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The best kept secret in music


This band has no press


austere (ep) - dreamworks 2002
wiretap scars (lp) - dreamworks 2002
porcelain (lp)- geffen 2004


Feeling a bit camera shy


"I just liked the word Porcelain and what it implied: Something that's really beautiful and durable, but at the same time vulnerable, easily shattered. I like the duality."

Given Jim Ward's explanation, Sparta would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate title for its sophomore album. From their childhood days through their formative adult years, the El Paso TX quartet has been surrounded and defined by series of precarious balances and dualities. On Porcelain, these are analyzed, illustrated and in turns celebrated: The stark contrast of affluence and poverty on the band's native El Paso/Juarez border ("La Cerca"), of innocence and its aftermath ("Guns Of Memorial Park," "Death In The Family"), and so forthŠ Ultimately, the result is a more mature and accomplished voice than on any of the four's previous efforts, one that recognizes the power, as aptly described on "Tensioning," in going from "from a scream to a whisper."

Ironically, a crucial path to this forward leap began with Sparta's return its El Paso roots. Porcelain began with writing and pre-production in California's Joshua Tree, progressed to tracking in Los Angeles and came full circle with Ward recording vocals in the band's native El Paso. "Coming back to El Paso was a big part of this record," Ward says. "Every morning the route I had to drive to the studio was right along El Paso/Juarez border. That reminded me on a daily basis of the core values I'd lost touch with while obsessing over so many other things."

The re-acclimation to the band's native environs was accompanied by a radical overhaul of the band's previous recording techniques. "The recording process for Porcelain was 100% different than Wiretap Scars," recalls Tony Hajjar. "Mike Major said to us 'You guys are a great live band and I want to capture that this time around.' So we spent one day setting up and from there everyone was recording at the same time."

"We were done with the musical framework in twelve days," adds Ward. "But we had blocked out six weeks for recording. So we put that extra time to use, experimenting and going in directions we'd never dreamt of."

This new approach and subsequent exploration are evident from first guitar cascades of the jagged and beautiful meditation on childhood memories "Guns Of Memorial Park" to the last dissonant notes and harrowing lyrical images of "Splinters." The band's sound has been polished by an 18-month acid test of relentless touring, honed both in clubs and theaters packed with the band's loyal followers and on arena stages shared with the likes of Weezer and Pearl Jam.

The latter experience, humbling at first, must have lent Sparta some of the confidence that makes the new record's material so expansive. On tracks like the more subdued "Lines In Sand" and "Tensioning," as well as the epic "From Now To Never," moods, tempos and textures shift and collide over the course of five, six and even eight-minute compositions. While the trademark Sparta urgency remains steady throughout, pleasant surprises abound: string arrangements, more prominent keyboards and electronic loops, and even the band's first ever love song in the form of "Breaking The Broken" (which has already received an early thumbs up from Rolling Stone). "I've always been in bands where you don't talk about that," Ward laughs. "But I'm married now and that's a huge part of my life, so it's going to be a huge part of my writing."

Porcelain marks Ward's stepping to the fore as Sparta's primary lyricist. Where the band had previously collaborated on the words he sang, the decision was collectively made that he would take over on the new record-and it's one his bandmates are glad they made. "We're so proud of him, lyrically, vocally, in every way," Hajjar says. "You read his heart on this record."

Ward's lyrics, at once elliptic and emotive, come from a unique perspective: the sum of experience of a childhood spent on the border of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, teenage years spent touring the world over, and somehow always being the sole white member of the bands he's co-founded. "I never even thought about it," he says. "I never considered myself white or as belonging to any race really. My sister is Hispanic, all my friends are, and I think I've had maybe one white girlfriend in my life. The only time it's ever been an issue is when we're overseas. Then it's almost an embarrassment, to be the one who represents the corporate American white maleŠ But hopefully that'll change soon."

While their friendships stretch back to their childhood years, the origins of Sparta as a band go back at least to 1994. The family tree begins with Ward, Paul Hinojos and Hajjar playing in at the drive-in, which Ward co-founded in 1994, and intersects with bassist Matt Miller's former band Belknap (who actually played at Ward's wedding). Following the 2001 dissolution of at the drive-in, Ward was contemplating returning to college (he had started prior to