Sparta Rise From At The Drive-In's Ashes With EP, Tour

DreamWorks deal makes much ado about 'ones without Afros.'

Bands can spend years paying their dues in the hopes their local buzz will transcend state lines and turn them into "the next big thing," so it seemed odd that At the Drive-In would pull their own plug just when they were poised to give a tired music scene a wake-up call. For guitarist Jim Ward, however, to be in a band teetering on the brink of breaking big was to be on unsteady footing.

"All [the hype] did was accelerate the already waning interest," Ward said. "Maybe we could have carried on if we had more time between tours, but we were just burned out on each other. The bigger you get, the more intense it gets, and the more intense it gets, the more you have to realize that you're not really happy doing it anymore."

After a few months of mourning following the announcement of ATDI's demise last March (see "At The Drive-In Suspend Activity, Cancel April Dates"), Ward and his ATDI bandmates Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, along with bassist Matt Miller, began writing songs for their new endeavor, Sparta, and hit the studio with producer Jerry Finn (Green Day, Blink-182). The group recently inked a deal with DreamWorks Records, which will release the four-song Austere EP on Tuesday so that fans will have something to remember them by during their two-month tour, which began March 15 at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Sparta's as-yet-untitled full-length debut is due this summer.

Given that ATDI singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez, who were working on their dub side project De Facto while ATDI were still active, were receiving most of the attention from the media, Ward, Hinojos and Hajjar perceived themselves dismissed as the backing band, the ones without the Afros.

"There were moments where we thought, perhaps foolishly, that we had to prove something," Ward said. "Not in reality, but it was our first taste of major press, especially British press, and they immediately try to blow up the singer. There was a hint of that in the beginning, like, 'We're gonna show that British press what's up.' But that [mindset] didn't last very long, because it's sort of a silly reason to have a band."

Eventually the challenge of proving their mettle to the press gave way to setting a standard for themselves.

"I don't have anything to prove," he continued. "I do it because this is the only thing I know how to do, and I do it better than anything else in the world, and I love it. This is my trade, but sometimes it takes a band ending to really appreciate what you do, what you have, the gifts you were born with. We have such a special life, it's just lame when bands or artists blow it [by giving up]. This was a good test for me to see if I would stop because the going got rough."

The three-fifths of ATDI persevered, and although playing with most of their old bandmates isn't the freshest of starts, Ward, who now sings as well as plays guitar, and Hinojos, who swapped his bass for a six-string axe, adopted unfamiliar roles to give the group a new edge.

"It was kind of like skipping school," Ward said of the shift in instrumentation. Because playing was fresh and fun again, they tore through nine songs in their first week together. They chose three of the four songs that appear on the EP — "Mye," "Cataract" and "Vacant Skies" — randomly from their new repertoire, and it's likely they'll also appear on the album.

Although Sparta's works — left-of-center songs that lock melodies in a stranglehold until the entire construction crumbles in an exhausted heap — aren't exactly polar opposite of ATDI's sound, Ward isn't making any apologies for the similarities.

"I'm not good enough to fake it," he said. "If [Sparta] songs sound like At the Drive-In's, it's because I write the way I write. I'm not good enough to say, 'In this band, we're going to sound like this,' or 'I'm only going to write songs like this from now on.' All I can do is grow at my own natural pace, and I think Paul and Tony are the same way.

"We'll probably always be judged for what we did in At the Drive-In, which is fine with me because I did it a quarter of my life. I'm totally proud of what we did in it, and I loved everything. I loved the experience, but it's rad that it ended before it got sh--ty."

Despite the announcement that the group was on an indefinite hiatus, Ward is doubtful ATDI will ever reform. "It was just over," he explained. "We had been together for six and a half years, and that's longer than most marriages. It just wasn't what it was supposed to be anymore. We didn't get along on that level anymore. It wasn't an intimate band."

In addition to De Facto, Bixler and Rodriguez also formed the Mars Volta with four other musicians. They, too, recently signed a major-label deal of their own and will release an EP on indie label GSL on March 25, following a few live performances. Ward has yet to experience his former bandmates' new project, though his parents and cousins have.

"It's not a personal thing; it's not even a big deal," he said. "I just want to hear it when I'm in the right mindset to appreciate it. I have nothing but love and respect for them and hearing them needs to be on a rad level, where I'm stoked and ready for it."

While most of 2001 for Ward was marked by upheaval, the past twelve months grounded the singer/guitarist, who's excited for the future. "It's been an awesome year," he enthused. "I have a new band now. I turned 25, which is a pretty big age, sort of a turning point. I got married last year. So it's been rad. I really feel like I have a fresh start."

Sparta tour dates, according to their publicist:

  • 3/30 - Colorado Springs, CO @ Industrial Nation

  • 3/31 - Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater

  • 4/1 - Lawrence, KS @ The Bottleneck

  • 4/2 - Omaha, NE @ Ranch Bowl

  • 4/3 - Des Moines, IA @ Hairy Mary's

  • 4/4 - Minneapolis, MN @ Ascot Room

  • 4/5 - Chicago, IL @ House of Blues

  • 4/6 - Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews Hall

  • 4/7 - Cleveland, OH @ Agoura Ballroom

  • 4/8 - Toronto, ON @ The Reverb

  • 4/9 - Cambridge, MA @ Middle East Club

  • 4/11 - Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw

  • 4/12 - Washington, DC @ Black Cat

  • 4/13 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts

  • 4/15 - Louisville. KY @ Headliners

  • 4/16 - St. Louis, MO @ The Galaxy

  • 4/28 - Austin, TX @ Emo's

  • 4/29 - Dallas, TX @ Trees

  • 5/1 - Tempe, AZ @ Nita's Hideaway

  • 5/2 - San Diego, CA @ The Scene

  • 5/3 - San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill

  • 5/4 - Santa Cruz, CA @ Veterans Hall

  • 5/6 - Seattle, WA @ Graceland

  • 5/7 - Portland, OR @ Meow Meow

  • 5/8 - Orangevale, CA @ The Boardwalk

  • 5/9 - West Hollywood, CA @ The Troubadour