Jared Leto on exploring the 'good, bad, and ugly' in Thirty Seconds to Mars' 'America'
When he’s not losing himself in a role onscreen, Jared Leto fronts the platinum-selling rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, who are back with their first record in five years.
The album, titled America, is a sonic exploration of what that term means to Leto and his bandmates at a particularly fraught time for the country. But, as the 46-year-old actor/singer notes, the project is more personal than political, an attempt to bring his group’s rock opera sound — with help from the likes of A$AP Rocky and Halsey — into a new era.
EW caught up with Leto just minutes after he got off stage in Cardiff, Wales to discuss the meaning of America, how the Rocky and Halsey collaborations came together, and why this record could be their last.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKY: “America” is a pretty loaded term right now. Why did you choose it for the album title?
JARED LETO: I always wanted to make an album based on the concept of America — to explore the good, bad, and the ugly… It’s a really important time in our country. It’s a time that’s ripe with creative opportunities. There is a lot to talk about. We are in a period of great change, of instability, of uncertainty, but also of hope and possibility. Although we explore politics on songs like “Walk on Water,” it’s not a political album per se. It’s social; it’s highly personal. It’s also one of those words that is highly interpretive. You ask 10 different people, you get 10 different responses. It could be the most beautiful word to someone or the ugliest to another. I like it in that respect.
The album covers and campaign certainly have a lot to say about what makes up “America” – can you talk how that concept came about and how you selected the items that are listed?
I liked the lists for a lot of different reasons. They can provoke. They can be funny. On their own, they can titillate or kind of make you scratch your head and say what the f—k is this? But as a collective whole, they feel like a time capsule to me. It feels like something you’d see in a gallery but it also feels like advertising. It sets the right tone for the album because one of the challenges calling the album America is you think it’s going to be whatever you would find if you turn on the news. Certainly that is in the album, but that’s not it. There’s more there as well. You’ll get a sense of who we are as a people, as a nation.
It’s been five years since the band’s last album. That’s the longest gap you’ve ever had – why so long?
I’ve never been very fast. I wish I was. I envy people who put an album out every year. I’m just really slow and methodical. I think art, and creativity in general, has its own rules. It’s not polite, it’s not timely, it’s not considerate. It wakes you up in the middle of the night or keeps you up until the crack of dawn. I don’t [even] know if we’ll ever put another album out — I don’t know if that’s a viable format to be committed to any longer — but I want to put new [songs] out a year from now.
You performed with Travis Scott on the VMAs and now have a track, “One Track Mind” with A$AP Rocky on the album. You also collaborated with Halsey and Zedd. How did all of that come to be?
A$AP Rocky – first of all, he’s a total f—king gentleman and a true artist. I really respect him a lot. He’s a lot of fun to work with and he did incredible work on the track. Working with A$AP Rocky was one of those rare opportunities [where] you get to share a song with someone who’s clearly a voice of a generation. He’s just an immensely talented person, and we feel really lucky to have him on “One Track Mind.” Halsey feels the same. I think really highly of her. She’s absolutely one of a kind. She’s brave and bold and talented beyond belief. She has a stunning voice, and I really am so glad that song, which started off just with me singing it, ended up being [a] duet. Sometimes you do something with another artist and magic happens, and I really feel like there’s something special inside of that song and she’s the reason for it.
You’re known for bringing a high level of intensity to acting. Is it the same with music?
I probably approach everything in my life with a certain level of intensity. I like to work really hard. That’s been a really consistent component of my life for as long as I can remember. I’m a curious person. I love to learn. I love the independence that comes along with being entrepreneurial, whether it’s starting a band or a company. But I don’t know if I even have the answer to this question. I guess I just do things how I do them, and I have high expectations for myself and for what we produce for Thirty Seconds to Mars, whether it’s a video or a documentary or a song. I just work as hard as I can because I think that’s my job. I think people deserve the best that I can do. If I have to kill myself to do it, then that’s what I do. That being said, making this album was a lot of fun. I wasn’t suffering. We pushed really hard. We recorded all over the world. Every time you make an album or a song you have the chance to redefine who you are, and experiment and explore new avenues, and I think we did that on this album.
Your tour is called the Monolith, which is the name of a song on the album, but is there a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference in there too?
It’s more a reference to an object that is immense and immovable — something that [gives us] a sense of our size and scale and fragility. I like the idea of an object with impermanence and something that is so powerful and makes us recognize our humanity. It’s a little heady but that’s my answer.
Thirty Seconds to Mars