want people to understand is that, while the track titles may seem ominous and horror-oriented, we were not at all in a gloomy mood when recording.” 

Carpenter et al have broken with tradition by giving this album a subtitle: Alive After Death. The previous ones were just known as Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. What prompted this change? 

“Nothing. Seriously, it was never planned. Daniel came up with this for one of the tracks, and as soon as I heard it I just knew we had to use it for the overall album title. It was simply a spur of the moment suggestion from me, which the other two went along with.

“If anyone believes we have a grand plan for any of this, then they’re way off the mark. We go with the flow and whatever comes out – musically or otherwise – is down to feeling of the moment. The same is also true of the titles we’ve given the 10 tracks. These come from the three of us. There’s no concept. It’s just what seems to fit.” 

No producer has been credited on the album and all three musicians are named as engineering in the studio because Carpenter doesn’t feel they need any outside help. 

“Why should we? As a trio we don’t need any outsider to tell us what to do. We use one another as sounding boards for ideas, so having anyone in the studio as the so-called producer would be a hindrance. 

“But we did get John Spicer, who plays bass with us live, to do the mix. By that stage, we were all so overwhelmed by the music we’d created that there was a need to take a step back. So, John came in and took over. It was a relief to let him get on with it without any interference from us.” 

The album artwork features images of all three musicians, something that Carpenter stresses was important: 

“It was my suggestion to have Cody and Daniel on the cover. If it had just been me, then it would have looked rather silly. Nobody wants to look at a photo of an old man, do they?!” 

John Carpenter

(Image credit: Sacred Bones)

Right now, plans for the immediate future have had to be put on hold. If circumstances had permitted, the two Carpenters and Davies would by now be a long way down the line composing and recording the soundtrack for Halloween Ends, the final movie in the franchise, which is due to open in October 2022.

“Because of Covid-19, none of the film has yet been shot. We’ll have to wait a while before being able to work on the music.”

The same is also true for touring plans. He reveals, “We definitely want to go out on the road when it’s possible. The last tour was great; it’s exciting to witness people’s reactions to the music. I know the new album will work well onstage. But for now, we need to be patient.”

As a result of the universal respect and admiration for his music, Carpenter has received numerous requests from other bands to work with them. 

“I love doing that, and hope to be able to do more collaborations in the future especially with young talent. But I’ll admit that, apart from what I hear on the radio, I don’t listen to new music. I still go back to the old favourites, The Beatles, in particular. For me, they’re still the best.” 

While he’s enthused about Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, Carpenter is unsure whether there will be a fourth edition of the Lost Themes series. 

“I have no clue what we’ll do next. We could carry this on, or move to something different. Much may depend on the technology available in the studio. I’m constantly bringing in new programmes to help with the music. One thing I do know is that I’m keen not to waste time. People tell me that I shouldn’t worry about being old. It’s easy for them to say. I can’t help it. So I don’t want to sit around. I’ve a lot more music to create!” 

Originally printed in Prog Magazine #119

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021