Iron & Wine - Words and Music - 2011
Iron & Wine's new album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is a little more produced than some of his past work, but the songwriting and Sam Beam's whispery voice are still there. He talked with me and played a few songs live in Studio A in this Words and Music session.— Rita
Iron & Wine's Sam Beam decided to change things up a bit for his fourth proper studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean, jumping onto a major label drawing on a sunnier sound and slicker production. The album is Iron & Wine's first for Warner Brothers after a long association with Sub Pop.
The day before his Radio City Music Hall gig, Beam and some of his bandmates dropped by Studio A to discuss the album's genesis with WFUV's Rita Houston and they performed a mini-set of songs, including "Me and Lazarus" and "Tree By The River."
Beam, who has lived in Austin, Texas over the last five years, had a simple reason for the album's shift in mood and sound, explaining to Houston that "there’s so many sonic elements to play with out there, I don’t like the idea of doing the same thing twice."
A conversation with Sam Beam:
Rita Houston: Iron & Wine is with us in Studio A on the occasion of the release of Kiss Each Other Clean, album number four is a beauty from start to finish. Delighted to welcome you back to the Bronx, Sam! Who’d you bring with you?
Rita: I was lucky enough - along with about 149 other people - to see your show at Mercury Lounge a couple of weeks back.
Sam: We had a good time! We brought the band up to New York and did a TV thing and thought that while we’re up here, let’s put together a little show. It’s fun to play the new songs because you know the old songs for so long and then you’ve got some new stuff to work with.
Rita: You had two drummers with you, a guy on horns doing sax and flute and stuff.
Sam: Yeah, it’s a full stage. It’s nice to have a big band; you have more options. You can do the bigger arrangements or they can stop playing and you can do the solo stuff. I enjoy doing solo shows - I do a lot of solo shows - but you’re a little bit limited with how far you can take the show. But you just approach it differently and take the moment and use what you have to your advantage.
Rita: Well there were some groove pockets that you were hitting that night that were really beautiful. Sam, for many of us Iron & Wine fans you could easily continue to rewrite "Naked As We Came" and we’d all probably be fine with that. But as an artist that’s never been your game; it’s been a totally new scene. Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely brand new terrain for you.
Sam: Yeah, well, you just try to keep introducing new sounds; there’s so many sonic elements to play with out there. I don’t like the idea of doing the same thing twice. I don’t really approach songwriting any differently. It’s when you go to make a record - it’s no fun to make the same record twice. So as a listener I try to push myself because I want to hear something new. It’s not like a totally different type of music. I never thought of it being that much different since I’m still doing it! But if you listen to the first record and the latest record, yeah, they are a bit different.
Rita: Sam, in terms of the nuts and bolts of the songs coming together, it’s still you? You in your living room or barn or kitchen with an acoustic guitar working them out?
Sam: Yeah, I have a little studio and there’s a porch out there. I take the kids to school and then I go home to work. You try to apply some discipline to it and treat it as a job, you got to take it seriously. We have a good time, but take it seriously. You write until it’s time to pick the girls up again. They start the same way; just fooling around with a guitar or a piano. Vocal melody and then pile some words on. Take it to the studio and that’s where you start to branch out a bit.
Rita: So you bring your guys in and then you begin to have some fun. Is there a spirit of spontaneity in that process?
Sam: On the better days! You try to leave yourself open to surprises and things that come about that you didn’t expect. That’s where it gets really fun because translating your ideas onto tape, stuff that you have figured out in your head, [while] it’s fun to get it right at the same time to go in and be surprised by something you didn’t expect is all the more better. To me, anyway.
Rita: How did you put this band together?
Sam: Honestly, it’s a lot of people who I’ve played with in different ways, some way or another, just never in this configuration. I’ve toured quite a bit with Califone and Jim’s played on several of the records, off and on. Nick plays with Calexico off and on and he’s played on [Calexico and Iron & Wine's) In The Reins record. Rosie I’ve done lots of touring with. But this is the first time we’ve all been together.
Rita: Can you give us a little back story on the song “Tree By The River?” Did you write it in Austin?
Sam: I finished it in Austin. I started it in Florida quite a while ago. It’s not uncommon for the songs on the record to come from different periods. I don’t really write a record from start to finish. You just kind of write all the time so you end up with some old songs, some new songs and everywhere in between. This one was started over a decade ago. There’s a lot of them like that; there’s something about the melody that keeps bringing you back but for some reason you can’t commit to the song for some reason (laughs). But this one I was finally able to finish.
Rita: Kiss Each Other Clean is the new record and that line is gleaned from the last track on the album. The album just builds to a wonderful big finish. It’s always wonderful to get the story. The song was written and you were looking around for the album title? Or that one popped up?
Sam: No, titles are terrible to come up with! It’s an awful thing to have to do, give something a title! (laughs) They’re usually an afterthought. To be blunt, a lot of the songs on the last record, The Shepherd's Dog record, were included because they had a dog in there somewhere, that was the linking thing, so we named the album after the dog. And this one, a lot of the songs got included because they had this river image in them somewhere. But somebody named Springsteen already took that one, so I couldn’t. So you scour through your tunes and see if you find something that makes sense. There was an element, like most of the records, they’re heavy songs or people consider them heavy. At the same time, it’s a danceable thing, it’s a more upbeat record this time. I thought we should give a nod to that so this line was kind of provocative in a weird way. Kissing each other clean suggests that you’re not clean, something’s dirty, messed up, but it has a positive spin. There’s something fun about it.
Rita: Absolutely. It also has a sweet innocence about it. There’s a lot of imagery in your songs that for me reminds me of when you’re a kid and you have a best friend and you’re running in the woods. There’s an innocence and I’d bet as a dad of five girls you’re surrounded by that. It’s got to work it’s way in.
Sam: Someone who was interviewing me said that it reminded them of their pet dog when they were a kid. I didn’t even want to go there!
Rita: You must hear the darndest things because your music is so intimate and we all internalize it. People probably come at you with some stuff, I bet!
Sam: They definitely do (laughs).
Rita: What were you listening to musically as a kid?
Sam: I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s so Fleetwood Mac and Elton John and all that stuff was on the radio at a time when you were too young to think of musical genres or artist trajectories or whatever. It was just music on the radio. My parents were also into 60s soul and they had a lot of Motown records. I grew up in the Carolinas so it was kind of hard to get away from country music. My friends and I also listened to skate punk. Everything really. A sonic potpourri.
Rita: You had that journey of when you’re really young, pop music and whatever is served to you and then you rebel against it.
Sam: Oh yeah, as you get older you try to define yourself by what you listen to. I definitely went through that; I had my R.E.M. tapes. Honestly, that was a really big deal where we grew up in South Carolina. My friends were next door in Georgia and it was this new Southern music; we wore that band like a badge of pride. It was great. We definitely went through those stages.
Rita: Before you began making music, were you obsessed with music?
Sam: I liked the arts in general. Music was one of the big things about life. Besides music and food what do we have? Work? Friendship? Come on (laughs). I’ve always loved music since I was a kid.
Rita: You’re such a visual guy. Your degree is in the art world and filmmaking and stuff. When you’re writing, is it part of the process?
Sam: Oh yeah. It’s not a technique that I apply consciously. It’s why I as drawn to going to art school and drawn to communicating through film. I enjoy that way of communication. I feel it’s a bit more participatory with the audience. They get to take part instead of me just trying to explain how I feel about something. You describe some images, try to set a scene, give enough information to suggest some things but not explain everything, let them make their own connections. It’s more fun for me as a listener or an observer.
Rita: There’s a tune on the record that just blows my mind called “Rabbit Will Run.” Lyrically it has this crazy progression with a refrain that you keep going back to, but you change the ending line. You get the sense that it’s a strong artistic statement.
Sam: It felt like a [Sam] Peckinpah movie. The song has a guy who has apparently done something wrong and the cops are after him. His mom is in there somewhere and he’s describing himself as animals and different characters. The physical world is a big part of it. So it’s like a Pekinpah movie but it’s not in slow motion with blood flying everywhere.
Rita: The refrain is, “Now I still have a prayer.”
Sam: It’s a good day when you find a line that points you in the direction of other lines. You thank whoever you thank for those things when it happens. A line like, “I was walking far from home and I saw … blank.” You can go on and do more lines like that. This one was kind of the same. You get a structure that you can repeat, change and tweak so as you go on you repeat the same thing and tweak one line and it opens up meaning, sometimes contradictory meaning, but it’s more like life since we’re all walking contradictions. It’s ridiculous to think that we’re not. So it makes a more rounded character when you have him say the same thing in different ways that sometimes expand on a meaning or contradicts what he was saying before.
Rita: You mention that you really love soul music and there’s a couple of songs on the album that really reference it. “Half Moon” is one of them, lyrically, with the background singers and stuff. A real soulful thing here.
Sam: I love old vocal arrangements, something that you can sing instead of just hear. I just like melody and any excuse to get more melody rather than just making a chord out of the main vocal line. With vocal arrangements you can create another melody going on at the same time. All the more better for me.
Rita: Sam, what are your summer plans? Might we see you at Bonnaroo?
Sam: I think we might do Bonnaroo! I think … I want to! I think we are. We’re doing a couple of festivals. I know we’re doing the Sasquatch! Festival in Washington State. Festivals, touring around and just staying busy.
Rita: Now we’re gonna let you play guest DJ - anything you’d like.
Sam: What did I play last time? (to his band) Anything you guys want to hear?
Rosie Thomas: What about “Baby Got Back?”
Sam: By Joni Mitchell? (everyone laughs). What about “Abba Zaba” by Captain Beefheart.