The new Thirty Seconds to Mars album, their fifth, has what frontman Jared Leto calls a "rather, um, loaded title," and he's not kidding: It's America. It's also the most electronics-heavy album for the band since its self-titled 2002 debut, and its most pop-friendly LP ever, complete with guest appearances by Halsey and A$AP Rocky and production on one track by Zedd. "It's not necessarily big, bombastic guitar anthems," says Leto, fresh from landing in Italy for an arena date with the band. "For a long time, I wanted to make an album about the American dream and America as a concept – and as I was halfway through, I thought, 'I guess I'm making that album now.'"
On the single "Walk on Water," you sing, "Making love with the devil hurts." Could you expand on that sentiment?
It's the old story about the rabbit that wanted to ride on the back of the crocodile. And at the end he eats the rabbit and says, "I'm a goddamn crocodile. What did you expect?" So if you make a deal with the devil, there are certain things you can expect. "Walk on Water" is a song very much about the times we're living in.
Is the devil perhaps in the Oval Office?
You could take that as one example. I played it in Paris to 15,000 people, and I was stunned how loud they sang that song. You can write a song about America, but these are global concerns.
What led you toward electronic sounds on this album?
I've always loved that mix, whether it's Depeche Mode, or the Who using synthesizers, or Pink Floyd using whatever technology to get where the song needed to go. Also, loud cymbals and distorted guitars don't translate in this day and age. If you turn that stuff up now, your ears start bleeding.
Isn't that really because everything's being mastered too loud?
You're totally right. It used to be pleasurable to crank up Zeppelin or Nirvana to 12 in your car. Now everyone would complain – it's so piercing, so bright. I do think that has something to do with stylistic choices that are pervasive in music today.
What modern pop and hip-hop are you drawing on?
Kanye is always an inspiration for his bravery. And one of my favorite songs in the past few years has been Father John Misty, "Bored in the U.S.A." I hadn't heard that kind of truth spoken in a song in a really long time. In general, some of the biggest songs in the world now have, like, three instruments, including the vocal. We're in this time of incredible minimalism, and for a band that's been full-on maximum, it's fun to experiment in new territory and break our own rules.
You named your tour after the huge-sounding new instrumental "Monolith." Were you inspired by Hans Zimmer?
Not directly. With the instrumentals, I say to the engineer, "Excuse me, I need that chair for a little while," and I open up Pro Tools and start, basically, composing. I've always loved soundtracks ever since, like, Ennio Morricone and Tangerine Dream. I even loved fucking Chariots of Fire when I was a kid. And The Last Temptation of Christ is one of my favorite albums of all time. "Monolith" is the intro for this giant, kinetic sculpture that we have in the middle of the arena on this tour – and there is a 60-foot-tall monolith in the building.
So you managed not to pull a Spinal Tap and end up with a 60-inch monolith?
Yeah [laughs]. But we have plenty of that. We start out playing inside this giant rectangular box. There is great potential for us to get stuck inside this thing. But our concerts are so loose that if it happened, it would probably turn into the best show of the tour. And then we'd send the production home and never use it again.
You filmed Suicide Squad and Blade Runner 2049 while working on this album. Does any of that bleed in?
When I focus on something, I'll focus on it completely, and when I make music, I'm part manager, part marketer, part creative director, part producer, writer, musician, singer, songwriter. I enjoy it, and it drives me fucking nuts a lot of times. For this album, we have a documentary film about America, filmed in every single state on a single day, July 4th, last year. We're in the middle of editing. It's been an onslaught of incredible creative challenges. Probably the hardest that I've worked ever in my entire life.
As a huge tech investor, how do you feel about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies?
I don't fuck with crypto. That should be the name of the album, really. I asked the two smartest people I know, two of the most successful people in the world, and they both had a negative view on it. Which doesn't mean that those two people can't be wrong.
You're a Smashing Pumpkins fan. Thoughts on the D'arcy-free reunion?
I don't...I didn't even know there was a reunion. Sorry.