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Monday, April 7, 2008

30 Seconds To Mars : Interview

by Aaron Pompey

Hours before 30 Seconds to Mars takes the stage at the Roxy in West Hollywood for the first time in over a year, the band is huddled around a booth in the venue's VIP lounge talking about inspiration. Jared Leto, the band's frontman and guitarist, likes to attribute some of his own inspiration to simple circumstance. "Wherever you go, there you are," he remarks glibly. And before he can elaborate, his cell phone rings. Jared frowns and reaches into his back pocket. "It's all the last-minute motherfuckers," Jared mumbles as he pulls out a flip phone and stares blankly at the number flashing on its screen. "The funny thing is," Jared places the blinking phone on the large round table in front of him, "there are a couple tickets that sold on eBay for $217." He shakes his head, "Crazy motherfuckers."

But Jared's predilection for Oedipal metaphors is meant to be neither harsh nor disparaging. In truth, the band – which also includes Jared's older brother Shannon Leto on drums, Matt Wachter on bass, and Tomo Milicevic on guitar – has enormous affection for its ever-growing fan base, including those who would shell out two hundred dollars for a standing-room-only show. "We definitely have some very, very hardcore committed fans out there who like what we did the first time around," he notes with a kind of deliberate reticence, referring to the band's 2002 eponymous debut.

But before there was 30STM, there was Jared and Shannon, two brothers sharing a bedroom with some Marshall amps and a drum set. "You know what, it was a great time," recalls Shannon. "It was very cool." Although the brothers lived in Hollywood, they avoided playing venues in L.A., opting instead to travel cities – sometimes states – away. "We refused to play L.A. – we were in it for art rock's sake. We would change our name every night. We didn't give a fuck if a show was promoted or advertised or any of that. We played to play." Shannon nods, "We were playing for ourselves." And their sound was slightly different back then. "It was like super long progressive songs," says Jared, "and it was basically a 'Fuck you – love it or leave it'."

The brothers' fearlessness eventually paid off when EMI's Virgin label signed 30STM in 1998. By that time, the band's sound had evolved into what some critics were calling neo-Prog and post-Grunge. Then their music caught the ear of legendary record producer Bob Ezrin, who had worked previously on several groundbreaking projects – including Alice Cooper's Love it to Death, KISS's Destroyer, and Lou Reed's Berlin – but who may be best known for his production of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Ezrin came on to produce the band's first album, helping them to create a larger, more distinct sound that would set them apart from the mainstream. "The size of the guitars, and everything really, was big. But it's not aggressive. It's not heavy music. It's not metal. But it's not shoegazing indie rock, either. It's kind of it's own thing, it's own world." Matt agrees, noting that "It's somewhere in between." Ezrin also helped the boys understand the importance of an album's structure and how to create a progression, rather than a simple series of songs. "Bob Ezrin was really helpful with that because there could be two songs that are really great, but share too similar territory."

Ezrin's influence on the band carried over into their conception of a follow-up project. "The thing that the first album set up," Jared recalls, "was that we wanted to be different." And the first album was different, establishing the group as a unique voice in music. So when Jared began thinking about the kind of music he wanted to write for the second album, he anticipated a challenge, albeit a good one. "We knew it was going to be a long experience and we made a decision to embrace opportunities when they became apparent."

And an opportunity soon came along when Oliver Stone cast Jared in his grand epic Alexander. The film was shot on location in, among other places, Northern Africa and Thailand. During that period, he found a great deal of inspiration, writing several new songs – including what would become their first single "Attack". But "Attack" proved to be somewhat problematic, and was nearly excluded from the album. "'Attack' was a song that wasn't scheduled to be recorded at all," Jared recalls. "I'd been playing it – I'd play it in the desert in Morocco, I was playing it in Thailand – I was playing it everywhere." But when he tried performing the song with the rest of the band, something wasn't falling into place. "On acoustic it was great; but when we played it as a band, it just fell flat on its face." The guys nod. "As soon as the bass got in there…" Matt interjects, hanging his head in disgrace. Jared takes the cue. "Yeah, so it was either replace Matt or throw the song out." Thinking that the song had hit a dead end, but holding out hope, Jared played it for Josh Abraham, their promoter and Virgin's VP of A&R. "I was playing it outside of the studio one night on acoustic guitar and Josh walked out and, as a joke, I said 'Hey, you wanna hear a hit song?' I was just talking shit. I started playing the verse and went into the chorus and he stopped me on the first chorus and said 'It's the best song you have. You have to record it'." Having already given the song a shot, something needed to change for it to come alive. "So we all got in a circle and something about it changed. Something about us changed. And now it became the first song on the record and the first single off our new album. So he did a great job on encouraging us to do that song. And now I really love it."

That's when his cell phone begins ringing with those eleventh-hour requests for comp tickets to the show.

Matt brings the conversation back, touting Jared's inspired writing. "Jared was in Africa a few months before we got there," he recalls. "When we got to Africa, one of the first songs Jared played for us was 'Was it a Dream?' and it was unlike anything he'd ever written before." "'A Beautiful Lie' came out of Africa," Jared remarks, "Really productive time. Almost every song that we worked on down there ended up on the record." But Matt brings it back to Jared. "When he played 'Was it a Dream?' for us, all of us were just like 'Wow, this is a great direction he's going.' He was obviously influenced by his surroundings." Matt pauses a moment, then adds, "Because it's like no other place on earth. If we were stuck in L.A. the whole time, I think there would have been a much different record."

When 30STM finally entered the studio in April 2004, Josh Abraham was at the controls. Abraham, who had produced Velvet Revolver's Grammy-winning debut album, brought perspective to 30STM's shift toward a more confessional sound. "Josh likes to keep things organic," Jared observes. Abraham's organic approach meant catching the spontaneity and immediacy of the band's in-studio performances. "A lot of the songs were their very immediate takes," Jared explains. "We wanted to catch that excitement of something being fresh and new." Which, of course, can be challenging among perfectionists. "A very difficult thing to do," Matt admits, "is to let go and just be like 'It's good'." The result was a substantial stride in the band's creative evolution. "We're always on a search for our own true voice and to be as unique as possible," says Jared, "We definitely, I think, succeeded a lot of times, even on the first record. But there are clear moments, this time around, where I hear it."

But that doesn't mean that the band doesn't acknowledge their creative influences. As Jared will quickly point out, embracing your creative influences is a natural part of finding that voice. "I think anybody has someone Рwhether they apprentice with a painter, or you have a teacher, if you're a writer Рwho influences your style." And 30STM counts among its influences some classic artists. "I don't listen to music very much, and the music I play is pretty old." But artists like Pink Floyd, U2, Björk, The Cure, Zeppelin, and The Police continue to resonate with the band. In fact, some of the melodic phrases and stylistic twists on A Beautiful Lie bear their signature. "There are songs where it was kind of fun to let the influence kind of be alive," Jared admits. On a few songs, that influence is unmistakable, including the heavy Cure sound shaping "Was it a Dream?" and the early U2 sound that is particularly striking on "The Fantasy." "It was nice to let that be there and to put that in there as homage or a nod to one of our heroes." And there are notably clear distinctions between artists like 30STM - who absorb inspiration, using it to generate innovative music Рand bands that offer little in the way of stylistic imagination.

And what about more recent artists? Jared pauses to think of a few. "Interpol…Muse…Bloc Party's pretty good." Jared looks over at Tomo and adds, "These guys have been listening to the new Nine Inch Nails." Tomo jumps in with "My Chemical Romance." The other guys nod. "We played with them recently," Jared explains. "Very nice guys. And we opened for Incubus. They're a very melodic band and good friends of ours now. That went really well." What about an artist like Aphex Twin? "I used a lot of his drum sounds on the album. I manipulated some of the sounds he manipulated. He's a genius," Jared pauses, then adds, "or a retard." Matt chews on that idea for a second, then notes, "there's a fine line between genius and retard." Jared pauses again and it seems as though he may be pondering that fine line. "We're weird, though," he says. "We're strange compared to a lot of rock out there. It's always really difficult to think who we would tour with." That's a good question. 30STM is currently touring alongside Chicago band Chevelle, hitting about 35 U.S. cities this summer. They will also join The Used later this year.

Since the growth of the band from two to four members, 30STM has enjoyed a new dynamic, complete with greater variance in style and influence. "Matt and Tomo were really instrumental in helping shape the new record," says Jared of Wachter and Milicevic, who had been playing live shows with the band before officially joining them for studio work on A Beautiful Lie. For Matt, being a part of 30STM has been a critical part of his development as a musician. "For myself," explains Matt, "it was rewarding in a couple of ways: I got to be on an amazing record – it's something I'm very proud of. And I've learned a lot from these guys." One thing he learned was how to do less, "which is something that is a really hard lesson to learn. It's easy to go in there and go –" Matt interrupts himself to make some hardcore bass solo sounds. "But the songs are so strong that we wanted to let them breathe on their own." And that may be what distinguishes 30STM. It's difficult to create exceptional music marked by so much honesty, yet the band's inspired execution of Jared's exceptional writing achieves that with skill, maturity and, perhaps most importantly, grace.

Far too many albums produced by recent bands wind up being 10-track CDs with so much filler that they might well have been cut down to 5-song EPs. Another too many albums open with introspective ballads and don't really hit their stride until the third or, god forbid, fourth track. A Beautiful Lie dodges any potential missteps by opening the album with the strong, driving sounds of "Attack", then gradually steering the album toward more contemplative, introspective tracks – all without compromising the energy that has become one of the band's signature elements. This may be one of the greatest compliments paid to a band who has worked under a producer like Ezrin and who appreciate the importance of an album's structure and its progression. "That's exactly what we wanted – not just a collection of songs that were trying to make it to the top of the list, but a record that was cohesive. Otherwise it just becomes white noise."

Creating a cohesive narrative after having written over 40 songs for the album, meant having to decide which songs would be eliminated from the finished project. And deciding that meant again drawing on what the band had learned from working under Ezrin's guidance. "It was about telling the story and what songs were appropriate," Jared observes. Ultimately, the band faced the daunting task of paring down those 40-something songs to a damn-near-impossible 10 for the album. Jared laughs. "Somebody said to me that I'm very decisive. But I said that I'm only indecisive when I'm undecided. So once I make that decision, I'm good. But until then, the songs take their beating. And they all took their beating." So which ten made the cut, conceptually speaking? "The ten that tell the story the best, the ten that are the strongest. The ten that survived." And now that the album is complete and set for an August 30 release, does he maintain his decisiveness? "Absolutely. I still feel like the ten most important songs made the record."

Although it may be too soon to be thinking about what's next for 30STM, it's worth a shot. "Who knows what's in the future. But this time around, I think we explored every possibility of what the first record was about. So to repeat any of those things would have been a big mistake."

"We made sure this time around that we were going to be brave enough to leave all the tricks of the past behind. And in order, I think, to move forward, you have to let go of your past. It's not always an easy thing to do, especially if certain things worked."

"And sometimes people aren't going to grow with you, and that's okay. But I think that means you're doing the right thing." So don't expect a simple return to form from 30STM. "I heard, when I was a kid, this quote that's attributed to Picasso, but I think he probably stole it from somewhere else. It's that an artist who doesn't move forward, moves backward. And I've always applied that to myself as an artist."

A Beautiful Lie hits stores August 30. "Attack", the new single, is available now.

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