Sparta, now consisting of Jim Ward and Matt Miller, have thrown out the rule book on their new self-titled album. Sparta sees them forging ahead as a duo and getting more collaborative, working with a range of musicians including Tucker Rule, Kayleigh Goldsworthy, Kenny Hopper, Micheal James Adams, and Geoff Rickly. Sparta is out now via Dine Alone Records. Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with Jim Ward over Zoom to talk about letting go of the rules, the importance of collaboration, how to remain hopeful and optimistic, and much more. Read the interview below!
You’ve mentioned that your new album, Sparta, is a way of forging a new path for the band and letting go of the perceived “rules”. What were some rules you let go of while making this record?
I think when you’re in a band scenario where there are lots of members and everybody’s contributing and you’re at practice, you’re making compromises with each other in order to keep everybody feeling good about being in the band. The band has gotten less and less members and now it’s just Matt [Miller] and I as opposed to actual members. There’s not a guitar player who’s fighting for all of his parts to be on the album so you can start using other friends who play guitar. There’s not somebody who if there’s going to be back-ups they want the back-ups to be them because they’re in the band. It’s just a different scenario. So all of a sudden I’m able to just send Kayleigh Goldsworthy a song and say, “hey do you wanna sing on this?” and I don’t have to run it by a committee.
How do you feel that has changed the dynamic of Sparta?
It’s allowed me to be able to go in whatever direction creatively as quickly as I want to go in without having to fit inside of what other people’s conceptions of the band are. Which is totally fine and I love being in bands but it’s just a new way of me being in a band. For me, it’s a different way of writing songs.
You wrote all of the songs for this album using keys which was a new experience for you. What inspired you to write this way? How do you feel it changed your songwriting?
My wife and I own a restaurant in El Paso and it had to shut down for the pandemic and then all of the Sparta dates got cancelled and our record Trust The River came out in April of 2020 so just sort of everything that could go wrong for us professionally did. Along with the rest of the world, it wasn’t unique to us, everything happened at once. Late at night I would play on Logic with a keyboard and just experiment with sounds. Mostly just to keep my mental health positive, I would say. Just having an hour of creativeness at the end of the day to just sort of lose yourself. Because for me music is getting lost and I needed to get lost for a little while. My idea of melody was coming out in all these different instruments with different effects on it instead of it primarily being guitar writing. So the beginning of all this writing was these keyboard songs and then all of a sudden I had this flurry of energy on guitar and I ended up taking all those songs and just making my solo album Daggers. So in the middle of writing this record, I made Daggers with Tucker [Rule, of Thursday] and Ben [Kenney, of Incubus]. Sort of going forward from that, I called Tucker and said, “I have all these keyboard songs and little ideas. Would you want to play on those?” and he said, “oh yeah, for sure!” This is still in lockdown at this point so I would get up in the morning and I would take this keyboard idea and I would fashion a song out of it using guitar structures and then I would send it to him. Four hours later he would send me fully done recorded drums. We were able to do it really quickly. It was a combination of just being able to find something to do creatively in our house without other people in the beginning of the pandemic and it sort of grew from there. By reason of the pandemic, I started making records remotely with people and kinda built on that. The seeds of this album were keyboards in the beginning but what really nourished it was that relationship with Tucker, being able to throw ideas back and forth quickly. This probably would have been a solo record again except the guy who played on Trust The River, Cully [Symington], retired from playing drums during the pandemic. At that point it was like it’s really just me and Matt and Matt plays bass with me on solo shows, so at that point it’s just Sparta. We were like, “let’s just cut out this middle stuff and just make it Sparta. We’ll just have multiple people playing on the record.” So all those rules got thrown out the window and it was sort of this new freedom.
How did working on a very collaborative project work during the lockdown?
It would start with a text message or if it was somebody that I didn’t know, I would reach out to them on Instagram using instant message or whatever it’s called [laughs] and just say, “hey, I’m a fan of what you do. I’m making some songs. Would you want to collaborate on it?” I was really lucky that everybody I sent it to said, “oh yeah! I actually like what you do and it’s nice to meet you” and we sort of built a relationship from there. I kinda got a bunch of new friends out of this process. I was doing this thing called Friday Beers during the pandemic where every Friday I would go on Instagram and have a live conversation with somebody, sort of replacing that social aspect that you would get on tour. In that process I ended up making a bunch of friends and friends of friends. Now I have this whole new crew of friends like Anthony Green [of Circa Survive] and Frank [Iero] from My Chemical Romance. All that came from somebody saying, “oh do you know who would be good to talk to is Frank” and then I would send him a note and you sort of build this relationship. It’s been really rewarding and that translated into making music as well. Some of those people I ended up swapping musical ideas with and it went on from there.
Did the lockdown enhance the importance of collaboration to you and to the album?
I think 100% because I’m not going to band practice and I’m not having those musical-slash-social interactions with my normal group of friends or bandmates. It kinda opened up these doorways to a new way of looking at things and when I say I would collaborate with people, I would send somebody the song and say, “do whatever you want to do. I have no instructions at all. Whatever you wanna do is great”. The way I feel like a lot of us work is we send ideas and say, “this is what I came up with, do whatever you want with it”. So It’s really about trusting these people and having an open relationship with them. Micheal Adams sent me twenty guitar parts and I ended up using bits of all of them and kinda cutting them up. Kenny Hopper, who played synthesizer on it, same thing. He sent me stuff, I chopped it up and moved it into different places and then I would send it back to them and say, “is this ok? I want to make sure you sign off on this” and they’d say, “oh that’s cool! I hadn’t thought of it this way, that’s perfect.” And that to me is the best part of collaborating.
Some of the songs on this album highlight the importance of hope and optimism which are really important especially during the lockdown. How do you remain hopeful and optimistic?
I think it’s a survival instinct. Our restaurant was basically shut down, our musical endeavors were basically shut down, and I think if you didn’t find some sort of positive path forward then you would be in pretty bad shape. I think it’s just really my mind, body, emotional, and mental health pushing forward as hard as I can saying, “let’s find something to sing about. Let’s find something that is great, that inspires you”. Luckily I have a good home life, I liked being home. I loved spending time with my wife and our family. I think that’s the thing that gives you hope. You sort of look around and say, “ok I need to survive this because of what?” and for me I need to survive this so that when this is done our restaurant will survive, when this is done music will happen again, when this is done we’ll go for a vacation. You have to have hope or you’d be lost I think.
There’s always light no matter what happens. You recorded the song “Just Wait” as a stream of consciousness. What was it like to record that way? How did you set up to record the song?
Sometimes I’ll just take a mic and a guitar and I use Logic to record sometimes, so I just put it into Logic and I’ll just start playing. For whatever reason that song came out fully intact as it is. There was no going back and re-recording any of it, there was no going back and rewriting anything. I actually didn’t submit the lyrics for that song on the record because I don’t know what the lyrics are. I can’t make out some of it because it is kinda mumbly because I’m trying to find the next line. I thought instead of trying to recreate it, I would just leave it be and do some sort of studio magic to make it a little more interesting in the middle of the section. I took that track and I duplicated it twice, like hard-left, hard-right, both simultaneously going through layers and layers of effects - in the studio we refer to it as “Radiohead-ing it” because it’s just so much chaos and delays and sonic stuff is happening but at the core of it is that very lone thing. It’s one mic so I can’t separate the volume from the guitar or the vocals, it's all what it is.
If you were to play that song live would you play it as a stream of consciousness?
I have no idea how I would ever play that song live. I think I would have to sort of re-write it and I think that would be a disservice to that song. So that song will probably only be on the record. Or maybe it’s one part of another song. Maybe I take the chorus and play it during something else, who knows. Again, there’s no rules! That’s my favourite part about what’s happening right now, we can do whatever we want because we can.
Do you feel like with the “no rules” mindset you’re able to be more creative and have more ideas that flow better?
I do. Sometimes I will make predetermined ideas about what other people will say and will never even bring it up because I’m like “oh, I know what they’re gonna say about this” or “I want this woman to sing on this record but I know that someone is going to have a problem with that” or whatever. So before I even ask sometimes I’ll cut myself short or shoot myself down in those senarios and now I can do whatever without having to get any permission from anybody. I have a 100% free creative license with the label [Dine Alone Records] so I don’t have to get approval for anything. It’s basically like I make a record and if they want to put it out they can and if they don’t then they don’t. I don’t have to worry about anybody around me keeping me from doing anything and it allows you to go further and further. Then I’ll pull myself back, you know, I’ll say “this song is not good but it was fun to make. People don’t need to hear it but it was fun to make”.
At the end of the day that’s all that really matters.
Yeah! I just want to make records that I’m proud of and that I’m happy with. Once they’re released into the world they’re other people’s property, they’re no longer mine. Those people will make memories and have relationships that are based on that and it’s all theirs. So I hesitate to really get too far into the specifics to what a song is about because I want people to have their own interpretation and their own connection with it. I’ve definitely had people come and say, “we danced to this certain song at our wedding” and I’d be like, “holy cow, I’d never have danced to that song at my wedding! But I want you to have that connection to it. My connection is not dancing to it at your wedding but it’s beautiful that you did”.
Do you ever have people come up and say “this is my relationship with the song” and you’re like “yeah, that’s exactly mine”?
I don’t think so and that’s because it would be like somebody coming up and saying, this is how I feel about your partner or this is how I feel about your best friend or this is how I feel about your sister. It’s not going to be your relationship because it’s all built on those intertwined connections. There’s a song on the record called “Hello Rabbit” that’s obviously about my wife and I could see people saying, “hey, this song makes me feel this way about my partner” and I can say “yeah, it’s a love song. That’s good to hear” but it won’t be exactly the same. In that song I say, “you carried me when I couldn’t” and I think that’s going to be something that a lot of people can relate to, like you have a partner who, when you’re struggling, can pick up the slack, they can pick up the weight, they can carry you. That’s a universal truth and people will be able to connect to that. Definitely more in the spacier songs people are going to find their own connection.
How would you describe the punk scene in El Paso?
Well, I don’t think I’m an authority on it, that’s for sure. I have spent a large part of my life on tour even though I’ve always resided in this town. I think there was a point where my band sort of got big enough that I was disconnected from a lot of things whether on purpose or whatever it is. There’s a lot of bands here that I don’t know and there’s a scene here that I don’t know. I usually won’t see it unless somebody comes through town that I want to see or who I’m friends with. I always refer to the city as a frontier town because it’s sort of northern Mexico and southwestern United States so all our culture is intertwined and that goes from business to punk rock shows in backyards. I think we have a unique way of living within this world so there will always be this constant rotation. People will not get big enough here to make something so permanent that it can’t be unmade - clubs come and go, bands come and go and people aren’t coming into the scene to feed that. A lot of people are leaving El Paso when they turn 18, 19 to go off to college and that goes with a lot of creatives as well as just normal folks going to school and there’s not a lot of people coming in. So there’s kind of this young, rotating scene and it would be silly of me to think I had a finger on it’s pulse because I’m too old. [laughs]
What are you listening to now?
I’m pretty boring right now, honestly. My wife, who does all the playlists for the restaurant, begrudgingly curates my own music because I’m lazy and I don’t look for anything. But I will say recently I really enjoyed the Sinead O’Connor documentary. When I was in San Diego for a show, I did a little video thing at a record store and I bought the Best of Sinead O’Connor and then I bought a highly recommended jazz album from a Japanese artist which I haven’t listened to yet. I really love what IDLES are doing. I really love Turnstile. I think those are interesting heavy bands and I’m kinda waiting for the next wave of my favourite bands to put out records. I think the new Alexisonfire is pretty great.
What’s next for Sparta?
We’re trying to figure that out. I think the thing is to remind people that we’re a band and we’re part of their lives and hopefully they come to shows and we get to play music for a long time. I don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what that looks like but I definitely want to keep making records and having fun. We don’t have anything officially booked or anything. I think everybody right now in our position is trying to figure out how to do it creatively and successfully post-pandemic. A lot of rules have changed. Everybody’s on tour right now so it’s hard to make your space without being somebody that you’re not. For me, I want to find a way to do it so that I enjoy doing it. I can’t be a full-time musician and be mentally healthy, it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t like it. I don’t wanna be on tour all the time, I don’t wanna do the things that you have to do to be a bigger band. I really enjoy being a blue-collar working band and do other things as well. I think everybody is trying to figure out how to do it in their own way. I definitely haven’t figured it out yet. [laughs] But we will figure it out.