I Know Why the Red Swan Sings

Sparta examine their scars in public.

You can probably infer this from their moniker, but ostentatious Sparta are not. When El Paso–based hyperbole magnet At the Drive-In folded in 2001, all the indulgence left with vocalist Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez, who christened themselves the Mars Volta and concocted one hell of a unmentionable-droppin' rocktail—equal parts sangria, Spock rock, and Santana. If the Volta's polarizing forays into salsa-fueled jazzercise confounded ATDI's still-spiking fan base, they could find refuge in Sparta, the conspicuously Afro-free rhythm section's new project.

Sparta are pretty easy to characterize—in comparison not just to the Mars Volta, but to At the Drive-In and the entire, oh, 20-odd-year history of emo-punk—and that's the problem. Guitarist/backup howler Jim Ward, bassist/guitarist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar all threw their two cents in the lyric well, tempered ATDI's hurricane with endearingly off-key, ugly duckling introspection, and released an inconspicuous, compelling debut, Wiretap Scars, which could have been subtitled Preaching to the Choir. The just-released follow-up, Porcelain (Dreamworks), is similarly tight, busy, and glossy—much like the schools of screamo teen bands that At the Drive-In inspired. Post-punk can be a faceless genre, and with the bizarro leaps the Mars Volta took in a new direction, many see Sparta as Gallagher to their Jim Carrey: same old sledgehammer, same old watermelon.

"We got killed in Rolling Stone, like, the worst review I've ever had," Ward sighs via telephone from Indianapolis. "I mean, it's OK to have bad reviews—I'm not bothered by that. What I am bothered by is that somebody can sum up eight or nine months' worth of work and energy and effort and passion into five lines that just basically say it's all shit. It's like the famous Spinal Tap review: shit sandwich."

Such is our professional bread and butter, bro. I playfully point out that Vanilla Ice puts eight or nine months' worth of work and energy and effort and passion into his albums and still unequivocally produces shit sandwiches, but, snarkiness aside, it's hard to blame Ward for any trite artiste grousing. Sparta flaunt plenty of artful premises and ideals, but few notice. They agreed to open a hockey-rink tour for nü-hippie insignificants Incubus, but only because USS Lollapalooza was about to capsize. Ward rivals Ian MacKaye in his efforts to maintain a culture of safety at live shows, insists on maintaining a pervasive democracy despite his position as the de facto face of the band, and even has a very good explanation for why Sparta have become the umpteenth emo-punk outfit to adopt a damn bird—in this case a swan—as their logo.

"The swan came from this letter from the king of Ireland to an invading force," he elucidates. "The letter was like, 'May the sun be behind you, may the wind be in front of you, may the land be firm for your horses,' and at the end of it, he goes, 'I want you to get here in one piece, because when you do, I'm going to fuck you up, and you're gonna suffer the wrath of the red swan,' which was, like, the king's logo. One of the guys in [my] band was like, 'We're not a fowl band! Everything doesn't have to be flying ducks or geese or whatever.' And I think that's a good point, but I like what it symbolizes. I like the idea of killing someone with kindness."

Tattoos of not only a red swan but the inscription "If found, return to El Paso" adorn Ward's wrists ("I have bad tattoos," he laughs), and he's the type of guy who can actually make "killing someone with kindness" cool. Now Sparta's lone lyricist, he's scrapped Wiretap's aversive metaphors for unapologetically direct mission statements. In tune with most of Sparta's efforts, his reading of a potentially empty line like "I was raised in a certain way, and I think I let you down" ("La Cerca") has a modest beauty one must study to appreciate.

"When I wrote it, I was thinking about my parents," Ward reveals. "I'll come home and I'll be talking about how rad this new Mercedes I saw my friend driving was, or whatever, and my parents are just like, 'What the fuck are you talking about? That's not how we raised you. Why would you spend all that money on a car when there's a thousand charities doing things for kids that you could help out and still have a car?' It's ridiculous when there are people that have cardboard shacks that burn down in the winter because they have open fires to stay warm and I'm like, 'I don't wanna fly United.' It's fucking retarded."

Porcelain is a medium for utilitarian beauty that fractures easily and violently. Only one member of Sparta vigorously lobbied for it as the album title. Guess who. Guess why.


Sparta play KeyArena with Incubus at 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 7. $32.50.

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