Catching Up With Jim Ward
At the Drive-In Founding Member, Sparta Frontman Talks Playing Acoustic, His New Bar
Since completing the touring cycle behind Sparta’s latest album, Jim Ward hasn’t let himself get bored. He’s released three acoustic-rooted EPs that were compiled into a full-length album titled Quiet In the Valley, On the Shores the End Begins, opened a bar called Hope and Anchor and helped start up a venue called Tricky Falls.
Ward — who also fronts the alt-country outfit Sleepercar and was a founding member of At the Drive-In— caught up with Paste yesterday to reflect on his LP, Hope and Anchor and what he’s excited about in the future.
Paste: Quiet In the Valley, On the Shores the End Begins’ has been out since June. Looking back on the album, which started as an EP in 2006, what are you most proud of now?
Ward: I think just completing it is sort of the best part. It did take for a while to come out and it took a while for all the pieces to come together. But that was kind of the idea too, I didn’t want to be on somebody else’s timeline, and that’s why I wanted to do it by myself in the first place.
Paste: You’ve said it was difficult at first to record softer songs. Do you still find it challenging?
Ward: I think it gave me a starting point for a new challenge. It’s not like I feel like I’m done playing loud music. Obviously I’m not. But I needed something new at that time in-particular, because I was really burned out. By the end of that tour cycle, Sparta took a long break, so I think everybody was burned out on the continual process of what we do: make a record, go on tour, make a record, go on tour. There’s a point where you can only write songs about being on tour and nobody wants to listen to those, especially when you’re on tour.
I think it was just about taking a step back. I had a house, I had a wife. I wanted to be at home and experience what would be more of a home life, and I wanted to write songs but I didn’t know where I wanted to go necessarily. After the first EP (2007’s Quiet), I didn’t know I was going to make a second one until I started making it. I was just writing these songs and I thought, “OK, this is obviously the second EP (2009’s In the Valley, On The Shores) and if I’m going to do two, I’m going to do three.” And that’s when the whole idea happened. So I named the second one something that would bridge the first one and the third one.
Paste: On Hope and Anchor’s website, you talk about the bar’s connection to the music scene in El Paso. Has working with Hope and Anchor changed the way you look at local music and El Paso?
Ward: It’s mostly the employment factor. We have a policy that if you’re a musician and you work for us and you want to go on tour, we do everything we can to ensure that your job is there when you get back. Because that’s always one of the hardest things. I was lucky enough early on, like in the early days of At the Drive-In, to have a place, even though I’d have to come back at the bottom of the pile. Every time I came home, they would let me come back to this little Kodak place where we used to develop microfilm for banks, which I don’t think they do anymore. So, every time I got home, they would be like, “OK, you can have your job back.” Really, it was so fundamental in being able to survive when we weren’t making money on tour as musicians. I always wanted (Hope and Anchor) to be that sort of place.
It’s everything from that, to when The Lusitania crashed, it was the one time a band played at Hope and Anchor, it’s one of our rules: never, ever live music. I want that bar to just be a bar. And we have a venue (Tricky Falls), and that venue is proper. I just wanted to do it right. We let The Lusitania play and we raised some money. Chris, the other partner that owns the bar with me, we put a PayPal button on the website so people from out of town could donate. We ended up raising $1,500, which is how much they needed for renting a van and getting their gear back and all that. A lot of people that work at Hope and Anchor play in bands, and if you’re on tour with your laminate or tell them you’re on tour, we have a special price for beer. It’s all just stuff that makes touring a little easier.
Paste: You’ve also been working with a venue, Tricky Falls. Do you feel more rooted in El Paso now that you’ve been involved in things like the bar and venue?
Ward: Yeah, it feels like it. I’ve always lived here, but as far as having a commitment to being here on a daily basis, yeah. I’ve spent the last couple of years at home and doing a little bit of solo touring and a little bit of Sleepercar touring, and now obviously At the Drive-In will be doing some stuff and Sparta will be doing some stuff, so now I feel like the businesses are teenagers and I can leave them alone at home for a couple of weeks.
I’m surrounded by people, obviously I don’t do this by myself, but everybody has a real commitment to this town. I want (Tricky Falls) to be open for 10 years. I want kids that are 15 to go to college and come back and go “I saw so-and-so there in high school and it’s still there and I can still go see shows.” It’s kind of always been the trouble in this town with continuity.
Paste: What was it like performing with Sparta at Tricky Falls?
Ward: It was the most amount of work I’ve ever done to play a show. We rehearsed in my studio, so you’re responsible for making the doors are unlocked and the coffee’s made and stuff, and then we played at my theater. I wanted the guys in my band to be happy and comfortable and I wanted to make sure everything’s going good, but I also have to be the singer in the band. I’ll probably not do that again for a while (laughs). It was awesome, but at the end of the day, I’d be like, “I just want to go to sleep.”
Paste: What are you excited about in the future?
Ward: I’m definitely excited about Coachella [Ward’s band At the Drive-In is slated to reunite for the first time in 11 years at the festival]. I’m definitely excited on continuing to work on the Sparta record, which we’re sort of figuring out how to release it, or what it’s going to be, whether it will be multiple small releases or one big one. Obviously there’s a lot of other stuff going on that we’re still figuring out, but it’s all exciting. Everything I’m doing right now is because everyone around me is absolutely in love with music and I don’t think if it wasn’t that case, then we definitely wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Paste: You picked up Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo in your “What’s in My Bag?” feature for Amoeba Records. What did you think of that album, and have you been listening to any newer bands that are inspiring you?
Ward: I think that record is beautiful. I was really bummed out, [Vile] was one of the first people to play at Tricky Falls. He was on tour with Bright Eyes, and I started the tour our place opened, I was in Atlanta. Connor (Oberst) was here, which was a bummer because he is a friend of mine, and I would have liked to have been here for the first [show at the venue]. At least I had my team here to give me reports that it was really good.
As far as new stuff, I listen to satellite radio a lot, a lot of it I’m not so into. Lana Del Rey came out and I was like “Fuck, this is really good,” then the second one came out and it’s like, “ehh…” and at this point, I think I’m kind of missing the long-term thing on that. I’m not trying to bag her, but I feel like there’s this pressure in the industry to come out of the gate with a single and blow it up really big, but there’s not much behind it. I did love that first song so much.
The old standards, Wilco obviously, these guys that you’re watching turn into iconic American bands, that’s pretty awesome. I’ve seen them so many times and I love all the records. You know where you’re growing up and the legend is already there: Tom Petty is already there, Bob Dylan is already there. But to see a band turn into what would be our kids’ classic American rock, it’s cool to see.
Paste: What other bands do you think are becoming iconic American groups right now?
Ward: Well, there’s a sort of subversive b-side classic American rock, like, say Modest Mouse. I’d say Isaac [Brock]’s been doing it so long and been putting out such solid things that I think one day everybody’s going to realize, “Oh, shit. This is a great American rock band.”
Then there’s those bands you’re rooting for like Deer Tick, I think they’re one of those bands that over time. I see so much promise and so much talent at a young age. But with what they’re singing about, you kind of hope they can hold onto it (laughs). That’s from an older person’s perspective I guess. I obviously think, Conor [Oberst] too, has been putting out solid records for his whole life. I have the utmost respect for that dude.
You can check out Ward’s Quiet In the Valley, On the Shores the End Begins here.