Sparta’s ‘Wiretap Scars’ turns 20; Jim Ward discusses it in new interview with If It Kills You
After the initial 2001 breakup of At the Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López formed the more progressive rock-influenced Mars Volta, while guitarist/backing vocalist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos stuck to a more post-hardcore vibe with Sparta, which found Jim Ward assuming lead vocal duties and Paul Hinojos moving to guitar (the lineup was rounded out by bassist Matt Miller). Sparta signed a major label deal with Dreamworks the same year they formed, and debuted in 2002 with the Austere EP before releasing their debut full-length Wiretap Scars later that year. The album fit in perfectly with the emo/post-hardcore boom that had really started to explode just as ATDI were breaking up, and the album also served as a reminder of how crucial Jim Ward's backing vocals were to the sound of At the Drive-In. He may have been previously best known as a sideman (a role he says he's still more comfortable with), but Sparta gave him the opportunity to bring his voice and more of his ideas to the forefront, and it resulted in great records like Wiretap Scars.
Wiretap Scars is about to turn 20 (on August 13), and for the occasion, Jim was interviewed about the record for BrooklynVegan by members of If It Kills You, whose new album Invisible Self was produced by Jim. Jim talked about making the album with producer Jerry Finn (blink-182, Rancid, AFI, Alkaline Trio, etc), who Jim calls "the highest caliber producer you could get," as well as touring with Weezer and Thursday, the influence of bands like Superchunk, Jawbreaker, and Fugazi, making the transition from backing vocalist to frontman, and lyrical themes on the album. They also get into some of the technical stuff, like the gear they used and certain studio techniques, and Jim also talks about the Austere EP and the not-yet-announced, upcoming Sparta album (which features Thursday's Tucker Rule on drums). Read on for their chat.
Meanwhile, Sparta are also gearing up to open The Get Up Kids' Four Minute Mile 25th anniversary tour, which hits NYC's Irving Plaza on September 25 and Asbury Park's House of Independents on September 28 (tickets). All dates for that tour are listed below.
Justin Martin (If It Kills You): Hey Jim, it's good to see you. We're here to talk about Wiretap Scars and I think it's a testimony to how great that record is, that 20 years later we're still gushing over it. Even if this record was released tomorrow, it still stands the test of time. I was just listening to it. I was like, "Man, this sounds just as good." It's not dated or anything like that.
Jim Ward (Sparta, At the Drive-In): Oh, that's so nice. Thanks.
JM: Absolutely. Great record.
JW: It's definitely hard for me to see it as not dated, just because I can see the evolution, especially vocally. It's hard to go back and listen to it and not be like, "Oh, I would have done this different," because it was my first real full-length record I ever sang on. So it was a learning curve, for sure.
JM: Right. From my perspective as a fan, it seems like there was a small window of time between At the Drive-In touring and then the release of Wiretap Scars. I mean, that perception could be totally different for you.
JW: It was super fast, yeah.
JM: How complete was the album before you actually hit the studio?
JW: We wrote the album in the summertime. At the Drive-In, we played our last show, I think, at the end of February. We were writing probably in June-July and then we sort of demoed during the summer and we did a 10 show run, like Texas to California, then we played a show in Iceland. Then we came back and started working with Jerry Finn, so by the time we got to the studio in Vancouver it was like a pretty well-oiled machine. Probably the most prepared I've ever been for a record in my life.
Mikee Lee (If It Kills You): How many of those tracks did you go into the studio with? Or did any of those get released later, if not used for this record?
JW: I think, pretty much everything we wrote got whittled down in the writing process. The way I usually work is, and this is maybe starting with this record... I write a bunch of stuff and then it just gets cut and cut and cut until you get to the studio. Then we don't really waste... I mean, maybe back then you'd have the Japanese B-side or the UK extra song or something, so we probably recorded, what is there, like 12 on the record or 13 on the record... probably like 14 or 15, I can't even remember, to be honest. But pretty much everything got used right away and I think that tends to be my style, like, once I'm done with that part of writing, I sort of move on and I don't want to use that stuff later, necessarily.
Tyler Patterson (If It Kills You): Yeah, absolutely. Because you never know what the new album's feel or influences are going to be.
JW: Yeah. And I get pretty burned out by the time it's done. Ready to play them live or ready to do something different. Especially that one, we worked on it for so long.
Kevin Clark (If It Kills You): So, it turns 20 this year, right?
KC: When you sit back and reflect on that album, what memories are triggered and are there any "oh shit" moments or funny stories that you have while recording or touring for that album?
JW: Matt and I were just talking about this last night at the airport. So, we toured for that record for like 18 months and we had just gotten off several years of straight touring with At the Drive-In, so there was a lot of releasing of anxiety on that tour. The fear of coming out of a band that's pretty hyped up and getting well known and then that band stopping and starting another band with an unproven singer and the bass player switching to guitar and a bass player who's never been in a real touring band. All that stuff was really new. So I think once the record was made... Jerry Finn took such good care of us and taught us so much in the process of making the record and he was such a nurturer... By the time we got out on the road... So we did a couple weeks with Thursday then we did this Weezer amphitheater tour and we just kind of lost our minds, we just had so much fun. We had these giant parking lots parties and huge dice games. Really, more than anything we just had fun. We didn't take it super seriously. I mean, we took playing super seriously. But we were there to figure out what we were as a band, and who we were, and just have a good time. And we did. We had a really good time. For a long time. It's not an easy thing to maintain though. By the end of that we were pretty tired.
TP: Were there any songs on that album that you didn't play live, or you thought were more difficult to play live so you kind of dreaded it?
JW: No, because we wrote the record and then played shows and then went back and did demos, then recorded, then played shows. We also added Gabe Gonzalez as a touring member, so we had five guys onstage, so we could do all this stuff on the record in real time without backing tracks. Then we moved to some tracks later on, on Porcelain. But on that record it was all happening, every day.
TP: That's awesome.
JW: Touring with a Rhodes. Awful.
JM: Lugging that can be a pain in the ass.
TP: You feel like a drummer, loading that thing.
JW: I was really lucky that we had a great crew and a big crew and it's probably the easiest my touring life has ever been. We kind of went all out. It was the first time we were really in buses and had a pretty big crew. It was fun. We were on Dreamworks and we had massive budgets and could kind of do whatever we wanted and I think it was good to do that one time. I don't think I'm built for that world. Trying it, at least I know that's not something I want to really make sacrifices in my life to be part of that world.
ML: Yeah, you got to enjoy that experience because you got to just focus on doing what you guys did best, right? You didn't have to worry about all the other pieces, so it was cool, for that record, to do that.
JW: And it was probably needed because we were pretty vulnerable, just like, coming out of a band, and like I said, everybody was kind of doing new jobs in the band and it's difficult, so I think, having that massive support was really helpful and probably kept us together.
TP: Yeah, absolutely. I could see how that could work out like that.
ML: I know you just mentioned the UK and the other releases that you had. Are those different recordings than the Austere EP?
JW: Austere, we recorded that with Mike Major in El Paso, before. I guess we just wanted something to have before the record came out, to tour with. I guess that's what we were thinking. I'm not sure why we did it. So then there's kind of different versions of those songs. But pretty much everything that was released in association with Wiretap was from that session with Finn.
ML: That "De-mix" is very interesting. It's very lo-fi.
JW: That was our first attempt at remixing. There's a Superchunk remix that I love that inspired what we called the "De-mix" because it wasn't a remix, it was just a... I don't know what the fuck it was... But I think that's why we called it the "De-mix." It's not a released song that we remixed, it was just a weird thing that we wanted to do. Super inspired by Superchunk.
TP: Yeah, I was actually going to ask, what were some of the other influences going into this album?
JW: I was, and am, a huge Jawbreaker fan, a Fugazi fan, all the Dischord stuff. I don't know if anything was really creeping into my influences at that point. I had yet to discover my love of country music, so that's not there yet. And I was still probably pretty anti-mainstream stuff. You know, you go through that as a kid. You think you're punker than thou. Some of those riffs I definitely had during At the Drive-In and was thinking they would be on the next At the Drive-In record and, since that didn't happen... There's a video of me playing "Air" in between songs in Japan or something, on the At the Drive-In tour, so I know I was messing around with those riffs, which is usually what I do, I just fuck around with stuff until it locks into place.
JM: I know we had some conversations during the production of our record. I would talk to you about vocal performances and I think then you mentioned with Wiretap Scars you had opted out of any type of vocal tuning or any kind of assistance like that and you just wanted to really nail it and you worked your ass off in the studio.
JW: Yeah, when we went to start recording the record, Jerry said "OK, give me, like, five good takes and we'll tweak it and come back" and I said "Nope, I'm not going to use any of that." He said "That's fine, but you have to sing to my expectations." I wouldn't do the tools, the auto-tune stuff, so I just worked super hard for a super long time. I mean, weeks and weeks of vocals. He put me through the fucking grinder. But I came out a much stronger singer because of that. And it's something, still to this day, I almost never use tuning. I'm a fan of slightly out-of-tune stuff sometimes. I don't think it's that big a deal and I don't think we should necessarily let a computer tell us what's right. For big, long, held-out notes, I'll tweak it, especially for background vocals because I really just treat it as an effect, but I rarely use auto-tune at all, or any of that stuff.
KC: How easy was it for you to make the transition from a backup vocalist to a frontman? Did you feel a lot of pressure doing that?
JW: There was a lot of pressure, yeah, for sure. Before I started At the Drive-In, I was a singer in a band in high school so I had some experience fronting a band, you know, to 20 people or 100 people at most. So then, walking into Dreamworks with demos, it's fucking scary, to be honest. All the good stuff comes to you, which is the great part about being a singer, as singers know, but also all the shit goes to you as well. Like, if someone doesn't like Sparta, they usually associate that with me. Then it becomes a personal thing, like, "I don't like that guy or his band." And I understand, that's just how it works. But I do love being a sideman. It's like my favorite job in the world, to prop up and support a great vocalist. I don't think I'm a great vocalist. I like to sing and I think I do a fine job, but being able to be in a band with Cedric for so many years, it was such a treat to do those background vocals and watch him do his thing. I learned a ton from him, obviously. I like both roles, to be honest, but I'm much more comfortable, stage left.
TP: That's great. You freakin' nailed it, though.
JW: I'm super excited for people to hear this new Sparta record. It's a push in a new direction. It's cool and I really look forward to people hearing it. I feel like I've arrived where I want to be as a singer/songwriter and it feels like the beginning of the road for me, which is exciting.
TP: I have a bunch of questions and a lot of it goes back to working with you. We sent you a couple of drum sounds, drum samples, and you wrote back, "Black Beauty for the snare drum, all the way." Is that something you guys have used? Did you guys use it on this album?
JW: I feel like it was probably used on this album but I couldn't tell you for sure. When I'm in the producer's seat there's a lot of opinions I have; when I'm in the band member's seat there's a lot of stuff I stay out of. Just because I want to make sure the producer and the drummer have that conversation and feel good about it. Unless it's something that really bugs me, which is incredibly rare, I just let people find their own path. I know Tony went through a ton of drums and really got a chance to experiment and spend time in the studio, which we had never done much of. We had only made one record that lasted more than four days, before Wiretap, which was [At the Drive-In's] Relationship of Command. We weren't used to this, so I think all of us took advantage of, like, "OK I'm going to use four different amps on this song." It's probably what you do when you're young and you have that opportunity. I think, by this age, I know what I like and it's a much faster process. But at that time, it was like, "OK, let's play with all the toys that are here." And we had this guy Mike Fasano who was the drum tech on that record who's a genius. For the first time, having people around us who were like, "Hey, why don't you try this?" or "I have these hi-hats that would sound cool." All that stuff was really new to us and I think we all took advantage and really had fun with it. It was a great experience. Recording that record in Vancouver was a fantastic experience.
TP: You just got to play with so much gear. That's great.
JW: Yeah, it's a great studio. The Armory is a fantastic studio. The assistants were awesome. It was just a good time. We rented a house and we all stayed in the house together. It was very bonding and fun. Super good memories.
TP: A lot of my questions are drum-related. You have some awesome drum intros on this album. Did you have a lot of input with coming up with the intros for the songs?
JW: No, I pretty much stay away from drum parts, for the most part. As a singer, I think I have an unequal share of attention and input so, when I can, I stay out of it. Just out of respect.
TP: It's good that you've worked with some pretty amazing drummers, so that probably makes it a little bit easier too.
JW: Yeah, that's true too. Tucker [Rule of Thursday] played on the new Sparta record. Having Tucker on the last two records is insane. He just keeps getting better.
TP: Yeah, Tucker's great.
ML: With all that being said, if you had an opportunity to go back and change anything on the record, is there anything specific you would want to change? Or, once you guys were done with it, you were like, "This is it, this is the perfect snapshot in time of how we want to represent the band"? Was there anything in that whole process you would want to change or tweak?
JW: I don't think so. I'm even like, when we talk about putting out re-releases or records going back to vinyl or whatever, and you get "Do you want to remaster it?" and I don't want to remaster it, because it is what it is. That was the time period for us and that was how we wanted it to sound and we were all happy with it. Obviously your tastes change over time and I can understand why people want to tweak or update or whatever it is, but, you know, I'm a fan of the original Star Wars, I don't like the added CGI stuff personally, but I also get why he did it. So, no, I wouldn't go back and change anything. Like I said earlier, it's not vocal pitch or anything, but there's some delivery that I do so differently now live, that when I listen to the record, if I'm in rehearsals, it's a little hard for me to listen to. I feel like I was learning and I can see that now and it's a little awkward for me, but I don't think it matters to anybody else. That's the only thing I would say that stands out to me now.
JM: I couldn't see a remaster on this record. It doesn't sound dated or anything. It's so good. It sounds timeless.
ML: And it's good to go back to those snapshots in time and see where you were and see where you are now. I think that's important too. When people start taking those things, like you said, and start adding things or tweaking things later, it loses that snapshot. That's cool you guys have decided to keep it as is, because it does sound great.
JW: Revisionist history is one of my pet peeves. I think you have to be honest about who you were, in order to keep growing, and I don't see any reason to change my past. I'm here because of all of these things.
TP: Yeah, well, you gotta know that that record was on in about 1.5 million houses during house parties and blasting over cars while people are singing along to it.
JW: Yeah, I'm so grateful for all the stuff that I've gotten to be a part of. For sure.
TP: Yeah, you were there. We were partying and you were there.
JW: It's the highest selling Sparta record and I know it's the one we're probably most known for. And I appreciate everybody supporting that, you know? I don't look back and think like, "You should listen to the new stuff." If you evolved with us, great, but if that's the point in your life where you were at, and we were at, and we worked together, then that's awesome and I appreciate it.
JM: The guitar tones on this record just peel the paint off walls. So huge. Is there a primary guitar rig you used or, like you said earlier, you just wanted to, kid in a candy shop, use anything you could?
JW: On Relationship, it's all that Park 100-watt, but then it got stolen, slash, fell out of a truck. I don't even remember what I used. Finn had so many great amps. I do remember that I used his Les Paul Junior for probably 90% of the record. I just love P-90s. P-90s and half stacks were my jam then. Back then it was always just a 4x12, 100-watt something, and a P-90.
KC: Were you stoked to work with Finn? Of course you were. His production pedigree is pretty insane.
JW: Yeah, it's the highest caliber producer you could get.
KC: Were you intimidated? Have you adopted any techniques from then that you still use today?
JW: Yeah, you never would be intimidated with Finn. He puts you at ease instantly. He had the greatest sense of humor. So smart. His pitch is incredible. But he's also just really gentle. Doing vocals, he'd be like, "Flat, sharp, sharp, flat, sharp, flat, out of time, sharp, flat," just killing me, then when I got a great one, he'd take a moment and tell me, "That was so good." It's not like, "Oh fine, we got it, let's move on," he would really take a moment to reward me for the work. And then the other thing that I learned, and I still do to this day, is, if I'm in charge of something that I'm recording, then it's going to be drums and then guitar and then bass. I learned that from Finn. So, Finn's thing is like, if you can get guitars tight with just drums, then the bass is only going to sit better, whereas once the bass is on the drums, you have a little bit of audio loosey room. It's easier to lock in with bass and drums, than it is to lock in with just drums, as a guitar player. So, if you take the time to do the guitars with the drums first, then you're tighter than you ever would have been. I still do that, to this day. All of the records that I record, I write guitar parts, I send them to a drummer, then I play to that drum track. Then I send them to Matt or whoever's playing bass on that record. That's something I took from Finn.
TP: You just blew all our minds and we're going to re-record everything.
JW: Also Finn turned us on to Mr. Show. The other thing he added to my life is Mr. Show. He just brought all his VHS tapes with him to Vancouver and we'd watch them while we ate lunch. The best dude. The best sense of humor.
KC: How long were those sessions?
JW: So long. We did pre-production in El Paso for, I want to say, a couple of weeks, before Christmas in 2001, and then we went to Vancouver in the very beginning of January and we did a couple of days of live rehearsals at a rehearsal space and then we went into the studio. I think we were in Vancouver for 6 or 8 weeks then I went to LA with Finn. The House of Blues guys have a studio in Van Nuys and I went and did vocals. We were doing tour prep work in the studio because it was taking so long. I remember we hired a tour manager and he came to the studio and was making laminates. I just had dinner with him the other night and we were talking about that. That's how far we pushed it. Whatever break we had written into the concept, I fucked it up and erased it by not using auto-tune. We were there forever. And I really have no idea how much extra money it cost but I was so grateful that the guys let me do that and not just take the cheap, easy way out. They really were supportive of me. And they would come by and root me on, or come do backups or whatever. They were generous with that.
TP: Yeah, that's got to be a refreshing feeling, having your boys behind you, supporting you, and knowing you have all that weight, and they're just like, "You got this."
JW: Yeah, that's the thing about being in bands. You guys know. For all the annoying stuff about being in bands, the feeling of support is unparalleled. It's like having your best friends, on your worst day they're there for you and on your best day they're there for you. It's great.
TP: Were there any big problems on the 18 months you guys toured that album?
JW: Like, mentally breaking down? Yes. It definitely caught up to me. It probably took years off my life. We seriously did not stop. There was, like, a chip on our shoulder. We had something to prove. "We're going to play everywhere. We're never going to say no. We're going to do every possible thing that we can do." And I remember being at the end of that, before we were going to make Porcelain, and I was exhausted. And I think Porcelain suffered a little for that. I think we could have taken some time off. But that wasn't the way we were. So we kept going. It was really hard to have perspective by the end of that. I was just newly married. I remember, we bought a house and I was never at our house. There was a point where I was like "I don't even know what my house looks like" and I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but really, I was there for a few days at a time. It's not fun to start your life with somebody, being gone. It's just hard. It caught up to me and that's why Porcelain is probably a little darker, a little fucked up. But it is what it is.
JM: A great record, too.
JW: Thank you.
TP: I can imagine that being weird. You come home and you're like, "Where's the toilet paper?"
JW: Yeah, I've never moved my family. I've never been there when we moved from apartments to houses to apartments to whatever. My friends have always carried the weight for me, which is crazy. Every single time, I've been on tour when we've made a move. And that's not fair. We're still married, so obviously we've figured it out and made it work this long. It's only because of her.
TP: You got a winner.
JW: Oh, yeah.
ML: In general, for lyrical content for this record, is there a theme or a message that you were trying to convey as a whole, or was each song its own deal?
JW: Starting with that record, and to this day, I usually take one or two pieces of nonfiction and then I weave this story around it. There's nothing I'm really trying to get across. Mostly it's just taking a few things from real life then trying to create stories around them. It's very rare that there's like a... I mean, "Collapse" is pretty clearly me falling apart. That's shit's true. "On the balcony, searching for sleep." That was me on a balcony in Australia, on tour with At the Drive-In, so miserable. It was one of the lowest and scariest moments of my life. And the way I deal with that is, I guess, to write songs about it. But it's not very specific, right, so it's still left to the imagination. I like when people are able to take songs and say "this is what it means to me" and that's cool. It doesn't have to be for me. It can be for you.
ML: Yeah, and the lyrics of different songs can also hit you at different parts of life, so if "Collapse," for example, someone could relate to it at that time, but some people may not have, in regards to how they received the lyrics, but later on in life they go 'Oh, I know. I feel this right now."
JW: Yeah, that's what's good about music. It should be there when you need it, right?
TP: OK. Million dollar question. What's your favorite song on Wiretap Scars?
JW: I think the one that I have the most emotional connection to, and still play, to this day, even at solo shows... I play "Air" and "Collapse," both a lot. I can tell you, singing, "Cut Your Ribbon" is the worst feeling in the world at this age. That, I know for sure. That's why that song does not get played very often. It is incredibly hard to sing.
TP: I can imagine. I don't sing at all. Justin asked me to do 3 or 4 backups on a couple songs and I had to have 5 beers and I was done by take 3.
JM: I think Tyler and Kevin both blew out their voice in those sessions.
KC: Do you do vocal exercises?
JW: A little bit. Usually what I do is, just try and sing in the dressing room a little bit and then work it up to the show. I'm not as good as I should be, but I'm also not touring all the time. Like today, I'm not even wearing in-ears because it's like a throw-and-go show. I will be gone by the end of the set because I'm just going to sing off monitors and I'll use my voice way more than I normally do. But it's one show, so it's all good.
TP: When in your musical career did you start using in-ears?
JW: I started using them on Wiretap, actually.
JM: I know, some of the conversations we had during the vocal performances of our record, I started introducing a bottle of whiskey too, and it helped, it really helped.
JW: Regular Lay's potato chips also help.
JM: Well, Jim, I really appreciate you taking the time and letting us nerd out with you on this stuff.
JW: Thank you so much, guys, I am so happy to be associated with your band and thanks for taking the time to talk about this record. I hope to see you guys soon, in real life.
The Get Up Kids / Sparta -- 2022 Tour Dates
8/22 Dallas, TX @ Amplified Live
8/23 Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
8/24 Austin, TX @ Mohawk
8/26 Mesa, AZ @ Nile
8/27 Pamona, CA @ Glass House
8/28 Los Angeles, CA @ Regent
8/29 San Francisco, CA @ UC Theatre
8/31 Portland, OR @ Revolution
9/1 Seattle, WA @ Neptune
9/3 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
9/4 Denver, CO @ Gothic
9/18 Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
9/20 Pontiac, MI @ Crofoot
9/21 Millvale, PA @ Mr. Smalls
9/23 Buffalo, NY @ Town Ballroom
9/24 Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
9/25 NYC @ Irving Plaza
9/27 Baltimore @ Soundstage
9/28 Asbury Park, NJ @ House of Independents
9/29 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
If It Kills You are also doing a fall West Coast tour with Division of Laura Lee. Tickets go on sale July 29. See the list of dates and stream their new Jim Ward-produced album:
Division of Laura Lee / If It Kills You -- 2022 Tour Dates
10/19/22 - Hollywood, CA @ Harvard & Stone
10/20/22 - San Diego, CA @ Whistle Stop
10/21/22 - Palmdale, CA @ Transplants Brewery
10/22/22 - Mesa, AZ @ The Underground at The Nile
10/23/22 - Prescott, AZ @ The Den
10/24/22 - Fullerton, CA @ Programme Skate & Sound
10/25/22 - Bakersfield, CA @ Jerry’s Pizza & Pub
10/26/22 - Santa Rosa, CA @ Arlene Francis Center