It’s hard to form a band that’s going to stand the test of time. Having a big hit is one thing, but launching an act that’s going to remain influential and draw crowds of devoted fans for decades is generally a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.
Unless that lifetime belongs to Jim Ward.
Ward (the revered guitarist, not the voice actor of the same name who apparently has better SEO) co-founded a little band called At the Drive-In before his 18th birthday, and then when that stopped being a thing (the first time around), he spun off into Sparta. And that’s not even including the success he’s seen with the country-tinged Sleepercar and acoustic solo work.
Long story short, the 44-year-old El Paso native knows a thing or two about writing, singing, and strumming some of rock’s most influential and unforgettable songs over the last 28 years.
But now, Ward is taking things in a direction he’s technically never gone before. His new solo album, Daggers (out June 11 via Dine Alone Records), isn’t just one man with an acoustic guitar. This time around, he handpicked his “dream rhythm section” of Incubus bassist Ben Kenney and Thursday drummer Tucker Rule to bring the album to life — with the three collaborating from a distance every step of the way. He also doesn’t really care if anyone else really likes the decisions he’s made or not, but more on that later.
SPIN spoke with Ward via Zoom to chat about Daggers and where he’s at in his career three decades later.
SPIN: Considering that you just put out Trust The River with Sparta last year, why have such a quick turnaround for this solo album?
Jim Ward: Well, this one wasn’t written intentionally. The Sparta record came out in April, and we thought we’d be working that for quite a while. But — like everything else — that changed, and everything went from being postponed to canceled. My wife and I own a restaurant as well, so we like to say that we won the lottery on the two things that just got pummeled when everything shut down. I’m not saying it was any worse for us than anybody else, but it was a very challenging time, and I think music is still therapeutic to me. I was just writing riffs at night and letting my brain process them while I slept. Then in the morning, I would send them to Tucker [Rule]. He didn’t have anything really going on except a newborn baby, so he would record drums in between naps, and we’d have a finished song by the afternoon. Then we’d send them to Ben [Kenney] just to get his take on it.
Daggers obviously has a much harder rock feel to it than your previous solo work. What was the inspiration to go in that direction?
What’s most exciting to me about it is that it was written almost spontaneously out of the need to express myself — not for any other reason. We didn’t know what would come out. We didn’t have any idea at all. I knew it was more aggressive than stuff I’ve been working on, but that was just a total reflection of four years of frustrations about everything from Black Lives Matter to Trump to coronavirus. Everything was so overwhelming and emotionally charging and depleting, so this was a reaction to that. I thought “We’ll just finish it and put it up before the election as a last middle finger to [Trump]. If he wins again, whatever. If he loses, whatever. I just need to get it out.” But as the record evolved over the weeks, we sort of slid out of that mindset and realized there was really something exciting there. Then the label said they wanted me to take my time and release it [this] year, and that was sort of the pivot point for me. I relaxed, took a breath, and was like “OK, if that’s what we’re going to do, then let’s think about it.”
Even before the pandemic, you weren’t touring full-time anymore, but was it weird to be stuck at home instead of hitting the road with Sparta or even this album?
Well, the ironic thing is that I sort of stepped away from touring in 2009. When I finished the Sleepercar tour, I said “I think I’m good for a while. I just want to stay home with my family and open a little business here.” So I took a few years off from the road by choice, but this is the first time I was forced to not do it when I wanted to do it. It’s crazy the difference that it makes in your mentality. I was so mad, even though I haven’t really toured a ton. I don’t really do it as a full-time thing anymore, but the idea that it was taken away was painful and such a weird mindfuck. Now, I’m super pumped to go out and play, but I have to make sure I don’t get too excited and promise too much, because I have to remember that I still only want to tour for a third of the year or whatever. That’s my happy place.
Considering that so many people know you from At the Drive-In, Sparta, and Sleepercar from over the years, what’s it like to put out a real rock album with just your name and face on the cover?
That’s honestly why I can’t wait for people to hear the album. I think the coolest part about doing it this way is that everything comes down to me. A few people have pointed out that some of the songs remind them of this band or that band, and I’m like “Yeah, that probably would have gotten cut in a band situation because someone would say that it reminds them too much of U2 or Fugazi or the Clash or someone.” That era made me who I am, and this is the first time I get to wear all of those influences on my sleeve because I can take the heat myself. I don’t want anyone else to have to sit in an interview when [journalists] say “That kind of sounds like U2” and be like “I know. I brought it up, but he won’t listen.” That’s the biggest difference on this record. No one has to take shit except for me, and I’m good with it. I sat with this record for five months, and I still listen to it in the car. That’s a huge thing for me.
For people who know you from your bands, is there anything you’d want to tell them about the new album?
I just ask people to go into it with an open mind, because I come with a ton of baggage, professionally. I’m 44 years old, and I’ve been touring and making records since I’d just turned 18. That’s a long time with a lot of stuff, and people have different attachments to things. I totally understand that, but I make music for me, and I hope people enjoy it. My hope is that people will listen to it with an open mind, and I don’t really care if people like it or not as long as they give it a shot. Some people think “This band was cool, but that band wasn’t cool” or “I like it when he plays country, but I hate the other stuff.” But I’m all of those people, so I can’t be like “You’re right, that band was shitty.” I was doing what I love to do, and I’ll continue doing what I love to do. Beyond that, I think the biggest thing is for people to understand that it’s a rock record. It’s not an acoustic folk record like my last one. There was a lot of talk within my team about calling this “the Jim Ward Trio” or “the Jim Ward Band,” but I don’t put those rules on myself. I was like “It’s me. It’s my fucking name. That’s it. That’s the end of the story.”
Speaking of which, do you feel like when people see your name, they expect a certain type of music at this point?
I think that the advantage of not being really famous or popular or selling incredible amounts of records is that I’m a part of the fabric of people’s musical life, but I’m not their obsession. I’m not that big. I don’t sell that many tickets. I’m not going to sell that many records. I’m a working-class musician, and I love being in that position. My heroes were very blue-collar rock and roll folks, like Joe Strummer or the early Beatles. I love that genuine “I don’t need to create anything to get bigger, because this is who I am, where I’m at, and then we’ll just leave it at that.” That’s also what I’m most excited about for this tour. I get to reinvent a bunch of stuff, because I’m not going to just play this record. My rule is that I’ll play anything I sang, so that includes some At the Drive-In, every single Sparta song, and every single solo record. There’s a lot of stuff I can reinvent now with this touring trio, because I have cool guys that are going to play with me.