30 Seconds has caught plenty of flak from critics since, well, an actor with one of the prettiest mugs in Hollywood fronts it. Actors, after all, are legally not allowed to rock thanks to Keanu Reeves, Kevin Bacon, and Russell Crowe. Nevertheless, 2005 was a blue-ribbon year for actors who sought to defy expectations with their musical inclinations, from Juliette Lewis (Juliette and the Licks), to Jada Pinkett Smith (Wicked Wisdom), to Balthazar Getty (Ringside). Oh, and Jared Leto, of course. Turns out the dude who made out with Colin Farrell in Alexander is as good with a guitar as he is in front of a camera. Maybe better.
"We've always had 30 Seconds to Mars as part of our lives," Leto says, referring to himself and his brother Shannon (the band's drummer), who have played together since they were children. "It's something we used to do as a very prog-rock approach. We weren't interested in building a following or even having a name. We'd play shows and change our name every time. That completion didn't interest us."
What Leto didn't anticipate was what collecting a bunch of strangers in a public place to share such private experiences would do to his music: The brothers' fans took a piece of their songs and, as part-owners, demanded more. So more they got. The band's eponymous debut was released in 2002, with Shannon pounding away and Jared playing everything else. 30 Seconds to Mars, however, turned out to be a bit too convoluted and maybe even over-ambitious.
"I think the first album is very special and it's kind of a world that was created for a lot of different reasons a world filled with metaphors and different layers and levels to uncover, kind of an obsessive fantasy," Leto explains. "But it was always very, very personal to me. That record was a lot of me just sitting in front of a computer on some kind of recording device and just creating. There was no band." He pauses. "It was a very dark experience in many ways, very isolating. The second album was kind of a reaction to that."
This time out, it wouldn't just be the Leto brothers working together; it was, in fact, time to become a real band. That meant a lead guitarist and a bassist, manifesting in the form of Tomo Milicevic and Matt Wachter. For Milicevic, it was more than just joining a band, though. "I was a super-fan," he says, a devotee even before the first 30 Seconds album was released. "I didn't miss a show within 500 miles of Detroit."
But when it came time to record 2005's A Beautiful Lie, Milicevic and Wachter both of whom had been playing metal since their early teens, just like the Letos weren't sure what to expect. "After years of these two brothers doing it one way, the formula's changed and suddenly there's these two other people who want to have input," Milicevic says. "We didn't know how we were going to fit in, in the sense that we didn't know if Jared would even want our input."
But Leto reveled in the collaboration. The result is a more confessional, transparent album than 30 Seconds' debut, the new wave overindulgence tempered by good, old-fashioned guitar shredding and something that feels almost intergalactic in concept. The naysayers, feckless hipsters who fault Leto because he's hotter than their girlfriends, are finally starting to come around. Slowly, sure. But they're coming.
Most interesting to note is how Wachter and Milicevic respond when asked if they can name one other actor-fronted band they can listen to. Wachter's answer is a simple "no," while Milicevic takes several moments before he admits, "Not one. I have to be cocky and say we're the first ones to do it well." Pressed as to whether or not having an actor in the band has been a hindrance or an asset, Milicevic cuts to the quick. "It all depends on how you view it. To us, no. The only people who make a big deal about it are writers. Kids don't give a shit."
"In our country, actors become presidents. I'm just in a band," Leto points out. "What the interesting thing to try to decipher is, why do people want to criticize someone making artistic choices? I'm not going to war. I'm making music."
It seems that pop culture somehow decided actors and actors alone cannot venture out of their medium without catching shit. Musicians, apparently, can act, no problem. Actors, on the other hand, aren't given the same artistic leeway. Lesson is, if you want to do both, become a rock star first. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy.
"I don't really think there's a choice there for me. It's just something I do, whether it's making films or music," Leto says. (It's not just him either, afflicted by this need to express himself. His brother is a photographer and writer, Milicevic is a certified chef, and Wachter is an artist with a penchant for screen-printing and painting his basses.) "This is just something I've always done and I'm very proud of the films I've done and the music I've made."
Not buying it yet? Well, consider: Leto turned down a part in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers to go out on 30 Seconds' last tour. Seems the musician in him is a lot more concerned about squashing any comparisons to Reeves' Dogstar than starring in Oscar-bait. The rest of the band did their best to talk him out of it, too.
"You don't turn down Eastwood," Milicevic laughs.
Apparently, some people do.