If you happened to walk by a certain street in a deserted part of El Paso, Texas last fall, you would have heard unusual sounds amid the clanking next to a furniture factory. Leaking out through the cracks, from what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse, were mysterious sounds of despair, growth, renewal, faith lost, and faith gained. Some of it was melodic, and some was dissonant, but all had a certain constant energy. If a passerby were a student of alternative rock, the warehouse songs would have been at once familiar but also distant, like a refrain lost in memory.
Inside the warehouse were the four men of Sparta, and those sessions were the genesis of Threes, out from Hollywood Records on October 10, 2006. That this much- anticipated album began in such humble origins is no accident, since Sparta picked the confines exactly because they were anonymous. “We wanted to strip away everything and get back to the songs themselves,” says singer/guitarist Jim Ward. “In a larger context, we wanted to explore why we even were a band. It was the perfect setting to do that: It was autumn in El Paso, and it was moody and stormy in the high desert. There was a sense of isolation and frontier to it. In many ways, it was the remaking of our band.”
That remaking is both metaphorical and literal: Though Threes is the band’s third full-length release (following the acclaimed Wiretap Scars in 2002, and Porcelain in 2004), it is the first Sparta album for Hollywood Records. It is also the band’s first with guitarist Keeley Davis, who joined in 2005, and previously played with Denali and Engine Down. Bassist Matt Miller and drummer Tony Hajjar round out Sparta’s line-up.
Sparta was formed by Ward and Hajjar in 2001, but the two musicians are celebrating their 10th anniversary playing together, and Threes displays a level of cohesion that comes only from musicians who are seasoned and confident. “On this record we aren’t answering to anyone else or to any style,” says Hajjar. “For the first time, there were no back end expectations. If a song was poppy, or if it was moody, we let it go that way. There was a great freedom we found in that.”
That freedom is apparent on songs like “Crawl” and “The Most Vicious Crime,” musical statements filled with angst and anger, but also textured by catchy choruses and upbeat melodies. There is also a fury exhibited on “Taking Back Control,” the album’s first single, that is both political and personal. “That song has the line ‘The future needs these wasted seeds,’” Ward notes, “and I wrote that imagining these kids in these war-torn areas who didn’t create the reality they are having to live under. We have been misled down a path. Neil Young said he did his recent anti-war album because no one else had, particularly in my generation. Well, ‘Taking Back Control’ is my battle cry to that generation.” As a Texan, Ward has been living with the legacy of George W. Bush longer than those in the rest of the nation. “We’ve had him a lot longer than most. Our country is going to fall apart if the things we cherish are in question.”
For Ward, Threes is an album that follows the emotional arc of his life during the past two years. “This is a break-down record in a way,” he says. “I’d lost faith in a way of living. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with a girl anymore; I didn’t want to do anything any more. I wanted to strip away everything and to examine what it means to lose faith, and then to find it again.”
Like most rebirths, Threes has its moments of melancholy contrasted with joyousness and melodic release. Ward says that the songs drove the sound, and he approached crafting them the way a literary writer might pen a short story. “We talked a lot about character, and about where the song was going,” he says. At the end of the warehouse sessions, Sparta had almost thirty songs, which were eventually whittled down the twelve songs on Threes with the help of producer Dave Bassett.
And though Sparta recorded the actual album in Seattle in March 2006, and completed the sessions in Los Angeles this past spring, the El Paso rehearsals put an indelible mark on the album. “We were in this warehouse in this hard-working town and that had to affect us,” recalls Hajjar. “You could hear the people next door building furniture, and it gave us a sense of how lucky we were to be creating. It gave us a true sense of renewal. We’ve been in Sparta all these years, but we are still growing as a band.”
The band was inspired enough by the warehouse sessions they began filming their own short movie at the same time — the film will be sold in a special edition of Threes. Though the film concentrates on the childhood of drummer Hajjar and his flight from the Lebanese civil war, the movie parallels some of Threes. “It’s a personal story,” observes Hajjar, “but it’s also about any situation you are in where you are getting beaten down and you come back from it all.”
If all that sounds a bit like it could come out of the playbook of another American band — Sparta have played on festivals with Wilco before — Ward says his sole inspiration for Threes was the private dialogue that drove him to the songs. “The song is driving the work here,” he notes. “I forced myself to write for at least four or five days a week and I took the work seriously. To me this is my entrance, even though I’ve put out now a total of eight records over the years.”
Though Ward’s songs have a strong sense of place, he writes of a morally challenged world where most of the conflict is internal. Added to the powerful melodies and rhythms created by the band, the result is music that “drips empathy and emphasis,” as Spin said of an earlier Sparta release. “I think this is the darkest thing I’ve ever done without being depressing,” Ward says. “I remember talking to Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, and telling him what I’d been through and what I was writing.” Homme half-jokingly told Ward: “There are minor chords and minor scales for a reason.”
The great magic of Sparta is how the band uses the occasional minor chord but contrasts it with major scales to create anthematic songs of beauty and passion. Layering effect and emotional contrasts are techniques used on songs like “Taking Back Control” and “Crawl,” and they ultimately make the music cathartic. And while Sparta makes it sound easy, “Taking Back Control” is an ideal example of the effort the band put into Threes: Ward rewrote the lyrics at the eleventh hour while the rest of the album was being mixed. “On that particular day,” Hajjar says, “Sparta was using three different studios to work on this record: Jim was rewriting in one, and we were mixing in two others.” Ward notes that “Crawl” is his darkest song but one that was also “pure fiction.”
The one song on Threes that Ward admits was inspired by real life events is “Unstitch Your Mouth,” which grew out of an insult a traveling salesman yelled at Ward. Though Ward may be the best-known musician in El Paso and writes a weekly column in the local newspaper, the salesperson started slandering Ward based on his dress and not who he was. “The dumbest thing,” Ward laughs, “is that he said I looked like I worked at Kinko’s. In the blue collar world that we come from, anyone who is working is not due that kind of insult.”
The El Paso work ethic that gets someone up to work at a furniture factory at dawn, gets the Kinko’s employee to find joy, or that inspires a band to work for months on an album, looms over Threes. “I still love our hometown and what it represents,” says Hajjar. For Ward, the only member of Sparta who still lives in El Paso full-time, there is less sentimentality to Threes and more resolute acceptance. “I still live ten minutes from where I went to high school,” he says, “I’ve been at the local sandwich shop and seen people who I went to school with. I’ve seen where their lives have gone. All of that, and this album, gave me a sense of where I’ve been and why I’m still doing this.”