Jim Ward and Sparta, who played Philly 20 years ago, are returning on a tour around that same album. (Courtesy Sparta)

A little more than 20 years ago, the El Paso-based band Sparta released their debut album, “Wiretap Scars” — for fans of the genre, a must-listen post-hardcore album that resulted from the demise of one of the best punk bands of all time. To celebrate the occasion, the group is playing the album in full nationwide, including Tuesday night at Underground Arts.

Sparta frontman Jim Ward first played Philly in 1997, with At The Drive-In, the band he started at age 17, and has always been fascinated by what one of the Mid-Atlantic’s largest cities has to offer.

“Coming from a pretty small city, those places are so fascinating to me,” Ward said. “You have multiple clubs, you have multiple genres of bands existing at the same time… You guys know, Philly’s got its own thing. It’s like the coolest brother of the East Coast, you know what I mean?”

Sparta rose from the ashes after ATDI broke up in 2001. While one half of the band went on to start The Mars Volta, Sparta signed with DreamWorks Records and got straight to work on a debut album. Ward had no idea that decades later, the record would still be resonating with fans.

“I don’t think I ever really think that much about the future,” Ward said. “Like even now, I don’t think about 20 years from now… it’s just kind of where life took me.”

Sparta’s success continued on their next two albums, Porcelain and Threes, which brought appearances on various late night shows. They even opened for Pearl Jam in 2003, including a stop at the Spectrum in Philadelphia (RIP).

Philly’s music scene has had a very direct impact on Ward, as Ben Kenney (formerly of The Roots, now with Incubus) played on Ward’s solo album, Daggers.

“When Sparta toured with Incubus, we got to be pretty good friends and we always sort of joked about playing [together], like, ‘Oh, we should do something,’” Ward said. During the pandemic, the collaboration finally came to fruition. 

“He’s like my Philly connection, and I love him so much.” Ward said of Kenney. “I feel like he’s a good representation of Philly, right? Like he’s the cool uncle. He’s always like the coolest one in the band and you know, he’s the coolest friend to have.”

The Philly music scene also indirectly affected Ward, via a recommended purchase. “A year and a half ago, somebody turned me on to the Soul Glo record, so I ordered it,” he said.

Soul Glo is one of the hottest bands to come out of Philly in a minute. The album Ward purchased, Diaspora Problems, was one of 2022’s hardest hitting punk records, receiving rave reviews and ending on many critics top albums lists including Pitchfork, NPR, and The Needle Drop.

“It came in the mail. I put it on. I fucking love it,” Ward said.

In 2011, Sparta dusted off the cobwebs and got back to work, Ward released his first solo recordings, before At The Drive-In decided to reunite for a tour in 2012. Sparta went dormant again shortly after, and ATDI were headed back on the road in 2016, until tensions rose to the surface.

“A couple of weeks before that tour started, I got kicked out,” Ward said. “Obviously that’s going to change the dynamics of everything because, you know, whether it was fair or not fair is not for me to decide.”

After more than two decades in the music business, he recognized the situation for what it was. “I kind of live by the sword, die by the sword,” Ward said. “I understand that that’s what happens in bands and you don’t always fit what everybody wants to do and I totally get it. It kind of changed what I wanted to do musically.”

Not long after, Ward called up his long-time friend Matt Miller, the band’s bassist, and Sparta was back in business.

“We hadn’t really played for years, but still were good friends,” Ward said. “And I said, ‘Hey, I just want to go play loud songs. You want to go book five shows?’… And then we ended up making Trust The River after that and I sort of just fell back in love with the band and fell in love with playing heavier music and finding my own way.”

While Ward is usually looking forward, taking a step back and looking at the journey the band’s been on has been exciting. At first, he wasn’t too keen on going on the road to play that first album. Then he heard from the fans.

“I fell in love on that record,” Ward recalled people telling him. “’I met my wife. We now have kids. My kids are 15. They love Sparta…”

It could’ve been that they saw the band at North Star Bar, he noted. It could’ve been they saw him open for Pearl Jam. But “everybody has these memories that are triggered by this record that are coming specifically to hear that record,” Ward said.

“All the cities are cool in their own way, but Philly’s always kind of had… It’s kind of like the coolest understated place, and I love that.”

Sparta plays Underground Arts at 1200 Callowhill St. on Tuesday night. Doors open at 6:30, and tickets are $23 before fees.

Cory Sharber is a general assignment reporter at WHYY. Prior to his stint in Philadelphia, he spent four years between WVXU in Cincinnati and WKMS in Murray, Kentucky. He’s picked up accolades at the...