Q&AA: Jared Leto reflects on 'America,' apps and creativity

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Credit: Illustration by Mona Daly

Cowgirl, Doggy, Face, Sixty-Nine and The Crab. These five popular sex positions, according to AskMen, are the words that are listed on one of the multiple covers of the new album, "America," from Jared Leto's band Thirty Seconds to Mars.

They're provocative words, and a provocative title, for the band's first album in five years, especially during these times of political divisiveness and cultural upheaval. To promote the album, which dropped last week, Leto—who got his start playing the teen heartthrob, Jordan Catalano, in "My So-Called Life"—helped design the covers, which list various "American things," says Leto, meant to serve as a time capsule of sorts.

There's a list highlighting the most profitable prescription drugs by sale (Humira, Abilify, Sovaldi and Crestor) and another citing the most valuable trademarks (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Walmart and IBM). There's also one calling out four of the hot topics in America (A.I., bitcoin, fake news and, of course, Russia).

The lists have also appeared as billboards and posters in cities including Los Angeles, New York and London.

"I'm really not making any statement, I think I'm more holding up a mirror for all of us to see who we are as a country," Leto says.

The Academy Award winner and a spokesperson of sorts for Gucci (he starred in a 2016 fragrance campaign and is often seen sporting designs from the label), Leto is certainly a man of many interests. Aside from his acting and music careers, he's also a tech investor whose bets have included Airbnb, Snapchat and Slack.

Before heading out on a cross-country roadtrip from New York to Los Angeles (that included Leto hitchhiking), the actor/musician spoke with Ad Age about the creative strategy for "America," his tech investments and how he uses social media.

What's the inspiration for your new album, "America"? Is this your attempt to make America great again?

Absolutely not. I'm really not making any statement. I think I'm more holding up a mirror. I'm just part of the collective whole of people who are asking questions, important questions, about who we are and what we want to be as a country. We went with a concept, rather than an image, for the album cover. The lists are funny, fun, sometimes provocative and upsetting, but as a whole give an image of the society we are living in and culture we are part of. It can be seen as a time capsule of this period we're living in.

How involved were you in creating the covers and billboards?

I started off as an artist, painter, studied figurative painting, moved to design, studied photography and filmmaking. I've always been involved in visual art. ... There was an opportunity with this album, and also a trap door given the heavy-handed title. It presented a design challenge. I'm really glad we went with this idea of lists and we're able to reflect on some of what's happening in culture today.

Which lists are your favorite?

I tend to like some of the more mundane ones, like ingredients for American apple pie. They're revealing. Putting ingredients for apple pie on a billboard for an album is funny. The four words found in the Declaration of Independence has been powerful. The most popular strains of marijuana in California, we didn't use that one, but I thought that was funny. I don't smoke pot, but I thought it was ridiculous all the names in one list. But we felt there were others that better balanced the group as a whole.

You're an investor in tech companies like Spotify and Snapchat. What type of investments do you have your eye on right now?

I'm excited about how tech is transforming the way we work and live. Whether it's the sharing economy, a company like Airbnb, which I think is a phenomenal company in general. Transforming the way we use our private and personal spaces. Changing the way people live and travel and work and share. Slack is another phenomenal app that will cut your email down and give you the opportunity to have more fun and interactivity at work. Headspace is an incredible meditation app and they did a beautiful job of building that platform. There are so many companies I work with, from Intercom to DocuSign. I like transformative technology that creates more efficiency in the world, companies that have a mission to not only [be] successful companies but also make the world a better place. Artificial intelligence is going to change everything at some point and it brings up a lot of questions and, for some people, fear. In fact, one of our lists was AI, bitcoin, fake news, Russia, for hot button topics in America.

Have recent controversies surrounding Facebook data or celebrities disavowing Snapchat soured your outlook on Silicon Valley?

No. People have always spoken out about things they like or don't like. ... What's new is the volatility that's created by these public statements and how these statements are broadcast around the world. What's great is people have the ability to speak their mind—and can take whatever action they see fit. If they don't like it, stop using it.

What are your daily media consumption habits?

My daily habits these days are working 50-hour days. We just launched the tour. I'm doing press all day. My consumption is on the low-end of the scale. But output is on the high end of the scale.

Which do you prefer doing—music or acting?

This is a question I've been asked a million times. I understand the interest in it because it's an uncommon thing to do both. I suppose music is so personal, my brother and I have shared this project with fans for 20 years. ... We had no idea it was going to go this well for us having not put out an album for five years, and we're just beginning. Music is special. ... But acting is a beautiful thing and I'm really lucky ... I can pursue more than one creative avenue.

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