Sparta's win-win

Jim Ward’s post-hardcore band took 14 years to make a new record, its release date set long before the pandemic. So Sparta put its Trust online, in more ways than one.

“I’ve found new ways of connecting with fans,” says Ward (left). “It’s more of an organic and intimate way.”

“I’ve found new ways of connecting with fans,” says Ward (left). “It’s more of an organic and intimate way.”

Releasing a record internationally is no small feat. Successful artists need a dedicated team of professionals to sort through countless details—tour dates, video releases, promotional singles, advertising, press, the list goes on—not to mention all the legwork that goes into actually creating the final product. A missing piece has the potential to derail an entire album cycle—it can be the difference between a successful music career and finding a new line of work. 

Now imagine releasing your album in the middle of a pandemic. Sparta’s latest release Trust The River—its first since the 2006 release Threes—was launched April 10, which meant that most of the band’s promotional plans were scrapped. Founder/frontperson Jim Ward, who rose to fame a member of seminal post-hardcore band At The Drive-In, says pushing back the release was never an option. 

“All the boulders had already been pushed up the mountain, so there was no turning back,” he says from his home in El Paso, Texas. “It’s pretty awful, for a lot of reasons—tours are cancelled, in-person promos are cancelled—but I’ve found new ways of connecting with fans. It’s more of an organic and intimate way; it’s replacing what used to happen after the show, when the people who wanted to talk would hang out. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

One way in which Ward connected with his fans was via Side Door: He hosted three one-hour record releases June 12, performing 36 songs total for fans in Europe, Australia, and North America. The process was a bit outside of Ward’s comfort zone, but he enjoyed the experience. 

“We postponed shows, and then cancelled them, and we said, ‘If we’re going to celebrate the release of the record, how are we going to do it?’” he says. “Side Door was brought up, so I said, ‘I’ll try it,’ and then took the offer and tripled it, and ended up doing three shows in one day.

“It was overwhelming, but I’m proud of myself for even getting as far as I did. It’s been great to listen back to the audio—I ended up getting some pretty good takes of some stuff, and hopefully we can go back and do something special with it.”

This includes gifting the recordings to fans. Audience members from Ward’s three shows will be sent the recordings, free of charge, as a thank-you for taking part. “I wanted to make it valuable for people,” says Ward. “You get the live experience, and then you get to keep it with you. It was an easy thing to do, and it didn’t cost me any more to do. It makes it special—everyone will get their show with my banter, and will get those memories.” 

While Ward admits performing via Zoom won’t replace the live show experience, the feedback he received from his release shows was overwhelmingly positive. “People said, ‘It was like being in the front row with my daughter, who normally wouldn’t be able to go with me,’ or ‘I picked up my guitar and played along,’” he says. “It’s fun to see how people used the opportunity to make it a different experience.”

Feedback for Trust The River has been similarly affirmative as well. Sparta’s hard edge has softened a bit over the last 18 years—though Brooklyn Vegan notes “if you were hoping a new Sparta album would mean more hard-hitting post-hardcore songs from Jim Ward, don't worry, Trust The River has plenty of those too”—but the songwriting remains top-notch, and the band still retains its signature sound that won critical acclaim upon its 2002 debut. 

“I like to think that this is something I needed to do," Ward says. "I felt like I needed to put it on the shelf, and tether it to me at 43. I wanted it to be a personal timestamp to this band that's been a part of my life for a really long time.”

So far Trust the River has streams over a million times and counting; not too shabby for an album released in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. “I didn’t expect it,” says Ward. “I look at the glass half-empty most of the time—I think it comes from being an artist—but people have been so supportive. It’s been huge, and I loved every minute of it.”


Written by Chuck Teed

Chuck Teed is a freelance writer based out of Saint John, New Brunswick. Primarily focusing on music and entertainment, Chuck's stories have appeared in The Coast, The Maritime Edit, and Huddle Today. When he's not pitching stories, Chuck is the executive director of InterAction School of Performing Arts, one of the largest performing arts schools on the east coast.