The 67-year-old horror icon spoke to Billboard about Lost Themes, explaining his relaxed recording regimen (video games factor in heavily), why he's waited so long to release a standalone album and why he finds music more relaxing than directing these days. You can stream Lost Themes on NPR now, and if you're in New York, check out the Brooklyn Academy of Music's full-career film retrospective, John Carpenter: Master of Fear, running Feb. 5-22.
You've been making music for films since 1970, and a number of those soundtracks are stone-cold classics. Why have you waited until now to release a proper album?
It's all serendipitous. I got a new music attorney who said to me, "You got anything new?" I looked around and I realized I had this album that my son and I had done, about 60 minutes of music. So I said, "Take a listen to this." And the next thing I know she calls back and says, "We got a record label."
It was that easy?
It wasn't that easy. It was that lucky.
How did you approach writing music for music's sake, rather than for a movie?
I don't want to upset your image, but this is all improvised. There's nothing written. It started two and a half years ago with my son. We'd play a video game for two hours, and then go to my Logic Pro setup downstairs. Logic Pro has a synth plug-in and all sorts of keyboards. So we'd improvise music for a couple hours, and then go back up and play video games. And then improvise more music. Over a period of time, this became the album.
So this album is just several of many jam sessions?
Oh yeah. We're working on another album as we speak, Dark Blues. We've gotten about 40 or 50 minutes worth, but we're still tracking and playing around with it. We'll see what feels good.
What can we expect on Dark Blues?
We'll see how it gets released. Maybe nobody wants to listen to it. We don't care: it's just making music and having fun.
Just theoretically, if Sacred Bones wasn't interested in releasing Dark Blues, would you consider an Internet-only release?
That might be. I might consider that.
Back to Lost Themes. One track that stuck out to me was "Obsidian."
That's my favorite track.
It reminds me of Goblin's music for Dario Argento's films.
That's really nice. I'm a big fan of theirs.
Did Goblin inform your music?
No, again, it's all improvised, dude. We weren't thinking of anything other than what felt good. I will say I am a huge Goblin fan and any time I can sound remotely like Goblin, I'm happy.
The song titles are cool but they all seem random. How did you go about naming them?
[laughs] That's exactly it. I sat down and thought, "What can I title this thing?" And just think of dark, thematic sounding words. So that's what I did.
What's the idea behind the title Lost Themes?
The album is for the movies that are playing in your mind. Everybody has a movie in there head. I want you to take my album, put it on, turn down the lights, sit there and listen and start fantasizing. See the movie you got in your mind. My album is the score for it.
Is Lost Themes mostly your musical vision, or a collaborative process?
I make my son do as much work as I possibly can [laughs]. I'm being facetious. It's about feel. He'll come in with a sketch; we'll load it up. I'll play pads and bass. I have a sketch; he'll play on it. I also throw in my godson, the kid that I raised, Daniel Davies. [UPDATE: The Kinks' Dave Davies, Daniel's father, reached out to Billboard with a response to this particular comment.] He does the engineering and plays the lead guitar. So it's a family affair. What I'm doing is taking my thirty-year-old children and exploiting the hell out of them and trying to make money off them [laughs].
Do you exercise veto power over their contributions?
Oh God no.
Is there anyone doing movie scores these days you're knocked out by?
Hans Zimmer. I love his stuff. Going back, his scores never miss. I love the scoring work Trent Reznor has done, too.
It's been a while since you've directed a film. Do you have interest in going back to directing?
I'm turning 67 this January. Directing is really for the young, to be honest with you. Because it's so hard to do and you have to put up with such shit. So if I have something I'm in love with -- I am developing a couple of things, nothing I can talk about right now -- but if I love it, I'll do it. If not, I've got the NBA, I've got video games and I've got music. What the hell? There's nothing else.
What about TV? You did a great episode for the Masters of Horror TV series, "Cigarette Burns"? Is that easier?
Oh, I'd do television if someone asked me. It's quicker.
So music is just a more relaxing hobby for you?
It is. It's right here in my house. And it's just fun.