Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: That’s Jared Leto in the above photograph. Yes, that Jared Leto — Mr. Jordan Catalano from television’s My So-Called Life, the heroin addict whose arm rotted off in Requiem for a Dream and the pretty boy who got the ever-loving crap beaten out of him by Edward Norton in Fight Club. He is both an actor and a musician. But don’t hold that against him or his band, 30 Seconds to Mars. Because they’re the exception that proves the rule: a group headed by a guy who’s famous for something else, that can hold their own against any other “legitimate” hard-rock act on the radio. Long before he became known as Clare Danes’ angsty, fictional beau, music was Leto’s primary source of expression; the acting came later. So maybe it shouldn’t seem surprising that he’s been able to pull off a transition into another medium with such credibility.
Yet, it still kind of is.
“It’s a shame people just stick people in one little corner and don’t want that person to move out of that corner, like an actor can’t do anything else,” says Shannon Leto, drummer and younger brother of the singer-guitarist. “Jared’s broken that mold, and we are the first band to do it. It feels amazing.”
You get the sense that Shannon is tired of discussing the whole movie star-frontman thing. He would probably much rather be talking about 30 Seconds to Mars’ latest album, A Beautiful Lie, their second collection of polished, muscular and heavily melodic alt-metal tunes. By now he deserves that respect. With two discs under their belt and a headlining theater tour currently in progress, the band has earned the right to be judged on their own merits, in the context of the legitimate pop world, not in comparison to, say, Keanu Reeves’ Dogstar or Billy Bob Thornton’s solo records. This ain’t a vanity project. It’s the No. 1 priority for all involved. “There’s a lot of sacrifice with us,” Shannon says. “Jared sacrificed film. We’ve all sacrificed. That’s what it takes sometimes to get things done, to see things through.”
30 Seconds to Mars began its life in 2002 as a duo, just Jared and Shannon bouncing ideas off each other. It wasn’t that they preferred to work alone; it’s just that “people couldn’t hang,” Shannon says. “That’s just the way it was. We had to speak our minds, share our thoughts, just him and I.” Finishing their self-titled debut as a two-man band, the Leto brothers felt open to allowing others to enter their inner circle. “We were done with that layer of life and ready to go through another layer.” They recruited guitarist Tomo Milicivitch and bassist Matt Wachter to fill out the lineup, then hit the road, prepared to take the slings and arrows of criticism for being one of those “actor bands.”
“We were going to war every night,” Shannon says. “We had something to prove. We were concentrated on winning over people’s perceptions, the perception of the skeptics and critics, and we had to win every night.”
After playing 300 shows over the course of two years in promotion of the first album, the band — now literally a “band” — went back into the studio to work on a follow-up. Only, they didn’t just go into a studio: They traveled all over the world, recording in England and places as far-flung as Thailand. It was in South Africa that Jared found the inspiration for their second album’s title. “In South Africa, you’re surrounded by this amazing country, this beautiful land and stuff like that,” Shannon explains. “Then right around the corner, you see the failure of man: the houses are all decrepit and broken down, and people are in the streets. That’s where A Beautiful Lie came into effect.” Released last year, the album packs the explosive guitars of Incubus, the shimmering atmospherics of U2 and the emotional wallop of the Cure. And it benefits from the sound of a full quartet raging in unison. “Having two new people jump onboard is part of evolving,” Shannon says. “It’s nice because Matt and Tomo come from different musical backgrounds and it’s nice to have those flavors put in. When you have two different personalities, people want to express themselves artistically, and it can be challenging. But overall, we share a common goal and vision and respect what each other does. We accept each other’s processes, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Going on tour the second time around was an altogether different experience. Now an established act with their own fan base, 30 Seconds to Mars are able to perform for people who appreciate their music, not the critics and skeptics. But don’t think they’re not still fighting a war for respect.
“Just because the shows are selling out doesn’t mean there’s any relaxing time,” Shannon insists. “It’s like, what can we put on stage to make it more ripping? There’s no letting up … We don’t want to settle for mediocrity, we don’t want to be laid back. It’s exciting to just keep moving forward, entertaining different ideas, trying new ideas and taking risks. It’s rewarding at the end of the day.”