by Trevor Morelli
VANCOUVER – It’s been 26 years since Nirvana recorded their landmark MTV Unplugged concert in New York City. At the time, nobody could have predicted the grunge movement would end tragically and abruptly, but many people immediately recognized its reach and influence.
Thousands of miles away in the blistering desert sun of El Paso, Texas, high school friends Jim Ward and Cedric Bixler-Zavala began their own melodic journey in an off-the-wall post-hardcore outfit called At the Drive-In.
Now, ATDI’s rise and fall has been well documented, so this isn’t a story about them. Rather, it’s a deeper dive into Ward’s own personal musical voyage; what drives him, what inspires him, and where he sees his projects going in the future.
When At the Drive-In originally dissolved in 2002, Ward beat his former bandmates out of the gate with Sparta, a hard-driving, rock outfit recognized for their attention-grabbing chord changes and offbeat melodies. Although Sparta’s last proper album was 2006’s Threes, Ward is a working man; his main focus in the years since has been his alt-country group Sleepercar, who’s enjoyed their own success opening for high-profile acts like Coldplay and City & Color.
This year, Sparta is back and Ward is eager to hit the road again with a revised lineup that includes Matt Miller on bass, Gabriel Gonzalez on guitar/keyboards, and new recruit Cully Symington on drums.
“Matt and I spoke last year about missing these songs and thinking about finding a way to play them to people in a way that we enjoyed, so we started figuring out what that entailed,” says Ward.
“It is easy to sit in a room and make a ‘plan’, but I have never been satisfied by that,” he continues. So as far as vision goes, there is only what is guided by the songs, which are guided by the guitar, so it will change as it changes, and I will joyfully go along or find a different path.”
Right now, the path for Sparta has led to a pair of new punk-infused singles — ‘Graveyard Luck’ and ‘Cat Scream’ — with the latter coming out quite spontaneously.
“I had the riff for a couple months. It would pop up when I would be writing and I would try to find the right path. While recording some demos at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, I played the riff and Cully Symington (drums) asked if we could immediately record it,” Ward explains.
“It was a fluid moment and we captured the instant creative moment which is rare and a joy. The lyrics came quickly and it was done. I like it when that happens.”
While Symington is the newbie in the group, Ward says his presence has been inspiring and refreshing.
“Any change in a line up has an influence on the dynamic. He is a strong and powerful drummer with a finesse for song writing,” he remarks. “It has been a real joy to create with him. He also happens to be a fine human being, which is really what matters.”
As for Sparta’s future, Ward says it’s all about the fans and being thankful for what he has.
“I have a huge amount of respect for fans and this process. There were a lot of years that I was not as respectful to all of this as I should be,” Ward says. “To come back and play for people who take their hard earned money to buy a ticket to see us play has made a real impression on me. I am grateful. I am happy. I hope that we get to continue this journey and experience new things. We will as long as it is fun and we are making what we think is good music. Make good work, work hard, enjoy life. That’s it.”
Sparta perform July 12 at the Biltmore Cabaret