Text: Denise Nelson Prieto | Photos: Zach Passero & Peter Kupfer
Seminal El Paso musician and business owner, Jim Ward, is on a mission: getting out of the way and letting things happen as they will. He takes that most zen of approaches to both his music and his life.
From his days with At The Drive-In and Sparta, through his alt-country outfit Sleepercar, Ward has strived to remain true to the plain and simple reason for creating music, which is a pure love of the process and attendant cathartic healing that results.
His latest project, simply called “Jim Ward,” involves seasoned musicians with similar goals. They are set to perform at this month’s Village Vibes Music Festival in Vinton.
Ward recently set aside time to talk to us about his musical journey.
Let’s talk about your latest endeavor.
I’ve been playing shows, sort of off and on throughout the summer. I played a show in New York, I played a show in Austin, a couple New Mexico dates. I have one solo record, that was a series of 3 EP’s and then released as one full record, which has a really long title . . .and that’s Quiet in the Valley, On the Shores The End Begins? That was a while back, in 2011 right?
Yeah, it was quite a while ago. and that was sort of based on doing stuff acoustically and kind of mellow. Now, what I’m doing is building from that seed essentially. I have a new group; Gabe Gonzalez is playing bass right now. It’s an electric trio, and I sort of go between electric and acoustic [guitar]. It’s solo stuff, but it’s the next phase of that. As I’m writing songs and we’re getting ready to do these shows—we’re going to do some show with Ra Ra Riot in Albuquerque, Tucson and Phoenix following the Vinton show. We’re just building kind of the chemistry of the band. The drummer is from Seattle, his name is Dave Brozowski; he’s currently playing percussion with Modest Mouse.
Yeah. . . their tour cycle was winding up, and he sent me an email and was like “If you know anyone who’s looking for a drummer.” And we ran into each in New York a couple of months ago and just sat around and talked about music. Then you have to kind of let it evolve, because no matter what I tell myself or tell other people it’s going to sound like, I really can’t control nature. So we’re sort of seeing what it’s turning out like. I’m excited. The old songs have a new take on them with him and his input. The Vinton show will be the first time people will here new songs in quite a while, and there’s a whole bunch of them.
So you’ve been writing a lot then?
My ratio’s usually about 3 to 1; if I write 3 songs, I’ll usually keep 1. Now I’m getting into the phase where I have a handful of songs that I know are going to be finished. For me that’s an exciting time. It’s cathartic and great to be able to work on stuff and feel good with the progress.
That 3 to 1 ratio—has it been like that since the At The Drive-In days?
Since I was a teenager, yeah. Usually I’ll get real excited about something I’m working on, and it just kind of fades. I always take it as a sign to just let it go. I do everything from memory, so if something comes back to me and I play the riff and I like it, it will creep back in. And sometimes you need to wait for the second part, and if there isn’t one, no matter how much I force it . . . like I can use all the tricks in the books to come up with different parts, almost always nature will kill it off.
An evolution of sorts?
Exactly. And at this point in my career I’m so much more relaxed about it. It’s not about forcing it and making something that’s not natural. Sometimes it takes time and that’s ok. I’ve basically been saying at some point, there’ll be a record next year. We’re on track for that, both behind the scenes and also with the songs and the band. I like these guys a lot and we’re having fun. Having Davey come down and stay at my house, and just getting to know each other on a deeper level, and to be able to play music is very therapeutic and cathartic.
Sleepercar and Jim Ward are quite a departure musically from At the Drive-In and Sparta. Why is that?
The seeds were probably always there. My granddad . . played honky tonk. My dad played in a cover band on Dyer Street when he was in high school for the troops that were being shipped off to Vietnam. My mom’s brothers play in bands to this day. I grew up playing punk-rock. At the same time, who doesn’t love Johnny Cash? I think at a certain point you start seeing all those similarities. In the Western scale there’s 12 notes; look at all the stuff you can do with it. I grew up in a pretty awesome time period musically and . . . to me there’s an easy connection between all of these things. It used to be a bad word to say country—“Oh you have a country band; what a terrible idea.” Then you say, “But don’t you like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings?” People go,“Yeah, but that’s not really country.” It’s totally country, so of course we like that stuff. Then I was lucky enough to meet people like the Old 97s at a young age, who made that bridge between country and punk-rock. So for me, Sleepercar was something that was growing in my mind for a long time.
Some bands make it a mission to make each successive record different from the last. Do you?
For me, honestly, and I don’t even mean it to be self-deprecating, I don’t have that skill set. All I can do is follow the songs. I’m a huge believer there’s songs in guitars and those songs come out when they’re ready, and I’m a voice for those songs.
A conduit of sorts?
Yeah, I believe in that whole heartedly, and it’s been that way my entire life. I’ve had an amazing, wonderful, super blessed career and life, so I wouldn’t take it any other way.
This writer wrote an article for Vice Media’s “Scene Reports” about the El Paso music scene. While its focus was on Neon Desert, he said El Paso “hasn’t always had a clear music identity of its own. For years the city’s music scene revolved around . . .At The Drive-In and . . . Sparta.” Do you think that’s accurate?
I’ve always thought the coolest thing about this city is that it’s a free for all. I don’t think there’s a musical identity and I don’t think there was one because of any band I was in. I always describe this city as a frontier; it’s called “The Pass” for a reason. People come and go and leave their imprints. For a long time there was a New York sound, a D.C. sound, an L.A. sound; I speak mostly of punk-rock, which is the genre I grew up in. . . every band in El Paso sounded different because I don’t think there was enough people to have these cliques. So if you grew up listening to Metallica, it was likely you were going to play with somebody who listened to Bob Marley because both of you wanted to play music, and there just was not enough of us around to be selective. The identity’s always been about total openness and collaboration. I think it’s probably easy to know the bands that came from here and make assumptions about the bands you’ve never heard of from here, which is what I feel like that writer did.
Can we anticipate hearing anything else from Sparta?
I wouldn’t be able to say. That’s just one of those things where we’re going to have to wait and see what happens. I definitely am putting my energy into this project.
What happened with ATDI back in March?
This is the first interview I’ve done [since announcement], and I’ve thought very hard about what I would say, and I’m just not going to say anything . . . I just keep that world private.
How’d you become involved in the Village Vibes Music Festival?
They asked me if I’d want to play, and initially I wasn’t sure what incarnation would be working. The day I had to commit I just said put my name on it, and that’s going to be what it is. This will actually be my last show in the area for an enormous amount of time. I’m looking forward to playing it and sort of sneaking off and making a record, and sort of re-introducing myself to some parts of the world I’ve not been in for a while, and just kind of give the people of this town a break from me. I hope we go out on a good high note and I would like to come back when there’s a desire to see this in its new, finished conception. For me this is sort of a going away party.
What’s new with Tricky Falls, Bowie Feathers, and Eloise?
Tricky Falls is a gigantic labor of love for everyone involved. The joy comes from seeing people experience live music. We hope to keep that going as long as we can. We’re reinventing a few things down there. Bowie Feathers is moving downstairs into the old Hello Day space; it’ll be like a 15, 20 person, really tiny intimate bar. We’re renaming upstairs “The Perch.” It’ll be a bit more directed at live music and events. . . and where you’ll see bands that can fit 100 people.
Do you try to incorporate the philosophy of not forcing things and letting them unfold naturally to all areas of your life?
I think that philosophy tries to incorporate me as much as possible. I feel guided by those things. I try to pay attention to it whenever I can. Like everyone, I’m on a journey, and figuring it out and making missteps is part of that journey. For me the music stuff, and the philosophy behind the music stuff, is the easiest thing in life. Sometimes dealing with other human beings, I could do better at that. Being a better person—I could definitely be a better person. All of those things involve mistakes and I try to be the best that I can, which isn’t an excuse, it’s a declaration. I’d like to leave the world a better place than a worse place.