MOKB Interviews: Jim Ward

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Jim Ward is a busy, busy man.

His new bar in El Paso, Hope and Anchor, is still in its infancy. He’s currently renovating an old building nearby into a new rock venue. Oh, yeah, and (as we wrote earlier this month) he’s also releasing a new solo album. And touring Australia, writing new songs with his band Sparta, running his own studio and, somehow, managing to have a fairly normal home life.

Ward, who famously first became a punk rock household name with At the Drive-In, will release In the Valley, On the Shores The End Begins & Electric Six on August 2, on his own Tembloroso Recordings.

Ward talked with MOKB about many of his countless projects, and a whole bunch of other things. Check out the conversation below.

MOKB: Hi Jim…
Jim Ward: Hold on, let me walk outside the bar.

MOKB: This is your bar you’re talking about, right?
JW: Yeah. In 2008, we finished the Sparta tour for Threes and I took a year off to finish a record I’d been working on for a long time called Sleepercar. I put out that record, did about a year of touring and finished up in 2009 with three weeks with Coldplay. I came home and was ready to start a new record, but I just wasn’t in the mood. A friend came by and said ‘Hey, there’s this old greenhouse, a plant nursery, a couple of blocks from my parents’ house.’ This is the house I came of age in. We started At the Drive-In about 500 feet from here in a park. It’s my hood, you know.

So this buddy told me about it, we had some money set aside and we started building and learning as we went. Seven months later we had a bar. I like going to bars when I’m on tour, and I didn’t feel like there was anything that I’d want to take my friends to when they’re in town. So I decided to make a bar I’d want to bring them to. Bands pop in all the time – the other day, the Deftones were here. It’s the bar you know rock bands will hang out in. It’s called Hope and Anchor – named after the pub in London that was one of the first pubs that allowed punk rock bands to play in the 70s.

MOKB: What’s the drink special tonight?
JW: I believe a blueberry Mojito. We grow our own mint and basil, so we have the freshest drinks. It’s like anything — if you’re in a well-run band, you bring that shit with you wherever you go. If I have a bar, I want it to be awesome. I just took over a 1,500 capacity theater in El Paso as well, so we’ll use that for shows. And it’ll have the sickest back stage ever, with a washer and dryer. That’s the new project I’m trying to finish before I head to Australia to tour in a few weeks.

MOKB: Why did you decide to not only compile these EPs, but also include electric versions of some of the songs?
JW: It really breaks down to me having ADD. I’d been making the EPs slowly over time, and as soon as I decided to put all three together into one record, I knew I wouldn’t be happy just playing acoustic guitar onstage. As cool as that is, some nights I just want to turn up. Some of the solo stuff we play at Sleepercar shows, but you know… Elliott Smith used to book shows, and you’d think it’d just be him and a guitar, but you’d show up and he’d play loud rock and roll all night. Then you’d see him again and expect the band, and it’d just be him and a guitar, and he’d blow you away that way. I like that there were no expectations.

MOKB: In the song “My Town,” you put out pretty clearly your attachment to El Paso. Aside from growing up there, what is it about the city that keeps you there?
JW: It’s not just that I’m from here and I know where everything is. For one, I’m fifth generation – I think this town is in my DNA. I gotta have a mountain and I gotta have a giant sky. It’s a frontier, like a port city, and it’ll always be on the border. Border towns, for me, are Jack Kerouac-romantic. There’s an element of danger; this shit is real. One of the biggest drug wars in the world is literally a mile from the theater I’m taking over. Part of the energy comes from the tension between this uber-chaos and violence and El Paso, one of the safest cities in America. I’m like an ambassador for El Paso; you’ve got to spend two weeks here, that’s the rule. I wish we had a tourism fund where we could put travel writers up for two weeks. Writers come here for a day and just say, ‘It’s hot, it’s disgusting and there are 500 Mexican restaurants.’

MOKB: This is all solo material, and you’re releasing it on your own Tembloroso label. At this point, do you feel like you’re able to only rely on yourself in creating and releasing music?
JW: Yeah, I’m pretty close. There is a list of things I have to accomplish, and the older and smarter I get, it gets easier. We have a bar because we want to have a bar to hang out in. But if you make a good bar, people pay to be there. I made a studio because I wanted to record my music without paying crazy prices, but you make it the way you want and other bands start using it. And you have a venue to play in your hometown, and other shows start coming there. I put out the first At the Drive-In 7” with my college savings, and I never looked back. I think the least happy I’ve ever been when I was letting people run shit and being blind about it. I don’t even think that means ‘DIY,’ it’s just taking care of your own.

MOKB: About 3 years ago, you said in an interview: ‘I like having the band. Every time I think of doing a solo tour, I put it off again. A full, proper solo tour [would] be really hard on my psyche. It’ll happen at some point.’ So what finally pushed you to do this?
JW: I want to put all this to bed. I’m ready to do the tour — it’s like the victory lap. At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter and a touring musician. I’m a blue-collar musician; I work for a living. There’s no big bank account so that I can say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll make a record because I’m bored.’ I need to pay my rent. I’ve got to eat. This is the time for this to happen, and I’m excited about this record. I haven’t been this excited for a while.

MOKB: In the past almost two decades, you’ve released music with a bunch of bands, and solo. At this point, do you feel like each project gains a new fanbase from scratch, or are your fans staying loyal to each of your projects?
I think that there’s definitely a solid core of fans, and sometimes they check in and out. Some people say ‘Love At The Drive-In, eh, Sparta was alright, love Sleepercar.’ Some come and go; some never got into At the Drive-In… what I’ve noticed, doing this on my own, is if you don’t maintain the fanbase stuff and stay up on your press and stay on the road, you’ve got to go back and get your fans, because they will just drift off. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks doing press and social media stuff — which to me, is like Latin — I see people pop back up. I posted something on the Sparta page, and got a huge response of people surprised we still made music. I was surprised. But it does make sense to me. I mean, I don’t keep up with bands that aren’t keeping up.

MOKB: That said, it seems like you get restless creatively — do you feel that it takes a new band or a new vehicle to really grow and change musically, or has it just been coincidence?
JW: I think it’s possible, for sure, but the problem with that is you’re asking three other people to go with you. In my solo work and in Sleepercar, I’m the full-on, primary songwriter. But I love playing in bands… when I see Tony [Hajjar, drummer for Sparta and At the Drive-In], I miss being in a band with him. Sparta’s not broken up…. We wrote a couple songs in December. He was in town and we went to my studio. It was like putting on your favorite pair of pants. We wrote two songs in an hour, and it was like, ‘Fuck! This is sick!’ So, [my music] can evolve, but it’s got to be with different vehicles. There are four wheels, and they all have to be going basically the same direction.

MOKB: Or else the car comes apart?
JW: Yes, it does. That shit happens.

MOKB: So, could we see, in a foreseeable future, new Sparta music?
JW: Oh, yeah. We took a year off and it turned into two and three, but it was never bad. At the Drive-In definitely went on hiatus, and we put it on the shelf and didn’t want to talk about it for years. Now we’re cool, but it’s been a long time. Sparta was never like that; I wanted to do Sleepercar, some dudes had kids, people started businesses. Every now and then you need stop and catch up with your partner, too. Tony and I have been with the same ladies for over a decade, so they’re living life and going on a career path, and you’re on the dressing room every day. It’s nice to come off the road and live a life together for awhile. That would be fair. [With Sparta] I’d stay tuned, though.

MOKB: You’ve been in several bands that have been hugely influential. Do you ever hear music now from newer bands and think, ‘Yep, they were listening to me’?
JW: I never have, and I always feel weird when bands tell me that. Not in a bad way, but West Texas culture still has some holdovers from cowboys and Latin American culture, which is incredibly humble. If you rise above the rest, you’ll get chopped down in our gang. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to hear that. It’s cool to hear, but…

I was on tour playing with Frank Turner [on The Revival Tour in 2009]. I was going to sing a song with him in LA, and he was talking to the crowd, saying if it wasn’t for this guy and his band At the Drive-In, I don’t know if I’d be doing this. I remember saying that to Ian Mackaye, and I just wanted to cry. I knew what he was saying, and I’ve said that to my heroes. I was just leveled by the compliment. I’ve heard people accuse me, though. They’ll hear a bad At the Drive-In rip off band and say, ‘See, fucker, that’s your fault.’

MOKB: I interviewed Animal Collective recently, and I heard the same thing — who has been accused of inspiring more shitty bands than them?
JW: Who could even get close to them? That’s a band of a caliber like the Flaming Lips. There will never ever be another Animal Collective. I saw a show of theirs and was just like, ‘Fuck. I want to go home and make a record, but also burn everything.’ It was a weird combo.

MOKB: What is the most recent dream that you remember?
JW: Holy shit, check this dream out. I think it was because I’m stressing a bit about the new record and the new bar and going on tour myself. I had this dream the other day that I owned a house, and it had tour bus parking. So this bus is pulling up and knocks over a tree, and I’m freaked out. Some good friends of mine get off the bus, and we’re in the swimming pool and rocks are falling into the swimming pool. Everyone gets really mad at me; they say ‘We just played New York, and our next show is in Portland, but we came to El Paso. It’s not even on the way.’

I don’t know what that means, but it’s all the facets of my life: an old building crumbling, a tour bus and all the logistics going wrong. I just kept thinking… why the fuck would you come to El Paso on the way to Portland?

MOKB: Because they wanted to see you?
JW: Well, yeah. Maybe that’s the good part of the dream that I didn’t even think about.

Interview by Justin Jacobs.

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