It's been 14 years since Sparta released a new record, but that doesn’t mean frontman and guitarist Jim Ward hasn’t been keeping busy. During that time, Sparta haven’t been entirely inactive, releasing a few singles and still playing the occasional gig.
But the El Paso native’s focus has mostly been elsewhere, releasing a trio of solo EPs and dabbling in alt-country with a pair of albums under the name Sleepercar. He toured those projects, including stints opening for Coldplay and City and Colour.
Eight years ago he even rejoined his previous group, post-hardcore innovators At the Drive-In, for a high-profile reunion show at the 2012 Coachella music festival. So it’s not like he hasn’t had stuff to do. Yet he still managed to have 30 songs ready to pick from when he felt it was time to get back to Sparta.
"I’m in multiple bands and multiple things at the same time. I was also working on a film score while I was making this record," Ward says. "Sometimes I just have a big bunch of songs and it’s fun to figure out what’s going to be the logical step for this."
For actual tracking, Ward headed to Texas studio Sonic Ranch with producer David Garza, perhaps best known for his work with Fiona Apple.
After almost a decade and a half, the music came bursting out, with the whole record being tracked in just three days.
The result is Trust the River, the most diverse album in the Sparta discography. It’s a stark departure from Sparta’s origins. The band formed around Ward and other ATDI refugees Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos.
Debut album Wiretap Scars focused heavily on the angular, heavy guitars that were at the core of At the Drive-In. Subsequent albums Porcelain and Threes began veering into mellower territory, but Trust the River is the Sparta at their most hushed.
"You set me free," Ward yelps on top of a bed of largely clean guitars on Class Blue. The next track, Cat Scream, appropriately features some intense, distorted strumming, but much of the album’s guitar work leans more toward shimmering arpeggios.
The shift in songwriting is also largely tied to the quieter solo gigs, which led Ward to approach guitar in a markedly different way than his early days in ATDI and Sparta’s very first records.
"I think doing that over the last 10 years, off and on, has sort of made my approach to it different,” he continues. "Going into a studio, I think I’m approaching it far more as a songwriter than I ever did in the first half of my career."
One aspect of his guitar playing that’s become a trademark in each of his various projects is Ward’s tendency to play some truly strange chord voicings. As with most great inventions, those weird shapes originally came about by necessity.
"The way that I play guitar is so influenced by my physical ability, or lack of ability, to play barre chords," he says.
"When I was younger, it’s hard for me to play barre chords because of where the guitar sits on me, my wrist doesn’t turn that way. So I’ve always played with a lot of open strings."