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Passions of the Spartan – Sparta, Playing with Further Seems Forever, Copeland, Sunshine

Tony Hajjar -drums
Paul Hinojos – guitar
Matt Miller – bass
Jim Ward – vocals, guitar, keys

Sparta is at the top of the bill for the first time in almost a year and a half, and it feels good, even if they’ve had little time at home and with their loved ones. Time on the road has been their home. For longer than they can remember, the PDA schedule goes something like this: supporting tour with Incubus that includes a stop at Red Rocks over the summer, playing numerous one-off shows, performing festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza alongside Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse and Le Tigre; and television appearances on Conan O’Brien, Carson Daly and Dave Letterman.

Oh, and in the process, fit in time to record a new album and release said album, Porcelain, in 2004.

I was recently scheduled to catch bassist Matt Miller by phone quite early (by rock and roll standards) to ask a few questions. At the time I was helping my roommate here in Denver prepare for a trip to Washington State for a wedding – incidentally, that of the brother of Sparta tour manager, Gabe. Yet another small world example.

Frazzled in advance over having to awaken so early to interview Matt, my sleep the previous night was punctuated by a dream that I was touring with the band, who was (in dream) playing at this wedding, and through the whole experience, I was red-faced in realization that I was wearing only stark white little briefs.

I told Matt this story at the beginning of our conversation and he commented on how straight-forward the imagery of that is; how easy the psychology is to comprehend. He said, “I wish I had dreams like that; mine are F—ed up.”

If Matt’s dreams are bizarre compared to that, I thought, we’re dealing with an interesting creature here. And so I pried…

Kaffeine Buzz: I’ve heard that you are based out of L.A. these days. Is that true?

Matt Miller: Tony, myself, and Paul live there, but Jim still lives in El Paso. We don’t base ourselves out of really anywhere. Where we live doesn’t really determine where we’re based out of, because whenever we have to do rehearsals or write or anything, it’s not in not either of those places.

KB: You spend so much time on the road together that I suppose you could almost consider that your base.

MM: Yeah, but the only place we really consider home is El Paso; I mean, that’s where we go back for all the holidays.

KB: When you are on the road, do you develop a lot of your music during that time, or do you just focus on the tour that you’re doing?

MM: We just focus on the tour and playing, and just having a good time; I mean, you know, tour’s pretty fun.

KB: So you set aside time specifically for writing music and just shack up for that?

MM: Yeah. We set aside time for rehearsals, for writing, but on the road we don’t really set aside time for rehearsing.

KB: I suppose you are playing enough that you don’t need it.

MM: Yeah, unless we really have to; I mean, there are like six songs that we’ve been working on everyday, because we haven’t really played them live in like, over a year and a half or two years. So, we’re trying to get them really tight again and we’re doing a little bit of rearranging of re-arranging, because we’re playing as a four-piece now. Some of the songs that had our keyboard player, we had to change around.

KB: Is someone else in the band playing keys and electronic stuff, or have you eliminated a lot of that?

MM: Jim is playing keys on a couple of songs; and some of the other songs that have keys are either on a track machine – like some of the new songs, with strings, and stuff like that. But on the older songs from ‘Wiretaps’ he plays keys.

KB: You guys are headlining your tour for the first time in a couple of years. Do you have a preference for headlining over supporting?

MM: Right now, we feel like headlining is really good for us because we haven’t done it in so long. But at the same time, doing support has its advantages as well, because you’re playing to another band’s audience. You have to put your best foot forward to try to win some people over… For them, it’s our first introduction, and those tours are more of a challenge, you know—you have to be at your very best. I mean, you always want to play your best, but at the same time, on a headlining tour, you’re playing to your own fans; and there’s a little bit of a comfort zone there. Either one has its aspects, but they’re both really awesome.

KB: You guys started out in a pretty good position because you already sort had a fan base from things you were involved in before Sparta formed.

MM: I can say yes, but after a while, it dawned on me that a lot of the old fans—people who were more skeptical fans, who weren’t won over, are gone… and what we have now are our fans.

KB: Have you actually seen people drop off like that? I’m surprised.

MM: This is something we got in the beginning: people commenting to us to play songs from the other bands; people wearing the shirts, you know. That’s pretty much all gone. It depends on where we play. I mean, if we play a city that we haven’t played before, we might get that; but places we’ve played commonly, we don’t.

KB: So your fan base is more solid now, really.

MM: Definitely so; we feel like we’re just who we are.

KB: With as much background as you have in independent music, with previous bands, and even in the development of Sparta, is there any hesitation about commercial success for you guys?

MM: Well, we have a lot of punk rock guilt. I mean, that’s what we pretty much grew up on. And being on a major—even thought back like in the 70’s and 80’s, all punk bands were on majors because there were no indie labels… But at the same time, with the majors, you’re playing a game. You’re playing the game. They’re gonna wanna put you on the radio. They wanna make money off you. They want you to make videos; but we don’t want to make videos as a promotional tool; we want to make videos for art of making videos. There’s a fine balance you have to meet so that you don’t feel like you’re selling yourself to the label, and you keep your artistic integrity. It’s a balance you have to deal with. On a major, that’s the way it goes.

Nowadays, even indie labels are really stepping up to the game. A lot of indie labels and a lot of indie bands are doing really well with radio play, and with video. I think those days are almost gone, of, “we don’t wanna get played on the radio.” I think that’s slowly disappearing, cuz major labels are taking a big shit right now.

KB: So, no matter what you guys are doing things on your own terms.

MM: Oh, absolutely.

KB: Alright, tell me a little about Gabe. I try not to drop the name, but I remember seeing At The Drive-In when they supported Murder City Devils, and Gabe was MCD’s roadie. Now you guys have picked him up as your tour manager. I assume after knowing him for this long, he must be a real stabilizing force for you guys.

MM: It’s like, he’s our guy. I mean, as soon as we could bring him on as guitar tech, we knew he was the one guy we could always count on. I mean, he’s The Guy. When we were writing the record, he was with us, out in Joshua Tree, CA., we weren’t making breakfast; he was making breakfast. He was helping out with our Pro-tools and with demo-ing. He did everything, and now we just want him to be with us. He’s another member of the band practically.

KB: So, earlier we were talking about having fucked up dreams. Do you have any credits with writing lyrics, and are those absurd dreams part of the vocal scapes for Sparta?

MM: Well, for ‘Porcelain’, we told Jim, “We think you should do all of the lyric writing, because you’re the one fronting the band; so, if you’re writing the lyrics, they’re gonna be more heart-felt to you. So, when you’re singing, you’re going to be able to express that more.” And he did an incredible job. He would always ask if the lyrics were ok (with us) and was always double-checking making sure everyone was happy with it. And, he’s really the main lyricist now.

KB: So, Jim wrote all the lyrics for ‘Porcelain’?

MM: Yes.

KB: That’s an awesome undertaking.

MM: It definitely was. It was really difficult for him, but at the same time, he proved to himself what he can do. He did a great job.

KB: Your music has often had a social-political tone. Has that held true to the same degree now that just one person is writing your lyrics?

MM: Yeah, I mean, Jim’s writing the songs, but we all grew up in the same town, and what he writes reflects us. I mean, when you think about us growing up in El Paso, living on a border of a third world country. All of the songs are touch moments in our lives, somewhere. Being from El Paso, we can’t help but be political about shit.

KB: Tony’s from Lebanon, right?

MM: Yeah.

KB: That’s gotta be an influence as well.

MM: Oh, yeah, definitely.

KB: I know you guys have pretty broad musical influences. I’ve read that Tony was raised on metal. I recall Jim giving a shout out to Coldplay when they got their Grammy… Does having such a collectively broad taste for music have a big effect on the distinctiveness of Sparta’s sound?

MM: Oh definitely. If you narrow down what we like, there’s very few things that not all of us like. I mean, my I-pod’s got everything from Loretta Lynn to fuckin’ Public Enemy, and every punk thing you can possibly imagine. A lot of metal too; a lot of old 70’s stuff…

We’re all over the place with music, and I think that’s important. When you narrow down your tastes, you’re kind of limiting yourself. Because, what I’ve noticed in a lot of bands on the radio is that, a lot of their songs remind me of music from the 60’s and 70’s. There’s stolen riffs everywhere. I think it’s cuz they haven’t heard it. They don’t listen to it; they don’t know. I think you need to know a broad base of music so as not to copy things; and secondly because it opens your mind to different styles of music and different ways of playing, you know?

KB: I don’t think people are used to hearing innovative music, either, so the general public doesn’t seem to mind a constant rehash.

MM: Yeah, they’re not going to be able to tell the difference. God, I don’t know how many bands I could name right now that are like… the shit’s been done. The same, exact riffs stolen from other songs, and, I honestly think they don’t know.

KB: Do you think the distinctiveness of Sparta’s sound is going to be an opportunity for you since you’re offering something new, or do you think it’s limiting, since most reigning successes are kind of watered down and derivative?

MM: I think it’s a little limiting, because people like to hear things that are familiar to them. If there’s just one style of music they’re familiar, it’s pretty hard to change peoples’ minds, to grow a little bit. People are pretty bull-headed about what they want to listen to. I think every genre’s got that mentality, so I think it’s a little limiting.

KB: Do you think there are positive aspects of a slow progression though—to building up a fan base over a long period of time?

MM: Oh, definitely. If you look at other bands that had their blow-up, how many stick around for another four or five years? It’s a small handful, like U2, Pearl Jam… It’s the hardcore fans that have been watching them progress; and they’ve been taking care of their fan base and expand it. That’s a very rare thing.

That’s something we want to do with our fans; take care of them, and hopefully have them stick with us as we grow—and vice-versa. I mean, we’re not young kids anymore. We’re not playing pop-punk anymore—even though we still love it… We just have to go forward.

KB: It’s clear that Sparta has a driving passion propelling the band. How do you keep that solid? Is it something that comes naturally just because you know each other so well?

MM: I think it’s our love of music and our love for our band. I mean, we love what we’re doing and we love each other.

Probably the most important thing we did was writing and recording our new songs in (Joshua Tree) California. That really made a lot of strong bonds. Plus we spent a lot of time touring on the last record. So, you get tight as a band; you get to get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. But, going to the dessert, being in a house together; making breakfast, making lunch, making dinner; drinking, firing bottle rockets, writing music… That made a really close bond between us.

I went to elementary, middle school and high school with Paul. Tony, I’ve known for like seven years, and Jim I’ve known for like twelve years. I mean, we’re all really good friends to start off with. I think that’s one of the most important things.

KB: You don’t see yourself doing anything else…

MM: No. We might have a point where we might feel a little burned out on the road; we wanna take breaks… But, as for the band and what we’re doing, no—we’re absolutely in love with it.

KB: What’s big on the foreseeable horizon for Sparta?

MM: Nothing really big. At the end of this tour we go to Mexico City and then we have our first really long break—like, almost a month. Then we go to Japan, and then back to Mexico City. I think we’re gonna do a small Canadian tour; and there’s talk of a European tour, but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen or not.

KB: Will you be using the time off tour to write or record again?

MM: We’ve been toying with the idea. But I don’t know how tired we’re going to be. I mean, we’ve been touring this record since, like, March. We’ve just had like a week or a week and a half break between each tour. It’s been pretty much non-stop; so, I think we might take a little bit of a breather.

KB: I know Jim got married fairly recently. As you all age and domesticate a bit, do you see yourselves not being able to tour as much?

MM: It depends, man. That’s where the whole game gets rough. Leaving your loved one at home fuckin’ sucks. At the beginning of this tour, my girl was out with me for a week. When she left, man, I got really depressed.

We’re a touring band; and that’s what we wanna do, but there’s gonna be a certain point where, like… say, if we have kids, that might change things.

KB: At that point, maybe you’ll just be flying to and from your gigs.

MM: (Laughter) I don’t ever see that ever happening. This is… this is big enough for us, I think.

Sparta plays with Further Seems Forever, Copeland, and Sunshine this Friday, November 26 at the Gothic Theatre.


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