Life on Mars, the new bar with a plant-based menu of burgers and waffle sandwiches, booze, and walls shelving thousands of records at the corner of Pike and Harvard is an answer, not a question for its music-loving founders.
“Everyone is so depressed, everyone is so down, the world is a hard place right now. And Bowie died! That’s sad, too! So in a way Life on Mars is kind of like a rebirth for us,” co-owner John Richards told CHS Thursday night at one of a series of pre-opening parties at the new venue.
The new bar will open, softly, to the public for the first time Saturday night.
The answer to Bowie’s Life on Mars? Yes. There is life out there. There is hope. There is something else to do in life as we get older and want to stay in touch with the things we love best — music, friends, a good drink… vegan food.
“It became more than that song, for sure,” Richards said. “That’s why we left the question mark off.”
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After an ongoing slate of pre-opening events — when you know as many people as John and Amy Richards, and fellow co-owners Steven Severin and Leigh Sims, you have to hold a lot of pre-opening parties, Simms tells CHS — Life on Mars is ready for its first visits from neighbors and the Pike/Pine party crowds.
Severin, part of the ownership behind Neumos and a longtime Seattle music promoter, described the long path to creating Life on Mars.
“It took a while because, well, we couldn’t find a space at first. We were like, ‘I don’t want a new building, I want an old building.’ There are no old buildings!,” Severin said.
“It costs so much more to go into a new building because of electrical, plumbing and more to take care of. We all have day jobs and hobbies and other lives. I had some health issues that made us stop for a little bit and like regroup. But in the end, this literally looks like the original PDF when we first set it up. It came out exactly how we wanted it.”
A new building also means fewer of the ghosts of old Pike/Pine to contend with.
“We’re happy we’re not moving into a space and kicking that location out, or someone having to leave,” Richards said.
Besides, those ghosts of Pike/Pine can pack up their record crates and move on.
“I hear shit about people not wanting to come to Capitol Hill because it’s changed so much since, you know, there’s no more magic in it, and I always say bullshit,” Severin said. “You just got to look a little harder. It’s not quite what it once was, but it’s still here.”
“We take a lot of pride in the space,” Richards said. “Steven’s been up here for years. I’ve been coming here for years. We know this corner and from everything we’ve heard from people coming by in the neighborhood, they’re glad it’s not, I don’t know, Amazon Fresh or Starbucks.”
Designed by Mike Skidmore at Skidmore Jannette to evoke the late 70s — “an incomparable era in vinyl and music” — with a blend of “old and new,” Life on Mars has “seriously deep, comfy booths,” and “a gigantic wall of vinyl, delicious drinks, high-fidelity sound, and a plant-based menu.” A mural by prolific artist Weirdo rounds out the decor.
The food menu developed by chef Joe Ball, recently of Flying Apron, is focused around plant-based burgers ($12 to $14) and “waffle sandwiches” ($13 to $14). Life On Mars features classic cocktails and a few “simplicity-done-well drinks.”
The building where Life on Mars has landed from developers Tyler Carr and Kelten Johnson hosts another huge mural and the new bar will join a block now home to the Redhook Brewlab and Salt and Straw’s Capitol Hill outpost. Chef Shota Nakajima will also bring his deep-fried skewer joint Taku to the block later this year.
The opening kicks a center of Capitol Hill nightlife back into motion. The most recent resident of the corner before the construction of the mixed-use building was the 95 Slide sports bar which closed to make way for construction in 2016 bringing a temporary pause to decades of nightlife at the corner. Meanwhile, kink and leather shop Doghouse Leathers debuted its new retail complex across the street earlier this month.
“The vinyl wall holds over 5,800 records (we think, we haven’t had time for an exact count of all those friends), including feature records for sale that will rotate monthly, and you’ll be able to pull one down and have us give it a spin during happy hour and open to close Sundays,” Sims told CHS about the new venue.
Richards, John in the Morning of KEXP, said he estimates he, alone, brought in 1,000 of the nearly 6,000 records on the wall at the bar. “I am totally depleted,” he said of his emptied out home collection. Labels, of course, have been happy to be part of the project with Sup Pop, Barsuk, Polyvinyl, 4AD, and PNKSLM “over in Sweden” making sure one of their favorite radio DJs is well armed for his new project.
Music, naturally, is at the core of Life on Mars. It’s not a live music venue and there will be no performances. Instead, this is the land of the DJ and playlist. Richards will be curating a small selection of records for sale and he expects to hold events like listening and release parties with local performers. Life on Mars will also turn over the turntables to customers during happy hour.
“You can come in and here’s the one chance you have to play your own local band in a bar,” Richards said. “Every happy hour, patrons can come in and take a record from that wall, bring it up here and we’ll play ’em on these three tables. That’s our version of the jukebox.”
For Severin, Life on Mars is part of his transition from the trenches of the music promotion industry. He’s stepped further away from the day to day operations at Neumos over the years and, last month, he shut down his production company.
“I started it when I was 30 or 31 and I’m 48 now, I’m about these different things I want to do. I want to be out with my friends more. I want to hang out with my wife and it’s a different climate than it used to be. It’s a lot harder that it use to be with all of the different promoters that are around and the whole industry changed and so it just seemed like a good time to make the change,” Severin said.
For Richards, the new project is more of an addendum to his career growing KEXP into an independent, nonprofit radio powerhouse.
“For me, this bar is kind of a version of what I do every day, music community, bringing people together and, and my favorite records. It is just sort just sort of a physical version of what I’ve always tried to do,” Richards said.
Life on Mars is located at 722 E Pike. It will hold an opening party on June 9th but expect limited openings in the meantime. You can learn more at lifeonmarsseattle.com.
With reporting by Alex Garland