Thirty Seconds to Mars: Once More 'Round the Sun

When Jared Leto sets out to do something, he doesn’t screw around. While he’s still best known as an Oscar-winning actor—one who carefully selects his roles and is said to sometimes stay in character during film shoots—Leto approaches his long-running alternative-rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars with the same degree of seriousness. Planning is done carefully. Everything is rehearsed. There are no missteps.

It’s been five years since the band—which also features his brother and percussionist Shannon Leto, as well as lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Tomo Milicevic—issued Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams, which cracked the top 10 on the Billboard 200. In that time, they’ve pushed the boundaries of what it even means to be a band, establishing a weekend festival/retreat in Malibu called Camp Mars, where fans can brush elbows with the rock musicians themselves and participate in yoga, archery and drum circles.

With their fifth album, America, dropping on April 6 via Interscope, Thirty Seconds to Mars’ sights are set even higher. They’ve filmed an ambitious documentary, called A Day in the Life of America; dropped a No. 1 alternative single; recruited a galaxy of stars to contribute featured vocals; and recorded a performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert using a robot.

Leto recently took five—well, more like 30—to talk with Music Connection about how his band has spent its last five years around the sun, and what secret plans they have up their collective sleeve.

Music Connection: How are you doing this evening, Jared?
Jared Leto: Hi Kurt. I’m pretty good. It’s been an insane year. I just finished the album maybe 15 minutes ago. [Giving an interview is] actually a nice thing to do. When you work on something so hard, it feels good to share it.

MC: You mean, you literally just finished the new record?
Leto: Yeah, I can hear my brother banging on the drums behind me right now. We’re going right from the album into the preparation for the tour. [It’ll be our] most ambitious tour to date. My focus is on that and also the music video we’re prepping and the album art we’re trying to wrap up, which has some legal issues attached to it.

MC: Given that you’re so close to the album, what’s your main takeaway from it at this point? I’m sure your feelings about the record will evolve over time.
Leto: The album, I don’t really know what to think at this point. I don’t really have that much perspective, but it’s been an incredible, insane journey, five years in the making. There’s one song on the album I wrote about nine years ago, I didn’t finish it but it came back to life. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done.

MC: Can you shed some light on that specific track?
Leto: The song is called “Rescue Me,” and I wrote it while I was working on [our 2009] album called This Is War. The song didn’t make it onto that album but I never forgot about it, and the song evolved over the years.

MC: Were you feeling pressure to meet certain deadlines or benchmarks, especially toward the end of crafting the album?
Leto: Absolutely. There’s very hard deadlines. Even today we had a deadline of 2 p.m. that we stretched to 2:30 that we stretched to 4:30, and we waited on a piece that has a guest vocalist on a song. It was great and really exciting to get that, but we were in the final hours, the final push, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to end up rushing everything.

MC: May we ask you to disclose the name of the guest star?
Leto: A$AP Rocky. It’s been a secret for so long. Halsey is on another song.

MC: It’s been five years since you released new music. How have you grown as an artist over that period of time?
Leto: Yes, five years making the album––I think so. One thing that I got a lot better at doing was finishing songs before I really finished them, making sure all the work and consideration has been had before we started mixing and mastering. Of course there are always changes and everything, questions that you don’t know you have till you’re closer to being done, then you reevaluate and go back, but we all did a much better job streamlining the process. I’ve never really been fast about turning around albums; I think three and a half years was the quickest.
Certainly, a lot has changed in those five years. Uber is ubiquitous. Everyone knows what AI is. Bitcoin wasn’t even talked about very publicly. And we had a much different president in the Oval Office. The world is a different place. A lot has changed in a certain amount of time.

MC: All those themes you touch on, are they on the new album?
Leto: Yeah, absolutely.

MC: What vision did you have for the album five years ago, what general conceit, and how did it change?
Leto: The other day I found a list on my phone of all the songs I had from five years ago, and only two or three made it onto the album from a list of about 23 songs. There were probably maybe 150 songs written for this album and only 12 made it.
Sometimes you don’t know where you’re headed, you just start walking and you figure it out as you go. But there started to be a kind of theme and similar themes, I guess, that I was leaning towards or focusing on. There’s quite a cohesiveness to the album thematically, but musically it’s really diverse, there are a lot of different musical styles we explore, and that was really fun for all of us.

MC: Are these styles that you hadn’t explored before?
Leto: I think the album is really modern. It exists very much in the times I was living in. It’s not a throwback album. It’s not an album that tries to rekindle any success that we may have had with any songs we’ve written in the past. It strikes new ground, it feels in some ways like a first album, it feels like the beginning again. I don’t know why, but I think we’ve evolved a lot, and I think this album is really reflective of where we’re at.
It’s sometimes a tricky thing, if you take a long time working on an album. The songs you started … it’s kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you’re done getting through with one side, you gotta go back and start it all over again. So there’s a bit of a Sisyphean curse to it all. But the album, it feels really … we’re excited by it. Today we’re going to play some of the songs we’ve never played live before, and that’s a lot of fun.

MC: Did it feel like a new chapter for the band because it’s your 20th anniversary?
Leto: Wow, I didn’t even realize that. [Laughs.] That’s kind of fun, just because … not only just rock & roll, but music in general, it’s kind of like dog years. It’s almost like 120 years in the music business.

This has very much been a marathon for us, not a sprint, and a slow and steady build. And here we are, 20 years later, making our fifth album. We’re launching our biggest and most successful tour to date. We just had the number one song [“Walk on Water”] for four or five weeks at Alternative [radio] and a brand-new song that is our fastest-growing song ever, “Dangerous Night.” [produced by Zedd]

I never would’ve thought that, if you had asked me that 20 years ago. I would’ve told you I felt very lucky just to get out of the garage and be playing shows in front of 20 people.

MC: Of course, when you start a marathon, you know you’re running a marathon; you pace yourself, as opposed to sprinting out of the gate. You clearly envisioned Thirty Seconds to Mars to be a long-term project, is that right?
Leto: Yeah, I think so, I think you’re right. It’s especially easy to think that way when you share the band with your brother. There’s a commitment that we have to each other that runs deep and pushes us both to work harder, to deliver. It’s a great motivator.

MC: Drilling down a little bit, can you talk about when and where you recorded the album?
Leto: Sorry I’m talking so quietly, I know it’s probably a little annoying, it’s just my voice is a little bit on edge, and I’m about to go sing, so I’m just trying to save it a little bit, if that’s okay. I just noticed that I’m like “rrr, rrr, rrr” when I’m talking.
Anyway, it’s been recorded all over the world. I remember recording at a conference room in Russia and a hotel room in Paris, Joshua Tree, Seattle. We recorded in Japan and in Los Angeles, in Laurel Canyon, is where we ended up putting it all together.

MC: That seems especially fitting. When I think of your band, I think of universality and your broadness and appeal and the large subject matter you speak to. Was recording in multiple locations deliberate or did that happen spontaneously?
Leto: Well, most of it was being on tour, but when I have breaks, other people sometimes they go home, generally I’ll stay overseas and do some work, do some recording. We do spend a lot of time on the road, and that changes your perspective. I remember [when] we landed in the Ukraine, Freedom’s Square—which they call it now––was still smoldering. There were militias, people walking around with machine guns and streets were barricaded, defenses set up. It shows you how big the world really is and how much we all have in common. It’s been a great education for myself and the band to spend so many years of our lives, or the last decade or two, overseas.

MC: When you think of the album right now, what emotion comes to mind first?
Leto: The first word that came to mind was optimism. There is a thread that recognizes danger or the trepidatious times we’re living in, but I think it’s ultimately an optimistic album. There is a sense of hope and excitement and adventure. It’s much more aspirational than it is a warning sign. And that’s probably how I feel in life as well. I’m ultimately optimistic. There’s always going to be challenges, and we certainly are living in challenging times, but I’m optimistic that perseverance will pay off.

MC: Thirty Seconds to Mars seems to embrace technology in almost everything you do. Do you have any fears about technology getting out of our hands at this point? Aside from the obvious ways technology can bring us together, what are your views on technology right now?
Leto: Well, I have a great passion for technology. I’m a really curious person, I love to learn, so it’s been a place where I’m able to satisfy some of that curiosity. I’m able to listen and learn quite a bit. Friends and I have talked about AI. I do think there are dangers, as there is with any technology, and we see it every day. There are dangers, whether it’s with an automobile or a handgun. Technology can replace a human heart, it can also bring about great despair and tragedy, or be a catalyst for that.

I’m optimistic at the end of the day. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to build technology that will be in some sense smarter than us, but I also think that same technology will also be something that we can harness to quite possibly save ourselves and make a better future for ourselves, our children, and help us as we become interplanetary species. I don’t think we’ll be able to do that on our own. It’s fun to talk about.

MC: I was fascinated by your performance on Colbert and how you used a robot to capture your performance onstage. Are you going to duplicate that technology on tour?
Leto: We really tried to do that, but the expense is just extraordinary. The other thing it does is it makes––unless you have some sort of tracking device, which we debated––it makes you have to repeat your performance night after night so it knows where you are.
But, talking about artificial intelligence, if you were able to have some kind of predictive software or even a camera that could distinguish between who the singer was (versus maybe a guitar tech running onstage) then the camera would know who to shoot, how to capture the image based on the motion and movement of a person, and that would be really interesting.

We did a performance on MTV that utilized military technology and we filmed ourselves basically in total darkness and captured our images via thermo-camera. On Colbert, with this robot, it’s fun to experiment, it teaches you a lot, and I think it’s exciting for us, and I hope it’s exciting for people watching.

MC: What prompted the creation of your documentary A Day in the Life of America and why did you choose July 4, 2017, as the focus?
Leto: Great question. We shot A Day in the Life of America on a single day in every single state in the country, plus Puerto Rico and D.C. We had camera crews all over the country. We actualy had 92 of them. We decided on July 4 to film this portrait of America, because it’s the classic American holiday. We thought that it’d be interesting to capture America at its most celebratory, sometimes a day that’s also filled with surprises and the unexpected.

The film is a companion piece to the album, the music will be a soundtrack to the film. They’ll both live separate but equal, but it’s stunning what we got back. We also had 10,000 submissions from people all over the country––and the world; we asked people to send us their thoughts on America on that single day. But it was insane, it was crazy, it was very ambitious, but we got back incredibly moving footage that we are editing as we speak. Some of the footage was the first video for our first single, and the rest of it will be in a film that comes out later this year.

But we’re excited to get back on the road. We’re playing The Forum [in L.A.] very soon, we’re playing Madison Square Garden, and we’re going to be on tour in America this summer, all over the country. We have a very ambitious tour that does use some new technology and interactivity that I think is going to be really fun. It’s called “The Monolith Tour,” and people will see very soon why it’s called that. But it’s quite an undertaking.

MC: I’m guessing you’re calling it “Monolith” because you’re planning to break your 2011 Guinness Book world record [for most concerts during an album cycle: 300]?
Leto: [Laughs.] Oh my God, I hope not. That was crazy, I don’t recommend that. We’re going to tour quite a lot, probably for the next couple of years, but this time we’re going to remember to take a rest––just enough to recover a bit.

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