Interview conducted 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.
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.
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Mars on IMDb.com
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(Thanks to Sean Smithson and MARS)