Jim Ward (Sparta, At the Drive-In) on musical journeys, new music, playing loud, Beto and more

"I have a bit of imposter syndrome, and I still don’t consider myself a singer in a band, which is insane because I have been doing this for 20 years. But I don’t. Part of that is what keeps making me write music."

Music has taken Jim Ward pretty far in life. He currently fronts rock outfit Sparta, which will release a self-titled album on Oct. 14, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of Sparta’s debut album Wiretap Scars. He was also a founding member of At the Drive-In, and has released solo work as well. 

Being a native of El Paso, music has taken Ward far in the literal sense, as well. The travel and grind of the tour was something that Ward realized quickly starting out as a musician.

“Austin was a big city for El Paso bands because it was the next town over,” explains Ward. “The next town over, meaning that it was nine hours away because of how big Texas is.

“One of the things that benefited us was for us to go on tour that it took so much to get to that first city,” Ward continues. ” Once you get to that first city, you’re like we might as well keep going because what’s the point of going back? We couldn’t just do weekenders, it was physically impossible for us to play Friday night in L.A. because it would take us all day to get there. If you go to L.A., you might as well go to San Francisco. If you go to San Francisco, you might as well go to Seattle. If you go to Seattle, you might as well go to Minneapolis. At that point we were crazily driving around the country.”

But far as far as Ward traveled from El Paso to play shows, he credits the remote Texas city for helping create unique sounds in its tight musical community.

“The thing about El Paso was the music scene there was too small to have different cliques,” says Ward. “We would all play shows together. We would play shows with metal bands, ska bands, hardcore bands or college rock bands. All of those bands would play shows together, and we were all friends. We formed unique sounds, and it wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, we are pop-punk or this genre.’”

Ward was versed in different kinds of music from that experience, but it was punk that caught his attention early on.

“Someone gave me a Subhumans LP when I was a skateboarder,” says Ward. “I was hooked, and from that moment forward I loved punk-rock and dove deeper from there. The thing about punk-rock is that you don’t have to be a shredder to be in a punk-rock band. I wanted to make music, and I loved playing bass. The punk scene was so welcoming and inviting, and I loved hanging out with freaks as well.

“I loved the sincerity of punk, and the lack of pretension. I come from a humble city and for the most part punk-rock is a humble music. And it’s a working class music, and I come from a working class area. Punk music was something that already fit in with my ethos.”

Ward still carries around that ethos today, and has had a pretty long career in music. In the early stages of his career, Ward thrusted onto the scene with At the Drive-In. The Texas-based post-hardcore band went in different directions when they split in 2001. (At the Drive-In did reunite briefly from 2016-18. Ward was not a part of the reunion and the band is currently on hiatus.) Lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala formed the Mars Volta, while Ward formed Sparta.

Sparta released their first record, Wiretap Scars, in 2002. Not only was it Ward’s first project as a lead vocalist, it was his first record post-At the Drive-In, and he felt like he had something to prove. 

“We definitely had a chip on our shoulder,” explains Ward. “We had just come off of At the Drive-In, and At the Drive-In was pretty big. There was something to prove, and we wrote that record really quickly and spent a lot of time fine-tuning it. I learned how to sing on that record, and I wasn’t really a singer before that. There was a real desire to prove to ourselves that we weren’t the leftover bits from a band that was getting big and that we were worth something. We worked hard to say what we had to say on that record.”

Sparta was able to cash in on the benefits that did come from being in a huge band, and was able to land a pretty sweet record deal. Wiretap Scars will always be an important piece of work for Ward.

“That record for me will always be a cornerstone of my career,” explains Ward. “It’s just that my career has so many different cornerstones, but that record was something to build on. I have a complicated relationship with this band for different reasons, and it’s taken a long time for me to get comfortable. I have a bit of imposter syndrome, and I still don’t consider myself a singer in a band, which is insane because I have been doing this for 20 years. But I don’t. Part of that is what keeps making me write music. I don’t see it as a goal, and there really isn’t an end to this. I just see it as my life, and it’ll go for as long as I go.”

Even though Ward has been involved in different projects by himself and with others, the process of making music still stays the same, and in his words, “It starts with a riff.” Over the years, he has learned a lot of lessons in music and in life. Sometimes for Ward, that means walking away for a bit. 

“I love being a working musician, and I don’t need fame or fortune to be happy,” says Ward. “But I also don’t need to do this if I am unhappy. One of the things I do is step away for a bit. Maybe in my early days I would self-sabotage than consciously take a break, but now I’m in a better mental position. Music has to be joyful for me, and I learned through all of these bands some hard lessons when it isn’t joyful and when you don’t want to be around the music or the people, you shouldn’t because you get self-destructive and I get self-destructive. But also I learned that hard work, dedication and love of playing will get you as far as you want to go.”

Ward did walk away from Sparta for a bit and pursued solo projects and even an alt-country project. Then there was a day where he felt the urge to play something loud again.

“There was a day where I thought I really missed playing loud music,” explains Ward. “I called Matt Miller (bass) and wanted to know if he wanted to fire up Sparta again. I’ve been playing really mellow stuff and I wanted to playing fucking loud again. He was in, and that’s what we have been doing for the past four years.”

On Oct. 16th, Sparta will be releasing a self-titled record, and it has a pork roll/Taylor ham flavor to it as well. Central Jersey native and Thursday drummer Tucker Rule played drums in the record. 

“It wasn’t necessarily gonna be a Sparta record to begin with,” says Ward. “Our drummer retired during the pandemic and decided to do other things. My friend Tucker from Thursday has been playing songs on this record, and we decided to make it a Sparta record. Matt played the bass parts, and I got a lot of friends to play on the record and we had fun. All of my worlds are colliding into one, and it’s called Sparta. Before it would be a solo or country record, but now I’m just making records at this point and putting them under Sparta.’’

Last Friday, Ward released three singles from the album; one of them is a song called, “Until the Kingdom Comes,” a song that is about the cycle of life. 

“The song started out as a late night jam with friends at a studio called Sonic Ranch right outside of El Paso,” explains Ward. “We had a bass line that couldn’t really find a home, and on this record we recut a little bit and I added guitars. The song started to get some legs, and the song sent me a on a spacy trip, to be honest. The way I write is I think of one line and it’s a spark for me, and it goes from there. A lot of songwriting is a stream of consciousness for me, but I think this song has to deal with the cycles of life. It’s not a religious reference, but it’s more about the bigness of life.”

On Sept. 28, Sparta will be supporting The Get Up Kids at the House on Independents. Ward always enjoys going to the East Coast, and this time will be no different.

“The East Coast for me is as far away as you can get from where I live,” says Ward. “As a kid, to make it out to the East Coast in a band was a real achievement. When we did get out here, we would play schoolhouses and college towns in Jersey. What we were doing wasn’t in the big cities because we were a little punk band. I have all these memories of playing bowling alleys, VFW halls, shit like that. You cut your teeth and become a better band. You have a great community coming out. Music on the East Coast is a different thing and people take it fucking seriously. So many legends from all genres of music come from here.”

Ward is traveling the country playing music, but his mind is still in Texas. His friend and fellow El Paso native Beto O’Rourke is running for governor of the Lone Star State ,and he wants to see O’Rourke succeed.

“He’s an incredibly kind and intelligent person,” says Ward about O’Rourke. “I love him very much and we have been friends for a long time. He was in a punk band that I used to watch practice. He had a determination and excitement about traveling around the scene that was infectious, and that’s what he is bringing to the political game. He’s an incredible listener, and the real deal. There’s no bullshit with him, and he’s awesome. I hope we get him into office, and we desperately need him in Texas.” 

Sparta will be playing with The Get Up Kids on Sept. 28 at the House of Independents in Asbury Park. The show is currently sold out, but more information can be found here.