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Sparta B&W street portrait

Sparta: Phoenix Without Ashes

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: March 26, 2002

April 2
Sparta with Thursday and The Detachment Kit
The Ranch Bowl
1606 S. 72nd St.
$9 adv., $11 dos.,
All ages

It's hard to explain just how high a precipice At the Drive In was leaning over when everything, out of the blue, just sort of stopped.

By November 2000, the El Paso-based 5-piece had emerged from a pack of faceless indie rock bands as perhaps the first "breakthrough" act since Nirvana. In addition to being lauded for their CD, Relationship of Command, At The Drive In had earned a reputation for their high-octane, over-the-top live shows that featured their own brand of punk composed of equal parts Jane's Addiction, Chavez, Fugazi and bottled-up anger. MTV caught on. So did radio and mainstream television. The twin afros of Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez were the ultra-cool trademarks of a band that could do no wrong.

Then, four months later, At the Drive In was gone.

No one knew for sure why a band that had stuck together through thick and thin -- mostly thin -- had announced it was going on an "extended hiatus" just as they were on the verge of breaking through to widespread commercial success. Some blamed band in fighting. Others said it was a stereotypical Freddie Prinze-style burn-out that comes from getting too big too fast. Still others said the endless touring of sold-out club shows ultimately took its toll.

Former At the Drive In bassist Paul Hinojos discounts all of the inane theories. "We didn't burn out," he said from the House of Blues studio in Los Angeles, where his new band, Sparta, is finishing recording their full-length debut before heading out on a tour that brings them to The Ranch Bowl April 2 in support of their just-released EP, Austere.

"We were all perfectly happy. We even planned on increasing our touring," Hinojos said. "It was just one of those things. We had set a rule in the band that if we're ever going to break up, we would immediately go on hiatus and talk again in a few months. That's what happened. We went on hiatus in March and we waited it out to see if we'd stay a band. It just didn't happen. We just left it the way it was and walked away. Now we're totally focusing on Sparta, and At the Drive In is gone."




Like a proverbial phoenix, Hinojos and two other former At the Drive In members -- Jim Ward and drummer Tony Hajjar -- formed Sparta with friend Matt Miller. "I was in Los Angeles in June, hanging out with Tony in a parking lot, and we said we should play together again," Hinojos said. "We went to El Paso and asked Jim, and he said 'yeah,' and then brought on Matt to play bass -- I switched to guitar. We started practicing and rehearsing in July. Having been apart for a few months, we all had some new ideas, and when we came to practice all these songs just came out."

The half-dozen or so songs were recorded in 10 days and immediately made their way to the Internet, where they caught fire. Though never officially released, those demos have been rerecorded and could reemerge on the band's upcoming full-length. A down-and-dirty 11-show tour was hastily thrown together that took Sparta from Texas to Reykjavik, Iceland. The response was immediate and overwhelming, Hinojos said.

Among those taking notice was major label Dreamworks Records, who knew a winner when they saw it and signed the band. Out of the blocks, Hinojos and Ward wanted to put out an EP on Restart Records, a label they started while on tour with At The Drive In with the goal of helping out other El Paso-area bands. "Dreamworks was fine with putting Austere out on our label," Hinojos said. "We ended up putting it out together as a joint release, which really helps to get it into stores."

Without Bixler and Rodriguez, who went on to form Mars Volta, Ward moved to lead vocals and guitar, while Hajjar continued to man the drum set. The change in instrumentation was a breath of fresh air for Hinojos, who said guitar was always his first instrument. "I'd always played guitar at home and just wanted to try it on stage," he said. "It's challenging to me. Playing live is totally different than playing in your bedroom. I'm learning a lot of new things and it's a new way for me to put down my ideas."

Hinojos said writing for Sparta isn't much different than writing for his former band. "With At the Drive In, everyone had an equal part in saying if something sucked or was good," he said. "We wanted to keep the same formula and equalness."

Having Ward as the frontman, however, is different. "Jim's voice is really strong," Hinojos said. "He sang a lot of the choruses in At the Drive In. Now he's taking the lead position and it's really cool. Watching him blossom really motivates all of us."



Sparta Austere CD art

"We just left it the way it was and walked away. Now we're totally focusing on Sparta, and At the Drive In is gone."


"A lot of people are curious if we'll be the same as At the Drive In. When the CD comes out and people hear it and see us play live, a lot of that curiosity will go away."


The similarities and differences between the two bands are obvious the first time you listen to Austere. Both sport a heavy, bass-and-guitar-driven sound accented by wide-open, almost Perry Farrell-style vocals. But compared to At the Drive In, Sparta's music is less dense, less chaotic and more, well, musical. If At the Drive In's music is like an unexpected car crash, Sparta's is the startling aftermath.

Hinojos said the comparisons to At the Drive In are both inevitable and expected. "We kind of know it's coming," he said. "We don't get pissed about it. We played in that band for so long. A lot of people are curious if we'll be the same as At the Drive In. When the CD comes out and people hear it and see us play live, a lot of that curiosity will go away."

So, could Sparta reach the same high precipices where At the Drive In was poised just prior to their breakup?

"When we were with At the Drive In, everyone used to ask us what the goal was," Hinojos said. "The only goals we set were to play music live and make records, whether we were playing in front of five people and selling five records out of our garage or playing arenas and being on a major label. We were always happy with where we were. It was a constant high point of being able to play music and have fun. We always said we would play music until it wasn't fun anymore. The band just ran its course and it was done and we broke up, but it was a constant high right up to the end.

"With Sparta, we just want to tour and put out records and make friends. We're having fun and want to keep it that way. We're just a rock band and want to make music."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly March 27, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.