Iron & Wine: Q&A
Iron & Wine's Sam Beam makes a return trip to Holiday Cheer for FUV on December 6 — he first headlined the annual benefit concert a decade ago with friends Calexico, Glen Hansard, Beth Orton and others.
This year, his much-anticipated appearance coincides with a brand new documentary and accompanying soundtrack, "Who Can See Forever," a 19-song live concert recorded over the course of two evenings at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. The documentary, which opens in selected movie theaters on Tuesday, December 5 and on streaming platforms in 2024, offers an intimate perspective of Beam as he works with his longtime band for this career-spanning show. The soundtrack is available now on Sub Pop.
In a new FUV Q&A, Beam discusses the road to that documentary, as well as some of the older songs that were resurrected for his set list. He also offered a helpful hint (spoiler alert!) about what to expect at his second Cheer appearance:
We are quite excited about you paying another visit to Holiday Cheer for FUV this year. What sort of surprises are you plotting for us?
Holiday Cheer is gonna be a fun one and I can’t wait to play the Beacon again, which is fabulous room. I’ve got a few new songs that might make the set list for the first time, but now it might not be a surprise? Thanks again for having me and look forward to seeing everyone there.
What is your favorite song for the the holidays or winter — either one of your own or not?
I have a few favorite Christmas songs. “The Little Drummer Boy” is a favorite. I don’t know if it’s that ascending melody or the David Bowie performance with Bing Crosby, but it’s always been a favorite.
When the idea of "Who Can See Forever" as a documentary was discussed with director Josh Sliffe, what were you clear about what you wanted to impart, and what did Josh suggest?
Josh contacted us about doing a music video but I had the idea about wanting to do a concert film. The band at the time was something I was proud of and wanted to document it. He countered with something more and we met in the middle: a behind-the-curtain look to break up the footage of us performing live.
Were there any restrictions in how exposed you chose to be? When did it veer from being a concert film to something more intimate and inclusive of your own life?
I’m a fairly private person and I wasn’t crazy about the idea but I trusted him. I don’t remember not being willing to answer any questions. I don’t know if that was because Josh was respecting my privacy, but I always got the impression he asked the questions he wanted to ask me.
In the film and soundtrack, you approach several songs, including "The Trapeze Swinger" from 2005's In Good Company, and "Boy With a Coin," from 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, in fresh and novel ways. When you revisit older songs, that are close to 15-20 years old — written during a very different period in your life — how do they capture where you were then and where you are now?
I definitely love to reinterpret songs and revisit them in a different way. Often times I’m just trying to make the most of the resources I have in that moment. In the early days I worked with what I had and sometimes didn’t know how to play it all that well. I was making arrangements based on what I could do. Now I’ve been playing quite a while and joined by some really talented musicians so now its about showcasing them or what the ensemble can do as a band. Sometimes it’s just for variety's sake or to highlight some dynamic discovered after playing it for so many years.
Is there a particular song chosen for "Who Can See Forever," that has drastically altered for you in how you view it now from when it was first written?
In regards to the title lyric [from "The Trapeze Swinger"], I’m not sure I remember what instigated that particular lyric. The refrain of the song, “God give us love in the time that we have” [from "On Your Wings"] is obviously a plea for mercy. I don’t know what specifically was happening when I wrote it down, but it’s definitely easy to say for years on end cause the circumstance always seems applicable to whatever phase of your life you’re in.
What did the night of the concert at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, North Carolina feel like for you? Does that venue have special meaning for you ... and did you feel any nerves about documenting a set in this way?
I’ve known Heather [LaGarde] who owns Haw River Ballroom for quite some time and she’s a kind and generous person. It’s not too far from my house so it wasn’t hard to get to which was really nice. I wanted a space that we could set up and have for a few days and the place is so unique that it felt perfect for doing something special.
How did you curate your set list?
I didn’t so much curate a set list as we went through all the songs we knew as band over the course of a few days. I had been playing with that band for a few years and it was fun and easy to blow through all the material we knew together. Heather gave us the keys and we invited friends and set up in the round and shot it.
What do you remember most vividly about that night?
We spent quite a bit of time setting up to get a lot of different angles and make sure everyone was lit right. I remember feeling like I was hosting the event since there were a number of family and friends in attendance. It looks like there are more people there due to the optics of the lenses, but it was still pretty intimate. It’s one thing to play to a concert hall of folks and scan over the blank faces but when you’re standing super close to folks you know and singing these songs into their faces it’s quite intimating.
When you watch the documentary, what do you reflect on regarding the arc of your career and the songs you have written? Were there "lost" songs that you've unearthed especially for this performance or have they been consistent companions in other sets over the years?
We played some songs we don’t normally play like “Call Your Boys” which was the first thing I ever released with Sub Pop. It’s interesting to play them after so long and in a different way than the way they were released.
Listening to your soundtrack to "Who Can See Forever," I was especially struck by the slow-burning, mesmerizing beauty of "Passing Afternoon," from 2004. What older songs are especially pleasurable for you to resurrect?
“Passing Afternoon” is definitely an older tune and I’ve had a couple friends whom I hadn’t heard from in a while contact me and tell me they heard that version and always liked that song. There were a couple we dusted off that were particularly fun to play like "Glad Man Singing," it’s got a lot of open space so it’s fun to improvise in. “Dearest Forsaken” we hadn’t played in a while too. Quite a few now that I think about it.
- Sam Beam