Plenty of artists pay lip service to loving their fans, but usually limit their interaction to meet-and-greets, replying to tweets and shout-outs from the stage. But 30 Seconds to Mars, which is about to release its third album, "This Is War," Dec. 8 on Virgin, goes far beyond the usual platitudes and gestures. The band involved its fans, known as "the Echelon," on a number of aspects of the new album, including them in choruses and putting their pictures on the album cover.
Lead singer Jared Leto says the group spent two years writing and recording the album, working in the studio with producers Flood and Steve Lillywhite. "The album is a quantum leap forward," Leto says. "I describe it as a metamorphosis, nothing short of a complete rediscovery."
30 Seconds to Mars' previous album, "A Beautiful Lie," which was released in 2005, has sold 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While "This Is War" certainly represents an artistic step forward for the band, it hasn't completely given up its melodic, hard rock leanings. "I don't ever wonder about what people will think when we get in the studio," Leto says. "I have to follow my heart and my gut and not worry about outside influences."
"This Is War" contains plenty of battle metaphors, with such lyrics as "Tell me who you'd kill to save a life." The band also makes excellent use of strings, and varied song arrangements save the album from sounding too much like a didactic lecture. The group includes choirs on almost every track, and Leto explains that members of the choruses are fans from around the world.
"We were intent on turning the mic toward the audience," he says. "We started to hold events we called 'the Summit'; we did one in L.A. at the Avalon and the place was full. We wound up doing eight of them in different cities, and then we started getting requests from fans that couldn't make it to the summits to participate. We launched a digital version, and we used the material to create the choruses."
Fans also were able to submit photos of themselves online, and Leto says the pictures were used to design several album covers that fans can choose from. "We know that retail is shifting from physical to digital," he says. "We wanted to celebrate the transition and make the physical release really important."
EMI executive VP of promotion and marketing Greg Thompson says fans will participate in marketing "This Is War" as well. "This is a band that was built by passionate fans," he says. "They have been doing a lot of the viral marketing themselves, preaching the gospel to their friends and families."
Thompson says the campaign to spread the word about the new album will also include many more traditional elements. "We introduced the first single, 'Kings and Queens,' to radio, and it's exploded at modern rock and active rock," he says. The song is No. 5 on Billboard's Alternative chart and No. 11 on the Rock tally.
The band is planning on playing a number of European shows in November before returning to the United States to play holiday radio shows. A full U.S. tour is planned for 2010.
"We're also pursuing licensing opportunities more vigorously," Thompson says. "It's an epic album, and the sound certainly isn't right for everyone. But we have great success with videogames. For instance, with the game 'Dragon Age,' you get a free download with the purchase of the game. And tracks are also available in the 'Rock Band' online store."
While much has been made of Leto's acting career and the perception of him as a celebrity with the band as a side project, Thompson says "This Is War" should dispel any lingering notions that the singer is a dilettante. "It's a harder journey for someone who acts to break into music than the other way around," he says. "But Jared is totally committed to making it all about the band. At this point, fans see him as the lead singer who just happens to act."
(Additional reporting by Kelly Staskel)