The Austin Chronicle

Loaded Dice

Sam Beam's high-stakes Iron & Wine

By Austin Powell, January 28, 2011, Music

Sam Beam's signature belongs on the rustic wooden walls of Ruby's BBQ, somewhere between the washed-out Antone's concert posters and a Flaming Lips illustration. The Guadalupe watering hole has become a favorite of the Iron & Wine dignitary, who moved to the Texas Hill Country in 2005 and goes seemingly unrecognized here as two plates of brisket sandwiches and collard greens arrive on the outside porch.

"I still don't know my way around Downtown very well," laughs Beam, who relocated from Dripping Springs to Oak Hill last year to shorten the commute to his daughters' schools (see "The Shepherd," Sept. 28, 2007). The 36-year-old songwriter still looks like a professor of film and cinematography – a position he held at the University of Miami: prestigious, with a tan sweater pulled over a collared shirt and slacks, his thick brown beard newly trimmed.

"I don't get to buzz out and see the nightlife," he continues, his Carolina accent coming through in soft tones. "I have responsibilities at home, and that's where I want to be. I've never felt like I was really a part of a scene. I'm a constant outside observer."

The occasion for this particular Tuesday afternoon excursion is a marathon promotional push for Iron & Wine's fourth studio LP and major-label bow on Warner Bros., Kiss Each Other Clean. Recorded with returning producer Brian Deck, members of Califone and Antibalas, and more session players than he can remember offhand, the album marks Beam's most ambitious work yet, a transitory extension of In the Reins' desert plains collaborative spirit in 2005 and the dense, Afro-pop psychedelia of The Shepherd's Dog two years later.

Folk-fusion in slow motion, Kiss Each Other Clean finds Beam's imagistic narratives wholly embellished with brushes of 1970s pop, Motown soul, and a sonic experimentation as potentially divisive as My Morning Jacket's Evil Urges or Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz. At noon in the KGSR Music Lounge, he provided a revealing look into the album with a four-song solo acoustic set. In the wordless bridges of "Glad Man Singing," Beam stretched his voice with confidence and poise, the pop swoon of "Tree by the River" and twilight frailty of "Half Moon" then yielding goose bumps on par with his miniset's greatest hit, "Naked as We Came."

The same held true two hours later in Studio 1A at KUT, where station Director Stewart Vanderwilt and Cactus Cafe Manager Matt Muñoz looked on from the crowded studio booth. This time, Beam juxtaposed "Tree by the River," an idyllic remembrance of all things past, with rapturous Southern Gothic in new narrative "Rabbit Will Run." An encore of "Half Moon" felt as intensely intimate as the early bedroom sketches on Iron & Wine's 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. The hard-knuckle clunk of a slightly reconfigured "Woman King" from the 2005 EP of the same name burned last with muted fury and prophetic exaltation.

Both sessions proved that less could well be more for Iron & Wine. Over a late lunch and a 45-minute conversation that touched on everything from emus ("I haven't seen one since I lived in Florida") to the African funk of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou ("That's really good stuff"), Beam repeatedly makes one thing clear: Less is no longer an option.

Austin Chronicle: Last you spoke with us, you said, "I try to write humanistic songs."

Sam Beam: I didn't mean that in terms of a movement or a political ideology. I like to write things that hold some resonance of truth, like a poem should do, where we recognize part of our lives in it.

AC: Your ability to mix the biblical and secular, where did that come from?

SB: I grew up in a religious place. I went to church and Sunday school to learn how to be a good person. I'm not a religious person, but I learned the stories, the characters, the myths that help us deal with whatever moral problems might arise. These archetypes, they're a big part of the culture. Hopefully people in France can enjoy these songs, but every story needs to be set somewhere, and the context is definitely American.

AC: What draws you to these characters, Jezebel and Lazarus?

SB: They carry a lot of moral, emotional weight with people. It's like playing with loaded dice, which is a lot more fun. They create an economy of language. You don't have to say, "Me and this guy who died and was brought back to life but didn't tell us what it was like or which he preferred." You can say, "Me and Lazarus." You don't have to get into the backstory. You can move along faster. If I said, "Me and Bob," it doesn't mean anything. If I had to explain it, it would just be cumbersome. It allows you a bit of economy, and the imagery you use, like an old car or a gun carries a certain weight in the context of the culture.

AC: Kiss Each Other Clean opens almost in a fever dream, this flurry of images that brush past the listener without ever quite settling into place. It keeps moving forward in a way that seems to only make sense in retrospect.

SB: Kind of like life, like when you're in the middle of it going, "What the fuck?" Then when you look back, you realize it's okay; it was meant to be like that. Well, I couldn't come up with a chorus or a bridge for starters, so sometimes you just try to concentrate on the things that are working and create this mantra. It's that John Cage thing. If you repeat something enough times it becomes a thing.

I try to treat the lyrics like a life journey. You see all of these things, and they mean something to you, but after a while you see so many things that it all kind of blurs together in your mind. It becomes this big, weird, horrifying, wonderful experience. Then at the same time, I try to treat the arrangement like an opera or a play. The first movement is nice. The second is sad, tragic. Then there's the resolution.

I like having a handicap – a song that doesn't go anywhere. This repeating melody that doesn't change, how can you make that work? I enjoy the challenge because at the end of it, you can do with it whatever you want. Some people will get it. Some people won't. But I like having a problem to think around. It just makes you more creative, whether you're making music or designing buildings.

AC: The image of the river keeps cropping up on the album. As you mentioned at KGSR, it's a place of healing and force of wrath. That duality seems to be a recurring theme, especially in "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me," where you present both sides of every coin.

SB: I try to. That's where things get more complex and more interesting. In general, in drama, if you have a character, you want to show him being contradictory. That shows depth. That's what makes life interesting. And that's a truth of life that you can apply to songs because there will always be a different perspective.

AC: There's a dichotomy now to Iron & Wine: solo and full band. Did you have a bigger vision for it when you started?

SB: Oh no. I went to an art school. I thought I was going to be a painter. You get accustomed to the value of the work not being [the end product]. The process is what it's about. As long as you're engaged and you're involved in the creative process, that's enough. You're never going to make everyone happy. Someone's going to always think it's a piece of shit. Someone's going to think it's a masterpiece. So it can't be about that. You do whatever you have to do to engage yourself as an artist. In that sense, I never had a grand plan. There have been records that I felt I was more prepared for going into, but those didn't necessarily turn out better. Lately I've been enjoying being surprised by what's going on much more so than trying to translate some preconceived idea.

AC: More than with The Shepherd's Dog, these songs seem subject to change, that each could be arranged and rearranged in any number of ways.

SB: Definitely so. The Shepherd's Dog was very similar in that sense, but people weren't accustomed to hearing it. There were several different versions of those songs too. I remember at the beginning of [Iron & Wine] just honing and honing things until I felt I had it perfect. Now it's like, "Fuck it." You can do anything. It doesn't matter. The trick is to surprise yourself, to come up with something that you wouldn't have thought you could. So you keep pushing yourself, doing version after version trying to make it as different as you can.

AC: In "Monkeys Uptown," I got the sense that you were throwing things up against the wall and seeing what stuck.

SB: Definitely. I started working on that one around the time of Our Endless Numbered Days. I had the melody but a different set of lyrics. It was much more guitar-driven, almost a Romantics thing – dow-chic-do-dow, do-dow, da (hey). And then we did another version that almost made the record that sounded more like a Television song. Those are just examples. You just work it, like drafts in a notebook.

AC: That's why you spent a year on overdubs?

SB: It was about nine months. Rarely are my first ideas the best idea. I tend to work like I'm doing a painting. It takes me a while to make some marks, in this case to do some tracks. Then you go away and clear your mind, have a sandwich or do whatever, and come back and react to what you hear. You end up erasing parts away or creating layers on top of them.

AC: Do you feel like you took it as far as you could with just an acoustic guitar?

SB: I guess so. The records are like the anomaly. Even from the beginning, I would tour with the band and we would do heavy versions of the tunes or stretch out. At the shows we play quiet songs; I strip down some to just me and the guitar; I play some shit a cappella. It's all of the above. I can't imagine playing the exact same tune over and over again. That's my version of hell, just terrible. But when the record comes around, I don't like the idea of repeating myself. I'd rather hear someone try and miserably fail with something new than hear them do the same thing. I'd feel gypped.

AC: Do you worry about what might get lost in the process, that the sonic detail might overpower the lyrical detail?

SB: No [laughs]. It's a choice you make. If you want to make it just about the lyrics, do an a cappella record. You know what I mean? That's not all I'm interested in. I like to make layers of intrigue. We make headphone records. You can hear it in passing or really sit with it and study it. Hopefully you can get something out of it both ways.

AC: In the arc of Iron & Wine, there's a parallel to that of Smog and Bill Callahan, starting in the bedroom and building from there. At some point, does it similarly stop being Iron & Wine and start being Sam Beam or Sam Beam & His Band?

SB: Nah. I could have easily said it was the Sam Beam Band or Project, but to be honest, Iron & Wine just sounds more interesting. No one's going to go see Sam Beam! That sounds ridiculous. It's just showmanship; it's just entertainment. At the same time, I've always liked the title because it illustrates both sides of the coin, like we were talking about, the sweet and sour.

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