When Wiretap Scars – the debut LP from Sparta, an El Paso-based post-hardcore outfit comprised of 3/5ths of the recently disbanded At The Drive-In – dropped, I was about to start my senior year of high school. The Spectrum, North Star Bar, and Trocadero still remained, Franklin Music Hall was still the Electric Factory, and Johnny Brenda’s, Union Transfer, and Underground Arts – all venues who have played host to Sparta over the years – were yet to exist. I’m currently a 38-year-old liberal arts professor of 14 years and music journalist of nearly 20, getting to regularly chat with many of the artists I grew up admiring. And this May I got a chance to chat with Jim Ward, vocalist and guitarist of Sparta, who is currently on an extended tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album (although we’re currently closer to the 21st), and he tells me fans have been sharing similar stories: “People bring their kids, or someone will tell me, ‘I fell in love with this record,’ or, ‘I played this record for a girl when we first started dating, and she loved it, and I knew she was the one.’” “This record has been part of people’s lives for 20 years now. It’s been a really fucking cool thing,” he admits.
Since the album’s release, Sparta have played the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection more than 10 times, with at least one show at each of the aforementioned venues. Most recently, Sparta played Union Transfer supporting The Get Up Kids just last September, with their last headlining show taking place at Johnny Brenda’s in 2018. And Jim tells me that he has always been a big fan of our city: “It reminds me a little bit of where I’m from. Even within the East Coast, you always know you’re in Philly. It’s sort of a different vibe.” “We started out playing the Church, and I think we’ve played just about every venue in the city,” he says, which actually includes both the First Union Spectrum (opening for Pearl Jam) and the Wachovia Center (opening for Incubus). And he tells me shows like this definitely have their perks, in addition to the crowd size: “We went to a Phillies game, back when we were opening for Pearl Jam. When you’re on a big tour like that, you get hookups, so we got a suite and drank some beers, and had a nice day.” But when I ask if he has a favorite type of venue, from 250-capacity barrooms to 20,000-capacity arenas (and everything in between), Ward tells me he really doesn’t: “The variety is what I love the most, which is probably a bullshit answer [laughs], but arenas, big festivals, little punk clubs… I have friends in stadium bands that will never get to play shitty little punk venues, and I kind of feel bad for them [laughs].”
The Wiretap Scars 20yr Celebration Tour kicked off in May, and has been going on two-three-week jaunts since then. “It’s gonna be Wiretap for about 14 months, but I’ve realized I can only tour for two weeks at a time, and then I need to go home every two weeks to reset,” Ward tells me. And Tuesday, August 1st, will have Sparta bringing the tour to Underground Arts, where the band will be accompanied by Geoff Rickly of Thursday and Zeta as support. Sparta is currently comprised of Ward and Matt Miller (both original and constant members, who released the band’s self-titled fifth album last year, Sparta’s first as a duo), who are joined on tour by drummer Neil Hennessy. The shows have the band playing the album front-to-back each night, along with a few other favorites of the band and the fans. And, while the album is certainly the fan favorite of the band’s catalogue, I’m curious if Jim is still a fan of their earliest sounds… “It’s been shockingly pleasant to go back and really appreciate all the things we put into it,” he tells me, admitting that the only thing that rubs him the wrong way about that era is the fashion, which he characterizes as, “cringey.”
“I think the thing I’ve realized in the time since [the album was written, recorded, and released] is where I was at mentally and emotionally at that time, with the ashes of my band imploding and becoming a singer for the first time… and look at it with some maturity,” Ward says of his recent experience revisiting the debut. But he says the best part of all of it is the energy he’s been getting to share with the audience each night: “It’s pretty powerful. It’s a pretty emotional show… The emotions are very high, and the joy is really high.” He also admits that, while knowing it’s a cliché, the band’s fans really are second-to-none: “I know every band says they have the best fans, but we really do have the best fans [laughs]… We’re a really humble, hardworking band, there’s no pretentions, and I think our fans mirror that.” He also says he’s enjoyed this opportunity to go back and explore album tracks that have been long absent from setlists: “If you have as many records as we do, you can only do so many songs from each record each night… It’s been fun to go back and learn songs we haven’t played in like 18 years.”
With the trend of playing classic albums front-to-back thriving in recent years, I’m curious if there are any albums that Jim, as a fan, would love to experience in their entirety, and his answer actually surprises me. “With U2, I went to two of the US shows when they were playing Joshua Tree, and they were fucking incredible! I was just sobbing. So, I would love to see Achtung Baby front-to-back,” he tells me, as the legendary Irish quartet are gearing up for 25 nights of performing the 1991 album in Las Vegas. Ward also admits that he was fortunate enough to see the original tour behind Achtung Baby, which proved to be a profound landmark in his life: “I went to that when I was like 14 and had only been to like little punk shows, and that was my first big rock show kind of thing, and it changed my life. It changed my perspective on what I wanted to do with my life… And I got a chance to tell Bono one time, which was just so unbelievable.” He also tells me that it’s far from just nostalgia that accounts for his love of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr.: “They’re the greatest fucking band in the world… I mean, The Clash isn’t together, so…”
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