John Carpenter grew up in a cancer cluster and makes music happily compatible with films by the guy who made the name famous enough to rate a flight upgrade. He leads a three-piece band with one member named ‘J. Explosive’ and they cast three shadows pointing back at Iggy Pop, Scott Walker and Roxy Music. He used to play guitar in America’s most electrifying electric gospel band and conducts himself with the good manners and ferocious focus of an old-time fighter ace. He speaks now at the Brite Spot. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
When you were growing up in New Jersey, what were you more afraid of—the Jersey Devil, mafia hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski or the entire city of Newark?
Well there’s a fourth you’re leaving out, and that’s the water supply. Remember the cancer cluster of ’94-’95? A lot of people were getting cancer—supposedly from the tap water. Turns out the medical waste processors—the people who take all your dirty syringes—were supposed to care of it but they ended up dumping it in the drinking water. There was a made-for-TV movie about it.
So is it fair to say you were raised on toxic waste?
You could say that—that’s why I’m so small. I’m a late bloomer. I always wondered why that was.
What’s the latest-blooming thing about you? What took you the longest to figure out?
Probably being comfortable in my own skin. You try a lot of things. You try to find it in God or you try to find it in drugs—you try to find it in love. You just don’t have any choice after a while. You either do figure it out or you blow your head off. It’s the only way you can have effective relationships with people. You have to spend a lot of time alone, I think.
What would you say to teenage John Carpenter as you grabbed him by the collar and shook him?
I would have released recordings earlier. But I didn’t have a mind about it. I had no idea what that was. I was just really enjoying learning how to play guitar and finding that and starting to write songs and experiment. I did a lot of noisy things in the beginning—like strange compositions. I wrote some pretty interesting things, but none of them were really songs. They were more little pieces of music here and there. And then I started singing a little bit. My friends and I had bands growing up and we started covering songs. We listened to all the Velvet Underground stuff and Hendrix. But at some point you just want to write your own music. You get sick of playing other people’s music—like everyone else. But you do learn a lot.
Did you ever have a musical mentor?
My best friend was a really great painter growing up and we were into the same music. We turned each other on to different things. He really taught me what art was all about and I taught him about music. We sort of bonded in that way and we grew up together. That’s not necessarily a mentor.
What did he teach you about art?
You have to really commit to it, and if you don’t and you wanna do it, you’re just making excuses for your life. You’re always making excuses.
What single guitar chord is most likely to send a churchful of Baptists into a frenzy?
C Major—without a doubt! The reverend would always say to me, ‘John, send me off!’ That meant hit the C chord! RINGGGGGGG! ‘Lorrrrd!’ And then he would instantly start sweating. How much passion do you have to have to break into a sweat on the first note? Before the song even begins the guy is drenched! That was my first job—really cool for a guy playing guitar. I walked into this Baptist church and they did not expect to see me. They were all in their seventies and they had been at it a long time. I guess one of their guitar players passed away and they were looking for somebody. I took a shot and they liked the way I played and they started teaching me the ceremonies and the whole bit and we went out there and we did it. It opened up a whole world of American music to me. Because when you start playing guitar, you learn the blues—that’s what most kids do. When you’re 13, it’s do-able and it’s a very rich world to get involved in. The gospel world is another part of that. You’d do a riff … It was kind of like a dirty kind of bluesy gospel. I don’t even know what new gospel sounds like, but it’s a lot more musically complicated than what we were playing. What we were playing was almost like blues.
Did you step into the one Baptist gospel combo in America that was actually playing rock ‘n’ roll?
Probably. It sounds a lot like old church hymns slowed down—it’s very simple music. To answer your question, you’d jam on a riff for a while because people would be going nuts. He’d be doing his thing and you’d have to give him some room to move around and get into it. You’d be working yourself into a state. It taught me how to get my strength up. I switched over to bass a couple times but I mostly played guitar. The music director was stone deaf—and tone deaf—and we’d always argue whether the guitar was in tune or not. It was unbelievable. He was teaching me this one chord change and I was playing it and I know I was playing it right and he kept on saying, ‘No, goddammit!’ And I know now it was just cuz I wasn’t swinging right—I wasn’t in the pocket. That was a good lesson.
What do you think of the relationship between ecstasy and music?
You mean taking it? No, I mean, that’s exactly what it should be—what else are you doing there if you’re not trying to find something? It’s a window into something if it’s done right; if it’s not bullshit. For deeper matters. For tougher matters to describe.
How did you get a standing gig at a fetish shop? And what did you spend the gift certificates on?
I was playing in a band and I was moving around a lot—I moved from Jersey to New York and then I headed up to Providence, Rhode Island. There was a pretty heavy noise scene up there not too long ago and they have a pretty good rock scene—they still do. It was cheaper to live and I got some friends up there and we got a band together—Mercy Beat. And we fell apart like any band does, but we played at one of the local fetish shop’s S&M shows. This was purely based on the sound. There was nothing weird going on. And they asked me to come back and do this gig at their shop and I did it for a few hours at a club and I did it pretty regularly. And people would come in and price the new fall wares. ‘Hey, how’re you doing? There’s some crackers and cheese.’
So what did you do with the gift certificates?
I didn’t do anything with them. I gave one of them away. I bought a nice pack of rubbers—what else do you want? Everything in there looks like it’s gonna hurt.
That’s the point.
Who spends money on that? Life’s hard enough.
Alan McGee said you write big tunes—what do you think he was talking about?
Maybe they have a lot of weight to them because there’s not a lot of instruments on the recording? Keys, bass, guitar, drums, vocals, not a lot of double tracking … The vocals are pretty straight and there’s not a lot of harmonies, so you can’t be talking about it arrangement-wise, but maybe because they have weight to them.
Is that something that you want?
I do. If it’s lean and weighty that means you’ve done well with your work. An ‘I would’ve written less if I had more time’ kinda thing.
You said that you don’t feel that anything in music is ever really lost—what did you mean?
It’s never lost. Everything is like a pitch to the next person. You listen to music and you’re very deeply touched by someone’s music and that’s inevitably gonna come out in what you do. And you take it and you put it through your own grinder and in that way people move on through other people. That’s how memories are passed—that’s how ideas are passed. It’s how information was passed along for a long time. You’ve got to make people understand as much as possible while you’re still around.
What are you trying to make them understand?
I don’t know I have anything to say necessarily. I just want to make people happy. Why do people make anything? It seems kind of silly to try to sell your feelings. You can almost think it down to nothing. You can reason it away. Why make anything? Are you trying to tap into something in yourself? That’s an adventure unto itself. To say that you’re doing something big and heavy with art is to say that people who don’t do art don’t do anything heavy—which is bullshit. Everybody finds what they’re after—that window to something in their own way. Like we were talking about in the beginning. Some people drink themselves to death and some people put all their energy into their children. Some people play guitar.
What’s something thing that scares you and excites you at the same time?
I’m not scared right now. I’m going through a period where I’m very focused. I have another 20 or 25 songs that I’ve gotta get ready to record. I just want to keep it going cuz you never know what’s gonna happen. Keeping a band together is such a delicate thing. I’ve been through a million bass players and key players and drummers and then Joe A.—J. Explosive and I—hooked up in 2005 and he stuck. If you’re looking for a band, you’re the songwriter and you can probably sing your songs—so don’t go looking for a singer! Start doing your tunes and book shows. Do shows alone. Eventually, like a piano player will come out of the woodwork. Then you find a drummer and the three of you start playing. Sometimes you get it together or somebody leaves—it moves around like that and then you’re back to not having anybody again. That’s happened to me many times in my life and it’s been a delicate balance. We’re the best version of the band right now. Jeff Phillips on bass—the toughest, coolest bass player we’ve had. If you actually stop doing it then you didn’t want it to begin with. Everybody wants different things out of it but I don’t think it’s any reason to quit. Because the songs are the songs—you learn more if you just keep playing. There’s always gonna be ups and downs—it’s never gonna end. Look at the Beatles—how long did they last? Eight years? Nothing lasts. That’s why you put out different albums because sometimes you’re in a slump. Then you get a piano player and you get to write new songs just with that arrangement—it challenges you to write different kinds of music. In that way it should be encouraging enough. It should be exciting enough for people who want to write music. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck. It’s very discouraging. It seems like things take forever—but I guess if time is urgent, things do take forever.
Have you ever thought about booking a show with Abe Vigoda just to screw with people?
I would do it in a second, and we should get Rainer Maria too.
Did you really get a flight upgrade just for being named John Carpenter?
I did. I was coming back from Jamaica with some friends of mine who got married—they asked me to play some songs and I’d never been to Jamaica. There was a wretched delay and I got called to the front. The lady was like, ‘Mr. Carpenter, we have an upgrade for you.’ And looked at me like she knew.
JOHN CARPENTER’S FAIRY TALES FORGOTTEN IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM MYSPACE.COM/JOHNNYCARPENTER. JOHN CARPENTER AT L.A. RECORD 100 CLOSING PARTY ON SAT., JULY 31 AT 6TH ST. WAREHOUSE, 1269 E. 6TH ST, DOWNTOWN.