November 30, 2006
Sparta's journey hasn't been an easy one. From the split-up of At the Drive-In, some have dismissed them as being merely contenders for mainstream approval, devoid of the artistic merits of those in The Mars Volta, a band that, to say the least, is drasticially different than Sparta. I should know; I'm one of those people who disliked their first album Wiretap Scars. However, something changed. The band grew tighter, and as time passed and the gap widened between Sparta and At the Drive-In, It became harder to make the comparison. Their second album, Porcelain, was a vast improvement, but it disappeared into obscurity, thanks to a record label that no longer believed in them. Then, as one would be expected, things within the band went haywire. Members left, tours were canceled, and the end loomed over their head. But then something happened. The band decided to look inward, and decided to make music for themselves, and the resulting album, Threes, is a grand, epic statement. Yeah, it's rock, but it's good rock. I had the chance to talk to bass player Matt Miller about the situation surrounding the creation of their new record. It's an interesting talk, and should serve as a caveat to those who make music...
Jumping back a bit: The time before the creation of Threes was rather tumultuous for Sparta, with label problems, internal conflicts and personal issues. Looking back at that time now, do you think Threes couldn't have happened any other way?
Defintely. Usually, whenever there's any kind of stress or turmoil for us, it brings about great creativity. Threes was different overall for us. We had free time to write and create.
From reading about Jim's personal crises in the Spring of 2005, it seems as if it's directly tied to the record label turmoil with Geffen/Interscope. Was the creative process for Threes--from taking time off and then coming back and writing two dozen songs without any label pressure--was that a different experience for the band, writing without pressure or expectation?
This time we actually...we had been in the usual cycle of make a record, go on tour, and write songs in the little free time allotted. We gave ourselves time to write. We had no deadlines, but we were working all throughout that time. Some of the songs that made the album were over a year old, and were the first things we put together when we started Threes. But with the time--and we didn't allow ourselves to not use the time--we were pretty much left to our own devices, and we were going create what we wanted to create; it was completely up to us. On the last two records, we had a certain timeframe in which to write them. For this one, it's the first time where, if one day we didn't want to write and record, we didn't. We could stop and come back later. To be able to do that, it was a relief.
It must be nice to be able to walk away from the music business machine and just create.
Oh yeah--very much so! The machine you are talking about, it kind of tarnishes the whole fun and beauty of being in a band and of making music. That's the harsh, real, and ugly aspect of it.
When you were holed up in your warehouse, writing the songs that would constitute Threes, did you have the idea to just write and not even think about making the next album or looking for a new record label? Were you just more into the idea of fresh, pressure-free creation?
Well, no. When we started the sessions in El Paso, we had pretty much decided on what our new home was going to be like and what the label would be. At the same time, Hollywood knew that we wanted to take our time and they knew exactly what we wanted to do, which was to be able to stay in El Paso for two months, in a giant warehouse, spending hours there each day, just pushing the record button on our gear, recording everything, and not having any chains on ourselves; any kind of chains, like, "we can't write a song like this" or "we can't pursue a melody like this." Whatever came out, and whatever worked its way into our hearts to where we absolutely loved it, it made the record. In every sense of the word, in almost every situation, from first finding a label to making the album--in everything, we said, "Let's not give ourselves any constraints."
I was thinking of your situation as being like Jimmy Eat World, where the band made its big hit record after being dropped and shopped to labels as-is. Was that what you had in mind, or had you signed to Hollywood and then made Threes?
WE pretty much had decided who we were going to go with. At the time we were label shopping, we weren't a hot commodity; we had backed out of a major tour, we had a member leave, and it looked like we were falling apart. So when Hollywood actually came looking for us, we thought, "Wow! Okay!" and we decided to meet, to see if it would be the right direction for us.
Considering your label woes, did the band have major trepidations about the label?
Oh, of course. Whenever you get into that kind of label situation, indie or not, major or not, you don't know exactly what they want, but they don't know what you want, either. It's awkward, and it's like an odd blind date at first. You go and meet, and if things go well, you meet again. With Hollywood, when we first met them, our first meeting was supposed to be thirty minutes. It wound up being four and a half hours! (Laughs) We really hit it off; we really connected with the people there. It made it nice, and when we decided to work with them, to us, they weren't just a label, they were our friends.
Another aspect of Threes is Tony's film Eme Nakia. Was the film as much a part of the creative process for the album itself, or was it an independent and separate project?
Definitely. Tony brought it up, even before we had any ideas for starting our third record, because at that time, things were still up in the air with Sparta and we hadn't decided if we even wanted to continue to be a band. He came up with the idea and said "What do you guys think about making a short video or film to go along with a record," and we thought that sounded like a great idea. It would be a good experiment that would give us an area of having more creativity, and also, we could build back and forth from each other.
I've only seen the trailer, but it looks quite fascinating. Do you have a release date as to when it will be out?
It's out now. It's in limited release right now, and is only available through Best Buy with the CD. I'm sure it will be out on its own DVD with other material as well.
It sounds like you guys are enjoying Sparta a lot more now.
Yeah! I think things are different now. I think it all ties back into letting loose, and at the same time, we feel totally in control of whatever we want to do, and it's very liberating! I hope it stays that way.
Sparta's Threes is available now on Hollywood Records