Jared and Shannon Leto Take the Stage

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Jared Leto has won almost every award there is to win as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. It has been a triumphant – even transcendent – return to acting after his taking six years off to concentrate on his music with his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. It all culminated on the night of March 2 when he won the Oscar. He began his acceptance that night speech with these words:

“In 1971. Bossier City, Louisiana. There was a teenage girl who was pregnant with her second child. She was a high school drop out and a single mom. But somehow she managed to make a better life for herself and her children. She encouraged her kids to be creative, to work hard, and to do something special. That girl is my mother and she’s here tonight. I just want to say I love you, Mom. Thank you for teaching me to dream.

“To my brother Shannon, the best big brother in the world, you’re a true artist. Thank you so much for sharing this insane and amazing adventure that is Thirty Seconds to Mars – and for being my best friend. I love you.”
It was a heady awards season for the forty-two-year-old actor but now it’s time to rock’n’roll once more. His band Thirty Seconds to Mars, which he founded with Shannon in 1998 (the band’s third member is Tomo Milicevic), has sold over 10 million records and has a devoted worldwide following. In 2011, Thirty Seconds to Mars was even been entered into the Guinness World Records’ roster as achieving “The Longest Concert Tour by a Rock Band,” having performed a total of 311 shows in two years. Throughout this spring and summer they will embark on their next tour, Adventures in Wonderland, and appear in, among other countries, Finland, Estonia, Australia, Japan, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Slovakia, Austria, Romania, and the Czech Republic. The band has released four albums since its inception, the last being Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams.

Kevin Sessums sat down with Jared and Shannon after their photo shoot to discuss their own loves, their own lusts, their own dreams. And the fraternal – and abiding – faith they have in each other.

KEVIN SESSUMS: You two had a Louisiana childhood without much money around but you did have the constant love and inspiration of your mother, Constance. My own childhood was a Mississippi one without much money around either. There are lots of things to appreciate about the south but I always say it’s a great place to be from. One of the great things down there is Cajun music. I’ve been trying to find the Cajun influence in your music but I’ve yet to really find it.

SHANNON LETO: There’s times when Jared has a blues influence in his voice – not a Cajun one exactly – but he’s got that bluesy type voice that pops out every once in a while. I think that’s a southern thing.

JARED LETO: There is a connective element with the south and overcoming obstacles and challenges. If you are born in the south – as far south as we all were born – and born to a life of privilege there can be great challenges and obstacles that you need to overcome if you want to achieve ambitious creative goals. That certainly was the case for us. We had very defined creative goals. And they were very ambitious. I think our music reflects that choice. There is a conversation with ourselves in our music.

KS: And with your fans. The familial thing is not only going on between the two of you as brothers but also between you and your fans who refer to themselves as the Echelon – which has a kind of cultish ring to it more than a familial one, come to think of it.

JL: We use the word “family” quite a bit. I hate the word “fan” because it derives from the word “fanatic” – although we certainly have our share of those.

KS: Well, let’s face it. You are both very sexy. So there is that aspect of being rock stars.

JL: Well … I’ll take it where I can get it. But there is a real family component with our fans where people forge deep friendships. The internet is a great tool for people to communicate and especially for our extended family around the world. The world can often times be a cold and lonely place. But what we’ve found is that people take the online offline and they foster friendships. Our shows become meet-up points. There is a real community there for people and a source of pride and identity.

KS: You also used this family quality aspect of your followers to do good regarding environmental activism and even building homes for those in need through Habit for Humanity. Have you consciously added a coolness factor to doing good?

JL: Whatever it is that motivates someone to do good doesn’t matter, I suppose, as long as they’re doing good ultimately. We’ve been pulled into environmental and social causes in organic ways. We shot a music video two hundred miles north of the arctic circle and that itself was an education about how cultures are being affected now by global warming – not twenty or fifty years from now. So that opened our eyes. As I child Shannon and I lived for a short time in Haiti and that led to social interactions with that country and its people. Our family was running a free clinic down there. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to give back. That’s something we’ve always had as part of our agenda.

KS: So you were raised to be socially conscious and active. It’s in your DNA.

JL: Yes. I’d say that. Yes.

KS: Because this magazine is one that happens to be LGBT …

SL: What is LGBT?

KS: Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender.

SL: Got it.

KS: So in that sense, you two are making a socially conscious statement being on the cover of this magazine since there are, I’m sure, some rockers who’d worry about being on such a magazine because some of their fans – or family – might not like that.

JL: It’s interesting. I think we think less about LGBT people and more about just people. For us, growing up with a really liberal single mom and also in a very creative environment, people were just people.

KS: Being from the south myself, I know what the culture can be like down there where you grew up.

JL: Well we escaped early on. It’s very oppressive.

KS: But you guys are very creative types. I know how hard that is for guys if you’re not holding a rifle and shooting a quail or taking aim at a deer.

SL: Like Jared said, we left at a very early age. We were just children.

JL: We would go back for the summers and stay with our grandmother though. So the culture was always there that we returned to. We moved around every couple of years growing up. Way up to north Massachusetts. Everywhere. But no matter where we were it was a very creative environment around artists. That is obviously an important reason that Shannon and I are pursuing the path that we are now.

KS: Did you guys always know you’d be in a band someday? Shannon, you started playing drums when you were five.

SL: Again, things just happened organically. Instruments were always around us during our childhood.

KS: How would you describe your own drumming? Are you more like Louie Bellson? Lars Ulrich? Art Blakey? Keith Moon? Dave Grohl?

SL: I listen to a lot of those guys. I have listened to them. I make up my own little pathway though.

KS: Part of your pathway as a band could be described as a queer one. Some of my straight friends have begun to define themselves as queer without it being a sexual term but a cultural one. Listening to your music and especially watching your films you’ve directed as cinematic adjuncts to the music, Jared, under your pseudonym Bartholomew Cummins, there does seem to be a kind of queer aesthetic that you embrace – maybe not even knowingly or consciously. But it does seem to be there. There is an “otherness” that you guys celebrate. Even the name of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars has a connotation of “otherness” about it. Would you be averse to being described as queer?

SL: I wouldn’t care. No.

JL: I don’t think we’d care at all. We certainly identify with people who are different.

SL: That’s it. That’s right.

JL: We have never thought we were part of the pack. We’ve walked our own path. As artists and creative people, that’s how we identify: as outsiders.

KS: What does the name of your band mean to you? It’s the kind of name that I as a writer – when looking on it narratively – means that the band will never get to where it wants to get to. It will always evolve. It will always be arriving.

JL: That’s a great statement. Yes. There’s that feeling that I can take from the name as well. There’s a pressure – a compulsion – to move forward and to continue to create. There is never really an arrival. There is only a journey.

KS: Your debut eponymous album was cerebral. The second one, A Beautiful Lie, was all about the heart. The third, This Is War, seemed be about survival. And this latest one – Love, Lust, Faith, and Dreams – is, yeah, about the very act of evolving: the journey. But as I was looking through your career as a band and I couldn’t help but notice the world it literally inhabits. Your first album was recorded in Wyoming. You shot your video for “From Yesterday” in China. There’s Los Angeles and the paean to it in your anthem “City of Angels” and the beautiful short film you shot there for that. There’s South Africa where you’re very popular and your concerts sell out. There’s even the artic circle as you’ve mentioned. You’re known for the extent of your touring around the world. There is a real geographic element to your band. Then name itself is thirty seconds to a place. It all makes me think of Sam Shepard’s play “Geography of a Horse Dreamer” about a guy from Wyoming who can predict the winners of horse races by listening to rock albums as he dreams. It’s about all his recurring archetypes – visionary artists, sinister corporate criminals and the iconic cowboy – which sort of is a kind of triptych or your own career arc, especially with your battle with your label EMI which you chronicled in your documentary Artifact.

JL: That’s great. I love all that.

KS: Well, hold on. If you combined both of you – if you smashed up Jared and Shannon Leto – you’d end up with a modern version of Sam Shepard. He played drums in a rock band, The Holy Modal Rounders. He’s an actor. He’s a writer. There is a real rock element to his early career. You guys are the Sons of Sam.

SL: I’m going to have to look up all of this.

KS: There is quote from Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer. “Luck is no accident,” he wrote. “It is a phenomenon. The challenge is to track it down.” That is all a long-winded way of getting to this question: Has that been a kind of theme in your life from getting from your poor childhoods being raised by your single mom to this point in your lives? Have you tracked down this life?

SL: I think so. Yeah.

JL: There is a kind of manifest destiny aspect to our lives. No doubt about it. There’s a line in “City of Angels” that says that dreams are made, not won. At another point in that song it says “I don’t believe in fate.” I do think there is something about your will, that ability to make your life and to wrestle it from your dreams. Someone asked me the other day if I had to fill out a form and it asked me what I do, what would I write down. I’d have to put down “dreamer.”

KS: See? Geography of a Horse Dreamer.

JL: But beyond that, what I do is that I take dreams and wrestle them into reality. Whether it’s a business or an art – I take an idea and I make it real. That seems to be consistent.

SL: I agree.

There is a kind of manifest destiny aspect to our lives. No doubt about it. There’s a line in “City of Angels” that says that dreams are made, not won.

KS: Do you agree with him a lot? Or do you ever have disagreements when it comes to the direction the band is going to take?

SL: When it comes to Jared and his ideas and his whole thought process I vibe well with that. I trust him.

KS: Getting back to Shepard for a moment. He went on tour with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue. They wanted him to write a narrative for a film based on the tour but he ended up keeping notebooks about it instead and published it as The Rolling Thunder Logbook. In it, he wrote, “Dylan creates a mythic landscape out of the land around us, the land we walk on everyday that we never see until someone shows it to us. Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head. It moves us into mystery.” Could that be a kind of artistic mission statement as well for Thirty Seconds to Mars?

SL: Our band is a direct reflection of who we are as people. We do like to discover things. We like to interpret things ourselves. We like to go on adventure and figure things out. And our films and music and our lyrics do just that. They allow the people who are watching and listening to go on a journey in their own minds to figure out what’s going on. What is this song saying? What is this film saying? What is this piece of art work saying? We’ve never really been fans of force-fed creative expression. We’ve always liked to figure things out for ourselves.

KS: Are you comfortable being rock stars in your forties?

SL: Honestly, we think of ourselves as artists and that we’re fortunate to travel and share our art with people. We’re just artists.

KS: You’re artists who stand up for your art – as your documentary Artifact attests. It tells the story of your legal battles with the record company EMI. The film was five years in the making. Are you a different person now, Jared, than the person who had the impulse to make that film?

JL: We were at war when we made that film Our record company had sued us for 30 million dollars.

KS: The film seemed to be a form of revenge. Have you moved past the vengeful impulse that sparked the making of it?

JL: It was an act of revenge in a sense I guess. But the best revenge is massive success – as Oscar Wilde or Frank Sinatra said.

KS: I think you’re the first person to confuse those two. Or, better yet, conflate them – which could be part of your appeal.

Let’s talk about your love of touring. I assume you love it since you do it so much.

JL: I think we’re just compelled to perform. I know I feel compelled to do it. I feel compelled to create. There’s a lot about touring that we love – seeing the world.

KS: Again, there is this geographical aspect to your band’s existence. Were you two geography nerds in school?

JL: Well, we did move around a lot as kids which helps now that we tour so much I think. We do have wanderlust.

KS: What music do you listen to?

JL: I don’t listen to music a lot – which is strange.

KS: What is your writing process? Do you have a concept for a song and you start with they lyrics and the music comes next or vice versa?

JL: Every song is unique. There are no rules. That’s what’s exciting. And it’s always good to remind yourself about that: there are no rules.

KS: That sounds like a song itself.

JL: Exactly. I should write a song about there being no rules.

KS: Peter O’Toole died yesterday. I went on youtube to watch some of his old interviews. In one of them he was then appearing in the Hamlet that Laurence Olivier directed at the National Theatre in 1963. O’Toole was talking to Orson Welles about how in Shakespeare one is not thinking about what is to come or what one has just said. The thought, in Shakespeare, he said is embedded in the line; it is to be found in the line’s iambic pentameter. Shakespeare, he said, is not about thinking. It is about being in the moment so that as one is speaking the line the iambic pentameter is the rhythm of the thought process itself. What he is basically talking about is the musicality of Shakespeare’s language and how close it is to performing music. In music there is no before and after. There is always the rhythmic moment of the music.

SL: Exactly. That’s it. That’s a great description of how I play.

JL: That’s awesome. I can relate to that a lot. I sometimes feel that thinking can ruin a great moment.

KS: One thing that I did think a bit about a moment ago when we started this interview was how surprised you looked when I brought up that this magazine happened to be an LGBT one and you are on the cover of it.

JL: No. I wasn’t surprised. I knew what we were doing.

SL: I wasn’t surprised. I knew about the magazine. I just wasn’t sure what those letters meant.

JL: In the last few years it’s become more prevalent to use those letters. I like it because it’s more representational of the community.

KS: I find it more difficult these days to tell with young kids exactly how they identify sexually. They all seem to be a bit more fluid these days about their sexuality. Do you think the rock world has come to reflect this? Has it always reflected it in some way? Or are there elements that are still homophobic?

SL: It depends what state you’re performing in.

JL: Yeah. That’s right.

KS: Are you aware of that when you play in front of certain audiences – some are more conservative than others? I mean rock does have in its DNA a kind of swaggering androgyny. It’s got Jagger. It’s got Mercury.

JL: It’s got Bowie.

KS: It’s even got Janis Joplin. It’s got you now, Jared. Are you aware of all that when you perform? Or are you just who you are and you’re not that premeditated about your image?

JL: When we perform, it’s all about the song. It’s all about listening. It’s all about the audience. It’s all about helping compel everyone – or propel everyone – to a place of abandon. I got a note from a kid yesterday. We were signing a thousand CDs after a show. If you looked at him, he looked like any young kid maybe in twelfth grade or eleventh grade who’d be on the baseball team or something. A nice looking kid. He handed me a note and it said, “I just want to say thanks so much for the music. It’s helped me in many ways – especially with coming out this year to my family.”

SL: We have a lot of gay kids in our audiences.

JL: Yeah. That note I got from that kid has become a common theme.

SL: Very common.

KS: I’m sure a lot of your audience is made up of women who love you for various reasons. You’re both appealing on lots of levels. But you have to have a gay element of your audience that loves you for lots of reasons too.

SL: Absolutely.

JL: Gay. Lesbian. Transgender. It’s a very beautiful and colorful audience.

KS: Why do you think the LGBT community responds to you – other than my theory that you have a queer aesthetic?

JL: I think what we have is an outsider aesthetic.

SL: That’s what I was just going to say.

When we perform, it’s all about the song. It’s all about listening. It’s all about the audience. It’s all about helping compel everyone – or propel everyone – to a place of abandon.

JL: Queer. Outsider. Those are interchangeable. I think our aesthetic comes from us always being the outsider. Always moving around. Always being the creative kids. Always being different. Always being the weird kids.

KS: Even when you were living down in Haiti you were the white kids. There was that difference.

JL: Yeah. We went to a school in D.C. at one point that was ninety percent black. All those things helped shape us into who we are. Those were good things to have had happen. What’s interesting is that it continues in our life and is now reflected in our audience.

KS: You two spend so much time together. Do you ever have to go, Okay, I’ve had enough of you? I need some time away from you?

SL: Yeah. Sure. We just do that automatically. It’s just an unspoken thing.

KS: What I have noticed about you two as we’ve hung out a bit today is that there is a sweetness between you. Is that too twee – too precious – to describe your relationship as a sweet one?

JL. No. Not at all. That’s what family is for.

This interview appeared in FourTwoNine’s Family Issue. To purchase this and other back issues, go here.

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