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Sparta is an American rock band from El Paso, Texas, formed in 2001. Founding members Jim Ward (vocalist/guitarist) and Tony Hajjar (drummer) are also members of post-hardcore group At the Drive-In. Keeley Davis (guitarist) is the former frontman of Engine Down.
After the demise of their previous band, At the Drive-In, drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos got together and talked about forming a new band. Hinojos contacted former At the Drive-In guitarist and back-up vocalist Jim Ward to take the role of lead vocalist. After a brief stint with Erick Sanger, the three recruited Matt Miller, a native to El Paso and then bassist of the band Belknap to permanently fill the position of bassist, with Hinojos switching to guitar. The band then scored a deal with Dreamworks in 2001. The band released their first EP entitled Austere in early 2002 under the name Sparta. The EP met with mixed reviews, with most believing that the group had talent and the ability, but had yet to find their voice.
In August 2002, Sparta released their debut full-length album, Wiretap Scars. The album, although not well received by all of the mainstream Post-hardcore audience, brought well-earned respect and relieved some of the pressure brought on by the shadow of At the Drive-In. The record was deemed a cleaner, more accessible sound than ATDI’s distortion fueled offerings.True to their roots, the opening song “Cut Your Ribbon” was described as “splintering, power-hungry rock”,and other tracks such as “Cataract”, “Glasshouse Tarot” and “Mye” were noted for their emotion and “absurdly exuberant melody”.Sparta maintained its underground following with shows at smaller venues throughout North America and Europe. They were also exposed to a wider audience in April and May 2003, opening several shows for Pearl Jam. While on tour for Wiretap Scars, Sparta employed the help of their friend Gabriel Gonzalez to play third guitar and keyboards, he can be seen in the music videos from 2003’s Big Day Out festival, among other videos circulating online. Gonzalez now performs with his own band, Volador, and is a member of Ward’s side project Sleepercar.
On May 25, 2003, Ward’s cousin, Jeremy, died of a heroin overdose. Jeremy was at the time the sound manipulator for The Mars Volta created by former At the Drive-In bandmates Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, and frontman of De Facto. The loss of his cousin would have a profound and lasting impact on Ward.
The band resumed writing new material, and on March 19, 2004 recorded a live album at La Zona Rosa. The album had seven tracks and six songs, including two previously unrecorded tracks: “Lines in Sand” and “La Cerca”. The album captured some of the live performance experience, but was not sold in stores and only available as a promotional CD. Videos for the songs “Cut Your Ribbon”, “Mye”, and “La Cerca” can be found online, recorded by the music television station Fuse TV.
In July 2004, the band released their second album, Porcelain. Despite popular belief, none of the tracks are fueled by the loss of Jeremy Ward. Tracks such as “Death in the Family” and “Travel by Bloodline” stem from other personal losses, such as Jim Ward’s grandfather and a close friend. In a 2004 issue of the magazine Alternative Press, Ward describes his feelings towards these events, and how they have affected him. “…he will admit that he hasn’t yet made sense of it, and, perhaps for that reason, there isn’t a song on Porcelain about Jeremy. I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with that,” he says. Immediately prior to the release, Sparta toured as the opening act for Incubus, after which followed their own headlining tour.
In 2005, after pulling the band off the road mid-tour, Ward said he needed to re-group. “I walked out in the middle of a tour…. I needed to get away from everything and everyone. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and I didn’t feel my life or the band was where I wanted it to be… I needed to step back and reassess everything.” For two months, he retreated to his home without speaking to anyone in his professional life. In an article with PE.com, Ward said, “When I left, I honestly didn’t know if I was going to continue the band or not, so I told everyone to pursue whatever they wanted,”. During that time, Hinojos left to join The Mars Volta as their new secondary guitarist and sound manipulator, filling the void left by Jeremy Ward’s death. Hinojos was replaced by Keeley Davis.
Eventually, Ward went to visit Hajjar in Los Angeles. They began writing new material without the restrictions of a deadline, and soon Ward had rekindled his desire to perform.
In January 2006, the band announced that they had signed a deal with Hollywood Records, and announced their intention to release a short film, titled Eme Nakia, based on Hajjar’s experiences as a child in Beirut, Lebanon.
On March 9, 2006, by way of their official website, Sparta announced a new album, entitled Threes. Two days before the release, the entire album was available for streaming on their MySpace page. The album was released on October 24, 2006. Their first single off the album was “Taking Back Control”, and “Erase It Again” has been released as the second single in mid-2007.
Davis’ first show with the band was at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, in July 2006. However, the band looked at the show as a “warm-up” and the show at Los Angeles’ Troubadour, July 29, 2006, was referred to as their “first show to the public in 15 months” by Ward. They played three songs off the upcoming album: “Crawl”, “Weather The Storm”, and the single “Taking Back Control”. At this show Ward also told the crowd about what happened when he left the band the previous year, saying he would rather have the crowd hear it from him, than the press in the following months. Sparta played at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival the following week. The band toured the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe heavily after the release of the album with bands such as Lola Ray, Aloha, As Tall As Lions, Sound Team, Moneen, MeWithoutYou, Lovedrug, Straylight Run, Deftones and My Chemical Romance. On February 19, 2007, the band played a free concert with Lydia Vance in Las Vegas for the XPOZ Coalition, an anti-smoking organization. While touring with Straylight Run and Lovedrug, Sparta allowed Lovedrug to continue touring by letting them use their instruments and equipment after Lovedrug’s gear was stolen following a show in Detroit, Michigan.
In conjunction with the album Threes, Sparta has also released a 16-minute short film entitled “Eme Nakia”. The film, the soundtrack for which is performed by Sparta, is about drummer Hajjar’s early life, set during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. Hajjar fled at the age of five to the United States, settling in the sprawling west Texas border town of El Paso. When Hajjar was 14, his mother (“Eme”) died after a bout with cancer and his father, who had been distant, left the family. His brother, 18 years old at the time, assumed responsibility for the family and raised Hajjar and his sister. The film follows Hajjar’s early life story, showing his challenges and ending with him in present day.
The independent film received good reviews and is available for free with purchase of the Threes album.
The word “Eme” is Arabic for mother, and “Nakia” was Hajjar’s mother’s name.
In June 2008, Ward stated that Sparta is “currently on hiatus and label-less”, and that he will be focusing on his project, Sleepercar.In January 2009, when asked if a return to Sparta was foreseeable, Ward stated that he has no plans to reunite with his band mates: “I don’t right now, no. Who knows what the future will bring?” In July 2010, on sleepercarmusic.com, it was stated that “Sparta is not broken up, Sparta is taking a nap.”
Following a three-year “nap,” Sparta played their first show since 2008 in November 2011 in their hometown of El Paso, TX.They performed on November 17 and 18 at Tricky Falls, the newly renovated venue co-owned by frontman Jim Ward. The band headed into the studio that fall to begin work on their fourth LP, the follow-up to 2006’s Threes. A short tour of the southwestern US followed in May 2012.
Sparta released a new song on May 17, 2012 called “Chemical Feel”. The song was free to download, and was the first new song the band had released in six years. In January 2012 At The Drive-In reunited. In January 2016, At The Drive-In reunited for the second time, however days before the tour start in March 2016, Jim left the band and was replaced by his Sparta bandmate Keeley Davis.
On November 13, 2017 a new line-up was announced, consisting of returning members Jim Ward, Matt Miller and Gabriel Gonzalez, along with a new member – Cully Symington on drums. A new song, “Graveyard Luck,” was released on the same day.