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30 Seconds to Mars soars

The band's legal struggles with EMI -- since resolved with an unlikely Old Hollywood assist -- inform its new album, 'This Is War.'

November 29, 2009|By August Brown
  • A MORE COMBATIVE DIRECTION: Jared Leto, left, Shannon Leto and Tomo Milicevic. The trio's new album is out Dec. 8.
A MORE COMBATIVE DIRECTION: Jared Leto, left, Shannon Leto and Tomo Milicevic.… (Cobra )

A few weeks ago, Jared Leto got a letter in the mail. It was addressed to the 30 Seconds to Mars singer in formal, feminine script and arrived on thick, azure-colored paper. The return address was the real surprise, however -- the Paris home of Olivia de Havilland, the "Gone With the Wind" actress who in a roundabout way helped save the band's career.

Last year, the group was staring down a $30-million lawsuit from its parent label, EMI, over future albums the label claimed the band owed the company. But a contract case involving De Havilland decades ago seemed to offer legal precedent for a way out.

"The California Appeals Court ruled that no service contract in California is valid after seven years, and it became known as the 'De Havilland law' after she used it to get out of her contract with Warner Bros.," Leto said. "We used the same statute to resolve our lawsuit."

Because of her association with that law, Leto had reached out to De Havilland to interview her for an as yet unreleased documentary he was filming about the making of the album. She declined to participate, but she agreed to meet with him and the two remained in touch -- though Leto says he was taken aback when he received her handwritten missive.

He hadn't expected her to take the time to send a the note, he said. "I'm going to visit her in Paris to thank her," Leto said.

In the back room of the band's new mixed-use promotional space on Melrose Avenue, Leto sounds positively zen, even downright beatific about an Old Hollywood star unwittingly helping to rescue him from within today's flailing major-label system. He greets guests with vigorous hugs, and he sings prospective new verses between conversations the way other people might take smoke breaks.

The band's new album, "This Is War," out Dec. 8, is decidedly more combative. Such songs as "Night of the Hunter" and "Hurricane" brim with sinister electronics and lyrics such as "Tell me, would you kill to prove you're right?" The suggestion is one of malevolent forces both acting on the band and roiling within it.

Leto is reluctant to discuss any particulars of the lawsuit, which ended with 30 Seconds to Mars back under the EMI label umbrella. After the suit's resolution in April, Nick Gatfield, EMI Music's president of A&R labels for North America and the United Kingdom, gave an official statement on the suit.

"We are thrilled to have set aside our differences and signed a new agreement with 30 Seconds to Mars," he said. "Our relationship has been extremely rewarding and successful, and we're eager to move forward and put our global team to work on the brilliant new album they are recording with [producer] Flood."

The experience still left Leto with a disconnect about how otherwise friendly, individual faces can quickly turn ugly when business dealings are involved. "The idea of a corporation is a tricky one. It's a shell for the people within it, and though we've lost a lot of our supporters at EMI from layoffs, there are still mostly good people there," he said.

That sense of confusion and disappointment inform the album's tone. Yet the collection is also the most confident-sounding thing the band has done. It owes a great deal to producer Mark Ellis, who under the name Flood has helmed albums by U2, Depeche Mode and the Killers. He said the stress of the suit made the "This Is War" sessions an often physical trial for the band.

"There were so many dark days," Ellis said. "A bit of hopelessness and depression are useful in galvanizing artists, but I feel like I really had to help lift them out of it. Jared had the worst back problems in the studio from the physical stress of holding up the band under the lawsuit."

Ellis' sure production helped the musicians break out of their wall-of-guitars contemporary rock sound (there's even a vocal cameo from Kanye West on "Hurricane").

They also recalibrated their sense of what -- and who -- was truly important to them. One of the most prominent effects on the album is a catalog of found sounds recorded at various "summits," where fans came to sing hooks en masse at venues including the Avalon in Hollywood.

Leto, whose acting credits include "Panic Room" and "Requiem for a Dream," has long based 30 Seconds to Mars in Los Angeles but set its music videos in such places as Beijing's Forbidden City and at the Arctic Circle.

Recording the album at Leto's home just north of the Hollywood Hills brought the band's psychology closer to L.A. The video for "War's" first single, "Kings and Queens," centers on L.A.'s bicycling community.

It follows Leto, (his brother and) drummer Shannon Leto and guitarist Tomo Milicevic as they lead a gang of bikers across the L.A. River through Hollywood to the Santa Monica Pier. The raging wildfires and white stallion that joins them suggest the band hasn't lost its taste for the epic. But Leto is carving out a niche for the group amid the whirlwind.

"So much of this album was about reclaiming public space for art," Leto said. "We shut down Hollywood Boulevard. We shut down the Santa Monica Pier. It was so wonderful to own both sides of the road. We tried to close down the freeway, but that's a lot harder to do than we thought."

august.brown@latimes.com

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