Jim Ward is a fifth generation El Pasoan, a singer-songwriter-guitarist, a founding member of At the Drive-In, Sparta and Sleepercar, a restauranteur and, most recently, a philanthropist.
Ward is one of the newest members of the El Paso Community Foundation’s board of directors – an unfamiliar role for a rocker, who says he’s learning “from those around me.”
It is the latest chapter in a life and career spent in a constant state of evolution — and giving back to his community.
He formed Sparta in 2001 after the splintering of At the Drive-In.
Employing a harder, more emotional sound, Sparta released three studio albums, one live album and an EP over a seven-year span. Ward put the band on hold to venture into a rootsier, Americana vibe with the band Sleepercar, then reunited Sparta in 2011 for another three-year run.
Original members Ward and bassist Matt Miller re-formed the band last year with longtime associate and Sleepercar guitarist Gabe Gonzalez and power drummer Cully Symington (Okkervil River, Cursive, Conor Oberst).
The new lineup kicked off a year’s worth of shows with a Dec. 16, 2017, benefit for the El Paso Community Foundation at Tricky Falls, the Downtown rock club of which Ward was a co-owner. Sparta debuted “Graveyard Luck,” its first new song in five years, at the show. The band recently released a new song, “Cat Scream.”
Its latest run of dates through the South concludes with another benefit for the El Paso Community Foundation – a Downtown outdoor concert Nov. 20. El Paso bands Frontera Bugalu and Nalgadas will open.
Here’s what Ward had to say about this latest incarnation of Sparta, his involvement with the El Paso Community Foundation and what’s ahead.
Q: What inspired you to re-form Sparta in 2017?
It was an overwhelming urge to play some louder songs that I love.
Matt Miller and I agreed we missed the songs and wanted to explore them again.
Q: How has the band’s sound and chemistry evolved over the year that you’ve been touring together?
Matt and I have been very lucky to have Gabe Gonzalez in our lives for a long time. He has played with Sparta before, and it is such an easy fit with someone so kind and talented as he is.
Cully Symington came into our world just as we started looking for a drummer for this lineup and he has been incredible — a total talent on the kit and a sweet soul to boot.
Q: The single “Cat Scream” sounds like it owes to your punk roots. What inspired that song, and is there more new music to come from Sparta?
The song was inspired by a simple riff that the song revolves around. We were working on some music at Sonic Ranch and I played the riff. Cully immediately said, “Let’s record that now.”
It was quick and inspired, (and) fell together organically, which is all I ask for. I think there is more music to come, but I have no agenda, so we will see. Whatever is to come is to come. Life is to live — it is too short to worry too much, so we will continue enjoying ourselves and see where we end up.
Q: When did you first become aware of the El Paso Community Foundation, and how did you become involved with it?
I think my introduction was through Eric Pearson (EPCF president and CEO). We share a common love for music and this city, and became fast friends. I was asked two years ago if I would join the board. It is a process of learning for me. It is a big ship that does a huge amount of good. I want to be a positive addition and will continue to work towards that.
Q: What are your duties as a foundation board member, and how has that experience turned out?
I am a general board member and serve on two committees. To be honest, I think my main job as of right now is to learn from those around me. The other members have been very supportive and encouraging, and the EPCF staff is unreal, so I feel like as long as I show up, listen, learn and do my best to make informed decisions for the good of this community, then I am doing my job.
If people were fully aware of the enormity and impact of the EPCF they would be blown away — the staff and volunteers work incredibly hard to provide a wealth of service to this community and with pure integrity, often without much fanfare. It has been an amazing experience and one that I hope continues. I am at on interesting point in my life and it seems like the world always has guided me to exactly where I need to be.
Q: Why did you want to do a benefit concert for the foundation?
I am committed to playing music in El Paso, either for free, for charity or a combination of the two. I don’t know exactly how it is going to work yet. The show last year has been improved upon for this year, and I am sure we will learn from this one.
We are working on a not-for-profit that uses live music to generate funding for community projects. I hope that it will grow into something that can make a difference in this community.
I am fascinated with this work now and want to learn more and use my skill set to contribute. Also, we can have some fun along the way.
Q: What’s next on the horizon for you musically?
Some soundtrack stuff, I think. The song garden is a little overrun right now, so some pruning and weeding, then we will see where we are.
I tend to write about five times (more than) what I ever record, and then release about half of that, so I hope to get some work done this winter.
Editor’s Note: Former music journalist Doug Pullen is the program director for the El Paso Community Foundation and runs its annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. El Paso Inc. asked him to put together a Q&A with Sparta’s Jim Ward in advance of the El Paso Forever benefit concert for the foundation.