AFTER THE DRIVE-IN 

I'll qualify this circumstance, broadcast, renew this chance
Pin hope on this promise
Graduate to this settled score ... This time I'll get it right.

"Mye," Austere, Sparta

Critics tend to attribute the lyrics to "Mye" to explain the demise of El Paso, Texas indie band At the Drive-In and the formation of Sparta. "You can read into every song — and I'm not going to spend the rest of my life denying — the song is really about celebrating the guys I play with now," explains Jim Ward, Sparta frontman and author of the lyrics. "What we've all accomplished to get where we can play music for a living. What we've had to overcome to be here."

The members of Sparta certainly have plenty to celebrate — the August 8 edition of Rolling Stone magazine lists the group in its feature, "Ten Bands You Need to Know." The group might be more accurately pinned as a band that you already know, but don't necessarily know that you know. Although it remains true to its El Paso, Texas roots, Sparta didn't emerge from a humble garage amalgamation of musicians, but was raised from the raucous rock chords of successful outfit At the Drive-In.

At the Drive-In formed in 1994, toured hard from 1997-99, and finished the year by opening a string of arena shows for Rage Against the Machine. Among bands that weren't formed by record company marketing fat cats, it is extremely rare for a group to graduate to the arena level so quickly in its career. It is even less likely when the group is based in El Paso. (Add to those odds the kicker — ATDI pumped out unconventionally chaotic rock 'n' roll both onstage and off). When they were slotted to be the next Nirvana-style breakthrough band, the boys called it quits, going on "indefinite hiatus."

Shortly after ATDI issued its hiatus statement, Ward and bandmates Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, along with bassist Matt Miller, began writing songs for their current band, Sparta. Three-fifths of ATDI persevered, with Ward singing and playing guitar, and Hinojos making the switch from bass to guitar. At times their sound is reminiscent of early Fugazi, later Minor Threat, and the Cure — mixed with deep shades of ATDI. Slightly more radio-friendly than the previous effort, Sparta still plays emotional, melodic, intense rock in odd time signatures and with highly variable tempos.

The guys are once again on the arena circuit, this time opening for Weezer and Dashboard Confessional as part of the "Enlightenment Tour" (the Strokes join the tour for some shows, but not the one here). They signed with DreamWorks late in 2001, releasing the extended play Austere in March, and will release its first full-length, Wiretap Scars, in early August. Around mid-August, Sparta will start another club tour in support of the album.

"This tour we have extra crew members and union guys do the loading," says Ward. "But we're just about enjoying life, if shit needs to be done you have to do it — but you can enjoy it when you're doing it — and maybe I'll have a beer after loading or something."

The band continues to call El Paso home, and Ward doesn't laugh at the sarcastic implication that the Texas city might bloom into a 21st-century Seattle or Athens: "No, it's nothing like that — not that there aren't a lot of good bands — there is just not enough people or money. The city would really need to embrace the music scene for something like that to happen. It's just too poor. I stay in El Paso because it's where I was born and raised."

Austere sounds produced — but not slick, a dominant problem with many major label records by underground bands. "I don't have the urge to make a slick record, nobody in the band wants to make that type of record, and `we` don't know if we could do it," says Ward. "We all write the music and lyrics, and no one's the leader of the band because none of us want to be the leader and none of us want to be in a band with the kind of person who wants to be the leader. We just try and be real, follow the riffs, and let the music speak for itself."

WEEZER
WITH DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL AND SPARTA
8pm, Sunday, August 4, $20-25
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
16765 Lookout Road, Selma
224-9600 (Ticketmaster)

More by Noah Sternthal

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