You can’t write about veteran El Paso rock band Sparta without mentioning two of their members’ other groups, the critically-lauded experimental post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In (ATDI), who’s devoted fans’ obsessive loyalty can only be rivalled by the controversy the group has attracted over the years.
“At the Drive-In is such a beast that we will all live in its shadow forever,” said one of the group’s founding members, Jim Ward, who went on to become the frontman for Sparta following ATDI’s “indefinite hiatus” in 2001.
Some will remember the buzz created last year when At The Drive-In announced their long-awaited return to the stage, playing highly-publicized sets at Coachella and Lollapalooza, but it’s Sparta’s own reunion in 2011 that’s bearing real fruit, in the form of their first album in seven years.
“At this point in our careers, we kind of steer the ship whichever way we choose,” said Ward, who hopes to wrap up the as-yet untitled album in the summer. “There’s nobody breathing down our necks to do anything and we’re now confident in our abilities and decision making that we know what we’re doing.”
Ward admits the band was getting exhausted by “the cycle that you get into as a working band, which is: make a record, go on tour, make a record go on tour” when they announced their hiatus in 2008, and the years apart has helped them pare down their recording process, resulting in a spontaneous, barebones approach in the studio.
“Maturity is probably something you’ll be hearing again and again in the next couple of months as we start releasing songs. There’s very much a confident and mature approach to the songs. That’s a part of growing older and making enough records where you’re able to cut out the bullshit,” said Ward.
The band wrote the music for 12 songs and recorded them in just a week, with some songs coming together in as little as 15 minutes, said Ward.
“I wanted it to be 100 per cent guttural,” he said. “I just wanted to go in and react off each other and record it and that’s it. No changes later, no producer, none of that. This is just us going in and playing our instruments.”
The minimalist approach to the album was entirely Ward’s idea. He wanted to cut the fat from the recording process, like when the band spent three months writing over 50 songs for their last release, 2006’s Threes, before selecting the final 12 tracks for the album.
“What ends up happening is you write a song … then you spend three or four months trying to find every possible variation to it and what could make it better or different, and when you get back to it, it’s usually about 97 per cent of the same song you wrote three months ago,” said Ward. “So my point was: why are we doing that?”
Ward’s simple, no frills recording strategy is light years away from the distorted, meticulous dissonance of his first band, not to mention that of The Mars Volta, another At the Drive-In offshoot that has inspired a rabid following worldwide. When ATDI split, Ward and drummer Tony Hajjar formed the more conventional Sparta, while Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez went off to form the more progressive and experimental Mars Volta.
In January Bixler announced Mars Volta’s breakup on Twitter, publicly calling out Rodriguez-Lopez for his lack of commitment to the group. The in-fighting has led to many critics forecasting the end of ATDI less than a year after their return to musical relevance at Coachella. Ward, however, isn’t convinced the end is nigh.
“As far as I’m concerned (At the Drive-In) is back on break. I think finality in life besides dying is pretty pointless,” he said. “I don’t know what the future is, but I’m definitely glad that we got to (perform together) and got to know each other again at this age.”
Sparta’s constant comparison to ATDI, and to a lesser extent Mars Volta, used to bother Ward, but at the age of 36, it’s not something he really concerns himself with.
“As you mature and you grow you realize that (At the Drive-In) has taken on its own life and that’s a blessing when you think about it,” he said. “I will let that band be what it is to people and grow into whatever it is and enjoy it when I can enjoy it and step away from it when I can’t.”
With The Mars Volta likely broken up for good, and the future of At the Drive-In in question, it’s a testament to Ward and his bandmates’ staying power. He attributes their longevity to a familiar approach, one he’s employed for their upcoming album: simplicity.
“I don’t wanna come offstage and have a towel and a beer and talk about whether I should wear a vest or not. I’m not into any of that shit,” said Ward. “I just want to play and be done with it and have a great time, and I want everyone else too as well. I think that’s the sort of band we are; we’re not a pyrotechnic band, we’re a rock band, that’s what we do well, so we should just do it.”
Sparta return to Whistler for a show at Dusty’s on Wednesday (Feb. 20) at 9 p.m. Pre-show tickets are sold out, but there will be 50 available at the door for $25, so come early before they’re all gone.