Here is one thing you probably do not know about Jared Leto: He is a hugger.
I discovered this on Monday, when I spent the afternoon with 30 Seconds to Mars at Leto's rather amazing home in Los Angeles and was wrapped in his gentle embrace no less than a dozen times. In the upstairs sitting room, down by the pool, in the control room of his studio ... Leto was there for me, waiting with outstretched arms. Seriously, it was like visiting my grandma, if my grandma A) had a decidedly postmodern interior-design scheme and B) were friends with Kanye West.
To say that it was possibly the most surreal afternoon of my entire career would be an understatement of epic proportions. And that was before Leto sat me down, stared at me with those steely blue eyes of his, patted my knee and presented me with a gift: a box of steel-cut oatmeal (since I had joked in a blog post that he was killing us with all the cupcakes he had been sending to the MTV newsroom). Oh, and he filmed the exchange for a movie he's working on and made me sign a release form.
And this brings me to the point of this week's column: Not only is Jared Leto a tireless hugger and a thoughtful gift giver, he is also totally, completely crazy ... in the best way possible.
Because for the past year, despite the specter of a $30 million lawsuit hanging over his head (the suit was settled hours after this column was filed), Leto has been clocking 18-hour days in a bare-bones-yet-strangely-futuristic studio that he and his 30 Seconds to Mars bandmates — brother Shannon and guitarist Tomo Miličević — built and financed completely out of pocket, working on the ultra-ambitious, decidedly weird follow-up to 30STM's breakthrough 2005 album, A Beautiful Lie.
They brought in Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Killers) to produce and advise them, even designing the studio to his exact specifications. (At one point, while giving me a tour, Leto stopped and pointed at a refrigerator-size synthesizer: "That's the same one [Flood] used on Depeche Mode's Violator," he beamed. "You have to be a scientist to play it.") They had Kanye sing and play on a song. They held an RSVP-only "audio experiment" designed to cull whispers and murmurs and shouts for backing tracks. And they are making (and editing at Leto's house) a film that will document the album's creation.
Until this week's settlement, this was all without the backing of a label — or a firm distribution plan, aside from Leto's steadfast insistence that people will hear the album "even if I have to go door-to-door selling it." This album, with songs that stretch to eight minutes and have the synthesizer overload of Tangerine Dream, is completely self-financed, totally uninfluenced and untouched by anyone outside of Leto's inner circle (and maybe Brandon Flowers). And it is — by Leto and his bandmates' own admission — vastly different from their last album, to the point where fan alienation is a near certainty.
So, basically, Leto has been making what could either be the most ambitious or disastrous album you might never hear. And now he's swallowed his pride and found a way for you to hear it. And he's doing it because he wants to.
And really, shouldn't we have more rock stars like this? Shouldn't every album be a leap of faith, a test of wills, a risk of considerable magnitude? Isn't that how great art is made? Jared Leto gets a lot of crap, but really, he just might be the most driven, focused and downright fearless rock star I've ever met. And his band, much derided and long ignored, are the same way: Down in their studio, while no one was looking, they've been slaving away with no real end in sight, working on a deeply personal, completely unspoiled piece of art. That is brave. That is commendable.
Of course, keep in mind I am basing all of this off a single afternoon I spent with 30STM at Leto's house. I haven't heard a single note of their new album — just listened to them talk about it, watched them run their fingers through their scraggly beards, rub their bloodshot eyes. I have no idea how the album will turn out ... if it ever turns out at all.
But I do know that I wish there were more people like Jared Leto making music these days. We need more certifiable, insanely driven, hyper-focused people to shoulder the load, to take risks and to make art. This is what we should expect from every band we love, yet almost none of them are brave (or crazy) enough to try it.
Jared Leto is. And I can't wait to see how this whole thing turns out. Disaster or triumph, at least he tried. Hard. And hugged even harder.
Questions? Concerns? BTTS@MTVStaff.com