INTERVIEW WITH MARS AT UNFILMABLE.COM
Interviewed by Sean Smithson
The name conjures up palatial futuristic cities, set against sweeping crimson landscapes, where strange creatures roam the dunes, and alien craft fill the skies. Alas, Mars Homeworld, is actually a big, lovable, teddy bear of a man, not a celestial body. He is indeed an entity unto himself though, make no mistake.
The creator of some of the most sinister, slithery, unearthly sounds to be found in the milieu of modern genre soundtrack work; Mr. Homeworld has carved out a niche for himself among indy horror filmmakers over the last half decade…one bloody talon scoop at a time.
His reputation as being easy going, hard working, knowledgeable, and most importantly inspired, has kept his musical malformation - Dead House Music; growing, and thriving in a universe cold and rife with chaotic forces threatening to thwart one’s sanity (read: a messed up indy film scene where it’s almost impossible to make any kind of living as a composer). Recent work includes the Greg Lamberson trashsploitation epic SLIME CITY MASSACRE, and the award winning LOVECRAFT: FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN, which is the definitive documentary on the enigmatic writer to date, and features appearances by such hallowed luminaries as John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, and HPL scholar S.T. Joshi. Like many of the protagonists in Mr. Lovecraft’s tales, Mars stands at the mouth of a rolling cosmic eternity (read: the musical landscape), seeking to unlock Enochian and eldritch mysteries, in this case with the auditory conjurations he manifests with his wizardly banks of keyboards, guitars, percussion instruments, and a computer with one hell of a lot of RAM.
Before he loses himself completely in the void, let’s get some insight as to how Mr. Homeworld copes with the massive responsibility of making music worthy of the Elder Gods!
SEAN: Tell us about your musical background.
MARS: I’m a musician and performer from a family of the same. I think my parents would have been surprised if I hadn’t gravitated toward the arts in some capacity.
SEAN: So, I have to ask, is it true you actually lived in (Lovecraft’s friend, artist, and fellow weird fiction author) Clark Ashton Smith’s house?
MARS: Not quite. But, I live in his home town of Auburn, Ca., and I lived about 20 feet away from this surreal coy pond that Clark himself built back in the 1950’s. It had sharp rocks around the rim; all arranged like spires…pretty much just like many of his paintings. My landlord, a truly exceptional soul named Bob Elder, was a close friend of Smith’s and had many of his paintings, letters, books, etc. (some of which I own now that Bob has passed away) I was always enamored at being in the presence of such genius in that house, and of course the Lovecraft connection was never lost on me. I spent a lot of time looking into that pond for inspiration.
SEAN: When did you first “discover” HPL?
MARS: I was in High School. I’d read a book by Colin Wilson called THE MIND PARASITES, in which the protagonist kept referencing A horror /pulp writer from the 1920’s named H.P. Lovecraft. That was the first seed. Then my circle of friends and I discovered the CALL OF CTHULHU role playing game. Being as we were all horror fans, and looking for something outside DUNGEONS & DRAGONS…COC was a perfect game to learn. And again I saw his name “Horror role-playing in The Worlds Of H. P. Lovecraft”. So, that writer was real! I marched over to the library, and checked out “The Doom That Came To Sarnath and Other Tales” and I was hooked. That was it.
SEAN: What was the dark path that led you to the Master?
MARS: Probably a very common one for readers who discover Lovecraft at a young age: A feeling of being disconnected from society to a certain degree. And alienation is at the heart of that. When you’re 16 , Lovecraft resonates with you in a way that is truly potent. It’s almost overwhelming. If you’re of the temperament to hang out in graveyards, and you enjoy that feeling of wondering whats under your bed…HPL is going to deliver big time.
SEAN: You & I were on a panel discussion at last year’s Crypticon; about (among other things) music in film. You mentioned that using the human voice as an instrument can be quite empathetic for an audience, as they can relate to it. So, when composing for slithering, tentacled horrors; what do you use as you sonic underpinnings? How do you go about picking an instrument to represent “slime” or an “infinite cosmic void”?
MARS: My approach to scoring for Lovecraftian cinema is rooted in giving the most extraordinary concepts some kind of tangible root in the day-to-day. And then perverting it sonically. I think that is an underlying concept fundamental to Lovecraft’s work. For example, the score to “LOVECRAFT: FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN” is full of organic elements like streams, wind, rocks banging together, dogs & cats fighting, etc…but I’ve taken them and re-shaped them into unrecognizable new elements. I think where most composers get it wrong is by approaching HPL as 100% Music…when the true atmosphere lies within the spaces in-between; the silences, the subtleties. Just treating a Lovecraftian score as all dark classical music is really not thinking too far outside the box. So I do a hybrid.
SEAN: Musically, speaking, how did you enter into the realm of atmospheric music being a kid raised on and playing technical death metal?
MARS: I’d majored in music in school, and even had been awarded a music scholarship (which I spent on rent for my first apartment…and partying, y’know…kid stuff) The chops I developed from playing jazz translated to the complicated style of metal and really pushed me forward faster than perhaps other musicians I knew who’d stayed with the standard top 40 fare. Even the Death Metal I wrote was pretty bizarre by the genre’s standards. As in; I incorporated a great deal of fusion Jazz and odd classical arrangements into it, so the leap to full blown film scoring wasn’t as extreme as you’d imagine.
I always loved moody, dark classical music, especially the composers who favored percussion and bass instrumentation, like Rimsky Korsakov, Holst, Wagner, …and then I discovered stuff like “PETER GABRIEL PLAYS LIVE”…that album blew my mind at 14 years old. “The Rhythm Of The Heat” which opens that record, was unlike anything I’d ever heard at that time. That kind of world music became a definite influence. Along with DEAD CAN DANCE, SIOUXIE & THE BANSHEES, ANATHEMA…a lot of gothic stuff in there too.
SEAN: In composing, what would you say are the differences between writing metal and writing soundtracks music?
MARS: Although the note selection does overlap a great deal, I’d say the primary difference is one common to writing soundtrack vs. writing “songs” in general. In film scoring, your job is to enhance, NOT to fight for attention. That is my job, and one of the clearest defining things about film scoring that separates it from being in a band, you MUST put ego aside and do what is right for the film, NOT just for your music as you hear it. Its a tightrope; you must care enough to do good work, but be emotionally unattached enough that you’re not 100% married to your ideas, as they may have to be changed at a moment’s notice if a new last minute edit or a re-shoot comes in. This is why I cannot understand using regular band’s music for soundtracks, it may be cost effective, but you’re most likely selling the film short with music that hasn’t been designed to make the scenes as powerful as possible.
SEAN: You worked on a music project to accompany the CALL OF CTHULHU role playing game in the early 90’s. Was the music you wrote for that Choasium product (which was never released) used in another form or adapted to another project?
MARS: Sadly no. It was all done on a 4 track cassette recorder, and the tapes are now Hastur-knows-where. Probably in storage if I’m lucky. I’d love to hear that stuff again.
SEAN: How did you come to start DEADHOUSE MUSIC?
MARS: Well, after years of bands, and being in crappy hotels, etc…I just decided it was time to put away the rock & roll dream, and actually use the classical background and training I had. Since I’d been a rabid fan of genre films and especially Horror films my whole life, I figured that working in the horror genre would be a natural marriage of the dark music I already enjoyed and my favorite film genre. I stared promoting Dead House in late 2005 and never looked back. 21 films, 2 video games, radio, and various other projects later, I’m still passionate about what I do.
SEAN: Are you the sole operator?
MARS: Yessir, the Lord & Master as it were. If anything doesn’t get done, I only have myself to blame, and I’ve found that I’m the person I can most rely on to consistently work hard.
SEAN: How do you land gigs in such a competitive field AND not being centered in Hollywood?
MARS: Ego aside, it doesn’t hurt being damn good at what I do. And that doesn’t mean I’m the most talented guy out there…far from it. But I have what many artists lack; a strong, strong work ethic. I’ve never had a dissatisfied client, and usually word of mouth will get you farther than any other kind of advertising you could buy. I have got the art of long distance scoring down at this point, so I haven’t felt the need to move to LA, really. If I can score projects from New Zealand, England, Scotland, Canada, and across the country…I can score something in LA without having to live in LA. This is the 21st century, and the technology exists if you know how to use it.
SEAN: Walk us through the process if you would, of a typical job. From gathering musical ideas, refining, recording, editing, tweaking, etc.
MARS: I don’t really have a typical job, per se. One of the first things I learned is that they all have unique characteristics. But an ideal gig has me involved from the script level, and I can discuss influences with the director ahead of time. Then I go thru the script and look at it much as a cinematographer might, just paying attention to the places where the most obvious cues are going to need to be…action beats, suspense, etc. If I’m lucky, the director has a musical clue and they will have ideas based upon other music that they like, then it is a matter of building on the good ideas and (tactfully) aiming them away from the bad ones…y’know the overtly cheesy strings, or the painfully cliched stuff. IF I can. Sometimes that’s really what they want, so that’s what I deliver.
I usually receive the film as a whole (as a “locked” aka: final edit), or sometimes in pieces, scene by scene, or sometimes (recently) I worked from notes I had for previous stuff I’d scored 2 years ago, and wrote music for new scenes that were yet to be shot. Based just on the script. It’s always different. Adaptation and flexibility will get you pretty far. I time the scenes out, and begin thinking of where the scene sits in the film as a whole, and start writing music. I use a PC and an editing/recording software called REAPER. It’s an amazing alternative to Pro Tools, (which I did have and got rid of…too much proprietary nonsense involved with their hardware) and I like it quite a lot.
Then I upload the finished work and send it to the director/editor/who is assembling the footage and they get a look at it. If they like it, I move on. If they don’t, I’ll have another go at it. Only on a few occasions in over 20 films have I had to re-do any cues. That’s all because of the time spent talking with the director to get it right and be on the same page before I even start writing the music.
SEAN: Where did the name “Mars Homeworld” come from?
MARS: I was in a band with 2 other guys named “Chris”, so we all took on pseudonyms. I’m Irish as Hell..so I’m a redhead in my “natural” (aka: Non-Black no. 1 hair dye) state.
SEAN: Have you had the experience of working with classical musicians, or has your work always been self contained and synth based?
MARS: I’ve been able to hire solo vocalists, string, and woodwind players on occasion. To enhance the synth orchestrations. That is always a lot of fun, and very rewarding. But, I haven’t worked on a project with a budget big enough to warrant hiring a whole chamber orchestra …Yet. Bear in mind that my “Synth” library is composed of hundreds of gigs sampled from real symphonic instruments, so it’s not too far removed from sounding like an authentic orchestra.
SEAN: What is the one HPL project you were born to score, and why?
MARS: Working with the legendary LURKER FILMS was an early blessing; Andrew has done more for promoting quality HPL influenced cinema than anyone else I can think of. FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN was certainly a career highlight; John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, Bob Price….those guys are heroes of mine. So, I’ve been fortunate already. BUT, I am telling you , I know what AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS should sound like…and it’s NOT another dark symphonic tour-de-force that is interchangeable with a zillion other post-modern super hero flicks…it needs atmosphere. It needs to be unique, and to enhance the alien aspect so prevalent in HPL’s work. In some respects, it needs to be a sonic weapon, as well as a funeral lullaby for humanity. It needs someone who grew up dreaming of writing for Lovecraft film. Guillermo, I’m talking to you mate….NO ONE would work harder to realize that films musical potential than me. Ahem, end of rant.
SEAN: Do you work on a flat fee or do you have a sliding scale for less financially equipped filmmakers?
MARS: I have a flat fee to begin with, and I’m willing to bend & flex in various way till it works for the individual project. If I really want to work with someone, or I am madly in love with the filmmaker’s vision; then I’m all about doing it for the love of creating something unique. I’ve contributed free stuff to projects that deserved a break in the past, and I’ll probably do so in the future. I’m a fan of cinema first and foremost, so I’m very enthusiastic to help out for the good of the art form where applicable.
So, you Lovecraftian filmmakers out there: Get in touch. Thanks to Craig at Unfilmable for his awesome support of all our mutual madness, and thank you Sean, for a great interview.
INTERVIEW WITH MARS AT “LOVECRAFT IS MISSING” WEB COMIC
June 3rd, 2009
(Introduction by Larry Latham)
I like rules and guidelines, rules and guidelines are good. But the secret to eternal youth, assuming you don’t have access to some arcane and no doubt hideous ritual, is knowing when to ignore them. Not break them, just go on as if they aren’t there when a truly better option presents itself. Lovecraft Lives was conceived as a series about creators of Lovecraftian comics, which is kinda-sorta a rule. Technically, I broke it last week by presenting a prose author, but if I had to argue the case before my corporate boss, I think I could make a solid case for Sam’s relevance to the original idea. This week, I’d just have to do the jail time…but it’d be worth it.
I solicited all the other creators in this series, but long after I thought I’d finalized the line-up, I found an email in my spam filter (kind of a Lovecraftian idea for the modern age, don’t you think?) from someone named Mars. I’m always suspicious of people with just one name. Never liked Cher or Madonna, never liked the rhinestone cowboy outfits designed by Nudie, won’t watch a movie with The Rock. But the other half of the eternal youth equation is keeping an open mind, and as I read the email I was impressed by the man’s initiative. The last page of issue 2 had gone up just a day or so before, and Mars had composed a musical score and made a short video out of the last page, and put it up on You-Tube. If you wanted someone to do that, it would never happen. And I was further impressed by the fact that he also said he would take it down if I objected. That’s respect, not because I’m anything special, but of one professional to another. It’s also called common courtesy. So how could I not move the email to my inbox and watch the video?
Wow. I mean, seriously, WOW! Initiative aside, it was dog-gone GOOD! Not just the music, which I loved, but Mars knows his way around film-editing as well. So while this entry has nothing to do with Lovecraftian comics, I know you’ll enjoy the perspective of the only Lovecraftian composer I know of. His original video is below, and more links are at the end of the article.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LOVECRAFT:
Scoring for Lovecraftian Cinema
My love affair with H.P. Lovecraft began in high school, as I was of “That” mindset to be a fully absorbent sponge for his dark, hopeless world view. Yep, I was a card-carrying goth kid. Y’know the type; lot’s of black, listens to anything with a skull in the logo, spends majority of time smoking clove cigarettes behind the campus art hall…
My circle of friends were all gamers, musicians, and artists. Not being particularly studious or sports-minded, it is fair to say we weren’t exactly tearing up the high school social scene. Few invites to beer-soaked keggers and the subsequent sweaty post prom grope-a-thons seemed to fill our appointment calendars. We had time on our hands. Time to read, watch genre movies (the cheezier the better) and roll dice.
My gaming group was always looking for something edgier, and we’d pretty much run out of every demon, devil, ghoul, vampire, zombie, and all other manner of night creatures to populate our weekend role-playing sessions with. I had read a book called The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson, and it frankly scared the shit out of me. The premise was so plausible (well,to me anyway), about man’s millennium-long battle with creatures, psychic vampires that took hold of our brains forever ago. So long ago ,in fact, that most people live their lives quite blissfully unaware of their presence, while all the while the critters rob people of ambition, ideas, and achievement that would come naturally if they were not there. (DaVinci being a good example; no mind-parasites in his bonnet I can tell you.) The premise of the book is liberally Lovecraftian, though I didn’t know it at that point, and Lovecraft is mentioned by name many times throughout the narrative.
Who is this Lovecraft? I wondered…
A trip to the library put a copy of “The Shadow Out Of Time” in my eager mitts, and I was hooked. Fortunately, at this time Lovecraft was experiencing a resurgence in interest, and all his works were being re-issued in paperback collections which featured some brilliantly dark cover art by fantasy artist Michael Whehlan, whom I was familiar with thru his Elric-inspired artwork.
Six-sided dice degree of separation: The Elric role playing game led me to the Chaosium system, which led right smack dab onto the doorstep of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own CALL OF CTHULHU.
Like many game masters, I would comp together “Atmosphere” music cassettes (ah, cassette tapes) to play in the background of my games, and COC was always a hard one to do. Horror/Halloween records were just too goofy, and this was pre-internet, so getting ahold of many soundtrack recordings that were available as expensive imports only on a student’s budget wasn’t really an option. My solution was to record them myself. I was a musician of some limited skill, and I had access to some simple home recording equipment, so it just seemed natural. Dripping faucets slowed way down in pitch, echoes of animal growls, tapping glasses filled with water and then running the audio in reverse…. all tricks in my primitive audio arsenal. It was like I was crafting my own, horror-themed Sgt. Pepper’s album. My friends loved the results, and often asked for dubs of the tapes just to listen to on their own.
Flash forward a few years: I’m submitting a demo cassette to Greg Stafford at Chaosium, my pitch being that most COC games I’ve ever played in went better with music in the background, and I probably wasn’t the only game master to find getting the right music to be a problem. To my surprise, he loved the idea, and asked me to do a professional level recording that he could pitch as an official Chaosium product to accompany the COC franchise.
I’m overjoyed, I’m ecstatic, I’m getting right to work, I’m staying up for 3 and 4 nights in a row working on it, I’m on drugs. Oops….
Long story short, it doesn’t work out, as by the time I’ve got something ready to give Greg, they’ve spent all their cash on a Hawkmoon game that goes nowhere. Allocating $ to an untested , and at the time. kinda revolutionary idea/product wasn’t gonna happen.
Flash forward a decade: I’m a musician who is burned out from the road and its distractions. Nothing sounds as good to me as settling down, but the prospect of a “Real” job sucks. Truthfully, aside form writing music, I’m qualified to flip burgers and that is about it. So I open DEAD HOUSE MUSIC, a soundtrack company dedicated to genre film, and providing indy films with quality original scores.
Did I mention that in the new millennium, Lovecraft is HUGE, and there are new film adaptations coming out yearly, and I’m gonna get in on that if it kills me. I earn my stripes on various bloodbath flicks, and bide my time. I have a thorough knowledge of symphonic composition at this point, and have sharpened my skills….waiting. I do an intro segment for a film called The Halfway House that has Yog Sothoth in the basement eating nubile naked nymphettes. I’m getting closer.
While promoting that film in LA at the 2005 Fangoria, I approach Lurker Films. Our tables are right next to each other and I hit it off well with its founder, Andrew Migliore. So well, in fact, he asks me to do some work for him on his line of very successful Lovecraft dvds. I’m thrilled, I’m ecstatic, I’m staying up late to work on them, but I’m NOT on drugs.
One thing leads to another and thru Andrew I meet Frank Woodward, a very talented chap who has logged 20 years in the film biz, and is doing a (Gasp!) LOVECRAFT DOCUMENTARY!!! We hit it off well, and he loves my music, plus he understands that I’m a fan from 20 years back….this is the film I was born to composer for. Guillermo DelTorro,Stuart Gordon,John Carpenter,Neil Gaiman,Peter Straub are in it…OH MY GOD!
The scope of the work must encompass 3 separate narratives:
1) The progress of Lovecraft’s life / time line
2) the Interviews
3) the excerpts from the Mythos stories themselves
It is actually a matter of weaving audio together that will seamlessly accompany all these separate items, and yet not distract from any of them. Not an easy prospect. Plus, I decide that I will approach the music as Lovecraft approached his flamboyant and often gratuitous use of descriptive adjectives; that is to say, more…NOT less…. is more. The score will be both creepy , and musical. Subtle and bombastic, tearful and horrible, as the story of Lovecraft’s life plays out over 90 minutes.
Instead of relying on cliches like droning pipe organs, and tired sound effects, I find myself going back to my roots with the early cassettes I made for my COC games. I set out to create an organic collage of sounds from real world items, and somehow warp them in subtle ways to represent our universe gone wrong. I set out to craft an Opera thru the perspective of the Ancient Gods, yet flirting with the musical limitations of our Earthly guise. Well, this all sounds pretty grandiose; but really what I’m attempting is to fuse sound effects into the actual music so seamlessly, so ethereally, that the end result will do justice to the works of a writer I’ve admired for 20 years.
I wander thru the nearby woods, collecting new sounds to bend to my eldritch purpose: trees creaking,winds whispering, water gurgling, birds screeching, rocks clacking….and many more all fill my portable recorder.
Then there is the music. Period music to use behind the segments that take place in Providence and New York of the 1920’s and 30’s, the “Themes” I write for different ‘characters’ in Lovecraft’s life : his wife Sonja, His Grandfather’s beloved library, Providence itself, the music of the dread Old Ones, sinister hymns to dark gods, and faint prayers in the woods of Dunwich. Cacophonous symphonic bombast to accompany the rise of Cthulhu, and the madness of Azathoth. Then there is the music I abandon, clever ideas that prove to be too clever, and distract from what the speakers are saying at certain moments. So my vamp on Richard Band’s very recognizable strings in Re-Animator go away during the interview with director Stuart Gordon. As do my tributes to Del Toro and Carpenter during their respective segments.
It is for the best, as knowing what is and just isn’t appropriate to help further the narrative is the nature of film scoring . Though I’d vowed to go a bit over the top, sometimes there is still much to be said for the art of subtlety.
After months of trial and error, I have a score that I’m proud of, and that the director loves. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown goes on to win “Best Documentary” at the 2008 Comi-Con, draws standing ovations at the HP Lovecraft 2008 Film Festival, and is invited to play theatrically at the prestigious Cinema DuParc in Montreal, Canada.
I think we did something right.
So, it really only took me 3 months to write the score to the film of my dreams, but to be ready for it …took 20 years.
Info on the film “LOVECRAFT: Fear Of The Unknown” is available HERE:
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