Media Life: Horror in Auburn takes on English musical notes

Auburn musician scores Brit film; Coloma festival rolls; CD release for Pills & Jackets
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Eerie moments tend to punctuate the world of Mars, the Auburn musician and composer whose score provides the background washes and otherworldly throbs of newly released British horror film “Witch House.” Take his phone number, which ends in the devilishly provocative digits “666.” “That’s the number they gave me – I didn’t request it,” Mars said during an interview this week in the windswept courtyard of a local Starbucks. Spooky stuff, but not a stretch for the founder of his own Dead House Music. For Mars, who cut his musical teeth in the 1990s leading death metal-Goth band Pax Mortis, the “number of the beast” reference fits snugly into the horror movie milieu he provides musical support for. So he’s kept it. With a silver skull ring prominently positioned on one finger and nails painted black, the long-maned Mars – a name he uses for professional purposes – turns out to be more creature of the music than creature of the night. “Witch House” has been an opportunity to work rock and metal elements into a symphonic framework he knows and loves, he said. For Mars, who grew up in Auburn under the shadow of writer Clark Ashton Smith’s phantasmagoric tales – he lives in building with a pond built by Smith in the back yard – composing in the horror realm is a natural progression. “I grew up on this stuff,” Mars said, recalling many a midnight tuning into some of the schlockiest of the horror genre during the 1980s, when “Creature Features” with Bob Wilkins was broadcasting on TV out of the Bay Area. “It’s that iconography of Universal horror films and Hammer studios – castles and moonlight – the esthetic may not be beautiful to everybody but it always has been to me,” Mars said. Middlesborough and North York moors in England provided the visual backdrop for “Witch House: The Legend of Petronel Haxley.” The independent film has no name stars and is in the low budget realm. It tells the tale of the last witch to be executed in England and her return 370 years later to wreak revenge on a group of unsuspecting students. THE LOVECRAFT CONNECTION Mars’ Dead House Music will also be heard in the upcoming documentary feature film “Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.” For an Auburn resident, the H.P. Lovecraft connection is a natural, given that the Providence, R.I. master of the macabre and Smith corresponded over a period of years. The film features interviews with a Lovecraft fan base that includes directors John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Torro. “They knew I was a fan and would ‘get it,’” Mars said. “And it was one of the few instances where what is hitting the screen is exactly what I wanted.” Mars has scored or co-written for horror films that may become most memorable for their titles. Think genre flicks like “Count Bathoria’s Graveyard Picture Show” and “Rise of the Ghosts.” He’s also branched out into scoring Website sounds, short films and blog TV. That foot in the creaking door could allow it to open wider when he works on the film “Sever,” on location in Martha’s Vineyard later this year. He’ll be able to tailor his soundtrack themes from the inception of the shoot to the plot while working on the set as an audio recordist. Mars has also been working the horror film festival circuit, traveling to genre confabs in Michigan, Portland and Sacramento, appearing on panels with likes of Tony Moran (Michael Myers from “Halloween”) and even having a chance meeting with Kane Hodder – who played serial killer Jason in several “Friday The 13th” sequels. More happenstance. The two were at adjoining booths at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco, started talking and soon found they were from the same city. Hodder still prides himself on being the heaviest baby born up to that time in Auburn and eventually went on to graduate from Placer High School in the early 1970s. After the horror and all its trappings are taken away from the equation, Mars is a musician and composer who just wants to get his music heard the way he feels it should be. He’s banking on creating enough of a sonic resume to find management representation and tackle bigger budget assignments. His Website is “I’d like to work in a few films where you start to care about the people on the screen before they get a hatchet in the head,” Mars said with a smile. FESTIVAL JUMPSTART The American River Music Festival is still a long way out. Sept. 19 to 21 to be exact. But the little festival that could in the Coloma Valley is already offering tickets. The three-day festival features 22 performances and workshops, including a Joe Craven-led jam on river trip down the South Fork of the American. Lotus Park will provide the center stage and the roster of American and Canadian roots musicians appearing there includes Gandolf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Steppin’ In It, Craven with Sam Bevin, Blame Sally, The Refugees, Ray Bonneville, John Wort Hannam, The Buccaneers, The Dulcimer Girls and Jonny Mojo. The festival is a fundraising event for American River Music, a charitable organization with a mission “to teach, inspire and enjoy music.” The Website is CD SHALL BE RELEASED Mixing world beat, reggae and rock in an experimental vibe, San Francisco-based Pills & Jackets returns to the place where it all began Friday for a CD release party in Auburn to showcase their new, self-titled album. The band is singer-guitarist Justin Ancheta, who was raised in Meadow Vista, drummer-vocalist Jessie Olswang, who moved between Auburn and Florida in his teen years, and bass player Eric Alonzo, who hails from Colfax. The CD is produced by Grammy winner Matt Shaw, who has been behind recordings by Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Gin Blossoms. Pills & Jackets started out as Sinclair in 1999 and gigged around the Sacramento area through 2006, earning Sacramento Music Awards world music nominations three years in a row. The trio changed its name after the move to San Francisco and created enough buzz with its guerilla street performances to interest Shaw. Pills & Jackets recorded in Seattle with Shaw in late 2006. The resulting CD was initially debuted at San Francisco’s Café Du Nord to a sell-out crowd last month. The hometown CD release party starts at 9 p.m. Friday at Downtown Auburn’s Pistol Pete’s Brew & Cue, with Nevada City’s Sweet Dirt opening. There’s a nominal cover charge. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or phone (530) 852-0232.