Jim Ward of Sparta on the hurt and healing in revisiting Wiretap Scars 20 years later
June 3, 2023 at recordBar, Sparta will swing through with opening acts Geoffrey Rickly (of Thursday) and Zeta. The emo rock group is touring to celebrate—and recreate—their debut LP, 2002’s Wiretap Scars.
There are a lot of elements that celebrate this tour from your typical anniversary album tour. Mainly, that Sparta—and frontman Jim Ward—have sort of always existed in a state of flux. Ward was one of the original members of At The Drive-In, a post-punk band famous for its dramatic implosion in 2001. While 3/5ths of Sparta formed their own new group in the immediate aftermath, the other two members of ATDI followed a very different musical path to form The Mars Volta. Both of these new groups released albums and began touring as quickly as possible, marking both as being forged in the chaos of a genre/generation’s most famous bad break-up.
As Ward admits himself, Wiretap Scars was an album excessively raw and equally unplanned. It’s 12 tracks came together a creative flurry from the studio before the band had time to even figure out what Sparta was.
Touring in support of the 20th anniversary of that album becomes, in no uncertain measure, a finicky thing to approach. For one, Sparta has gone through numerous lineup changes over the years, and in its current iteration is a trio—heading out on the road to perform the entirety of an album known for its double guitar work.
The Pitch caught up with Ward to discuss why he was revisiting this classic album for the first time in forever, and how he let it become something entirely different for the fans in the interim.
The Pitch: What is it like to take Sparta on tour after pandemic? You’ve had two albums release in the last few years that you’ve barely been able to tour behind/perform live, and you’ve shifted band lineups again. What’s the general vibe for you right now?
Jim Ward: Tough question. Short answer is that it feels great. I feel good about the music we’re making and how we’re choosing to revisit the past—especially with revisiting this album as a 20 year anniversary. It’s hard for me to look back on those times in a healthy light because it was a dark period of my life. I’d associated that darkness with this record.
Then, last year we did five weeks on tour with The Get Up Kids. We were interacting with fans, people we’d missed, and in these conversations fans were bringing up the 20th anniversary of Wiretap Scars. I initially reacted with a sense of nah, that’s not what I want to be playing or revisiting these days. But the more I talked to people and heard about their connection to the record, the more I changed my mind. I got to see it through new light, in their eyes.
When you release a record, the moment you turn it in… it no longer belongs to you. You have to release control. That album hasn’t belonged to me in a very long time—it belonged to other people. So now I’m coming back to those songs and thinking about my life through the eyes of other people and these songs that come from an almost foreign place. Many of these tracks we haven’t played in like 18 years.
One of the first things I said about doing this tour was “I’m not going to do this as a 26 year old man, I’m going to do this as a 46 year old man.” This isn’t about pretending its 20 years ago. I’m not dyeing my hair. This is who I am. And I want to celebrate this record in a way that reflects the lessons learned from those intervening decades and the growth I’ve had. Approach the whole tour from that start place has been rewarding.
What did you hear from those fans that made you decide to go back to this dark part of your past and take it on the road? Feel like that must’ve been something really fucking compelling?
A lot of people were in high school when the record came out, who were coming to catch us now, and that album was part of their musical journey as young adults and helped shape what their future would be. By extension, a lot of those people were bringing their kids to see us play, now. I met someone who told me a story about how he played this record on a date with a girl and she started singing along because she know all the lyrics. They’re married and have kids now. That’s obviously not the kind of story that I associate with my history of making the record. Writing these songs was about a place a million miles away from a meet cute, on the other side of the spectrum. So hearing that someone get married and this was a foundational moment for them, or stories about a friend of someone’s who had one of these songs played at their funeral—it’s just the entirety of human experience reflected onto your art and to know how it fits into the lives of others makes it so big.
As a band, how are you approaching these songs? You mentioned some haven’t been played in 18 years. Are you trying to recreate them as originally performed or are you reinventing them in any way?
Yeah, not necessarily. The idea of an album celebration tour is, I believe, that you’re going to hear the record you love. I’m not gonna playing something at half-speed with an acoustic guitar. This show will be the record. But I’m also a far better musician than I was 20 years ago. That’s one of the reasons why we’re touring as a three-piece right now. It’s big vocals and big guitars and a big rhythm section. I fell in love with the trio setup a few years ago. It forces me to be better, to carry all the guitar lines and vocals, and that’s fun in a new way. That part is a new variation on everything but it makes it more interesting for me and hopefully for the audience as well.
So you’re performing a 20 year old record, but you’ve also got extremely new material. How does the work that you’ve evolved into tour in a set next to something from when you were basically a kid?
Goes back to the thing from before about being a better musician now, especially vocally. You have to remember that Wiretap was the first record I ever sang, so that was a huge learning curve. To go back to those now is rewarding because I can do better. Guitar is the same. It’s more second nature now than ever before. Now that I’ve dealt with most of my other demons that have been with me, on tour and in life and in my head, I’m able to enjoy this stuff a lot more. There’s less, y’know, ‘trying to destroy myself constantly’ so I can focus on the music. In the show we’re going to start off with the record and play it straight through, and then do a set of other material. I’d say we’re going to ‘play the hits’ but we’re not really a ‘hit’ band. So the rest of the songs are just the best off each record we’ve put out since.
You’d mentioned you don’t want to tour like a 26 year old. What’s the difference to you?
Honestly, I’m just grateful that I survived. This is a hard industry to grow up in. I started touring when I was 18; a few months after I turned 18. It was a full-time job and a lifestyle. My history is littered with lost friends. So at 46, I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been in my life, mentally and physically, emotionally and musically. It’s a victory lap. And I like being able to show others that you can do it this way—that you can survive but also be good at this without needing to fuck it all up on purpose. These things should be encouraged and supported.
I’d be remiss not to close out to ask if you remember your show opening for Glassjaw at The Bottleneck, back when the album first came out. It was you guys and Hot Water Music. I was in high school and my dad drove me across the state and snuck me in (because I was underage) and we watched you together.
That night remains the first time I remember a rock band telling me between numbers that a song was based on a movie and that I should watch it. Which is how I tracked down an arthouse documentary Dark Days, because you had a song based on that.
We haven’t played that song in forever, and when we started practicing again I remembered how cool that movie is. It’s cool right? I’ll admit that to the rest of it, I have pretty blurry memories of Lawrence, as I do of most things at that time. Such a fucking weird movie. Well, that’s awesome. I’m glad that you saw it.