When El Paso post-hardcore outfit Sparta went on hiatus after their third record, Threes, in 2006 they told fans the band was just napping.
But the Rip Van Winkle explanation began to seem like a euphemism as the years rolled on — until they suddenly released a new single called "Chemical Feel" last May. Instagram photos depicting the inside of a studio, along with teaser tweets, and one-off shows soon followed.
"I think everybody needed a minute to do something different," says singer/guitarist Jim Ward from his Texas home after finishing up some dishes on a recent afternoon. "There were some kids born, some businesses started, other bands started. Everybody (had) a big change of pace."
One of his other ventures (besides alt-country solo project Sleepercar) was purchasing and revamping a 1,300 person-capacity concert venue with some friends, a move that wound up being the catalyst to Sparta's reunion. "I said, 'Hey, I want to play here with you guys.' Then everybody came to El Paso and we practiced for that show and decided, 'Let's make a record,'" he says.
Hoping to capture a pure, raw sound, Ward proposed an unusual approach to songwriting: they would spend a maximum of six days writing and recording music in a format that they couldn't go back and change. If a riff, beat or melody was immediately pleasing, they ran with it and didn't look back.
"We wanted to make something really guttural," Ward says. "We wanted to see what felt good immediately. If it didn't feel good, we would move on to the next concept."
The group holed up in an El Paso recording studio that had been shuttered for years but remained untouched inside, and emerged with 12 songs. Wards says, "90 per cent of the music is done," though he's currently labouring over lyrics.
"I'm finding it hard writing the lyrics in the same manner," he says. "I'm spending a lot of time working on the broad concept of each song and going in and writing a tremendous amount of words so I can go back and piece together what will be a more pure version. That's what we're after: purity."
Veterans of music making, Sparta formed in 2001 from the ashes of seminal post-hardcore act At the Drive-In (who also reunited for a string of shows last year) and released three LPs until pressure and control from their record label got to be too much. "I'll never again sit in an office and have someone tell me what they think I should do," Ward says. "It takes a lot of angry days to find out what's making you angry... I don't want to be in L.A. I don't want to be on a big label. I know after all these years what I don't want."
To that end, the band is discussing options for releasing the forthcoming album. As Ward says, the music industry is a much different place than it was in 2006. "The fact is we can do whatever we went because it will be on our terms," he says. "Nobody is going to say no if we want to release this in a plywood box. People can say, 'That's crazy. You're not going to make money,' but we're not going to scale back a concept or idea to make money."
They're also not going to sacrifice their lives for touring. Though Ward says they will tour to support the release, it just might not be as extensive or continuous as it has been in the past. For now, the band will kick off a short Canadian tour in Whistler at Dusty's Feb. 20.
Although the Texan is familiar with the Great White North in the throes of winter (his wife is part Canadian and the band recorded their first album during a Vancouver winter), he says they deliberately chose the dates. "I prefer to work smarter than more," he says. "Which is why we chose to go to Canada in February when no one else wants to go there... We want to stay musically fit. We could do 10 shows in El Paso if we wanted to, but that's not as fun to me as going to play something different somewhere it might be appreciated."
One thing is certain: this time around there will be no Sparta sightings on Whistler Blackcomb. Last time the group passed through Whistler half the members decided to hit the slopes before their show. "Basically all of them came back beat up because they're not in shape enough and not in practice enough to go. Keeley (Davis, guitarist) hurt his shoulder pretty bad," Ward says.
When he asked this time if anyone wanted to shred: "Everyone said, 'No. Don't mess up the tour before we play a show.'"