Trust The River
When it comes to his long and fruitful career in music, Jim Ward has no ulterior motives. He’s not guided by vanity or money or some grand narrative in which he’s the central player. It’s all about the song, the melody, the lyric. It’s all he needs to tell him where he’s headed.
“I’ve always been a fan of listening to what the song wants to do and not forcing it,” Ward says of his embarking on the journey of writing and recording a new Sparta album, the first offering in more than a decade from the seminal post-hardcore outfit. “I’ve never sat down and said, “I’m going to write this kind of song.” Or listened to what was popular to guide me. I’ve never had that inclination. Never.”
It’s Ward’s commitment to following the song’s muse, full stop, that’s led him to this point. Or rather, what’s help guide the natural progression in a multi-dimensional talent’s musical life – one where genre, style, tempo and even band demarcations are merely a signpost of where he resides at any current moment. It’s why in late-2017, when he began writing music for what became Trust The River, the forthcoming new Sparta LP, Ward relied exclusively on how the music made him feel when determining where it should land. The specific song, he recalls, was “Cat Scream,” a barreling whiplash of pent-up emotion, and immediately upon completing its writing, “I knew what family it belongs in,” Ward notes. “And I know exactly what family that is. It’s Sparta. And that family has not lived its full trajectory.”
It’s true: while he’s performed in various bands and under several monikers over his long and winding career— from the iconic post-hardcore band At The Drive-In, to a slew of solo titles under his own name and, recently, his alt-country project, Sleepercar — Ward is the first to admit that Sparta was and never has been finished. It’s why a few years back, when he began making heavier, more riff-laden music, it was a no-brainer, he says, for him to ring up his friend and bandmate of more than 20 years, bassist Matt Miller, and begin work on what evolved into Trust The River.
“I’ve made a real point to never break up a band,” Ward says when asked if Sparta had ever been on hiatus or even dissolved completely in the years since 2006’s Threes. “I’ve never had a press release say, “We’re done.” Mostly because if you look at my history it’s filled with on-and-off-again projects. It’s filled with tragedies and reunions and tragedies again. As much as I can control it, I don’t want there to be permanence. So here we are.”
Being here right now means sitting with a monumental new album courtesy of one of rock’s most poignant storytellers. “I enjoyed writing the record more than anything. It’s the thing I love doing the most,” Ward says of a multi-month songwriting process that culminated in some of the most inspired recording sessions of his career, with help from Miller and drummer Cully Symington. Also joining them was Austin-based musician-producer, David Garza, whom Ward describes as “ a better musician than anyone you’ve ever met,” and who Ward says was crucial in helping guide Sparta towards a cohesive record. Additionally, Garza’s lack of pretense about what constitutes a Sparta record, Ward adds, was key to creating a fresh new offering. “He knows Sparta but he doesn’t know anything really about it,” Ward says of Garza, who he adds kept the sessions “loose and collaborative with no rules.” “So the attitude going into the sessions was simply that we were just going to have fun and maybe eat some breakfast burritos.”
The resulting LP is a mesmerizing dispatch from the sometimes conflicted but always forthright mind of one of rock’s most celebrated creatives: the chant-along “Turquoise Dream,” all sensitivity and power chords; the reckless abandon of “Miracle,” written only a matter of minutes before being laid down live in the studio; and the beatific “Dead End Signs,” a stunning piano-anchored tale of regret and hope.
Having been a member of heavy bands with pummeling instincts, in addition to showcasing his more melancholic side via his solo work, Ward says the new Sparta album feels like the logical meeting point of his influences. “Naturally it’s coming to this unity,” he says. “Those two worlds have always been on a path towards unity. And I knew in my heart that it was coming.”
But much in the way he’s always let his instincts guide him, so does Ward go forward with Sparta. For now, the band is set to tour extensively behind the Trust the River. And while he’s quick to note that if it ever stops being fun, he certainly won’t hesitate to pull the plug, Ward has never been so thrilled about what the future holds for his band.
“I’m super excited because we get to do this all in a way we want to,” he says of playing small clubs for multiple-night runs, stripped down and intimate, and then exploring whatever city he might be in. “When you’re 23 and you’re on tour you want to play the show and go to a bar and have a crazy night. I would much rather play the show, go to bed and then spend the next day in the city going to a museum or a really good lunch,” Ward explains. “Patti Smith talks about how she plays shows where she wants to go. I find that really cool.
“All the other stuff — fame and fortune — is nothing but a bummer,” Ward says. “It doesn’t do any good for me. And the way I see it, life is way too short to be unhappy.”