There was a level of clandestine stealth and security surrounding the means by which Clash first got to hear the selection of tracks chosen to offer a teasing taster of the forthcoming fifth 30 Seconds To Mars album that was unprecedented in all our past experiences with advance listens - but then 30STM are no ordinary rock band.
It’s the last day of May, and London is in full bloom amid an early-summer heatwave (which, as it turned out, was our summer), and we’ve followed top-secret directions to an undisclosed address where an LA record exec will allow us, under watchful gaze, access to his laptop and the handful of songs they’re prepared to share at this stage. Unmixed and some weeks from completion, they still sound epic: we’re pulled into giant, welcoming landscapes that share a positive and reassuring energy, made all the more invigorating in this agreeable climate.
Buoyed and fortified by this quick burst of expansive power, we’re led upstairs to meet one-third of these songs’ creators: the prolific and proficient lead singer, who’s the cause of today’s heightened secrecy.
It strikes us, as we prepare to step into Jared Leto’s suite, that today’s covert operations were entirely justified; more than just an exclusive playback of new material, this was an audience with a platinum selling, award-winning rock star, an acclaimed award-winning director, and an A-list award-winning Hollywood movie star. We were about to hang, we realised, with someone that owns an Oscar.
In a career spanning almost 25 years, Leto has remained an enigmatic and compelling talent whose pursuits have consistently afforded him a pan-generational iconic status; to those of a certain age, his turn as high-school heartthrob Jordan Catalano in 1994 TV series My So-Called Life was the catalyst for many an adolescent crush fantasy, and since 1998, 30 Seconds To Mars have risen to become stadium-filling, anthemic heroes to a legion of fans who favour a more profound and progressive brand of rock, while his on-screen conquests (including Fight Club, American Psycho, Requiem For A Dream, Chapter 27, and the imminent Blade Runner 2049) combine to form a range of immersive and stimulating roles - most triumphantly, of course, his portrayal of transgender AIDS patient Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club would earn him the Best Supporting Actor statue at the 2014 Academy Awards.
This moment, therefore, was bound to be unforgettably significant for all of us - it was the first step towards his most coveted accolade to date: a Clash cover.-
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Three months later, with the capital’s tropical conditions a distant memory, we have reconvened in Central London to make this dream a reality.
A fortnight ago, 30 Seconds To Mars premiered to the world ‘Walk On Water’, the lead single from the still as-yet-untitled new album, at the MTV VMA’s in California, with a visually and physically spectacular performance captured by thermal cameras that featured a guest appearance from Travis Scott. Shannon Leto, Jared’s older brother, band co-founder and drummer, is centre stage, surrounded by an army of dancers, hammering the track’s pounding heartbeat, while guitarist Tomo Miličević intrepidly prowls amid the throng. Leering directly into camera, Jared forcefully delivers the call-to-arms’ leading question: “Do you believe that you can win this fight tonight?”
If the answer was in the trio’s self-assurance and resolve, then it would be an irrefutable ‘yes’. It’s been four-and-a-half years since the group’s previous outing, ‘Love, Lust, Faith & Dreams’, and 30 Seconds To Mars on that stage look like lions released from their cages. At our second meeting with Jared, with this track out in the wild and its successors to follow, he’s noticeably ready - and hungry - for the fight.
And so, with a new record comes new responsibilities: namely interviews. As Clash begin our line of questioning, we can’t help but wonder what the difference is, for the ultimate renaissance man such as Jared Leto, between talking about music and the other mediums he’s so involved in.
“That’s a good question,” is the welcome response. “I think the difference with music is that it’s a very intimate and personal process. When you make a film, you work with really a large group of people and it is very collaborative. When you make music, it’s a much smaller team. Over the years it’s been mostly my brother and I - we’ve done this since we were kids - so sharing that with family makes it different right from the get-go. It’s just special; it’s hard to really compare it to anything else. Writing music starts from the most simple, most humble beginning and can turn into something that really connects in such a powerful way around the globe, so it’s a very beautiful process that a thought, an idea, can in turn end up touching so many people and in such a deep way. It certainly has for me in my life; music has changed me. It has been my soundtrack, it has been my companion, it has been my inspiration, and so many artists have taught me about life and the world through their writing.”
Unlike the punishing press schedule that actors endure, musicians are less obligated to promote their product - Frank Ocean, for example, is refusing all interview requests - so, if his music is so personal and intimate, why doesn’t Jared simply let it speak for itself?
“I guess I’m motivated to do [interviews] because I recognise that it’s a great way to spread the word,” he reasons. “Music is meant to be consumed, just like… I guess it’s kinda like cooking; if you’re at home and you’ve made a big dinner and you put all the food out on the table, it’s certainly a lot nicer when people show up and consume the meal. In order for that, you need to invite people to do it, so I think I look at this as like the invitation process.”
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Facing this mouth-watering banquet he’s laid before himself, Jared is practically tucking a napkin into his collar and sharpening his knives - he’s more than ready to gorge on music once more. “It’s been a long time coming, and we’re excited about the new music,” he attests. “In four-and-a-half years a lot happens, and the world changes - you change - and I think you can hear that change on the album. I think it’s a different album, and I think people are going to be pretty surprised by the songs they hear.”
As persistent and intense as always, on these new songs, 30 Seconds To Mars have refined the electronic inflections of ‘Love, Lust, Faith And Dreams’ and the more expressive qualities of it predecessor, 2009’s ‘This Is War’, to create something palpably vivid in its passionate perspective and connectivity.
Jared’s boundless enthusiasm can also be put down to the relief and gratitude he feels to even be in this position again. His 2012 documentary, Artifact, captured the traumatic experience of 30STM battling with their record label, EMI, in a $30 million breach-of-contract lawsuit that threatened their very existence - “We went to war,” he says, “and it wasn’t easy.” The conflict would ultimately produce the justly dramatic ‘This Is War’, but the whole brutal ordeal did little to dampen the band’s creative spirits. “There was a lot at stake, and that experience changed our lives. It taught us about ourselves, this business of music, and there were great lessons to be learned in that experience.”
Almost a decade after their legal wrangles, Jared is optimistic about the progress made by the music industry in that time that now allows 30STM to prosper - the business, he says, is “more transparent, and I think it’s got better, because musicians have the ability to have a louder voice and to speak to their audience directly. We were signed a decade before Facebook, or more. We were signed six or seven years before YouTube. The world has changed so much and I think for the better.”
Adding to Artifact and the series of 30STM videos he’s directed, Jared is continuing the tradition of marrying his two favourite mediums - music and film - in album companion pieces with A Day In The Life Of America, which picks up on the themes present in this new album. “Times are changing,” he warns in ‘Walk On Water’, and this film aims to document their impact on modern America through the viewpoints of those both within and without the country. “It really could be about any country in the world right now,” he argues. “I think so many of us are going through similar things. We’re all so connected now. I mean, people are asking really crucial questions - who are we, who do we want to be, what kind of country do we want to live in - and I think that it’s hard to tell the story of America without telling the story of the world.”
Having sent out 92 films crews across all 50 states, and extended a global invitation for a submission of clips, they have amassed reams of contributions, “from the Middle East to China to Africa and beyond,” that promise to form an insightful and objective portrait of our planet today.
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Clearly, Jared relishes being in the distinctly fortunate and enviable position that allows him to exercise his inquisitive and inventive mind in a number of fields - in addition to music and movies, he’s become further aligned with fashion, more recently appearing in campaigns for Gucci at the behest of his best friend, the brand’s creative director, Alessandro Michele - but, like the fearless looks he’s rocked on red carpets of late (Gucci, naturally), his judgements have always followed a rather maverick trajectory - as exemplified in his diverse choice of non-conformist movie roles.
“I like to be challenged,” he says of his attraction to projects. “I like to be provoked creatively, and I like an opportunity that pushes me to a new place and teaches me something. I love to learn, and it’s a good opportunity when you’re doing these things to be slightly off balance, to be on uncertain creative grounds.” He points to A Day In The Life Of America, the VMAs and the experimental nature of their new songs as representative of his latest forays into unknown territories. “And it’s not just the result,” he adds, “it’s the process of how do you do these things, how do you prepare for these things, how do you craft and figure out the production and the technical side of things that is part of the journey itself.”
It’s a particularly individualistic journey that Leto has undertaken, one driven by instinct and inspiration, but not one he could necessarily do alone. “You follow your gut and your heart and your head,” he says of his method of working, “and you build a great team of people who can help bring your vision to life.”
When it comes to 30STM, therefore, how lucky he is to have such an attuned collaborator as his brother. “[Shannon] is the reason that we are doing this,” he states. “He was the one that kinda led the charge with music. He was the one that always saw the future here… To have been doing it for this long is absolutely mind-blowing, and we don’t take it for granted for a single second… You know, we talk often about how fortunate we are and how grateful we are to be in the position that we’re in.”
That familiarity also enables Jared the freedom to truly be who he wants to be on stage: himself. Though screen characters have required drastic physical transformations - he piled on the pounds to play Mark Chapman in Chapter 27, and became practically emaciated for Dallas Buyers Club - and a method-like immersion in character (his Joker wreaked havoc on his Suicide Squad co-stars, who claim never to have met Jared Leto), there is no mask worn by the lead singer of 30STM. “Music is incredibly personal,” he affirms. “It’s about pulling the veil back. It’s about sharing as much of yourself as you can, or your thoughts, whether it’s your head, your heart, or your guts, whatever. Your spirit - whatever that is. You know, it’s not about taking on an imaginary set of circumstances and building a character. I’m never more of myself than when I’m standing on stage. There’s an absence of character.”
Daunting to some, that prospect is entirely natural to Jared Leto, who professes to feeling more comfortable performing in front of 140,000 people than he does holding a conversation with one person in a restaurant, and it’s the foundation of 30STM’s unfaltering relatability that ensures they remain a pertinent and provocative band for our times. “You can never stop learning,” Jared says of their perceptive and exploratory nature, which thankfully shows no sign of ever abating - unlike our conversation, which draws to an end as cryptically as it began. “Craft isn’t something that ends. Songs are elusive - they’re like dreams,” he smiles knowingly, “they’re hard to catch a hold of.”
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Words: Simon Harper
Fashion: Vincent Levy
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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