The Lame Years project proves that more Samuel Locke Ward is always better

Samuel Locke Ward's The Lame Years
Samuel Locke Ward’s The Lame Years featured 12 album releases in 12 months. — photo by Zak Neumann

On Dec. 1, as the clock hit midnight, Samuel Locke Ward posted Back from Heaven onto his Bandcamp page. A stadium-rock-in-miniature album with a lyrical focus on the Lovecraft monster Cthulhu, Back from Heaven was the final installment of Locke Ward’s Lame Years project. With all the dust settled, 2013 saw Locke Ward release 12 albums—177 original songs (and two covers) at a total run-time of 7 hours and 19 minutes.

Locke Ward cultivated a reputation as a prolific home-recordist long before embarking on the Lame Years project. In addition to his solo output, he’s played in countless bands, including Cop Bar and the legendary Miracles of God, adding dozens upon dozens of splits, EPs and full-lengths to his name. This sort of artistic restlessness can have its drawbacks, of course—it can be difficult for an audience to enter a body of work so large, and there’s a danger that the artist is just a bad self-editor.

Locke Ward’s total lack of pretension seems to temper these problems, though. His prolificacy is more Midwestern work ethic than hipster gimmick, and it’s easy to imagine that this stems from his Iowa City heritage—the city encourages the DIY ethos and it seeps into his lifestyle. Indeed, it’s no surprise that Locke Ward’s wife, Grace, co-founded the annual What a Load of Craft arts and crafts fest. A Daytrotter session recorded in 2009 spoke to Locke Ward’s insatiable drive to make music when it argued, “Locke Ward is to Iowa City, as Daniel Johnston is to Waller, Texas. He might be more stable, but you’d never really get that from his countless releases full of wild experimentations in sound, panning, noise, melodies that get rescued often out of chaotic tremors, prettiness, scariness and brooding exclamations of anxious neurosis.”

The 12 albums of 2013 cover a huge amount of ground in terms of style. Each installment takes cues from different genres, starting with the “top 40 dance music” of 7 A.M. New Years Day and dark folk of Panther Puss, to the bubblegum fuzz of Diamond Dog Shit and darker folk of In Case You Have Doubt. The amazing thing is, the albums don’t feel like exercises in style. In weaker hands, the songs could feel pieced together with broad genre gestures and little real substance. On stand-out track “Hateful Gaze of the Mind’s Eye” (off of September’s BROWNHOUSE), bizarre manipulated samples pile on top of each other into a trippy, and sometimes nauseating, sludge. But for the track’s nearly six and a half minutes, Locke Ward’s delay-laden vocals push the song forward, and when the song settles into a more recognizable pop structure around the five minute mark, it feels huge and cathartic and well-earned. Indeed, Locke Ward said, “As I was working on the project I was always convinced that the record I was working on at the moment was the best one,” suggesting the project was fueled by an exploration, rather than exploitation, of genre.

Though it’s a Herculean task to produce at Locke Ward’s pace, he’s quick to give credit to those around him. “The biggest obstacle was mixing the records on time and getting them to sound as great as they possibly could,” Locke Ward said. “My good friend Jon Hansen teamed up with me pretty early on in the project, helping me to mix the records and taking on the job of mastering the entire project. He also worked as my editor and helped me by being there to constantly bounce ideas off of.”

The recording set-up was small and simple—two four-track cassette decks (one of which was broken), with just a few Radio Shack microphones, all feeding into an old Dell computer. As one can imagine, technical difficulties arose here and there: “Halfway through, the computer I was using took a shit and Phil Maul Frankenstein’ed a passable computer together within the day so the project could continue,” Locke Ward said. “Every time I about lost it my friends were there to help me along.”

Locke Ward’s reverence for his friends and collaborators is the engine of the Lame Years project. And, as the project began to wind down, the collaborative element of the project began to really bloom. “C & W Funeral and especially Namedropper were the wildest to watch come together because those records were exclusively done with everyone overdubbing their parts at different times and places,” Locke Ward said, “Not a single person played in the same room with each other. Just tracks flying around over email. Namedropper had 27 different guitar players and remarkably worked out swell.”

Locke Ward insists that certain aspects of the project were difficult from start to finish. “Lyrics never get easier to write,” Locke Ward said, “There is no fixing a bad idea—let it die. Also, I’ve found that some people equally wish you success and failure.”

Given the difficulties, this all begs the question—why work like this and at this pace? At it’s heart, the project is an attempt at getting back to basics: Cutting the bullshit out of what’s expected of DIY artists—the constant touring, the no-pay shows, the glut of merchandise—and zeroing in on what’s enjoyable.

“I am always constantly writing songs in my head: If I record them, they are remembered; if I don’t, they are always forgotten,” Locke Ward said, “So I decided to quit performing live shows and quit practicing with a band and just focus on recording music in my free time.”

Beyond the issues of recording and touring, he says the impetus for the project began with the news of Grace’s pregnancy.

“After years of spinning my wheels touring behind DIY records, I decided to rethink how I was going about things musically,” Locke Ward said, “My wife was pregnant with our first child and I still wanted to be involved with music but I didn‘t want go on no-budget DIY tours or be in a do-nothing band to blow off steam. From the get-go people are quick to tell you that you’ll never do anything again after you have a kid, especially not art or music.”

Luckily, Locke Ward shows no signs of quitting music anytime soon. Indeed, the Lame Years project still isn’t quite finished. Locke Ward has one final release—a “best of” record, available as a physical release in early 2014. In the meantime, he’s begun posting his earliest recordings (like the “Sam Eggnog” songs) onto his Bandcamp page, to show you how far he’s come in the past 12 years, as well as a re-imagined version of Nirvana’s seminal In Utero.

Max Johnson is a graduate and would like a job, thank you very much.

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