There's good reason for this band to want to start fresh. In 2008, EMI sued 30STM for $30 million, claiming the group failed to deliver three of its five contracted albums. "It was very problematic," 30STM co-manager Irving Azoff says. "Until the company was sold, there were five or six regimes at EMI, each one worse than the previous one, and [they were] doing things like refusing to accept album artwork, which would then trigger penalties for late delivery."
The suit was eventually thrown out amid label restructuring, and the band was able to release its third album. "We called it 'This Means War' for a reason," Leto says. "We were battling our record label." So when it came time to release a fourth album-"without the threat of a $30 million lawsuit looming over our heads"--he decided to celebrate and reboot.
Coming off a whirlwind 311-city tour that earned the group a place in the Guinness World Records for the most consecutive tour dates, the band chose to record the album in 50 locations around the world, from Asia to Austria to the California desert. The first stop, in April 2011, was India, where a studio was set up by the banks of the Ganges River. "That trip was about hitting the reset button," Leto says. "We went to Varanasi, where we recorded the song 'Pyres of Varanasi.' It's where they cremate bodies. So on the surface, you think it's about death. But really when you immerse yourself in what's going on, you realize it's about life."
With its snaking rhythms, hypnotic electro beats and Eastern chanting, the song, like many on the new album, represents something of a departure from 30STM's hard-driving prog-metal sensibility. Leto's "screamo" vocals still blaze through most of the tracks, but they seem clearer and more restrained than usual. That's perhaps thanks to U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, who lent his crystalline touch and helped build epic soundscapes that add nuance and a dramatic counterpunch to the band's grinding guitars and drums.
"It feels like we really did start over, which is a nice place to be 15 years into something," Leto says, adding that the group recorded 70 songs before whittling it down to the 12 that appear on the album. "It was a true sense of cleansing, getting rid of the past and moving on. Even the title itself suggests something much more reflective. We all feel it's the best thing we've ever done."
Judging from early response, fans agree. The single truly did blast off shortly after it was released March 19 here on Earth. "Up in the Air" is No. 5 on Billboard's Alternative chart in its eighth week--easily the youngest song in the chart's top 15. It's also No. 21 on the Active Rock chart, all of which is propelling presales of the album.
The band also released the song's highly stylized video on April 19. The hallucinatory flesh fest features burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese stripping and riding a mechanical bull, while U.S. Olympic gymnasts McÂKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, fly through the air, interspersed with quick cuts of the group performing, various dizzying visuals and close-ups of a lion, zebra and snake. "It's my homage to art, design and human aesthetics," says Leto, who directed the eight-and-a-half-minute-long short film under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins. The premise behind the high-concept clip seems almost inconsequential. What matters is that it triggered more than 3 million YouTube views within a week.
"It's an incredibly important part of the album and a connection to the music," says Ashley Burns, GM of Virgin, itself only a few months into its own relaunch, and where 30STM is the only act slated for an album release in 2013. "Since we launched the video, the velocity on the view counts, pre-order album increase and single sales has been huge. They're our priority."
Visuals have been a big part of the band's brand since its second album, "A Beautiful Lie," was released in 2005. Cinematic clips for songs like "The Kill" (which borrows imagery from the movie "The Shining") and "From Yesterday" (shot in China and based on "The Last Emperor") earned the band MTV VMA wins.
"Those videos helped [Jared] build legions of loyal fans," Azoff says. "Those were great moments." And of course, actor Leto's good looks don't exactly hurt. He was twice named one of People's Most Beautiful People Alive, and earned a following through cult TV hit "My So-Called Life." He followed up that role with critically acclaimed parts in films like "Prefontaine" and "Requiem for a Dream."
But Azoff isn't so sure acting has helped Leto's music career. "It's made it harder, not easier," he says. "He's had to basically give up his movie career to gain rock cred. But I'm glad he's acting again, even though losing 30 pounds for his next role nearly killed him." (He plays a transsexual woman dying of AIDS in "Dallas Buyers Club" with Matthew McConaughey, which comes out later this year.)
Judging by the "Up in the Air" video, Leto looks like he's back in fine form, flaunting an age-defying body and a deceptively boyish grin. Despite his guileless demeanor, he's emerged from the maelstrom of record-label chaos a savvy entrepreneur who's launched his own social media platform called the Hive; a ticketing service called Vyrt, which caters to live-stream concerts; and a VIP service for hardcore fans called Echelon, all as a way to engage and build followers.
"I'm a creative problem solver," Leto says. "I don't look at myself as a musician or director or actor. I probably spend more time editing and designing for my various projects than standing in front of a camera or onstage. I love what Andy Warhol said: 'Labels are for cans, not for people.'"
Call it creative freedom or shrewd business, but Leto's ability to engage his fans will prove pivotal this summer when he tours, which is a crucial step in boosting sales of the album above the 5 million mark attained by the band's previous release. "He's a one-man army," Azoff says. "When I first started working with him around the second album's release, he hadn't toured overseas." Azoff got 30STM new booking at Creative Artists Agency, which sent the group on a three-pronged attack in Europe.
"We hit small clubs at first, 300- to 500-capacity venues, then upgraded almost immediately to 800," says Mike Greek, who books the band's overseas dates for CAA. "Building a grass-roots following was a crucial element. We brought them back three times in a short period, instead of just one show to see what happens. This way we could build and be really aggressive about reconnecting with fans."
The strategy paid off. The act now headlines arenas throughout Europe, South Africa and Australia. Plans for this summer include a European tour that will start in Poland and end in Portugal, while headlining huge festivals like Germany's Rock am Ring and Rock im Park in between. In September, the band starts focusing on a new market, South America, playing Rock in Rio along with Florence & the Machine and Muse. "South America will be a major focus for 2014," says Greek, who plans to build the group's appeal there the way he did in Europe.
Back at home, Virgin will be rolling out a four-city Church of Mars tour upon the album's release that literally includes gigs in religious institutions like a Baptist church in Philadelphia and a synagogue in Washington, D.C. Fans can attend only by winning tickets through radio promotions or through the 30STM website. "Our strategy is hardcore fans first," Virgin's Burns says. "And from there, we want to spread as wide and far as we can." Of course, that doesn't mean Leto is likely to appear on an episode of "The Voice" any time soon. "He wouldn't go on a reality show," Burns says. "He went to NASA."