Monday, September 08, 2014



Dennis Dread: Suddenly you’re in Hollywood… 

Alan Howarth: Yeah, so I got involved as a sound FX specialist for Star Trek and the picture editor – a fellow by the name of Todd Ramsey – his next assignment was Escape from New York. I had given Todd my musical tapes just to show him I was doing something and it turned out John Carpenter always collaborated with someone to run the studio [for his soundtrack recordings] and he was having a falling out with the guy that had done The Fog and the original Halloween movie. So the door swung open a little bit and Todd suggested that John Carpenter come over and meet me. My studio had grown a little bit by this time, I had an 8-track recorder and some more synthesizers, so he came over for an afternoon and I played him some sounds and a little music and after a couple of hours he said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” 

A life changing moment! 

That was it. New career change. Now I’m working with John Carpenter creating the music for Escape from New York! I mean, what a blessing! Of course, he’s John Carpenter and at the time the credit was ‘music by John Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth,’ which means it was John’s music and I helped out. But the creative environment was more like Lennon and McCartney. Anyone who wanted to do anything was allowed to do whatever because one of the rules that John told me at the beginning was, “There’s only one rule: there are no rules!” Most of the themes in the Carpenter scores are John’s because that’s his talent. He created Halloween [hums the Halloween theme]…his father is a professor of music and he learned that stuff when he was a kid. I was sort of the other guy in the room.

Yeah, but being the “other guy in the room” is sort of your art. I mean, when I listen to your music I almost forget I’m listening until I suddenly realize I’m having an emotional response. That’s the highest art! 

My job was to just make sure the light was on and the tape was rolling. But when it came to the synthesizers and the sequencing and making stuff happen with the machines, that was my department. 

Escape from New York poster art detail (1981).

It’s interesting that you started out as an aspiring visual artist who gravitated toward sound and music, while John Carpenter started out thinking he would be a musician and then shifted into the visual medium of film. 

I think it works so well because I was already a visual artist before this journey down the musical trail, so if you ask me to make sounds or music for an image I can immediately combine the two. That’s where I excel. It’s automatic, it’s not a struggle in any way. I mean, the word synthesis means to combine various elements into something new or something different. Eventually you’re gonna tell a story, that’s what it comes down to, however you tell that story in whatever media supports that process. Art is a communication. And movies are a combination of all those things. That’s why movies are so powerful, because movies combine multi disciplines and because movies have the ability to be done “off line” a little piece at a time and then assembled like a puzzle. It can be worked on to the point where it’s perfect, whereas live performance – y’know, fox running – every second counts and you’re just doin’ it! So it’s two different things, it’s theater vs. movies as far as I’m concerned. Y’know, you get up there and perform and take enough takes to get it right, however many that is. I was really drawn to that and between Star Trek and Escape from New York I had a new career! That led to being a sound FX and sound designer on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist and we got Academy Awards for Hunt for Red October and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I eventually did seven scores for Carpenter and another 12 on my own. And here we are, fast forward to 2014, and those Carpenter scores still hold up. People still come up to me today and say, “Hey, that’s fabulous stuff!” I’ve been doing conferences and horror shows just to meet the kids, but at the time we did it I never thought that 30 something years later I’d still be talking about this stuff and it would be so popular. But I’m thrilled! It means it worked, right?

Big Trouble in Little Portland.

When we met you told me that Big Trouble in Little China was your favorite of all the scores you've worked on over the years. Can you explain some of the reasons why? 

It was sort of a nexus of things that came together on that score. The technology had grown in synthesizers from analog synths that were connected with what we call Control Voltage and Gates – very simple switching – to the introduction of MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface. What that means is you could play the keyboard of one synthesizer and have it connected together to a bunch of other ones and then from one keyboard have like nine other synths play at the same time. That was one of the features of Big Trouble, we had all that MIDI stuff going on so we had these big stacks of synthesizers being performed on every track instead of one track for the Prophet 5, another track for the Prophet 10, another track for the Prophet 5 on a different sound, etc. You still had the limit of 24 analog tracks on the tape recorder, so you maxed out at 24 tracks, but now if you take 24 tracks and you put nine instruments on each one, the textures get really thick. Additionally, we had digital sampling and we added an Emulator 2 and a Kurzweil 250 which both had nice digital recordings of real instruments so the tone quality of the score went up a notch because now we had choruses and drums and stuff like that – digital recordings of real stuff so it wasn’t just an analog synth score. It got more orchestral. It started approaching this hybrid thing. And then also that particular movie’s time table was such that John and I scored it and then it had some issues with the visual effects, etc. so it was taking a little longer than we expected, so we had time to literally go back and re-score the entire score and fine tune it and take elements from the ending and put ‘em back in the beginning. Usually when you’re doing this stuff you’re cranking out reel one, you turn it in, you go to reel two, you turn it in, you go to reel three and there’s no going back! But in this case the thing sat long enough that we probably had about 14 weeks to score it. Normally you’ve got about six weeks, so it was almost double the time. And then in addition Big Trouble had a lot of different filmic elements as opposed to a Halloween or an Escape from New York or Christine, which were all focused in one area musically. We had rock ’n’ roll, we had orchestral elements, we had Asian influences and we actually had a song that John wrote called Big Trouble in Little China… 

The Coup De Villes! 

Yeah, which was Tommy Lee Wallace, Nick Castle, John and then I played a lot of the guitar. 

Wait. Is Nick Castle the same guy who played Michael Myers in Halloween? 


Wow. Duly noted.

We actually made an album after that independently called Waiting Out the 80s, which is an unreleased gem of John Carpenter work that’s out there somewhere. So it was just the technology, the production and the content of that movie which gave us a chance to really hit it out of the park.

You mentioned Tommy Lee Wallace, which is a perfect segue to talk about Halloween III. Wallace was with Carpenter since film school and Dark Star and he was actually the Production Designer on Halloween – he was responsible for transforming a sunny southern California city into autumnal Illinois by strewing fake leaves all over the sidewalk and streets – I think he also helped edit the original Halloween. Of course he went on to write and direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is essentially why we're talking today. What do you remember most about working on the score for Halloween III? 

Well, remember, there was the original Halloween in 1978 that was before I knew John Carpenter so I had nothing to do with that one. Of course Halloween II was the sequel… 

Picking up precisely where the original film left off. 

Yeah, exactly. The very next moment and we’re just gonna continue on with the rest of the night. At that point John was committed to directing The Thing, so his attention wasn’t there and he also wasn’t that excited about the sequel – he thought he was done at the end of the first one – but he agreed to make the score. So I remember being in the studio with John somewhere near the end of the Escape from New York sessions and he said, “Oh by the way, we’re gonna do a sequel to Halloween and you’re gonna do that one.” He just assigned me! “You do Halloween II, I’m too busy.” So I did Halloween II and it did what it did [at the box office], so then they wanted to do part III and Debra [Hill, writer and co-producer] and John had this idea to expand outside the fixed item of Michael Myers and do Halloween as a broad topic so each year we could do a different kind of movie and have an anthology of Halloween themes. In fact, if it wasn’t called Halloween III and was just called Season of the Witch I think it would’ve done a lot better than it did. But as it turned out, when it hit the box office and got out there everyone was like, “What? What happened to Michael Myers? I thought this was Halloween?” 

"It's almost time, kids!"

I'm sure Moustapha Akkad [Producer] insisted on tacking Halloween on the title to keep the franchise rolling. 

Exactly. So when it came to the score, I remember sitting down with John – at that time we had videotape so we could literally jam while watching the movie or sort of offline watch the movie a little bit and then jam and come back and watch the movie – so we sat and listened to some inspirational records, we put on the latest Tangerine Dream record because we really liked their synthesizer work and we really liked The Police so we listened to a little Sting just for inspiration. We sat down and John said, “This is gonna be real easy. What we’re gonna do is just rip ourselves off.” Which was code for, “Whatever we did on Escape from New York, I like that! Let’s do that again!” So we started with that opening scene, the chase that’s now called Chariot of Pumpkins, and I dialed up the sequence that’s the backbone of that thing on the sequencers. It was kinda Halloween-y but it was also its own thing, so John liked that a lot. And then we just built the layers on that and I actually went back and played the lead theme and we just went off. Well, Halloween III the movie was not so successful, but here we are 30 something years later and the Halloween III score comes up on the top scores of all time. 

It’s brilliant. 

Of course, we weren’t thinking we were brilliant at the time. We were just doing what we were doing. But, again, the test of time has come back and sort of certified it as one of the best scores ever. 

I think enough time has passed that even the movie has been reassessed by critics and it’s now something of a cult favorite in its own right. Viewers seem to understand the context and “get it” now. It’s a very strange and very entertaining film. I remember being disappointed as a kid when it came out because of the Michael Myers thing, but a few years later I came to really enjoy it. I still do! There’s also a fun satirical thread running through it that seems to allude to the commercialization of Halloween, both the franchise and the holiday, and some of that winking critique of mindless consumerism that is echoed later in They Live. 

Yeah, there was a scope. Tommy was the director, but John was there looking over his shoulder and making sure everything was on track. Do you remember the silly commercial? 

Of course! That’s Tommy Lee Wallace doing the announcer’s voice, right? 

Exactly. I remember getting a call from Debra and she said, “What I want you to do is use the melody from London Bridge is Falling Down. I don’t want any copyright issues on this stuff so we gotta use something that’s public domain!” And if you think about it, that’s exactly what it is [hums the Silver Shamrock jingle]…It’s really a public domain thing. Tommy told me the name of the piece that inspired the little piano exercise that became the calliope sort of silliness playing behind it and then the vocals are Tommy and myself singing into the tape recorder chipmunk style. The idea was to slow the tape recorder to half speed and then speed it up. It was one of those insane ideas – kinda nuts – but it certainly works for the story point that you play the song and it triggers the Stonehenge chips that are in the masks that triggers the bugs that make the kids all die… 


And we had the bug man again in Prince of Darkness! So, as you said, there were actually a lot of elements in Halloween III that were harbingers of things to come.

When we met I told you how cool I always thought your studio looked in that photo on the back of the soundtrack record. I imagined this magical place where Alan Howarth and John Carpenter sit around smokin' doobies and making creepy music! Funny thing about that studio… 

Yeah, that was just my little rented house in Glendale, California. It’s on Adam Street and the house is still there, but that studio was just set up in my dining room. It just happened that the room had some nice artistic features, it had those curved windows and also, because one of the gigs I had was setting up synthesizers and later I was a retail rep for Arp synths, I was good at making set ups. I had the artistic flair for making a really cool looking set up no matter where it was. We just moved the dishes.



Andrew Patrick Ralston said...

Very cool. I saw the actual address for the Adams street studio in the Making of the Thing extras. It's in Glendale at 1404 S Adams Street. You can see the identifiable windows from the front. I pass by the house all the time. Amazing to think what was created there.