Tuesday, January 8, 2008

No more heroes anymore ...

I did an interview with Jim Ward of Sparta about his solo work. To be honest, the interview absolutely floored me! He was just such an honest, intelligent, insightful, cheerful, friendly and open person. He had some really interesting things to say. And as per usual, it is amazing when you get to interview one of your heroes, and Jim Ward is certainly one of mine. The material used here is only about two thirds of the actual interview, so maybe one day I'll post the entire transcript online because it really was one of the most interesting conversations I've had in a very long time.

Jim Ward - Bringing Some Quiet to Soundwave.

It is never easy interviewing someone with as impressive a resume as that of Jim Ward. This singer-songwriter boasts a career that was born out of his role as one of the main songwriters in possibly the most important and influential post-hardcore band of the early 2000's, At the Drive-In. Following their break up, he went on to found Sparta, a band that, on its own merit, is as good as The Mars Volta. Now he returns to Australia for the Soundwave Festival performing his own acoustic songs from his recently released EP, Quiet.

"After coming home from a long tour with my band, Sparta, I wanted to sit in my house and play acoustic guitar quietly," the bio on his MySpace says. "The tour had been loud and chaotic, and I was simply trying to level out. I liked how things were sounding, so I began recording them in my studio." The result of these sessions is the 5 track EP, Quiet, otherwise known as the beginning of what Ward hopes to be a continuing series of recordings. Far removed from his work with Sparta, these songs embrace an almost Americana-vibe. If you start thinking of Ryan Adams or a little bit of Death Cab for Cutie, then you are probably on the right track. But make no mistake, this is Jim Ward, and it is quietly perfect.

In listening to the EP and talking to Jim, it becomes apparent that the concept of "home" is a really important part of who he is. One of the track on the EP is called 'On My Way Back Home'. Ward's own home of El Paso, Texas, is a "huge" inspiration on his writing. "Early on it was about getting out and I think one of the reasons why we toured so much with At the Drive-In was because we didn't want to be here. It was boring," he remembers. "But the older I get, the more I love being here and I hate leaving." This about-face in thinking is the result of any of a number of factors, all of which are the inevitable results of growing older. "I have a house and a wife, and I have nieces and nephews running around," he says fondly. "And it's less exciting for me to be on a plane going to Germany than it used to be. Now it's more, well if this is what I have to do to play in Germany then I'll do it. But now there's less of that desire to leave and more of that desire to find inspiration here."

It's this affinity with his home that brings Ward back to Australia, with whichever of his projects, as often as he can. With Quiet, he has chosen the acoustic stage of the Soundwave Festival to present his solo work to his Australian fans. "It wasn't even a question when this came up," Ward laughs. "I think Australian people and especially West Texans are really similar." This seems like a strange, and very specific, connection to make however it is one that he makes fondly. "There's this openness and excitement about life. When people from other countries come to this part of the world, we're really excited about it. I think we are a pretty hospitable people, and I've always felt that way about Australia."

Despite this close affinity he feels for Australia, the prospect of playing shows here on his own is still something Jim Ward finds daunting. "It's me and a guitar. I'm not taking anyone with me," Ward says with a hint of regret in his voice. This is a guy that is used to touring with bands, with entourages of people (though they may only be two or three people) there to help him out. "I don't even have a tech," he explains. "I have a guitar tech who is one of my best friends in the world and has been with me for years. Now, every time I look at a guitar, he is usually handing it to me." It is also the first time in a long time that Ward has to handle the day-to-day aspects of touring. He laughs, saying "This will be the first time that I will be checking myself into hotels, and talking to promoters, and chatting to the sound guys. I have to do everything myself because I'm the only one there." I'm sure if he were face to face with me, I would see him grinning when he next says, "It's pretty exciting and it's fun. It reminds me of being a kid again, where I would go to these shows not knowing what I was doing and figure it out as I went along."

Even though the prospect of doing everything on his own, is daunting, Ward does not find it uncomfortable. "You know when there's something new and there's that moment before you find your comfort factor?" he asks by way of explanation. "I enjoy those to a certain degree. As long as it's not purgatory where it never goes bad or good, because that's the shit that really worries me. I wouldn't want to be on stage for two weeks and never really either totally love it or totally hate it. I want it to either go really great or get to a point where I decide that I probably shouldn't really do this anymore. But I think it will be fine."

This confidence is telling. Following the lack-lustre reception of Sparta's second album, Porcelain, Ward was ready to throw in the towel, if not just on Sparta, then on music in general. However, since then Sparta has released the brilliant, Threes, and Ward has produced this EP, which has turned into a form of therapy for the self-confessed doubts that plague him. He describes his work on Quiet as being, "Good for the confidence." "We have this joke, where instead of the glass being half empty or half full, I see the glass as being eventually shattered on the ground," he explains. "That's sort of my philosophical way of seeing that metaphor. I can see that even though I am a really cheerful, sociable person, the dark side to me is there and creeps out sometimes. I think being able to do this record was a sort of therapy in itself, like just relaxing and leveling out after this big, long, loud tour."

Perhaps the greatest irony of the whole Quiet project is the fact that recording it and having to do everything associated with it on his own, has made Ward more aware of the social connectivity of music. "I sat in my house, literally completely by myself, and made that record. But then I started having some people add some sprinkles on top," he says with a laugh. To Ward, there is something inherently social about making music, at least this was the path that he chose. "There's lots of people that can do this sort of stuff from home. But I made the conscious decision early on that I wanted to travel and sort of mingle with people and do this publicly." Ward explains further, "To me it's the social part that drives me to this. I mean, there have always been people who have sat around fires telling stories and being entertainers, and I think that is part of what I love."

But this social connectedness does not just lie in his attitude to other performers. "One of the thing that is really crucial to me," Ward says in a rare serious moment, "Is that I make sure that people, especially younger kids and younger fans, know that there is nothing more special about me than is special about them. They can do this just as easily as I did. It's just a level of commitment that has nothing to do with that 'I'm cooler than you' bullshit." This is a topic Ward obviously feels strongly about. "I hate how people sell records by making out that they're so much better than the person buying them. I don't think that anybody is more important that anybody else, and I'm a real firm believer in the equality of humanity, especially in art. I think it's so destructive to keep people away from art because you can destroy people's self-esteem."

Jim Ward brings his solo work to Australian audiences through touring with the Soundwave Festival in all major capitals through February.