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30 Seconds to Mars

A conversation with frontman Jared Leto

It's a tough crowd, the music press. Quick to judge and even quicker to dismiss, the critical machine can unfairly and often permanently typecast a band. Imagine the added pressure of being part of one of the most ridiculed sub-genres in music. Imagine being lumped in with the likes of Dogstar, The Bacon Brothers, and Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Imagine being (gasp!) an actor with a band.

To be fair, Jared Leto doesn't even really fit into this category. Immersed in music since childhood, Leto is arguably a musician first. His band 30 Seconds to Mars is the culmination of years of hard-work and heavy touring. More importantly, Leto does an admirable job downplaying his celebrity presence in the band. He has a genuinely earnest attitude towards his music, and in speaking with him, one would never know that he is a borderline Hollywood star.

Closing out an intense 8 month tour promoting their new album A Beautiful Lie, Leto spared me a few minutes to discuss the tour, the album, and other bits.

SF Station (SFS): You had a show in San Francisco on October 10th at the Bill Graham Civic Center. That’s a fairly large venue.

Leto: Yeah, it's very big, but actually one of the smaller ones that we've played. We've played some huge places. We've done arena tours before and they're always very organized and civil and interesting. It's a big animal at this point, so everything is always very together. But it can be a bit isolating at times. You go to sleep on a tour bus, and wake up at the venue, in gated area backstage. You go to your dressing room if you have one, hang out backstage in this big concrete jungle, and then you play the show, get back on the bus and do it again. Arenas are usually far from any real points of interest. They're off the beaten path because of real estate and all of that… I mean, no complaints, it's an amazing experience to have, but it can be a bit isolating.

SFS: How often do you actually get to hang out in the city in which you're playing?

Leto: Not often at all.

SFS: Did you get to do that in San Francisco?

Leto: We had a day off in San Francisco, so I rented a car, which I rarely do. I think I've done that twice in the last 8 months. I rented a car and drove around Marin County. I went to Stinson beach and Muir Woods. It was just beautiful. It was like a dream. Any time I'm in San Francisco I try to get out there. Having a day off in San Francisco is a blessing. Sometimes you have your day off in Poughkeepsie. Not that there's anything wrong with Poughkeepsie.

SFS: You recorded part of your new album in South Africa, correct?

Leto: Well, it was actually written and recorded in 5 different countries, on 4 different continents. I really took advantage of the opportunity of having a band that was willing to embrace something different, because we knew it was going to be a long process. I tend to be really methodical and thorough when I'm writing, and we all knew that… we decided to make the most of it, and have an experience that we would never forget. And it was incredible.

SFS: How is song-writing divided up among the various members of the band?

Leto: On the first record it was just my brother and I. I played all of the instruments except for the live drums, and wrote all of the songs. On this record I had Matt and Tomo (who came out to tour in support of the first album) and we quickly found that we were all in love with each other in the appropriate way.

I was interested in having an experience that wasn't so isolating and solitary. Matt and Tomo seemed to get what 30 Seconds to Mars wanted to be all about and was all about, which is nice because I looked for people for years and years to play with and never could find the right sensibilities; I guess because 30 Seconds to Mars is kind of strange. It's a band that's gregarious at times, and huge in scope and size, but the intention is always on melody and atmosphere and thought.

It's always been difficult to find people that share those same interests. These guys fit perfectly. In a sense, not very much changed about the process. I'm still writing the songs and kind of guiding the general direction, but it's great to have other people that fully support me. They've helped me become a better writer, and they've contributed
creatively all over the record.

SFS: I've read that you've been playing music with your brother for years -- since you were quite young. Is it cool to be hitting it big with him?

Leto: It is, but it's kind of past the point where we're like 'Hey, cool, we're in a band together' because we've been doing it for so long.

SFS: What's some music that has influenced you over the years?

Leto: When I recorded Was it a Dream? I was playing an acoustic guitar, which I don't do too often on this record. I really wanted to embrace that Cure Disintegration vibe. It was nice to kind of pay homage to a record that was really one of my favorites. The Cure have been an incredibly consistent place for me to go and enjoy. I like early U2 a lot. Bands like Radiohead have always been interesting. I like Bjork and Nine Inch Nails. But I don't listen to so much music anymore, to tell you the truth.

SFS: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the symbols I see all over the album liner notes.

Leto: There's a lot of symbology and iconography involved with 30 Seconds to
Mars, and to me it was always logical to have a visual representation of some of the ideas. As I was growing up, I really admired Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who; they all kind of enjoyed having a visual side to their experience.

SFS: Did you come up with the symbols yourself, or was that a collaborative effort?

Leto: No, that was no collaboration. My brother and I did that. I take care of some of those pretentious heady things.

SFS: What does A Beautiful Lie mean?

Leto: It's something I started to notice while I was making this record and traveling the world. I turned up a lot of contradictions in life, and don't think of that as a negative thing, I think of it actually as a romantic thought -- the idea that we keep pushing forward no matter what, and that we keep choosing to believe. So I started investigating, and I was surprised that nobody else has called their record A Beautiful Lie. I'm sure there would be if we searched high and low, but there were certainly none that we could find. Dolly Parton has a beautiful song called "A Beautiful Lie"'s incredible… check it out if you ever have a chance to download it.

SFS: You mentioned downloading. When I received the promo copy of your CD, it had that new copy protection on it, which I hadn't seen before.

Leto: Yeah, we don't really have anything to do with that. They're scrambling to figure out how they're going to keep selling plastic to people, I suppose.

SFS: So you think this new copy-protection is just a last ditch effort by record companies to get what they can out of the CD format?

Leto: Of course. I mean, it's a bit like selling a bottle of water without the water in it. Everybody already has the water, why would they want the bottle? You know, it's frustrating for artists though, because more artists out there could be selling more CDs, and at least paying their rent.

What's happening is that a lot of bands that are just getting by, or a bit off the beaten path, or a little strange, or need more time to develop, they're not going to get that shot. They're going to get dropped by the record level. It's a shame. I remember hearing Bono say recently that in today's market, there would be no U2. There would not be a U2 because they didn't have success right away selling CDs.

It takes time. Especially if you're a career band. 30 Seconds to Mars is not pop, and it never has been, there are obvious challenges in this music... But, you know, every band needs a chance to see if there's a connection out there or not. We've been fortunate enough to be doing this for some time now, but it's always challenging. It's a tough time for Rock & Roll.

SFS: It seems as though you're starting to make strides though.

Leto: Yeah, we're starting to break down some stereotypes. It's a lot of work to clean up some of the mess that's been left here by people before. But, I think we will change a lot of perceptions through commitment and consistency. It's certainly not going to be for everyone, and there's always going to be people that don't like what we do, and that's OK with us. You have to know that as an artist. You know, different strokes...

SFS: Well, this has been an informative interview, I appreciate it.

Leto: Thanks for having us. We're going to be doing a headlining tour starting in January. It'll be our first official headlining tour. Evidently we've become this professional opening band, which has been fantastic. We've worked with some incredible people over the years...Incubus, Audioslave, My Chemical Romance, just a great bunch of bands. But it's time for us to kind of get out there on our own.

SFS: Are you coming back to San Francisco?

Leto: Definitely.