30 Seconds To Mars debuted in 1998 and has been on the rise ever since. Fronted by actor/musician Jared Leto, the band has grown to headliner status on the strength of its second album, A Beautiful Lie. At the band’s stop at the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md., drummer Shannon Leto and guitarist Tomo Milicevic spoke to Jason Price of Live-Metal.net about the band’s evolution, the new album, the struggles of touring and more.
For people not familiar with the band, 30 Seconds to Mars, how did the band come about?
Shannon: It was my brother [Jared Leto] and I. We started it. We’ve been playing instruments all our lives. We were signed in 1998, so we have been doing it for quite some time professionally. Then Matt and Tomo came on board four or five years ago.
Where does the name 30 Seconds To Mars come from?
Shannon: It comes from this old book that my brother had found. It’s in this paragraph that explains the exponential growth of human technology and how it plays in our society and how everything is in a constant state of projection. It is more conceptual than anything. If that makes any sense [laughs].
In your opinion, what’s the biggest milestone for the band since you started out?
Shannon: I love playing music. I love that we are able to keep going and to be doing what we are doing after all of these years. A lot of our friends have been dropped from labels and like I said we were signed in 1998, so to be still signed and allowed to do what we have been doing for so long it’s a blessing.
Tomo: Honestly, since I have been in the band, Lollapolooza was a milestone because that is when I noticed a big change in the amount of people that knew about us. That was a tour that the label really didn’t think was important for us to do. We spent our own money to put us on that tour because we knew that it was important. It turned out that it was the smartest decision that we ever made because that put us into a different tier.
Shannon: And the video.
Tomo: Yeah. That trumps Lollapolooza now but I just know that Lollapolooza was a huge jump.
Shannon: That was the first one for ya, huh.
Tomo: Yeah. It was a huge jump but the new “Kill” video, definitely, is the thing that opened us up to a much larger audience.
There was a gap of a few years in between your latest album and A Beautiful Lie, how do you think your sound has changed in that time?
Shannon: Well, it is more to the point, more raw, more personable, more accessible in a way. Less heady, there are a lot less layers going on musically.
Tomo: The first record, those guys, really filled all the space with sound.
Shannon: The first record was my brother and I and it was about when we were kids, all the way up until that point. Experiences to musical experiences and it was all on that record. So there was a lot going on and a lot that we wanted to express in a short amount of time and that is what that record was.
Tomo: Whereas on this new record, it was all about the lyric and the vocal, just the song.
Tomo: And how little could you do. Not even so much as “how little could you do” but really choosing everything carefully.
Shannon: Yeah, from the guitar playing, to the drumming, from the bass, everything is just simple, to the point.
Tomo: No egos. The whole record is about presenting this song in the best way possible.
How do you going about putting together a particular song?
Shannon: There isn’t really a particular way. It could come from a bass line, it could come from a guitar line, it could come from a thought in a head, it could come from a lyric, a drum beat.
Tomo: Every song happened in a completely different way. Some people use a formula. We don’t. It’s just however it happens and if it sounds good we do it and if it doesn’t then we don’t.
You worked with Josh Abraham on this album, A Beautiful Lie. How did that come about?
Shannon: Josh Abraham is a friend. He is a peer. He worked with a couple bands that we liked. We liked the simplicity that he records albums. We liked his outlook on the whole recording process. He has a really direct approach to recording.
Tomo: He sets up a nice environment for the band. Josh Abraham is not the producer for bands that need help learning how to write songs. He doesn’t get very involved in a hands-on type of way. He is really good at setting up an environment for a band like us to do good work.
Tomo: What he is really great at is stepping in at the right time and saying, “Yes, pursue this.”
Shannon: Like “Attack” and “The Kill,” for instance. We weren’t going to record those.
Tomo: Yeah, our two singles weren’t going to be on the record [laughs].
Shannon: He said, “You gotta do it, there’s some thing there.” So we did it and now you have heard them on the radio.
Seeing as the record was your sophomoric effort, did it feel like there was more pressure on you with this release?
Tomo: There is always pressure.
Shannon: When you grow and you take chances and risks, there are going to be pressures. We welcome those pressures but there wasn’t this huge “Oh, it’s your second album” thing.
Tomo: Yeah, because the first album wasn’t a huge mainstream success. The sophomoric slump usually applies to bands that sold millions or records with their debut. So for us, that was never a worry because the first record was what it was and it set a really nice foundation. All we had to do was just continue to do our thing.
Shannon: We just do what we do. Virgin has been really helpful in giving us the space and the time to allow us to express ourselves. So they have had our backs for quite sometime now.
You do a cover of a Bjork song, “Hunter.” How did that come about?
Shannon and Tomo: Yeah!
Tomo: Well, we all love Bjork, first of all. She is an amazing artist, but we used to play that song a long time ago live. Like when I first joined the band we started to cover it live. Then we didn’t play it for a long time. We all talked about it again when we were recording bonus tracks for the record. We were just like, “Hey man, let’s try and get this on tape and see what happens.” It turned out to be a really cool song for the record.
What was the biggest challenge in making the record?
Tomo: Getting over the obstacles within ourselves and allowing ourselves to change. Not being scared of changing. That is usually the biggest obstacle for everyone, being brave enough to change.
Shannon: That is THE obstacle. That is the biggest obstacle for anyone, anywhere. Someone is so used to what they are doing, what they are thinking, who they are hanging with, what they are doing in their life and to think about doing something different, 99.9 percent of people just don’t do that. It’s just the thought, like “Oh, I could do that. If I wanted to I could do that.” But they don’t. They are just thinking that they could. Because to actually pursue that goal and to change takes a lot of risk and a lot of balls.
Tomo: And especially in music, when you find a sound that works, you just want to stick with that and a lot of bands tend to put out the same thing over and over because it works. But really to have any type of long lasting career in music, you have to change because times change. You can’t do the same thing over and over again or you get lost.
Shannon: Luckily, that is how I have always liked to change. I don’t listen to just one type of music. I always listen to different types of music, ALWAYS! I could be listening to the heaviest of heavy metal and at the same time, I could be listening to some Sade record. Something totally opposite, like some old school Michael Jackson or some shit, just for the musicality of it. And that is how I have always been. So for us it is just a natural progression just to try different stuff. The ultimate in expression is just to change with the times.
Tomo: There is nothing more boring than to hear the same record, over and over again. I couldn’t even imagine being in a band like that. We love the songs from the first record but we always want to play the newer stuff. If you keep on making the same record over and over again, you are going to hate playing.
The video for “Attack” has a unique look to it and even some “hidden messages.” Who came up with the concept for that?
Tomo: It was a combination of the director and Jared, I think the director had brought up the idea of scratching the negative to Jared and Jared and Matt [Watcher] went in there and did it.
Any plans to do another video at the moment?
Shannon: Well, we just did the video for “Attack” and it is doing really well.
Tomo: We are talking about the next video already [whispers] but we can’t say anything just yet! [laughs]
What do you want hope that people come away with after listening to your music or seeing your live performance?
Shannon: Whatever they want. It’s left up to their own interpretation, man. There is no spoon feeding going on here. It’s not a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s not something that we want to explain to people. We want people to leave and come away with their own idea of what they experienced.
Tomo: Exactly. We do what we do and we play music and Jared writes lyrics. They mean something to him and they mean something to me, but it is probably different. All of us have the same mind set in that we don’t want to know what the song is about because I want to know what the song means to me. And that is the same with those kids. It’s like, let them have their own interpretation of what that is and let them connect to it in their own way. Let them connect to the show in the way that they want to. That is a lot more interesting than knowing what the writer was writing about.
You guys have your own headlining tour now, “Forever Night Never Day.” What is like being a headliner and selling out almost all of your shows?
Tomo: It feels good for the first time to be able to present they show in the way that you want. It is still not even close to what we really see but it nice to be able to take that first step toward it. It’s cool, we eared it!
For those how haven’t seen 30 Seconds to Mars live, how would you describe it and your onstage presence?
Tomo: Chaos with grace. Violence with grace. [laughs]
What are some of your favorite songs to play live?
Shannon: I like to play some of the old stuff like “Buddha For Mary.” I like “Capricorn,” “The Kill” and all the new ones I love to play because it is so fresh.
Tomo: It is nice to play the new songs because they are so fresh. I have different favorites at different times. Like lately, I have really be liking playing “The Story.” I am mellow, so I just get dark.
You?ve played some acoustic shows while promoting the album and tours. Would you ever think about doing an acoustic album or release of some sort?
Tomo: It’s funny you say that because there just might be something like that happening, you never know, you never know [smiles].
You guys have been on the road for a while now, and have added dates to your schedule. How is life on the road treating you?
Tomo: Life on the road is hard. But I love it, I think we all love it. You can’t do this without enjoying being on tour because it is very difficult. It is hard to be on tour, make no mistakes, there is not a lot of glamour in what we do.
Did you guys really know what you had signed up for when you decided to tour?
Tomo: I don’t think that you can every really know. You can have preconceived notions. Until you do it, I don’t know that you can have a real idea of what it’s like. You think it’s gonna be all cool and fun all the time but really it is a lot of work, all the time. You have to really love this to do this. That’s why a lot of bands fail. It tests your friendships with people and you ability to be with those same people in the hardest way but we all love it.
Any crazy stories from the road that you might want to share?
Shannon and Tomo: [both laugh]
Shannon: That we want to share? [laughs] No!
Tomo: We are a lot of fun, but we are also very focused on what we are doing. We have fun and we do a lot of crazy things.
Shannon: We work really hard and play really hard, so some of those things we get into behind the scenes will stay behind the scenes [laughs].
Are you guys doing any writing on the road?
Shannon: We are always fiddle faddling around, but we are really focused on this album right now.
Tomo: Yeah, but we aren’t very focused right now on writing new stuff. The focus is definitely on Beautiful Lie.
You have played both large and small venues. Do you have a preference?
Tomo: Both have different advantages. The smaller venue is super intimate and it is a super high energy show because you are so close with the band. The big shows are really cool for us because our music is written with a huge venue in mind. We write our songs with the mind set of reaching a lot of people. So when we play huge venues we sound really good because we have subconsciously written shows to fill a large arena. I don’t like playing large arenas because I know we sound good, but I don’t want to play arenas unless we are the headliner and that fucker is sold out because it is so separate from everyone, you have to know that everyone is there to see you. I prefer the small club for that, for my selfish reasons.
You have quite a dedicated fan base, what can you tell us about “The Echelon”?
Tomo: Oh yeah! They are the greatest people in the world. They love us so much. They just want us to succeed and they do whatever they can to help that. Being a fan of a lot of different bands and being a hardcore fan of some bands, I have never seen anything like it. We definitely have a unique fan base, different from every other band out there. We also spend a lot of time with our fans. We give them a lot of our attention. I think that that drives them to want us to succeed even more. They do so much on their own, without us even asking them, just to spread the word. It is cool.
Where are some of your favorite places to play?
Tomo: Florida is amazing for us. Texas is amazing for us, but, I mean, a lot of people complain about L.A. and New York as being like “the jaded cities,” but we have amazing shows there. So I like playing those cities, too. Especially if it is a cool city with a lot of culture and you get to have a badass show. So I think we are really lucky because of our fanbase we get to have great shows wherever we play. It doesn’t really matter. But Texas and Florida are really amazing for us.
What was the first album that you bought?
Shannon: My first album that I remember buying was KISS’s Destroyer. KISS’s Destroyer, dude, with the burning city on the back.
Shannon: It’s true though! I had such an imagination, I didn’t grow up with a TV or anything, so I just, an example! I would just stare at these four dudes dressed up with paint on them, just staring at the city and picture myself rolling around and I even tried explaining it at show-and-tell and people thought I was crazy!
Shannon: Yeah dude, they were like, “Huh?” And I was like, “No! You don’t get it!” And they were like, “They’re evil though!” [laughs] So, yeah, that was the first album. Then I think it was Iron Maiden or something.
Tomo: The first record that I bought with my own money was Nirvana’s Nevermind. I remember buying it. It was a tape and I was so excited because I had saved my money, my six bucks or whatever it was and I bought it. I was in sixth grade and I listened to it until I wore out the tape literally. You couldn’t hear it. If I still had it, I would play it for you. It had no discernable sounds on it I played it so much. It was crazy. Before that, I listened to only classical music. I played violin ever since I was a little kid, so that was the first rock record that I really got into. Then after that it was Pantera and then it was all over! [laughs]
What about the last album you bought?
Shannon: Pantera. Cowboys from Hell.
Tomo: The most recent album that I bought with my own money was The Bled for the fourth time.
Shannon: Fourth Time! It’s weird, man. He keeps losing the CD.
Tomo: I love The Bled. Their new album, actually it’s not their new album, I guess it is pretty old now. I keep losing it and keep buying it because I love it so much. So those guys owe me a lunch or something! [laughs]
There are a lot of summer tours coming up. Are you gonna be involved with any of them?
Shannon: We are doing a little bit of Warped Tour.
Tomo: Yeah, a couple dates on Warped Tour. We are trying to get on more dates, but it is a little bit hard because we got into it late.
Shannon: Yeah. That’s the reason.
Tomo: There is no confirmed plans for any package tours for us. We are doing really good on our headlining stuff, so we might just continue to do that. Why open for somebody when you can have your own show?
Shannon: It’s true.
Tomo: But if something really good comes along will take it.
Are there any bands on those tours that you want to check out?
Tomo: I love Avenged Sevenfold. I love their whole thing. So many people don’t like them, but I think they are great. I think they are so funny man and they just go for it! Completely! They commit 100 percent to their whole schtick.
Shannon: I like the Dredge. They are pretty cool, too. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Bled, though.
Tomo: I saw The Bled, but the mix wasn’t good. You could tell that they were great but that the mix wasn’t good.
Tomo: It bummed me out because I was really excited to see them, but the sound wasn’t good.
Shannon: That sucks man, when you see a band and the sound sucks.
Tomo: A great band can be ruined by a band mix.
Shannon: It really can. I have seen great bands and stood right by the soundboard and it’s been wrecked. I was so pissed off.
Do you keep a close eye on that for your shows?
Shannon: Yeah, and we have great sound. Our sound guy is great.
Tomo: We are very particular about the mix. Very particular.
Shannon: Yeah, VERY!
Tomo: We get very involved with all that to make sure that it is done right. Because you know, take TOOL for instance. What if you went to see TOOL live and they sounded like shit? They wouldn’t be who they are. That is one of the best sounding live bands in the world ever. Just imagine if they sounded like shit. They wouldn’t have a number one record, like, ever.
Shannon: Because they are such a live band.
Tomo: So we consider ourselves very much a live band so it is important to sound good.
Shannon: We never let go of the reigns. We are involved in every aspect of 30 Seconds to Mars, from our art direction to our fans to web sites to the lights in our show to the sound in our shows to the people we hire to every little thing. Because it’s our band and it makes sense that you have to be a part of everything. You can’t be like “Oh, well they will figure it out.” No! We want to do the graphics on our T-shirts, so we are gonna do the graphics on our T-shirts. It’s important.
Even through you album just recently came out, when can we look forward to hearing new music from the band?
Shannon: I don’t know.
Will there be as big of a gap as there was between you first two albums?
Shannon: Probably not as long as this time.
Tomo: But it is going to be a little while. This record is doing extremely well and is still growing all the time. We haven’t gone backwards at all yet. It keeps going up and up and up, so why stop? Let’s see how far we can take it.
When do you think Chinese Democracy will be released?
Shannon: You know, I have no information on that. Not sure!
Tomo: What is that?
The new Guns N’ Roses album that is has been over a decade in the making.
Tomo: Call it a career. [laughs]
I think that?s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you?d like to add?
Tomo: And thank you!!!
Shannon: Thank you guys for supporting us and showing up at our shows.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.