He's not a figure to dominate the limelight, but you can't deny the underlying influence of Jim Ward upon the past twenty years of guitar music. As the dynamic backing vocalist and guitarist of pioneering hardcore act At The Drive-In and the mastermind behind Sparta, Ward was a seminal figure of study for many a young, angsty guitarist growing and learning about music in their confines of their bedrooms. With the release of Trust The River, the first Sparta album in over 14 years, we linked up with Ward for an Australian exclusive track-by-track rundown of the new album, getting a glimpse into the creative and collaborative process of one of the most quietly influential musicians of the past twenty years.
Jim: I wrote about 20 songs for this record and recorded demos at my home studio in El Paso. Matt Miller brought in a couple demos as well he had done in LA. I met with David Garza in Austin in Fall 2018 and sat and listened to all the songs and drank tequila. He helped me whittle it down to about 14 songs. I've known David for 20 years, we had never done a full length record together but he is a real inspiration to me. He is as much my spiritual guru as producer.
We talked about the things I've been through, what a fucking crazy career I have had - ups and downs and sideways. I asked how much he needed to get paid to produce, he said just feed me at your restaurant (I own a restaurant in El Paso with my wife Kristine) when I am in town and we are good. Deal.
We decided we would record in Tornillo, Texas at Sonic Ranch Studio in April 2019 to do rhythm tracking there because of the enormous amount of great gear and mics. Also, it's both of our spiritual centers. Another ranch alumni, Manuel Calderon, came along to engineer. I thought we would be lucky to finish drums and bass in the three days we had booked. Matt Miller (bass) and Cully Symington (drums) traveled into town from LA and Austin respectively.
We ended up recording 99% on the album in those three days, recording almost all the music live without a click and doing vocals right after. David would produce and sit in the control room playing little Mellotron and acoustic guitar bits - it was the best recording experience of my life. Gabe Gonzalez (guitar, keys) added from his home studio and we had a few guests along the way to finish up.
1. 'Class Blue'
Jim: The only song to have the existing demo guitar intact - I recorded the guitars at my home studio and David and I liked them enough to just have Matt and Cully play to them at Sonic Ranch. It was the easiest half hour of my whole recording process. I wrote and sang vocals on at the ranch and we ended up chopping this up quite a bit to make the construction of the song a little more coherent.
2. 'Cat Scream'
Jim: We had recorded a version of this in 2018 in support of some tour dates. I was never really happy with the screamy vocal in the original and began to just sing the verses on tour instead of screaming them. We also decided to add a bridge at the end - it is fast, very fast - and only about two minutes. Someone told me once that Buddy Holly said if you can't get the song done in two minutes you got a problem. I don't know if he said that, but I love that quote anyway.
3. 'Turquoise Dream'
Jim: I have had this song for a couple of years and have recorded multiple versions of it. It used to be called 'In A Dream' but I sent it to a friend and he said two things: channel The Smashing Pumpkins' '1979', and don't call it 'In A Dream', use a colour or something like turquoise. I don't always take the advice given, but this seemed to really make sense. I had all the words and music for this one for awhile so we knocked it out quickly at the ranch. I wanted a ripping guitar part at the end and am not that kind of player, so of course Gabe Gonzalez stepped in and shredded.
4. 'Spirit Away'
Jim: This riff is so haunting and when it resolves into the C Major... Man, I love it. I played it for David in the studio and we just finished it within a few hours, a really special song to me. I knew I wanted to invoke some kind of lower singing style like Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake - just something different for me. I also knew I wanted a female writer to answer the male vocal. We decided on a fantastic musician from El Paso, Nicole Fargo, who wrote and recorded a demo within hours of me asking if she'd be up for it. We recorded her vocals with Manuel at his studio in downtown El Paso for this track and a bunch of background vocals as well. Adria Del Valle added violin at Manuel's studio as well.
Jim: I wrote this song ten years ago and have never been able to get it onto a record, it just wasn't ready yet. Nothing really changed, it was just the right album and sat nicely. I really imagine Tom Petty when I think of this song, just a cool story about young crazy kids stealing cars and getting tattoos. I am pretty sure he was my inspiration on this one. I sent this track to Carlos Arévalo of Chicano Batman to add some guitar. His style is so great, he is one of my new guitar favorites.
6. 'Graveyard Luck'
Jim: This song has been recorded so many times - I love this riff and the whole feel of this track that I just keep trying to make it a little better. We also recorded this and released it as a single in 2018 during the short tour stint. I stripped it back on this record though, single guitar, quicker intro.
7. 'Dead Signs'
Jim: This song came in as a demo sounding a lot like an Unwound song. Fast and growling, distorted sweaty mess... Then David said,"Oh, you got to play that on piano real slow." I don't know how he heard what this would become but it was instant and unreal. I sat down, played and sang it softly and that's it. Gabe Gonzalez added some organ from his home studio and nailed it, as always.
Jim: The title of this was a joke at first. I sent the original demo of this song to Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World) because I couldn't find a melody to sing and thought maybe he would hear something I wasn't hearing. He wrote me back and said if you find a melody in this it would be a miracle, also I should lose all the music but maybe the bridge.
I didn't give up and sent the demo to Cully. Anyhow, when we got to the ranch, Cully said maybe this beat he had would work. He started playing it and I wrote a whole new song from top to bottom within a few minutes. We played it three times in the studio, what you hear is the third take. It was crazy. I wrote the lyrics about a couple that couldn't be in love publicly - it isn't set in a specific time period so maybe it is racial or homosexual prejudice reasons, or family reasons... Either way, the point is sometimes miracles come late, so keep holding on.
9. 'Empty Houses'
Jim: This is a Matt Miller tune. He brought in a couple of demos, and this one was so good. I played exactly what he played on the demo, nothing needed to be done. I love this song. He wrote a couple words to get me going and I finished up the lyrics and wrote a melody and sang it the same day. His idea was a song about the houses left vacant in the 2008 housing crash in the US - it just decimated lives, all because of greed. So fucked up.
10. 'No One Can Be Nowhere'
Jim: Another song I had recorded multiple times and never found the right album. This clocks in at over seven minutes in the original recording. It has a lot of long jammy bits interrupted by traditional song elements. It was fun to play and record at the ranch, real vibey kind of mood.
When we finished it up David said I should see if Chris Martin (Coldplay) wanted to play some keys on it. I sent it to Chris and he said sure thing. He FaceTimed me from his studio and asked if it was ok to chop it up. He said, good song but way too long... I think he has a pretty good ear for songwriting so I said sure- and of course it was much better with his arrangement. His key style is so recognizable on this track, I love it. We got to be friends during the Big Day Out 2001 and have remained so since - I love that man, he's the real deal.
Sparta's new album Trust The River is out now. Listen here.