Published on June 10th, 2014 | by Josh Hafner
Ben Mars: People don’t realize how great Iowa is
The first car came rolling into the farm at 7 p.m.
The red sedan carried the Des Moines musician Max Jury, a young folk crooner recently touted online by the actor Russell Crowe. It also carried Scott Yoshimura, the drummer for Iowa indie rock stalwarts the Envy Corps. Other cars carrying other musicians followed — members of the groups Dustin Smith and Sunday Silos and Parlours among them — until a partial who’s who of Des Moines’ music scene assembled on 80 acres of land outside of Adel.
They came on a recent Friday to play music together and light a bonfire nearly six feet high. But more than that, they came to spend an evening alongside Ben Mars, the farm’s 29-year-old groundskeeper and resident.
Mars is himself an accomplished musician, a bassist who has performed with well-known acts like Gavin Degraw and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. That was before he left his Brooklyn apartment in New York two years ago for a farm back home in central Iowa.
Now Mars is positioning himself to help lead his family’s business: a global production company that orchestrates large-scale events from Des Moines to Shanghai. In the process, Mars has struck a unique balance between a hectic career that takes him all over the world and the peaceful simplicity of making home in rural Iowa.
“I’ve always had a dream of creating a place out here that musicians and artists would want to come spend time at,” Mars said at the farm that afternoon. He sat in the foyer of a house his grandfather bought 40-some years ago. “I hope I die out here.”
With his throwback glasses and cropped hair, Mars looks like a man who stepped out of the 1950s, a decade he much admires. The farm looks like such a man’s playground: Green grass surrounds a collection of barns, sheds and garages holding old vehicles, boats and no fewer than 10 motorcycles in various states of repair. There are two horses, one of which used to joust at renaissance fairs, a litter of small kittens and a silver lab named Maggie.
On the farm, Mars finds therapy in the simple mending of a horse fence. He finds blessings in coming home from his day job to find old musician friends have made themselves at home amidst a wearying national tour. His friends in the Lone Bellow, the southern folk group lauded by NPR and the New York Times, seem to crash there every other month while on the road, Mars said.
The slow, easy pace of Mars’ downtime at the farm contrasts sharply with his work as a technical director for Bow & Arrow Productions, the company his father started 22 years ago. Bow & Arrow offers event planning services for large-scale events held by companies and nonprofits.
In Shanghai, Bow & Arrow worked on an insurance company’s event on a cruise ship where singer Jennifer Hudson performed. In Maui, the agency landed Bon Jovi to entertain at a 2,700-person dinner on a beach. Another, in 2010, involved Keith Urban performing on Ellis Island in New York.
Bow & Arrow specializes in details like stage and lighting design, theme development and entertainment booking to help clients get their messages across. Mars’ favorite Bow & Arrow production took place in a small London theater, where performance art painter David Garibaldi composed a portrait set to music by the Police. When the finished portrait was revealed to be of Sting, it rose up in the air to reveal the musician, in the flesh, standing behind it.
“It’s fun to be on the other side of it,” said Mars, whose days as a professional touring musician involved rolling out of a tour bus and onto the stage with little knowledge or regard for a show’s technical elements. He now oversees those, including audio and lighting elements, for the company.
In around two years, Bow & Arrow President Mike Mars plans to hand the business over to Ben and his younger brother, Chris Mars, his junior of two years who will become head of the company.
Already the Mars brothers are overseeing Bow & Arrow events without dad.
Chris Mars, a former athlete at Simpson College who began working for his father’s company out of college, said his brother’s addition has tempered the company’s culture.
“A lot of times we get stuck in the business world,” he said. “I was formal education, basketball, rigorous schedules. Ben is a free spirit.”
Mars’ father stoked that free spirit in his son at a young age, buying him a Fender bass guitar one year instead of a Super Nintendo. Mike Mars, a one-time professional singer of Christian-themed music was then a music director at First Federated Church in Des Moines and soon enlisted his youngest son to play during services.
Mars graduated from Valley High School in 2002 and went on to study music at Southwestern Community College. He found a mentor in Scot Sutherland, a Des Moines bassist who spends more time on the road as a professional musician than in Iowa. After noticing Mars’ musical talents at open jam sessions and other performances, Sutherland made a not-so-subtle proposal to Mars: Leave Des Moines and chase a career in music in New York, or I’ll break both your hands.
“I remember Ben being a little apprehensive about going to New York,” said Sutherland, whose contact is stored in Mars’ phone as “The Teacher.” “I did the same when I was in my early twenties.”
Before long, Mars found himself studying jazz at the New School in New York City and frequenting clubs and events looking for paying gigs in the music scene. On the day of his last final, he skipped his graduation ceremony and jumped in a van for a two-month tour playing bass with the Jamie McLean band, a southern rock outfit.
While in New York, Mars lived with Dustin Smith, a childhood friend and Iowan who also moved east to study music. They shared a single room with two air mattresses, a “little part of Iowa” in a rough part of Brooklyn, Smith recalls.
The McLean band backed Taylor Hicks and John Popper, the lead vocalist of Blues Traveler, and Mars found his way onto gigs backing Gavin DeGraw and others, too. Over time, though, the high cost of living in New York combined with the rough-and-tumble life of touring led to burnout for Mars.
“I made it to a certain point and didn’t see anybody 10 years older than me making ‘I’m going to retire and buy a house’-type money,” Mars said, “people I look up to and respect. I didn’t know if I’m cut out for that.”
On trips home over holidays, Mars discussed moving back to Iowa with family and friends. Smith, who had moved back to Des Moines in 2009, wasn’t surprised.
“We’re Iowa boys. We like nature. Having a garage and a local little townie bar we can belly up to,” Smith said. “New York is a lot of faces. They work hard and put on a face to get what they want. But once you get there, it’s not always what you expect.”
In the fall of 2012, Mars moved back to Iowa. He persuaded his girlfriend, a New York-based songwriter named MaryBeth Doran, to move back with him and live on the farm.
He still plays bass — in bands with Doran and Smith and in studio recordings for other friends — but has set his sights on a crash course in the production world of Bow & Arrow.
“Honestly, I was surprised he came back,” his father, Mike, said.
There were early adjustments for Mars between the world of touring and the family business — like staying awake during 9 a.m. staff meetings. Two years later, Mike said, he plays a critical role in the company’s future.
“People don’t realize how great Iowa is,” said Mars. “But I don’t know if I would have appreciated it if I wouldn’t have moved.”