The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Jim Ward
by Jay Babcock
This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda.
When we did this interview, Jim was 30 years old and operating his band Sparta full-time, continuing on from his work as a member of the legendary At the Drive-In, which he co-founded as a teenager in 1994 in El Paso, Texas.
This conversation shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. My apologies to Jim, and to the readers. Hopefully this piece will be of use to present-day readers. — Jay
Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)
Arthur: When you first started venturing outside of El Paso to play music, how did you do it?
Jim Ward: Well, I got a copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life, and I just started calling. My grandparents has set aside some money for college for me, like a hundred dollars a year or something like that, it wasn’t very much. But when I graduated [from high school], it was a couple grand, and so I bought a van, a $1,300 1981 Ford Econoline, with some help from my parents who were really supportive of what I did. And, yeah, just started calling people.
Were you still going with the all-ages ethic?
Yeah, basically there were no bars and booking agents in there. You were just calling somebody who was doing shows at their parents’ restaurant after it closed, or at a community center or a house. Then you just went out and played those, and from those you would meet people who were somewhat like-minded. I was 18 when I started touring, so I couldn’t even be in the bars. In L.A. in 1996, it was pretty hard to be all-ages, so you would end up playing a bar and just sitting in the parking lot all night. You were allowed to go in and play and leave.
Like a servant.
[Laughs] Yeah, sort of. I mean, I understood the rules and it wasn’t really … we weren’t really there to party or anything, we were just there to play.
It must have been strange to play places where a bunch of people were excluded.
Yeah, whenever we would end up in bars or places like that, when you had to get that show, it was rare that anyone was there, or that it was very exciting… Which I understand now at my age: to go to a bar and have some loud, crazy band playing? It’s not always what you want to do on a Friday night. But when you’re 18, 16, 15 … that’s everything in the world to you. The louder and crazier and more abstract the better.
That’s the thing: The under-21s are open to stuff.
Yeah, you’re looking for something that’s yours. You don’t necessarily want something that’s established. You want to discover, that age is all about discovery. Which is why bands come out of that culture, because it’s this intense batch of people trying to find themselves and find each other, and I love it.
For that reason, for a musician whose work is naturally outside of the pop mainstream to not perform to that under-21 audience, that would almost seem to be a mistake. At the Drive-In, for example, was pretty challenging music for most people, but kids didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
Right. That whole time period, especially for me…you sort of learn how to play while you’re doing it. You learn how to write, and there’s no conditioning, that you might see in pop bands or more mainstream bands. It’s sort of just this evolution that you can see and listen to on the records. Of course, the first things you put out aren’t always easy to digest because they’re not made for that reason. Support is the biggest thing, because that community is supportive of what you do.
More than the average bar crowd.
Yeah, of course.
Well, here in Los Angeles, when we try to book these bands into all-ages shows rather than bar shows, they just say ‘Aren’t we a little too weird for teenagers? Or too brainy or arty?’ And I say actually the farther out the better, almost. You’re going to have a better chance of connecting with that younger audience. I would assume, also, when you play to a younger audience, they stick with you?
Yeah, because you become part of their life. It becomes part of the clothing that you wear and the people that you hang out with, and it’s not so much like … you don’t necessarily go to the shows because you want to sing along or even know the band that’s playing. It’s just part of your culture.
I imagine that coming out of that culture has allowed you to continue to do what you want to do?
I was lucky enough that it grew to where I could do it as a living. And I don’t think I ever would have stopped if I didn’t make a living doing this. I think I just would have done it a different way. But obviously as you grow up, things change. You pay your own bills and you have to worry about insurance, and it requires income. It just becomes life. And also there’s a segue too for the next generation to sort of … I don’t need to be there to influence what’s happening. It has a life of its own, and there’s a time when you step away from it. We play almost probably 98 percent all-ages shows to this day, and we in this band have definitely made financial decisions based on that. You can make more money on the 21-and-over show, but we’ll play the all-ages because that’s where we came from. I, whenever possible, don’t want to exclude ever. You know, it’s not always possible and sometimes you get some flak. You’ll play, and there’ll be a kid outside who says ‘I’m 16, I can’t go in.’ I mean, we’ve definitely snuck more than a few people into our shows! [Laughs.] Or put them on the crew list and have them hang out backstage or whatever, which most of the time is awesome, and occasionally you get really taken by a kid like that who’s out to steal your rider or whatever. It happens. But most of the time … .
It’s still where we came from, but I think at the same time I respect … You know, when I was there and the older kids would come in and say, ‘This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be like this … ’ it would be really frustrating to us because it’s like, ‘Well, we’re learning how to do this, and we want to do it our way.’ That’s what it’s all about, that’s how you learn and that’s how you become who you are. I never had any interest in going and doing it their way. And I certainly respect that now. I have younger nephews and cousins and stuff like that who are into their own thing, and I go and to be honest there’s times when I’m like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I have a cousin who’s in high school and he plays in a really heavy band that somewhere between The Locust and Slipknot, and I don’t know how they’ve made that combination! You know what I mean? To us, we’re like ‘Why would you ever involve Slipknot into it?’ But to them, it’s like ‘Well, this is our world and this is what we’re doing,’ and I think that’s cool.
That’s an aesthetic choice. But the ethic of performing live to everybody is still going on.
Arthur is a national magazine and I’m trying to talk to as many different people from around the country as I can. And also we’re talking to people who’ve been involved in live performance across decades. There seem to be some cities or regions that are specifically hostile or difficult, and the ones I’ve been hearing have been Los Angeles and Boston and Seattle, in terms of how difficult it is to get an all-ages gig. I know that these are big cities so there’s always a way to play, but in terms of there being trouble in terms of finding a proper spot … ?
Yeah, sociologically, if that’s the right word, to go to a city where it’s occupied mostly by kids who haven’t had the freedom to leave and go somewhere bigger, those are the cities that breed all-age cultures. When you get to a city that is full of transplants, like a Boston or a New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Seattle, those cities are harder [to have an all-ages culture] because those people didn’t come there necessarily to do that anymore, they’re sort of moving on, it’s a progression…. That’s why you end up playing a lot of suburbs, a lot of house parties and things like that because you go fishing where there’s water. Playing L.A. is tough because there’s a million bands trying to play L.A. every night, and there’s tens of millions of people who want to go see and hear entertainment.
You know, one of our best cities to play, eight or nine years ago, was Sioux City, Iowa, because for whatever reason, you go through on the right night and draw 150 people that are there, and they see your show, and go that’s awesome. You can actually go to those cities three or four times a year because it’s always different and it’s always a change of bands and everything, it’s just a different culture.