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Interview: Jim Ward

10 June 2021

Photo by Christ Chavez

As the calendar turned to 2020, Jim Ward was starting the promotion cycle for the fourth Sparta album, Trust the River, which would be released in April. As the pandemic hit full swing in March, Ward went from planning a Sparta tour to support the album to finding himself locked down in his El Paso, Texas home. The former At the Drive-In guitarist used the time to write and record his full-length solo debut, DAGGERS, which shares more in common with Sparta than with his alt-country project Sleepercar or the three acoustic-based EPs he released under his own name in 2007, 2009, and 2011.

The first single from Daggers, while a melodic rocker in the vein of post-hardcore bands like Rival Schools, was sort of a red herring as the album is filled with some heavier songs (“I Got a Secret,” “Polygraph,” “Electric Life”) that should surprise listeners who were expecting Ward to be mellow.

Ward also started an Instagram Live series called “Friday Beers” where he has conversations with friends virtually that he typically would sit and drink beers with in a bar in pre-pandemic times. He’s taken on the role of interviewer rather than interviewee and as he tells me when we chat via Zoom, it’s something he’s really enjoyed doing. “Friday Beers” is where our conversation starts.

You’ve been interviewing a number of friends and musicians on your “Friday Beers” Instagram Live sessions. Is that something that you started during the pandemic?

JIM: Yeah, totally. My friend, Beto O’Rourke, started doing Instagram Live when the pandemic started and he had me on his Instagram Live. For, I don’t know, 15 years, whenever both of us are home, we would go get beers on a Friday so we were just joking about it. He’s like, “You should do ‘Friday Beers’ on Instagram,” and I was like, “I will” so that’s what started it. I started hitting up my friends that I missed and then expanded to people I’d never met and getting to know them. The whole idea is what would happen on tour, before a show you see a friend and they bring a friend. You hit it off and then you make new friends. I was missing that, to be honest.

It’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic. I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom interviews with artists which I likely would not have done if you were all out touring.

JIM: I’m having the same problem with “Friday Beers”. It used to be like, “Can you do it this Friday?” and they’d say, “Totally.” Now it’s like, they’ll ask, “Can we do it in three weeks? Can we do it on a Thursday at 9?” I’m starting to see people are starting to get their worlds coming back.

Were the people who’ve talked to who you didn’t know friends of friends or did you just cold call some people that you were interested in talking with?

JIM: It’s like a friend of a friend. I would say Matty Matheson is the one that, I wouldn’t have had access to him if we didn’t have the same circle of friends. We’re like bros now, we’re swapping text messages and can’t wait to hang out in real life. There’s been a few of those, you make these friends and I know next time I’m in Toronto, if he’s there, it’ll be a banger.

You put out the last Sparta record right before the pandemic.

JIM: Right after. It came out in April. It’s funny, because I live in El Paso, I do almost all of my press on the phone unless it’s tour press and I’m actually on the road. So, a year ago, it started off by doing a ton of phoners in January and then by the time the record came out, we had started doing Zoom interviews because you’re obviously not coming to Germany so let’s do something that will satisfy that commitment.

As you’re starting to think to the future when you go out on the road, will you be promoting the Sparta record or your solo record?

JIM: The Sparta record is done. It’s on the shelf. The good news is that Matt Miller is the touring bass player for this solo record and he’s really the only member in Sparta, so we’ll be playing Sparta songs but I think we’re going to be playing them as a 3 piece. I think the cool thing is that I get to re-envision these songs, some of which is going to be really enjoyable to me because I’ve been playing them for a long time, in a really safe environment on stage because Matt will be with me and I’ll have his guidance and approval. At the same time, we get to play those songs to people in a new way and we’re not baiting and switching. It’s not a Sparta show where I’m bringing a 3 piece and you’re like, “Wait, this isn’t the same guitar parts.”

The tour will be under my name. My rule is I’ll play anything I sang on a record. So, that’s one At the Drive-In song, all the Sparta songs, solo records, Sleepercar stuff and then, of course, whatever covers we do. It’ll be fun. It’s going to be a different thing, but, I think, in a weird way what’s happened to a lot of people in this 15 months of this stuff is you’re reevaluating how you want to go forward. I think a lot of foundations have been adjusted and it’s hard to do. That’s a time-involved process. In normal life, we would have gone writing cycle to tour and then I maybe would have made a Sleepercar record, I don’t know what I was going to do after the Sparta cycle. I think, because we had so long to readjust out lives, it’s going to be something totally different. Hopefully the next chapter of my life will be built on this foundation, which is pretty solid.

Has it caused you to re-evaluate the whole idea of touring as well?

JIM: Yeah, I think it’s caused me to re-evaluate everything. I have multiple professions. We own a restaurant in El Paso and I’ve really enjoyed doing Friday Beers to the point where now we’re talking about doing a bigger version of that, or some version of that on a different scale. I think that I’ve found being on the other side of the microphone has been really enjoyable to me and something I think I want to do more. I’ve been writing more, like writing writing, sort of trying to capture all the stories I’ve lived through so far.

I think touring wise, the idea of being in a city for multiple nights at a smaller room, we had that idea with the Sparta tour but I think we’re going to talk it even a step further because I’m playing under my name. It’ll be less tickets sold in the beginning, which is fine, but I think the concept of being at like Mercury Lounge in New York for two nights instead of being at the Bowery Ballroom for one night, I want to wake up in New York City and have a full day. If I can do that 2 or 3 or 4 nights, then that’s what I want to do. We used to think we needed to max out every market every night that we could physically play because that’s how we paid all of the people that work for us. And now, I’m not as concerned with having all of those perks in life, I have a really small management team that I love. I will be leaving on this tour with two other people, a rhythm section. I’ve never done that before, on this scale. I’m not even taking a guitar tech, I just kind of want to go and plug in my amp and have a good night and see what happens. We’ll go from there. I think it’s totally changed everything for me.

Not that you’re on the scale of the Beatles, but they did that. They’d play multiple nights in a city. That keeps you from having to make 8 hour drives in the middle of the night just to get to the next city in time for soundcheck and waking up in a different city every morning. I think it’s a great idea.

JIM: We’ll start by doing some support stuff. I need to explain to people that this is a rock record and it’s a rock band because anytime I’ve played under my name, it’s usually been acoustic and it’s very mellow. I want people to understand this is a new chapter of my life and it’s fucking loud. It’s really fucking loud. So we’ll probably start with doing some support stuff with our friends that have similar audiences so I can say, “Hey, this is me, this is what I’m doing. Matt Miller is with me and we’re having a blast.”

Then, after that, we’ll start building the schedule. I don’t want to fill in a Tuesday night in a city … because I live in a tertiary city and a lot of shows that we do, we ran a 1,500 cap venue for 7 years. A lot of those nights were catching the Tuesdays and Wednesdays and we’re having a hard time selling tickets and the band isn’t super pumped because it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday. We’re like, “Why are we doing this?” I understand why you do it at a certain level because you have a bus and you’re not taking the bus home and you have guys that need to get paid every day. I’m just interested in redesigning what I do from the ground up and I think the only way to do that is to start with just me and saying, “Okay, this is what I find comfortable.” How do we now get to a point where we add to that and we do it organically? I don’t need a backdrop. I don’t need all this stuff, I just want to play music and I want to have a social experience with people and my music is my ticket to doing that. Everything else is gravy. Believe me, if I could 21 days in New York, I’d probably do 21 days.

I saw Chris Whitley when he did a similar type of tour in the mid-to-late ’90s. He played two nights in Cleveland as part of this tour and each night was a completely different set. Is that what you’re thinking?

JIM: There would be a difference for sure. I definitely wouldn’t sell it as “The Sparta Years,” “The Sleepercar Years” or anything like that but the initial master list of songs I sent to the rhythm section was 25, so we’ll start at that. That’s a lot of songs – I usually play an hour and fifteen minutes, I think that’s the most enjoyable amount of time to watch somebody play unless they’re iconic. We toured with Pearl Jam and to watch them play for three-and-a-half hours it felt like 10 minutes went by but that’s a very special band. I think trying to find what makes an hour and fifteen interesting every night, you can switch it up and make it fun. I want to be in the position with a tight rhythm section where we can just say, “Today, this is how we feel.” There’s days on the Sparta tour in 2018 where we would play the first 3 or 4 songs and they’d be real slow songs because I would tell the crowd, “We just had a long drive and I just want to get into this slowly. Come with me on this trip, let’s do this this way.” Having that ability to communicate with people and explain what’s happening and get their feedback is such a tremendous privilege. I want to respect it.

You talked about opening for bands with a similar audience. I don’t think they have tour plans or maybe even have a new album in the works, but they just released a new single so I’m hoping that I see you open for a band like Quicksand at some point.

JIM: I was hoping you’d say that. I would love to. That new single … this is an example of my heroes, like looking up to them, and then they put out something like that. You’re like, “Oh, I can still look up to you.” What a blessing, it’s so good.

I don’t think Sparta sounds exactly like Quicksand but I think you inhabit the same world.

JIM: Definitely. I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve. I’m not ashamed of that at all.

How soon before you get Walter Schreifels (Quicksand) on Friday Beers?

JIM: I’ve never met him in person. Somebody introduced me to him a couple of years ago via text message because I wanted to write with him. And the idea that he was even open to that was mind blowing. I have this dream list, J. Robbins, Walter, these guys that I look up to, especially in the melody department. I don’t struggle with writing lyrics but I struggle with confidence in melodies so I’m interested in working with other people in a really short amount of time. It either works or it doesn’t. Walter and I have exchanged messages every now and then. That’s a really good one. I’m such a fan though, I’d have to really pull it together. I’m a super dork when it comes to this stuff.

Was Daggers entirely conceived during the pandemic?

JIM: I don’t have an exact number, but it was done in about 14 days. I’d write a riff at night in the effort of dealing with what was going on. My therapy is still always going to be – well, besides therapy – music is my therapy and the ability to sit at home and pour myself into a riff and then go to bed feeling relieved. And then my brain would write the song while I was sleeping and I would get up in the morning and finish the song and I would send it off to Tucker (Rule), he’s in the same boat I’m in except he has a newborn baby, so when she takes a nap, he can go down and play drums. He would send me the demo drums at the end of the day. Then we’d send it over to Ben Kenney, Ben plays bass on the record and we’d send it to him. He’d say, “This sounds good, maybe do this here.” He’d give us his two cents. Tucker did all of his drums in a day at his studio. I recorded everything here, we haven’t been in the same room at all. We were on one Zoom together, it was when the record was done so we could film a little bit of conversation for behind-the-scenes stuff. It was all done and created, there was no old riffs or anything, it was created in the moment, in a combustible time period.

It’s good that you were able to create stuff during the time you had. We have a piano and I thought maybe I’d learn to play it during the pandemic. I never touched it.

JIM: I got super into pizza making and working on stuff around the house that I had been putting off forever. I built a garden. It’s strangely kind of a good thing in a weird way and I kept the restaurant open enough so that we could keep on the essential staff. I still had a job, even if it didn’t pay, I had something to do.

Tell me about the restaurant.

JIM: It just started out when I kind of quit touring, my wife and I started working together on projects. The first one was a bar with some friends about 10 minutes from our house. I had a meeting and I just wanted to grab a beer on a Saturday in our neighborhood and there was nowhere to go except for an Applebee’s and I was like, “This is stupid.” So we opened a little spot and it organically grew into food and got bigger. We’re both basically plant-based so there’s always about 60% to 70% plant-based options and we end up employing a lot of musicians, as you might imagine and we’re good bosses if you want to go on the road. We have a good playlist, try to play good music, and make it a nice place for people to hang out. It’s low drama, just chill.

What’s your top seller?

JIM: We do vegan nachos, it’s probably one of our most popular things. Instead of meat, it’s a two-bean mix. A lot of times, especially with meats, if it’s something like pepperoni or sausage or taco meat, what you’re really tasting are the seasonings. At home, we make walnut taco salad. It’s just chopped up walnuts in a food processor with cumin. At you can fool people, easily.

There’s a difference between Sleepercar and Sparta in sound. The solo record sides more towards Sparta.

JIM: There was a lot of comments when the Sparta record came out last year where people said, “Oh, he’s in his 40s now. Now it’s going to be midwest, reflective rock.” I think it’s going to be funny when people hear this because, so far, people have only heard “Paper Fish.” That’s kind of rocking but there’s some really heavy stuff on this record. I always enjoy watching the fans’ response to stuff, whether it’s critical or not because I’m a fan. I’m interested in how people listen to and reflect on music but I think it’s going to be pretty fun because it’s heavy.

Was there ever any point where you considered releasing this under the Sparta name?

JIM: I wasn’t even going to put it out. I was just having fun with Tucker and Ben. And then I thought, okay, we’ll put it out. The thing that kicked off the whole process was what became, “I Got a Secret.” It’s this heavy song, just saying the weight of the world is on my neck. This is trying to find the right words as a white male in America to say things are fucked up. I’ve got a lot to learn. My way of dealing with stuff has changed a lot in the last year. This is in the process of trying to understand this.

We thought maybe we should just put this out at the time of the election, just put it out for free. I’m under contract with Dine Alone so I have to show them what I’m doing and they have a choice to say either go do whatever you want with it or we’ll take it. They sat down with me and said, “Can we please work this like a regular record and not put it out at the election? We think this is a valuable and good piece of work.” To me, that’s a huge compliment. And I’m so glad that they did. That conversation happened in the middle of vocals so I spent about a week making each section of it. That relief is what allowed me to make “Paper Fish,” that’s the last song I sang and it’s kind of the most honest and it all came out in one pass which never happens. It’s just real and truthful. There was no thought at all about it being Sparta. Anything that is released under the Sparta Name will have Matt Miller.

Did you discover any new music during the pandemic?

JIM: My wife, Kristine, makes all the playlists for Eloise, which is our restaurant, so sometimes I’ll listen to what she’s listening to but I don’t ever bother to write it down. I’ve been in a real comfort zone of going back to stuff that makes me feel safe because it’s been a fucked up world. I’ve listened to so much early U2, which you can hear on the record and so much Dischord stuff. I got the new Joe Strummer album, like the second it went on pre-sale, I ordered one. I couldn’t wait for it get here. I got so excited because everybody was posting, when they get it in the mail they’d post a picture of it on their record player. I did that as well on my Instagram and Joe Strummer Official, his team’s Instagram people, reposted it on their stories. I was like a little kid, I was jumping up and down because it made me feel so connected to something that was so important to me. And that recognition of, “Hey, we see that you got the record and we’re stoked that you got it,” it’s such a good feeling.

Are you a social media person? Do you interact with fans?

JIM: I do, only on Instagram. I don’t really do Facebook, I know that we have to have it to put out ads for our restaurant and music stuff. Instagram, if people DM me, I write back. It has to be pretty asinine and stupid for me not to respond. I always consider it like the same thing at a show. I don’t hide after a show. I got out the front door and say hi. I’m not big enough where that’s a problem where I have to worry about it. The only thing I don’t do is get into big arguments except if it comes to equality issues. That’s the major change in my world from a year ago. If somebody said something kind of shitty or racist, I would either delete or block them or ignore it. Now, I engage because I think whatever size megaphone I have, fuck you, I’m not going to let you say it. I’m not going to be that person.