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Interview with Tony Hajjar

This is madness. This is Sparta!

No doubt Frank Miller is unaware of Sparta the band, but there are clear parallels to be drawn between the sheer bloody mindedness of the Spartans depicted in his new movie 300 and those members of At The Drive In who were ‘left behind’ when the focal pair of Cedric and Omar left to form Mars Volta.
Widely and wrongly dismissed as a novelty backing band trading on the posthumous frenzy surrounding ATD-I, Sparta have been battling with ghosts through two albums since the release of their debut EP Austere in 2002. Tailing off the back of their last record, the much lauded, Porcelain in 2004 things had begun to look pretty bleak for Sparta.
Skip forward to 2007 and the band are preparing for the release of their latest album Threes. With a new label, an evocative short film detailing elements of Hajjar’s family history and a new line up the band have stripped themselves back to basics, hiding out in an Austin warehouse to create what should be the album to severe all remaining ties to their past. In a lot of senses the moody atmospherics, punctuated by soaring moments is a break out album for Sparta. Tony Hajjar certainly agrees.

Ok, Tony. One of the first things I wanted to ask you about was the way in which you stripped back for this record, going back to Austin and hiding out in the warehouse and being completely anonymous. Was this a result of a feeling that finally with Threes you were purely Sparta, and no longer the ‘other guys from ATD-I’ and how that fed into the record?

Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. I think what it was or us was a little bit of everything that you mentioned as to how we ended up stripping down and going into the warehouse. I mean a few months prior to going into the warehouse in October 2005, prior to going back to El Paso, we were really just a garage band. I mean before we got Keeley we were just a 3 piece with no label, without anything. We’d left Geffen, you know we decided we’d just rather be a garage band than be on Geffen records. We’d said no to a lot of money, we said these guys just aren’t doing the job and we’re not happy so lets move on. So we finally got Keeley, and we asked if he’d be in our band and he accepted. So we got to that warehouse and it felt in a weird way like stepping into our own shoes and it felt right. As for the next comment, with the ATD-I guys, you know we’ve always been that, because in the old band it went from being a five piece to a two piece but it still felt like a band to us, and when we started up this new band we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, don’t get me wrong we knew it wasn’t going to be like release the first record and everyone will get it, we knew we had a long trek ahead of us. We always did, and at the end of it we were considered like this back up band, the back up guys and we’ve achieved, not really to us but with guys in the press or fans that maybe didn’t know the band that well, that this is Sparta, this is who we are, and everybody’s finally like ok we should listen to this record and find out what that means.

Yeah, I think it’s been a long time coming because you’ve been treated fairly harshly in some circles. With ‘Threes’ there are elements of the record that are fairly down tempo, fairly moody and I was reading that when you recorded it was autumn and the weather was stormy and that you felt isolated and I was wondering how that fed into the record. For example there’s a lot of tension building and a lot of the time I found myself waiting for something to breakout, especially on tracks like ‘Unstitch Your Mouth’. So I was wondering how that isolation and the weather and the whole mood fed into this atmosphere that’s tangible throughout the record?

Well, ok, so we decided to go to El Paso so that we could have sunny weather and so that we could be the band, you know the band that would have this happy time blah blah blah, and it turned out that the time that we got to spend in El Paso was so gloomy that there was no sun…and it just turned out really funny that we had this total plan, like lets go to El Paso, no one bring any music and lets just see how the atmosphere helps us write. So it turns out to be very gloomy, then we go to Seattle, and we had heard that the weather was very good there at this point, as we were only going to be there for two weeks. Again, it turned out to be very gloomy. So when we were up there laying down the basic tracks for the drums and bass and guitars it was just really dark, and feeding into the basic tracks it was just really a dark mode. Then the next part of the recording was in Malibu, you know. Malibu!…and it turns out that its gloomy everyday that we’re there, and there was not one day that we can go to the beach because it was to overcast. So, yeah, the mood continued without our control, and that’s what it did to the record.
I mean, because over the last two records we had become, well, you know that Sparta has lows in its songs and then big crashing highs. We wanted to change that about the way we are and the way we write the songs. We wanted a lot of the songs to have more of an atmosphere around them and to not just go back and forth between loud bits and soft bits and back to loud which had kind of become our little staple. I’m not saying we created that, I’m just saying it was what we were doing. So we really wanted to go with the atmospheric stuff and to really build on that, and that’s what we did. We created a record that was really about how we were feeling at the time.

That’s interesting to hear because it really is a darker record. It’s quite oppressive in a way but it’s a more cohesive record for that reason, it really plays like an album rather than a few singles and some link songs, and there’s this great tension in the background and it really feels that there’s something intense just round the corner, I’d call it a breakout album because the songs where you let that tension go where its naturally headed, the release songs, it feels like you’ve had to work for that, and it flows perfectly like a great gig.

Well that means a lot because that’s what we meant to do with it. That’s what we wanted to achieve with everything, from what song opened up the record to the order the songs went, I mean we’ve never debated a record like this before, it was so important, and you know it was great debates, debates creating the full mode of what Sparta is now and what we’ve become, this is what we really wanted to show people. We really came into this record with the notion that this is our chance, people are finally going to give us a chance. The point is, I mean we’ve had supportive fans don’t get me wrong, and we’ve done well and were happy, but this seemed like an opportunity to spread the sound beyond just our fans.

Let’s talk about ‘Taking Back Control’, because that’s the first point on the album where you let go in a sense and it’s just head’s down riffs out full on rock.

Precisely, and it’s like when you get to that stage of the record its really no nonsense rock the whole way through. It’s funny because it was actually one of the first, first songs that that Jim given us a demo in of in January of 2005, and it went through probably around ten changes, there are so many versions of that song that it’s ridiculous, even up until the second to last day of mixing when Jim flew in and changed the chorus, I mean completely. So there’s a version of it which is called ‘Future Needs’, that has a completely different chorus! So it was one of those things for us that shows how nit picky we were being about what we were doing.

…and didn’t you actually end up in three studios on one day during the mix down?

That was it, that was the day (that we did Taking Back Control). We were mixing most of the record in one studio, and one song called ‘False Start’, was being mixed in another studio and then Jim was in another studio recording the new chorus, all going on in L.A. in one day. It was a crazy day of running around.

Cool, that’s pretty intense… and did that feed into maybe a new -found sense of freedom that you felt with the new line up and label? The freedom to make changes like that where maybe in the past you’d have had deadlines to meet.

I think maybe in the past we would have given ourselves a deadline…no one else would have, but we would have given ourselves one without making changes like that, where we’d be “ok that’s it we’re done”, because we’re those kind of people that when you’re done you’re done, but this is the first time that WE as a band questioned everything. We were always nit picky, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve never questioned until the last day, and that’s the difference in what we were doing.

Reading up on the sessions it looks like they were incredibly productive, I think somewhere I read that you came out of there with 30 finished songs. Are those songs that didn’t make it to the record, are they ones that you feel will come out in some form, whether or not it’s as b-sides, or through a website or are they the sort of songs that have been put away now because elements got adapted into other songs or you feel they’re just not up to scratch?

You know I’m not really sure. Actually I recently bumped them all down from Protools to mp3 just to have them on my iPod if I ever want to listen to them and there are some that I really feel could become strong songs, and I’m sure that there are some that will come out because we were really proud of them but at that moment, at that point, where we were choosing for the record we weren’t sure what to do with them. So we didn’t want to force them. I mean they are complete songs, they sound just like demos, we recorded them as good as we can, and they have lyrics and are done to the point that if we decided that one of them was really strong we could go in and re-record it in one day and be done. So that shows how much work was done to all those other songs that people haven’t heard, and it makes us so proud because we’ve always been that band where, “ok the record needs 12 songs… we could write 15, so that’s all the b-sides”, and that’s it all the songs are gone. This is the first time ever that we seriously still have a lot of songs on our hard drive ready to go, and it’s a blessing to us, this new life and the extra energy and Keeley being there, and the extra love in the room that produced all this new music.

Speaking of Keeley, if we could go into the song writing aspect, how did his being there effect things, did you previously write as a band, or did people bring demos to the table whole?

Well we write as a band, but this was the first time, which was really cool for us, for the rest of us, was that Jim was actually bringing in demos with lyrics and melodies, and that had never been done before in Sparta. We’d always heard the melodies and lyrics in the studio on Porcelain and Wiretap Scars. So this was the first time we knew the melody and the lyrics, we knew everything before we even mentioned the studio.

That’s a pretty big step forward, but it leads to the obvious point that this year marks 10 years of you and Jim being in a band together, so what, if anything, has changed about the way you work together?

Well me and Jim in the way we work are very Yin and Yang, we’re very different personalities, and one thing that’s always been very easy for him and I has been to sit in a room and just write. Sometimes we write so fast that everybody’s just like, “WHAT are you guys doing?” It’s so funny because we can be writing and recording and we’ll be in a studio and all of a sudden four songs are done, and in the past it’s been a bit like…”what just happened?” So for the first time ever we’ve created the dynamic of really taking the time on everything, taking the time to come back to everything. I’ll give you an example. Untreatable Disease, on the actual first version of Untreatable Disease I remember we wrote it and everybody thought it was great, Keeley was like, “I really Like this song”, and I looked at Jim and I said “you know this really reminds me of one of our songs, a song called ‘Death In The Family’, off Porcelain. It had the feeling of that, and we said that, as soon as anyone mentioned a comment like that the first thing we’re going to do is change the song, immediately, no questions. So we ended up creating a song like ‘Untreatable Disease’ that still has the power that we portray in our songs, but it’s just a very different song for us, so I think that kind of mentality is how our approach has changed, we question everything now, and for the better.

Does that apply personally to your attitude to your actual drums as well, that you go back and you analyse more than you did when you were first starting out, because there are elements of ‘Threes’ that are very primal and very less-is-more from a drumming aspect.

The things is that I’ve always tried to have the mentality of write for the song, don’t be a show off just because you’ve learnt a new thing, and I’ve always though if the song requires me to go off and do a part and it just requires one snare hit, then that’s what I’ll do. So my approach to this record was to be more musical than I’ve ever been, and to not write as a drummer but to write as just another member of the band.

Cool, moving away from the actual music of Threes for a moment the album comes with the short film ‘Eme Nakia’. How did that come about and what was the process for that, why did you chose to include it with the record, and what was your personal role in the making of the film.

The idea for a movie I had during the toughest time of the band, we didn’t have a label, we were a three piece, we weren’t even sure that we were going to make another record to be honest. So I called the guys, Jim and Blaise, our manager, and said what do you think of the idea of doing a film with the next record, and I mean I’m very lucky, I play in a very supportive band. So the first thing that everybody says is “yea that’s cool”, but I knew in the end what they were thinking was “you know what we don’t even know if we’re going to make another record and we’re talking about a movie!!” So everybody asked me about what and I said I didn’t really have any idea about what, so they said ok. Then five minutes later Jim called me and says, “Man, I know if we do a film about anything it should be about you and your family.” So I said, I think that’s a really cool idea, but I don’t think I’ll ever do that, I don’t think I have the guts to do that. So after a lot of thinking, remembering that this was April 2005 at this point so I had many, many, months of down time to learn how to make a film, to meet the right people, to work on forty versions of a script, I was lucky enough to meet through my cousin Joe who was the writer and producer of the film. So we’ve shared a very similar childhood, we spent probably at least three or four days a week on the phone sharing stories to the point where it pretty much became therapy. So after months and months of prepping and getting the right people we got a budget from the label, and all this support from the band, and they said, ok go and do this film and come and show it to us when it’s done. To have that kind of support is amazing but at the same time it’s also the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. So at the end of 2005, right when Keeley was starting the guitars, I arrived in El Paso. We have this van, so we jumped in the van with the film crew from LA with all the gear and we went into El Paso and we had everything ready, we had all the actors and everything was set, and we filmed for four days. It was the longest four days of my life. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You know because I needed to impress the band, I needed to impress the label, and I needed to impress my family above anyone. So when everyone saw it and gave me the big hug it was the greatest day of my life.
As for why we wanted to include it with the record, that was simply because you have to nowadays. You can’t simply make a record these days, people hardly buy records anymore, and to add a movie might get a few more people to see the movie, and to hear the record. However, when the movie was starting to take form and so was the record the movie became part of the record and all of a sudden you couldn’t have the record without the movie. So we tied everything together without realising that we were tying it together, and it became a family per se of all the stuff that we had been doing for the last two years, so that was a really cool part of the process.

They definitely work really well together with the record feeding into the film and vice versa. Sticking with the visual element for a moment could you talk us through the artwork and the portraits by Ray Wallace. It’s something a little out of the ordinary which again ties into the film and the record.

It was actually an idea that Jim had to do the portraits and at first I was a feeling a bit like, “portraits? Why?” Then we took pictures of each other in Seattle and then Ray spent two months making these huge 3×3 portraits and the way he paints is that he paints a layer and sands it down and paints a layer and sands it down, so we tied it in because we wanted to have a picture of the band, but have one in a different realm, and to have those portraits in a museum with the actual kid from the film is a complete tie in, and to me it’s the first completely thought out record, artwork and everything together that we’ve ever done. Usually we’ve left it in the artists hands and said, give us all your ideas and we’ll pick from there, and this was the was the first time that we had the whole vision and how to tie it in, and I’m really proud of the whole layout of the record.

Ok, so finally I just wanted to go back to the relationship with Anti records and ask how that came into place and also what the plans are for the future with Sparta?

Well with Anti, we knew if we went with a really big major in the UK and Europe, we new it would be very hard for Sparta to accomplish what we wanted, and for a very long time we had some bad luck and we couldn’t get anything tied down on paper which Sparta could agree or the label could agree with to work with Hollywood (US label) on. All of a sudden Anti came out of nowhere and were excited and wanted to do it, which was incredible because I love Anti. I mean one of the reasons that I play music today is Tom Waits, who is on Anti, so I get to be like a school kid and be his ‘label mate’, you know? So that’s cool, and Tricky’s been on there and there’s been a lot of very good music released there, so that’s how it worked out and they’ve done a really great job so far and I can’t wait to get over there and meet everybody that’s been so helpful in the past.

As for the future? Well one of the plans, when there is time, is to get together and pick some of the songs we were talking about earlier and really work on them and try and just see if we can do another EP or maybe even start working on the next record sooner rather than later, not to rush it out or anything, but just to have it, because we have the material. Other than that everyone’s working on solo stuff, I start in May on a second record of my solo stuff, Keeley’s just finished some solo stuff, Jim and Matt are working on their solo stuff, so there’s a lot of that going on, and we’ll probably play on each others records.

…and with that we conclude other than a brief discussion confirming that when Sparta hit the UK their patented gloom will indeed be in full effect.


Written by Jonathan

June 29, 2008 at 3:52 pm

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