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Drummer Shannon Leto wasn't concerned about all of the attention his brother, lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist and actor Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club), attracted when their band 30 Seconds To Mars released its eponymous debut album in 2002. He was right, as the focus quickly shifted from Jared's celebrity star power to the band's well-crafted songs, dynamic, emotional performances and dedicated musicianship. Music critics quickly realized that 30 Seconds To Mars was a bona fide band, and they were quick to praise Shannon's taut, driving rhythms and sophisticated, inventive patterns.
After releasing three albums, including their latest effort This Is War, and selling more than 3.5 million albums worldwide, 30 Seconds To Mars is now one of the most highly regarded new bands to emerge during the first decade of the new millennium. This Is War debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and the band has become a top-drawing live act. In some respects Shannon has become as big a star as his brother.
Music has always been in Shannon and Jared's blood, even long before Jared started to pursue an acting career. "Jared and I were always playing instruments when we were growing up," says Shannon. "We didn't have a plan to become musicians. The instruments were always there and we just played them. Then one day we decided to make a CD together. It sounded so good that we decided to share the experience with people and play out. The rest is history."
Shannon was drawn to the drums from the moment he and his brother started playing music together at ages seven and five, respectively. "I started banging away on pots and pans in my grandmother's kitchen," he recalls. A few years later when he was 10 years old, Shannon got his first drum kit: "It had huge, massive toms. Here I was, this little kid sitting behind a grown-up's kit. I banged on it all the time and drove my neighbors crazy."
Shannon's drum kit has grown considerably over the years since he started playing, and it has gone through numerous changes since 30 Seconds to Mars released its first album. These days he plays a hybrid kit that combines both acoustic and electric elements. Basically, his drum rig consists of a large acoustic kit and a full electronic drum setup, which allows Shannon to play either type separately or combine them as he pleases. Shannon used to set up his electronic drums to one side of his rig, separate from his acoustic kit, but his drum tech, Joseph Ciccone (better known as Kentucky), built him a custom mounting rack that combines the electronic and acoustic drums together.
"I love acoustic drums, and I love electronic drums," he says. "I like to have the freedom to play whatever sounds I want."
Shannon's main acoustic kit is a custom maple/birch set decorated with RockenWraps drum skin artwork that features photos of over 400 of the band's fans, which the members of 30 Seconds to Mars call "the Echelon." The acoustic kit consists of ten pieces—a single 20x19" kick drum, 18x18" and 16x16" floor toms, 14, 12, 10 and 8" rack toms (all eight inches deep), a 14x8" 23-ply maple/birch hybrid shell snare and two auxiliary snares—a 14x6" snare with a bronze shell and black chrome hardware and a 13x5" snare with a 27-layer beech shell and gold hardware. All of his drums are fitted with Remo heads: Pinstripe (top) and Ambassador (bottom) on the toms, Emperor X (top) and Ambassador (bottom) on the snares, and a PowerSonic on the kick drum.
"I especially like the way the short stack toms sound," he says. "They have a very fast attack that works really well with our music."
Cymbals in Shannon's kit are all made by Sabian and include a 21" HHX Raw Bell Dry Ride, 20" AAX Stage Crash, 19" AAX X-Plosion Crash, 19" AAX X-Treme Chinese, 14" AAX Mini Chinese, 10" AAX Splash, 8" Chopper, 8" AA China Splash and 14" AA Rock Hats. Shannon says that he thinks his cymbal setup is somewhat small compared to the overall size of his kit.
Shannon augments his acoustic kit with a Roland TD-12 V-Drum module that he bought from Guitar Center, and he has a KD-7 kick trigger pad and eight PD-8 dual-trigger pads spread out amongst his setup. "I like the rubber pads," he says. "They're smaller so I can tuck them perfectly between my acoustic drums just the way I want them. Other electronic drum kits have really big pads that are just clunky. I have pads to my left, pads on top of the toms and a kick drum pad. I used to have two acoustic kick drums because I like to play two kicks, but I got rid of one so I could have the electronic bass drum."
On the first self-titled 30 Seconds To Mars album, Shannon played electronic drums almost exclusively, and on their second album, A Beautiful Lie, he switched to a mostly acoustic setup. Because This Is War features an abundance of electronic sounds and synth textures, he was inspired to bring back the electronic elements in his drum kit, but he didn't want to abandon the acoustic sounds he grew to love as well.
"We wanted both this time," says Shannon. "I'm changing all the time, and I don't think I ever want to sound the same. That's evolution. I don't want to limit my thinking and end up stuck in a box with a narrow-minded point of view. That doesn't satisfy me.
"My drum playing is always evolving," he continues. "For this record we wanted both acoustic and electronic sounds, but we wanted it to sound as organic as possible. The electronic sounds you hear are either samples we made ourselves or else they came from really rare synthesizers. I recorded sounds like handclaps or banging on various items in the house and then we treated them electronically. It was very important for us to record and create our own samples. We wanted this album to reflect each of our personalities and the best way to do that was by creating our own sounds."
Shannon used his main acoustic/electronic stage setup along with several other acoustic drum kits to record This is War. The band recorded the album in a house that he and his brother both share. "We recorded everything there," says Shannon. "It was just me, my brother, Tomo, and our producers—Flood and Steve Lillywhite. We wondered how the drums were going to sound in the house, but as soon as I started playing we noticed that the live drum sound was just amazing there. It sounded even better when we recorded it. No one has ever recorded there so it has a unique sound. We recorded everywhere in the house. I recorded snares in my bathroom and the kitchen. I played drums in my closet and even outside by the pool and across the street in the woods. The hawk that you hear at the beginning of ‘Kings and Queens' lives in those trees and he's always making noise, so we recorded that, too.
"It took me ten days to get this one drum sound for the intro to ‘Night of the Hunter'," he continues. "There was a feeling that had to be present and the drums had to have this particular sound. I had the guys try different things over and over, and on the tenth day I finally nailed it. I couldn't have done that in a commercial studio where you have to pay for each minute. Recording at home gave me the freedom to express myself the way I wanted to with no time restrictions or pressure. This album is all about total freedom and pure emotion."
While the overall production of This is War is absolutely massive and includes touches like children's choirs, lush beds of synthesizers and sampled loops, Shannon says that the band tried to keep their performances sounding natural. "Sometimes it's just blistering and bombastic," he says. "Other times it's raw and really personal. Jared and I grew up listening to really progressive bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin who had eight- and ten-minute songs, so that was a natural thing for us to do."
A lot of the raw emotion was inspired by a tumultuous lawsuit. "Our record label was suing us for 30 million dollars," Shannon laments. "As a result of that this record took us a couple of years to complete. A lot happened during that time. A new president was being elected, and during recording we'd often stop to take breaks and listen to the presidential debates. It was an exciting time, but it was a hard time as well. The world was falling apart economically, and we were going through personal challenges. We captured all of that in this record. If we didn't go through all those experiences, the record and the band wouldn't sound the way it does today."
The band's fans and their support provided considerable inspiration and support throughout the recording process as well. They frequently communicate and interact directly with their fans via Facebook and Twitter, which they used to invite their fans to participate in the album's creation. To thank their fans for their involvement, 30 Seconds to Mars printed 2,000 different covers of This is War featuring individual photos of the first 2,000 fans that sent pictures to them.
"I don't like to call them fans," says Shannon. "They're more like our family. We never started this band as a selfish endeavor. It was always about a shared experience. We found more and more ways to incorporate family into 30 Seconds to Mars. On this album we had people come in and sing. We came up with this event we called ‘The Summit' where we had a couple of thousand people come to L.A. We recorded everyone singing, chanting, stomping, clapping and banging on boxes. After that my brother got a Twitter message from someone in Iran who couldn't be there and Jared came up with the idea of the digital Summit. He sent out instructions to people, so on some songs there are people from eight different countries doing chants. It's amazing when you blend accents that come from all over the world into one unison accent.
"It's important for us to be a part of the people who are listening to our music," he concludes. "Being able to share the experience with people is the greatest thing. Nothing beats it. Nothing. It's amazing when something really comes from your soul and you're able to share it with someone who reaches out, grabs it and makes it their own. That's pretty magical."