YRB Magazine Cover Story: Jared Leto & 30 Seconds to Mars

It is a cold, gray, fall afternoon in suburban Maplewood, Minnesota, where, in just a few hours, 30 Seconds to Mars will kick off its Welcome to The Universe / MTV $2 Bill Tour at Myth Nightclub. The venue is curiously situated off a highway, betwixt a shopping complex and a cluster of chain restaurants, and the massive parking lot is already beginning to fill.

Yes, the lead singer of 30 Seconds to Mars is also a successful actor. And yes, Jared Leto may still be better known for his roles in American Psycho, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club and lest we forget My So-Called Life than for his rock band. But with a record that recently went platinum, a huge international following, and three singles and music videos in heavy rotation, it is time to get over the fact that 30STM is a band with a famous frontman.

So get the snide Jordan Catalano remarks out of your system now, and if you’re only reading this in the hopes that it will provide details about Leto’s love life, go pick up a copy of Us Weekly. But if you’re interested in the story of a remarkable band that has relied on the quality of its music rather than its Hollywood connections to earn success, then read on.

Born in Louisiana, Jared and his brother Shannon were raised by their mother (in some 10 different cities) in an environment that encouraged creative expression and the arts. “It was always around, so it was just a natural progression,” says Shannon of being drawn to music at a young age. “We picked up some instruments and started playing; it just made sense.”

With Jared on guitar and vocals and Shannon on drums, 30 Seconds to Mars signed with Virgin/Immortal in 1998. Although their self-titled debut (released in 2002) was little more than a blip on the music industry radar, they began to build a fan base, thanks largely to constant touring.

The band was soon joined by bassist Matt Wachter and guitarist Tomo Milicevic. Born in Sarajevo and reared in Detroit, Tomo is living the dream – before he became a member of 30 Seconds to Mars, he was one of their fans. “It’s kinda crazy, you know? You listen to this music, you admire it, and then one day you’re on stage playing it,” he says.

The foursome’s first collaborative effort, A Beautiful Lie, dropped in August 2005. Technically it is not a new album, but as Tomo points out, “To most people it is. The first year that this album was out, we barely sold 100,000 records,” he says. Since then, that number has jumped to 1 million, “So to those other [900,000] people, this is a brand new record.”

In addition to writing all the lyrics, playing guitar and performing the lead vocals on every song, Jared also directed the videos for “The Kill” and “From Yesterday” (the second and third singles, respectively), under the colorful, Dr. Seuss-borrowed alias, Bartholomew Cubbins. “It’s just a way to have a little fun with it and be creative, and I really wanted people to be able to enjoy and experience the video without having any more preconceived notions or distractions, and just to let it be what it was. It wasn’t important for me to lay claim to it in that way. It’s nice to be recognized for it, but for the right reasons,” Jared says of his decision to direct “The Kill” as his alter ego. That video – a well-executed take on Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, The Shining – recently landed awards at the VMAs, The FUSE Awards and the mtvU Woodies.

30STM’s popularity has risen along with album sales, but they have also had to contend with the burden of the past; such predecessors as Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves and Kevin Bacon haven’t exactly bolstered the public’s expectations of a band led by an actor. “We had a lot of middle fingers pointed at us for years and a lot of bad examples before us,” says Shannon, without naming names. “But we also knew we could play music, and we knew we had something – we knew it the whole time. So we knew we had to tour, tour, tour, and we knew we had to prove it to people, prove it no matter what. And we did that. And we love doing it. And now it speaks for itself. And Jared is the first [actor] to do it and do it well. We’re the first band to really overcome the challenges and become a legitimate band known for its music, and it feels amazing.”

As any fan will tell you, singling out Jared for any reason other than that he is the band’s frontman is totally taboo. Still, his high profile tends to obscure the fact that 30 Seconds to Mars is successful not because one of its members is a talented actor, but because all of its members are talented musicians. And while they could have easily taken advantage of the publicity generated by Jared’s fame, the band doesn’t want that kind of attention, even refusing to play any venue that uses his name to promote a show.

Instead, 30STM has opted for grueling schedules, life on a crowded tour bus, and a $20/day tour stipend in order to earn its own status. “A lot of people might think that we’re an overnight success because they just heard of us, which is fair, but we’re not. We’ve been around for a long time doing this,” says Matt, who describes the band’s method as organic. “We really took a grassroots approach, always for the fans, and we relied on touring to build a fan base as opposed to TV and radio. And now that we’ve got those things, our fan base has grown and grown and grown, and a lot of people are starting to know about 30 Seconds to Mars,” he says.

Fans are always important, but 30STM’s are something special – according to the online message boards, some even have tattoos in honor of the band. But in addition to scores of “regular” fans, the most die-hard belong to an exclusive group known as The Echelon.

On the one hand, like a typical fan club The Echelon serves as a “street team,” spreading the word about the band, calling local radio stations to request their songs and casting votes when 30STM is nominated for fan-driven awards. On the other hand, The Echelon isn’t so much a fan club as it is, say, a throwback to the Freemasons – with its use of Latin adages, symbolic characters, white costumes, secretive rituals (such as an induction process that requires prospective members to be nominated by two existing members) and an almost cultish devotion to 30 Seconds to Mars. But the feeling is mutual, and the band is also intensely committed to The Echelon; its members are the first to learn of any news or announcements involving 30STM, even communicating with them directly, via email. In a unique public display of affection, the deluxe edition of A Beautiful Lie (released in December) contains foldout artwork designed as a special tribute to The Echelon, which bears the actual names of more than 5,000 fans – “the most passionate believers,” as Jared describes them.

When it comes to the fans, perhaps Matt sums it up best. “They’re just true and true, through and through. They’ve been there since the beginning and they’ll be there till the end,” he says. But talking to Shannon, Tomo, Matt and Jared in their parked tour bus, it is clear that the end is nowhere in sight. As they gear up for six weeks on the road, the band has just returned from China, where they shot the “From Yesterday” video at a palace outside of Shanghai. “We had 500 extras, massive amounts of period wardrobe, 40 men on horseback…just phenomenal sets and design, and a period piece to boot. I don’t know how we pulled that off!” Jared says. They then flew to L.A. to play the Bamboozled Festival and the FUSE Awards before dipping to Minnesota – all in the last four days.

“It’s wild, it’s amazing, it’s great opportunities, no complaints – and thank God it’s what we’re doing,” says Jared, more ecstatic than exhausted. “You hear this stuff when you’re young: You better love what you do, especially if you call it your work, because that’s your life. It’s important to have an experience that is fulfilling and inspired, and it’s certainly that for us.”

The result is an album that, for better or worse, is disarmingly thoughtful without being overly angsty or condescending. “The songs Jared writes are purely from the soul – they’re the real deal. And we all get to be a part of that. It’s a real band, not in any way contrived,” Tomo says.

If it sounds intense, that’s because it is; and if Jared sounds intense, that’s because he is. If there were 30 hours in a day, Jared would probably squeeze in 40 hours of work. He is not the type to phone it in (no matter what “it” is), and he doesn’t mistake “good” for “good enough.” He is just as likely to use big words (correctly) as he is to use expletives (gratuitously), and like his bandmates, he doesn’t drink or do drugs. But just because you have nothing in common with the band, if you can judge them by their music rather than their eyeliner, you just might understand what all the fuss is about. “You either get it or you don’t,” says Matt. “And ultimately, the music speaks for itself… . Come to a live show – I think that speaks even louder.”

It does. At Myth Nightclub, the energy in the room is palpable, no less intoxicating than the glass of scotch in my hand – and both will remain with me well after the show has ended. As the lights go dim, signaling the start of 30STM’s set, the formerly sprawling crowd now stands tightly together, united by silent but eager anticipation. The calm soon gives way to shouts and chants, and finally, after a short but spectacular performance by Street Drum Corps, 30 Seconds to Mars takes the stage. And despite the theatrics of the scene – beginning with a pseudo-religious procession that features white masks and flags with the band’s insignia – there is no question that they own it.

In perfect step with his bandmates, Jared’s powerful voice reaches every crevice of the room as he parades around the stage, delivering each note with a fury and intensity befitting his character. He wears all black, save a white electric guitar with a blood-red strap – the same red color as the (dyed) tips of his otherwise (dyed) black hair. Perched atop a platform, Shannon kills it on the drums, his arms rising and falling with such speed and precision it’s a wonder they’re still attached to his torso. In the wings, Tomo and Matt supply sweeping guitar riffs and heavy bass lines, flexing their respective musical muscles on every song.

There is a mosh pit, and Jared indulges throngs of screaming fans by taking song requests (“What do you guys wanna hear? I’ll play whatever you want”) and crowd surfing on more than one occasion. And just when you think it’s over, Jared informs the audience, “We’re just fucking getting started,” and they play for another 30 minutes – but not before he performs a solo, acoustic rendition of the Nine Inch Nails’ classic, “Closer.” Jared is most definitely a natural performer, but right now, on stage with his band, he isn’t acting.

As at all 30STM shows, the set is followed by a signing, and every fan willing to wait in line has the opportunity to meet the band personally. And even though they’ll wake up in a new city tomorrow, tonight 30 Seconds to Mars will stick around until the last, lingering fans have had their moment.

(A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED AS THE COVER STORY IN YRB MAGAZINE COPYRIGHT ©2007)

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