At the end of an April 2005 show in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sparta frontman Jim Ward walked offstage and told his bandmates that he couldn't finish the last scheduled 13 dates of the tour. After more than 10 years on the road and in the recording studio, being in a band had become like an odious day job for Ward, who needed to take time off immediately to reassess his life.
Sixteen months later, Sparta are getting ready to return with Threes (out October 24), and Ward is more than ready for his comeback. "It was the greatest break of my life, and I returned with the desire to make the greatest album I've ever made," he said. "I really feel like we're at a crossroads, and this record is a major accomplishment."
Ward's enthusiasm is pretty amazing considering how desperate he was before he put the band on hold. Not only was he tired of Sparta, he had lost the incentive and inspiration that once drove him to become a musician, and he felt like a disgruntled widget salesman.
"I just remember a girl coming up to me crying, and her boyfriend saying, 'Your music got her through a really hard time,' " Ward recalled. "Obviously it's a nice thing to hear. But at the time I was just thinking, 'Aw, man, I wish somebody would help get me through this.' I know it was unprofessional to just walk out, but I think it would have been more unprofessional to lie artistically and keep going on."
In part, Ward's disillusionment stemmed from his unhappiness with Sparta's former record label, which, he claims, did nothing to support the release of the band's second LP, 2004's Porcelain. At the time, the group's label, DreamWorks, was being absorbed into Interscope, which assigned the act to Geffen. Geffen did put out Porcelain, but with all the personnel-shuffling, Sparta fell through the cracks. They have since signed to Hollywood Records, which Ward says considers them a priority artist.
"I think a lot of people aren't even sure we had a second record," said Ward. "I've never been somewhere where we were completely 100 percent ignored by the people who make the decisions."
After bailing on his bandmates — guitarist Paul Hinojos, bassist Matt Miller and drummer Tony Hajjar — Ward returned to his El Paso, Texas, home and spent time refinishing cabinets, painting doors, doing yard work and hanging out with his wife and 18-month-old niece. But pretty soon, he was back in his home studio writing with more gusto than ever and before long, he had 27 new songs.
"I think you have to cool off sometimes to be able to reignite," he said. "By leaving our former label and having no pressing commitments, I was able to get back to the point where I could walk into the studio and go, 'I'm so lucky to be doing this,' instead of, 'I don't want to be here.' "
When he was ready to convert his new song ideas into full compositions, he called his bandmates to join him in the studio with producer Dave Bassett (Lisa Loeb, Silos). But Hinojos — who had worked with Ward and Hajjar since 1994 when they started their former band At the Drive-In with the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez — had moved on and decided not to partake. Around the same time, Richmond emo outfit Engine Down were going belly-up, so their guitarist, Keeley Davis, called up Sparta's manager and asked if he knew of any bands looking for a guitar player.
"We had toured with Keeley before, so we already knew him, so it was great," Ward said. "It was a breath of fresh air, and it was good to have someone new, who didn't have any baggage, come in and remind everybody how cool it is to be in a band."
In some ways Threes is comparable to Porcelain, a lively album rife with tension, melody and unexpected twists. But the new disc is more atmospheric and a bit less jarring. "Crawl" combines choppy guitar lines and sinewy bass grooves with yearning, contagious vocals, while "Unstitch Your Mouth" blends haunting acoustic guitars with curls of feedback reminiscent of early Radiohead, and "Translations" weaves stuttering drums, moody rhythms and subdued vocals with eerie guitars and a booming background choir reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
"Some of the arrangements are really challenging, but some of it is as straightforward as anything I've done," Ward explained. "The real difference this time, I think, is we tried to be completely honest with ourselves and not purposely sabotage anything. This time we didn't say, 'OK, that sounds too mainstream, so let's make sure it gets so noisy and echoey that you can't understand anything.' Because for me, I want to die a good songwriter, so I want to do whatever it takes to get better. I don't need hipster points or accolades — what I need is the satisfaction of moving people with my music."
The band will be dishing up some of that new material on the road in the near future. Sparta have lined up seven tour dates so far, according to their publicist:
- 9/28 - Pomona, CA @ Glass House
- 9/29 - Las Vegas, NV @ Jillian's
- 10/2 - Oklahoma City, OK @ The Conservatory
- 10/3 - Austin, TX @ Emo's
- 10/8 - Winston-Salem, NC @ Ziggy's
- 10/9 - Richmond, VA @ Alley Katz
- 10/10 - Washington, DC @ Black Cat