Few bands inspire as fervent a following as 30 Seconds to Mars. On the eve of what promises to be the poprock tour of the summer with co-headliners Linkin Park, the groupʼs drummer shares the story of his atypical road to stardom and gives insight into his creative process.
With more than 1.4 million Twitter followers, 10 million records sold, hundreds of millions of video views on YouTube, and a devoted global fan base known as “the Echelon,” the members of 30 Seconds to Mars—drummer Shannon Leto and multi-instrumentalists Jared Leto (Shannon’s brother) and Tomo Miličević—are inarguably rock stars with a capital R. Yet it’s interesting how many musicians are unfamiliar with the band’s material, despite its massive success. Perhaps it’s the Hollywood connection; Jared Leto is a popular actor, recently an Oscar winner, and musicians, the skeptical lot that we are, tend to question the authenticity of a group with such an apparent “head start.”
But frankly that’s our insecurity talking. When pressed, most of us would admit that there is no foolproof way to achieve our childhood dreams, and certainly no shortcut to lasting success as an instrumentalist. And anyone who’s seen Artifact, the award-winning documentary exploring 30 Seconds to Mars’ battles with its record label, understands that there are no guarantees even after you’ve reached the top. Despite Jared’s high-visibility dramatic roles, he’s made the band a priority, putting out four fully realized albums and touring the world multiple times over the past decade. For his part, Shannon absolutely passes the dues-paying test, working endless hours to come up with ideal yet idiosyncratic parts for the group’s modern-rock anthems and throwing every ounce of his copious energy into his live performances.
Growing up in remarkably humble surroundings and struggling to discover his place in the boxed-in world he saw before him, Leto found sense and purpose in the drums. Like so many, the young musician saw an early rock ’n’ roll model in Kiss, starting a cycle that would come full circle when Kiss producer Bob Ezrin produced 30 Seconds to Mars’ self-titled 2002 debut.
Leto spent nearly a decade away from the instrument during his teenage years, a time when most of us have the hours available for woodshedding. But his passion, desire for individuality, and deep personal connection to music never left him, and when in 1997 he and his brother started jamming for the simple pleasure of doing it, they gave birth to a group that, seventeen years later, is one of the few that can reliably achieve gold and platinum album sales and sell out arena gigs around the world.
Leto is more than the drummer for Mars; he’s fully immersed in all aspects of the band, including writing, instrumentation, programming, production, and creative direction. Often the identity of a musician is inextricably linked to the band he or she is in. In the case of 30 Seconds to Mars, the group’s character is a direct reflection of the creative vision of the Leto brothers.
MD: Creativity seems to be a natural byproduct of the environment you were raised in.
Shannon: Yeah, growing up, instead of having G.I. Joe dolls and TV, I would make instruments. My mom’s friends would come over with bongos and guitars, and I would try to make instruments that mimicked those sounds.
MD: It’s been reported that at a very young age, around six or seven, you may or may not have stolen the Kiss album Destroyer from a record store. What about that album caught your attention?
Shannon: I loved the dark vibe of the album cover, with the band on a mountaintop and the burning city behind them. Because I didn’t have toys and TV, my imagination was my entertainment. I would picture myself running through that burning city and meeting them on top of the mountain. And when I actually heard the record, I loved how it sounded. So visually and sonically I was connected to that style of music at a very early age.
MD: So how did you get into drumming?
Shannon: I started by listening to records, and I had seen pictures of drummers and drumsets, so I would arrange various pots and pans and boxes and just play, play, play.
MD: Did you ever take lessons?
Shannon: I tried taking lessons, but I was impatient. I just wanted to go off on my own and do it. I did get to participate in a community jazz workshop when I was twelve or thirteen. I got to play a real drumset, and there were obviously other musicians involved, and we got to travel around and play shows. That was really exciting. There was a connection there for me—playing live and being connected to something bigger.
The second time they were going to do it, the next season or whatever, they wanted everyone to read music, and I didn’t know how. So I was nervous. The song we needed to rehearse was Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” So I thought, I know this song—I got this! But when it was my turn to audition, the conductor guy, who I thought was my homey, my friend, throws this sheet music at me, and I took it personally: Man, he knows I don’t read music. I looked at it, thinking I could get by on what I remembered from hearing the song on the radio, but I got all sweaty and basically blew the audition.
MD: You actually stopped playing for a long while after that.
Shannon: Yeah, I did. I stopped playing because, at that time and age, I felt betrayed by someone I looked up to in a way.
MD: Those are formative years for musicians, and fragile ones at that. That sounds like it was a profound moment for you.
Shannon: It was, because music and drumming was my art, my life—it was the only way I expressed myself. I took it personally at the time, so I walked away from drumming for a while.
MD: You mentioned that there was a lot of music around you while you were growing up, but was there a particular band or drummer that captivated you?
Shannon: I liked so many different styles of music, but there wasn’t one main drummer that I wanted to emulate. There were the drummers from back then that everyone talks about, like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, the Who’s Keith Moon, and Stewart Copeland of the Police, who I really liked, but I mostly felt connected to music more than a particular drummer.
My first musical experiences with drummers like Bonham weren’t visual—I was hearing it. For example, I remember listening to The Song Remains the Same and hearing not only Bonham’s playing but these vocalizations he was doing while he was playing, like grunting, and it seemed so real and had such passion. I felt it—the drumming, the vocals, the guitars, the organ…. In order for me to really get into any drummer or band, it had to evoke an emotional reaction in me.
MD: 30 Seconds to Mars is your first and only band, correct?
Shannon: Yup, that’s it.
MD: Putting that together with the fact that the band started out as just you and your brother and that you weren’t specifically trying to emulate anyone, the music you created and your drumming style are essentially your own things.
Shannon: I never really thought about it like that, but you’re right—that’s what happened. I learned from everybody I listened to, but when we started playing it was just our thing, and so I did my thing.
MD: When you and Jared first started jamming, was the goal to start a band, or were you just having fun playing some of your favorite songs?
Shannon: We pretty much went right away into writing songs, but we didn’t really know we were writing. We followed what the other would be playing, just jamming.
MD: Was Jared singing at that point too?
Shannon: Yeah, he would be singing while playing guitar, and we would record onto a tape recorder. We weren’t playing out or anything. It was just me and him in a bedroom.
MD: Your drumming style tends to have an underlying groove with a lot of accents going on that are either punctuating a vocal melody or following the instrumentation.
Shannon: That style formed out of a habit I had when I would listen to a song on the radio. I would keep the beat with my right foot, and then I would tap the vocal line with my left foot. Then, with my right hand, I would tap the guitar or keyboard line and have this kind of upbeat thing going with my left hand. I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing.
MD: It wasn’t an intentional independence exercise?
Shannon: Not at all. I was just tapping, but later on I realized it was training in a sense.
MD: It sounds as if drumming stemmed from your active imagination. You could envision how to translate what you heard to your limbs. Was it ever difficult for you to get the coordination down from what you heard in your head when you got behind the kit?
Shannon: Not really. If I could hear it, I could I play it.
MD: From the start you embraced a hybrid setup, incorporating both acoustic and electronic sounds, which is an integral part of the 30 Seconds to Mars style. When did you first get interested in electronic music?
Shannon: I remember seeing a Depeche Mode concert on a VHS tape a long time ago, and homey was hitting this panel, almost a wall that would light up when he hit it, but it also produced a sound, and I thought that was really cool. New-wave bands like Depeche Mode and the Cure were groups that I listened to among all the other music I liked, and when I was playing drums I wanted to be able to produce those types of sounds as well. So I needed to add pads and modules and samplers in order to do that.
MD: Before going in to record a new album, do you decide to focus more on the acoustic or electronic side?
Shannon: I have some ideas in my head, but ultimately it depends on the song. The songs will usually start from a vocal line, guitar line, or drum part, and we just start adding or subtracting layers. There’s no formula, just what we feel is right for each song.
MD: Being that you tend to accent vocal lines or melodies, do your parts tend to evolve as the songs shift into focus?
Shannon: Well, sometimes songs start with a drumbeat, and everything comes together around that. The song “Night of the Hunter” from This Is War is written around the drumbeat.
MD: How involved are you on the production side of things in the studio?
Shannon: Oh, I’m in there tweaking and geeking. I’m a mad scientist in the control room.
MD: The studio can be a weird place when it comes to drumming. You’re a very physical player, but sometimes going all out in the studio doesn’t translate to the best-sounding takes. What’s your approach?
Shannon: Right, and that’s something I learned over time. If I’m bashing, I’m choking out the tone. So I push and pull. When I’m figuring out my parts, I go for it and play really hard because I’m feeling it. I want to know that the parts feel right. Then, when I go to record them, I pull back a little to get the best-sounding take.
MD: Do you go for full takes?
Shannon: Full takes—for sure! I’m a full-take guy. I don’t do parts at a time. Even nowadays, it’s really hard for me if someone says, “Hey, go program this beat and we’ll record real drums later.” I’m like, “Nah, I got to go play it.” So I set up everything and record it, and then maybe I’ll program a beat off what I just played. I’m not a slave to electronics or technology. I look at it like I’m in control of the technology.
MD: Are all the songs written by just you and Jared, or is Tomo Miličević involved in the process?
Shannon: It’s mainly me and Jared, but all ideas are welcome.
MD: Do you think that the sibling bond intimidates Tomo in terms of bringing ideas to the table?
Shannon: You know what, it probably does, but I think he knows how to deal with it. Any idea is a good idea, because it can spark another idea.
MD: Have you ever recorded tracks for any other projects?
Shannon: I did something called the Wondergirls in the late ’90s with Scott Weiland, Ian Astbury from the Cult, Troy Van Leeuwen, and a bunch of other people. I did that for a few months, but nothing ever really happened with it, because everyone was on different labels. I was just showing up and playing. It was just a side project.
MD: It’s pretty rare for someone to basically have been in only one band from the start, and it seems that the more successful the band becomes, the more focused you are on having it be the best it can be.
Shannon: I am pretty fulfilled with Mars. All my energy is put into this band, and there’s so much more involved for me than playing drums. From the visuals to the live production to geeking out on new instruments to bringing back really old keyboards—there’s a lot to do that keeps me busy.
MD: The band typically takes three to five years between albums. Is that due to scheduling, or do you tend to work very meticulously and conceptually from the start of each record?
Shannon: Well, we’re not going to do that anymore, but it would usually take us that long to write a record, because we would go in and just trip out and massage the songs until they were done. We’d try out different Junos, all these old-school ’80s synths, ’80s programmed drums like Simmons, vintage guitars…. We took our time, and the record company has always allowed us to do that.
MD: It definitely comes across on your albums, because even from the band’s debut, the songs always sound finished, with a lot of care and precision placed on the sounds, arrangements, and orchestrations.
Shannon: That’s how we did it, and we learned a lot from that type of process. You don’t always have to take that much time. Sometimes you get so precious, and perfection is kind of subjective. Nothing’s perfect, and trying to be perfect is not a fun way to live. I think I’ve learned that imperfections are what make things really exciting and different. On our last album, Love, Lust, Faith, and Dreams, there’s a bunch of imperfections and mistakes, and that’s what made the records.
MD: Do you mean mistakes in terms of performances?
Shannon: Yeah, but even in the sounds I was creating with the synths and all that. There were some happy mistakes, and I just left them instead of trying to fix them to make it “perfect.”
MD: When you’re in the kind of band that really takes its time, how do you know when to let go and leave something be?
Shannon: Well, we’ve done a few albums that took a long time because we were trying to make things perfect, or the best that they could possibly be. I think time is what taught us. We learned that we don’t necessarily have to do that. Just growing and evolving as a band has helped us learn when to let go. It’s a process. We’re always pushing ourselves to try things differently, think outside the box, take risks, change, grow, and evolve. That being said, letting go is just a natural way to go about things now—not focusing so much on the minutiae but letting things breathe and be imperfect.
MD: Do producers ever say, “I think you got it,” but you feel differently?
Shannon: It’s always up to us. Some producers are like, “I feel that was the right one—that was it!” And if we agree, we agree. If we don’t…well, I definitely tend to exhaust all ideas. I tend to exhaust everything, you know. “Let’s see how this part will feel in 2/4…let’s see how it will feel with four on the floor… let’s try an upbeat thing…how about accenting on the 3….” In my head I’m feeling it, so I want to be able to hear out loud how every way sounds.
MD: When you first started out, you were creating for yourselves. Now that you have a massive global fan base, does that put extra pressure on you when you’re writing because there are expectations?
Shannon: Nah, man, there’s no pressure at all. We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve been fortunate that we created that dynamic from the beginning, and it’s always been that way. Having that global family, the Echelon, has actually added to our creative process. It’s given us inspiration and the freedom to express ourselves how we choose. They are really amazing.
MD: What’s most important for you to convey during a performance? Are you focused on the vibe or playing the parts perfectly?
Shannon: No, no, no—I’m never worried about being perfect. What I’m most concerned about is being free when I’m up there, not feeling restricted, because when that happens my playing becomes stiff and it’s not as fun. It’s the vibe! I feed off my brother, I feed off the audience, and I just disappear into the show. Like when you’re driving from your house to some place and you get there and you’re like, How did I even get here?
MD: You use in-ear monitors live, which have incredible isolation. Do you have any ambience in your mix so you don’t miss out on the audience involvement?
Shannon: I don’t put the in-ears in all the way, or one’s out and one’s in, and we also have crowd mics. I want to protect my ears. I used to use foam earplugs when we used stage monitors, and the transition to using in-ears was actually a pain in the ass. I’m so “I wanna feel the music, man,” so it was a process.
MD: Foam earplugs can make the kit sound better, especially the bass drum, but molded earplugs made the kick disappear.
Shannon: Yes! That’s why it’s important to have a great monitor guy, but also a thumper on your seat.
MD: You use a seat shaker?
Shannon: Hell, yeah! They’re great.
MD: In-ears are almost a contradiction of success. It’s every musician’s dream to play to large crowds that are singing every word, and then in-ears came along, and unless you have those ambient mics, it can be difficult to feed off that energy.
Shannon: With everything there’s cause and effect. If you play with no protection, you’ll go deaf and won’t be able to hear your drums or the audience. If you’re playing with in-ears, you get used to hearing the mix that way.
MD: Do you have a click in your ears?
Shannon: There’s a click for some of the electronic stuff we do here and there, and the in-ears allow me to hear it clearly in the mix.
MD: Throughout the set, is there something in every song that requires a click?
Shannon: We trigger everything. Nothing is [tracked]; everything is live. Tomo has sequencers, and the [touring] bass player, Jared, and I are all triggering parts so that we don’t have to play to tape. In those situations you need to have a click, and playing to a click has never bothered me. I can pull the beat back; I can push the beat. It’s always been very natural for me. But most importantly, it lines everything up so that when it comes time to trigger a sample, it’s in time.
MD: What do you use to trigger parts?
Shannon: Roland pads into a V-Drums module and Ableton Live.
MD: You’re touring Canada and the States with Linkin Park and A.F.I.
Shannon: We’ve known the guys in Linkin Park for a while now, and we thought it would be an amazing idea to tour together. It just made sense.
MD: You guys have a sound unto your own. It’s somewhat difficult to cross-reference 30 Seconds to Mars with other bands.
Shannon: Yeah, I think we have our own thing. But if you look at the grandiosity of both bands, we share some of the same production elements and theatrics, so it’s a good tour pairing.
MD: As physical or theatrical as it may be, you guys maintain such a close relationship with the audience. It’s a communal vibe.
Shannon: That’s it! That’s 30 Seconds to Mars—it’s a community. People can listen the way they want to listen. Nothing’s force fed. I think our fans appreciate that. They have the freedom to be who they are and express themselves as they feel.
Leto says he’s inspired by electronic music, late-’80s R&B, old Michael Jackson, Knife Party, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Kiss, Boz Scaggs, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Police, early Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Mastodon, KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, and Eric B. and Rakim.
Drums: Sonor SQ2 Maple
A. 5.5×14 bronze Artist series snare
B. 5×13, 25-ply maple Artist series snare
C. 8×8 tom
D. 8×10 tom
E. 8×12 tom
F. 8×14 tom
G. 16×16 floor tom
H. 16×18 floor tom
I. 20×20 bass drum
1. 14″ AAX X-Celerator hi-hats
2. 19″ AAX X-Plosion crash
3. 20″ AAX X-Plosion crash
4. 19″ AAX X-Treme China
5. 21″ Dry ride
Hardware: DW, including Floating Snare Basket for 14″ snare; 9000 series hi-hat stand, double pedal, and single pedal; and percussion table
Heads: Remo Clear Pinstripe tom batters, Coated Emperor X 14″ snare batter, Coated CS 13″ snare batter, and clear Powersonic bass drum batter
Electronics: Roland TD-12 brain, PD-8 pads, and KD-7 Kick Trigger Unit
Percussion: TreeWorks Tre35 full-size single-row chimes
Accessories: Roc-n-Soc saddle throne with base; ButtKicker with mounting plate and ButtKicker amp
Sticks: Vater Shannon Leto Signature 5A Nude model with nylon tip