Sam Beam of Iron & Wine
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Even in an interview, it’s clear that Sam Beam is a deliberate guy. He speaks slowly and takes time to put his thoughts together. It makes sense, then, that as singer-songwriter Iron & Wine, Beam is in no hurry to churn out material or feed the machine. He didn’t actually decide to make a go at music until he was 28 years old, and his latest record, Kiss Each Other Clean, is only his fourth full-length in nine years.
Still, the quality of the material counts, not the quantity. To fans, Beam has a special way of breaking hearts and putting them back together again. The music-download site Daytrotter compares his work to Shel Silverstein’s children’s book The Giving Tree, saying Beam can sum up “all the things that we’ve ever feared in our lives” and “make them more enchanting than scary.” This is more evident than ever on Kiss Each Other Clean, a set of songs about love found, love lost, and the churning constancy of rivers and life. Recently, The A.V. Club caught up with Beam to talk about that steadiness, as well as his move to a major label, and having a hit on the Twilight soundtrack.
The A.V. Club: 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was seen as a departure from your previous records because it was a little fuller, a little more textured. This new record takes that even further. Are changes from record to record something you do deliberately?
Sam Beam: You try to keep doing something new each time. [For this record, producer Brian Deck] and I talked a lot about how clean a lot of those Joni Mitchell and Elton John and Steely Dan records were. They were fairly dry. And that’s fun, because when you start putting effects on other elements, they start to stand out a bit more. If everything’s dry, you have a control group. If you add reverb to a voice, you feel the effect, because everything else is not like that.
When you do a lot of open-mic-room stuff, you try to absorb the sound of the room, and everything has a certain amount of reverb on it, so the effects get a little lost.
I think with my early stuff, it was so sparse that there’s a lot of different things for us to still try and feel like it’s a new thing. I do like the idea of putting out something different each time.
I think you try to push yourself into different areas you haven’t walked around in before. It’s easy to recognize, because you play the songs for a while at shows, and you work on a record for so long, you know it backward and forward, so you try to push yourself further, to add to it.
AVC: How do you know when it’s time to make a new record?
SB: Usually when I have a hole in the calendar, these days. I would love to be able to do the pace that people used to do decades ago, where you’d make a record a year, or something was wrong with you. That would be fun, but it’s not realistic for the promo machine that goes with putting out records these days. My life’s gotten a bit more busy, too, so it’s nice to have some time off.
I mean, if that’s all I had going on, I’d be [making records] a lot more often, but I have kids, and I’m touring a lot. I’m doing other things. It’s nice to take some time to just enjoy my family and stuff. Usually, about every two years, we start working, though. This time it seemed a bit longer. I’ve been real busy the whole time.
AVC: And what’s your process like in putting that record together?
SB: Some people write records, but I just kind of write songs all the time. I throw them together and think “This might be fun together.” In that sense, there’s no real… whenever you’re ready to go and have studio time, that’s when we start to record. It’s not like the light shone in through the window and there’s an epiphany about what the record would be.
AVC: This is your first record on a major label, after you left Sub Pop, which put out your last three records. What went into that decision?
SB: There wasn’t a whole lot of thought that went into it. I was assuming we were going to do it on Sub Pop when we were making it. After we finished, I got a call from Warner, a call from Atlantic, and I just went and met a couple of people, and they were into it, so they made an offer. I always liked Warner Brothers’ records. I like Flaming Lips and shit like that. So I never felt like… there are people who sign on there to be made into stars, but I don’t think that was necessarily my agenda. I like the idea that a label nurtures career artists. Not that Sub Pop didn’t, or that they did anything wrong at all. I enjoyed my time with them, and I am proud of being on that label, but it seemed like it was time for something new.
AVC: This is your third record with Brian Deck. Is it safe to assume you guys work well together?
SB: Do we work well together? [Laughs.] I love working with Brian. Is it co-dependent? We’re good friends, and he’s a great idea board, and we both have similar subversive ideas about pop music and stuff. He also has great technical knowledge. I’m sure if I found another producer, that would be rewarding as well, but I like the idea of having someone… I change things each time we go into making a record, like the personnel playing on it, the types of music. But I like having some constants with me, so I can look over and say “Have we done this?”, and Brian will say “We’ve done this. Let’s do something else.”
AVC: You did a session with Daytrotter recently, and when they posted it, they wrote a big thing about how you write music for sad times, or people coming to terms with their powerlessness against life. Do you think that’s true? Are you writing sad songs?
SB: [Laughs.] I try to make people cry. Like, how quickly into a song can I make someone cry? It’s not about… I think there’s… I strive for a certain amount of solemn songs. I don’t like downer tunes, though. I like songs about life, and they should be fun and stuff, but can also include the heavy stuff, like God, sex, and death. Those are the three truisms about everyone’s life: Whether you believe in God or not, what the fuck are we doing here, and love, what it does for you or doesn’t, and how long you got, or what you do with that. I think the best songs have at least one of those, and the better ones have all of ’em.
Making sad music, it’s not for me. I don’t find that interesting. I want to describe a feeling, and write something that’s true. I do touch on stuff that people don’t want to deal with because they think it’s too heavy or sad, but I don’t try to make people upset. A good song should be a poem and have some kind of element that you recognize is true, but couldn’t be expressed in a conversation.
AVC: That’s reminiscent of some movies, too. They’ll just strike you as good, or deep, but you can’t always put your finger on why.
SB: Well, that’s what you strive for in art, something we can recognize. But there’s all different kinds of entertainment. There are songs I love that are just about shaking your booty and getting laid and stuff, and there are heavy downer tunes I like. The Cure writes some fucking sad tunes. Joy Division is just out-and-out sad. But it’s heavy, and there’s a place for it. I dig it, but it’s not what I try to do. The best movies do have all that stuff wrapped up in one, though.
AVC: You’ve had a lot of songs in movies, and on TV, and even in commercials. With your history as a film professor and working in movies, do you ever set out to write songs thinking, “Gosh, this would be great in a love scene,” or whatever?
SB: They usually just happen to turn out that way. There’s one song I did, “The Trapeze Swinger,” [for In Good Company] that I was sort of commissioned to do. At least, I finished it with the plot points of the movie in mind, or at least the spirit of it. That was more of an assignment. But usually I’m just trying to get through the tune, thinking “Is this done? Can I walk away from this?” without trying to think “Would this be good in a movie? Would this look good in a leather jacket?”
I think over the years, I’ve realized that I’ve been drawn to these other art forms, like I went to art school and studied painting and photography, and then I was in the film industry, and realized that I just enjoy communicating in kind of a musical style. It has a lot to do with the way songs are a bit more descriptive than argumentative. There’s quite a bit more freedom in songs than in movies.
AVC: That said, how does it feel to have a whole bunch of 15-year-old girls think “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is, like, the most romantic song of all time, because it was played during the prom in Twilight?
SB: Oh, it’s crazy, but it’s great, though, isn’t it? It’s wonderful. I think it’s insane, but at the same time, it’s hilarious and fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want your music to be heard by 15-year-old girls all over the world with the preconceived notion that, because it’s attached to this movie, it’s great? I remember attaching a badge of personality or identity to music that you listened to or liked.
AVC: Did you get a gold record for Twilight or Garden State? What did you do with it?
SB: I got a gold record from Garden State, but my wife hung it up in my little music studio where I record, actually in the bathroom in front of the toilet. So it’s always a double-sided coin. Like, you’re feeling great, but you have to take a shit like everyone else. You can look up and always feel good about yourself. I remember last time I talked to The A.V. Club, someone was asking me about movie licensing, and they wanted me to be a little more precious about it. Like, I should reserve my music for cool people. He seemed upset with me. I think it would be different if I were writing jingles, like then you’d have something to worry about. “Oh, this song’s going to sell a lot of M&Ms.” But when it just pops up that they want to attach a song to chocolate for a second, then I don’t know. Some people have a problem with it, though.
AVC: Artists seem a lot more okay with it these days, because they can’t really make a living off album sales alone, for the most part.
SB: Yeah, you might be able to make music for another year or two.
AVC: You have five daughters, right? Do they get your job? Do they think you’re cool?
SB: I think they think I’m a jerk most of the time. [Laughs.] I don’t wave the flag around the house. Like, “Oh, whoops. A CD is playing again. Oh, yeah, that’s me.” The other morning, I drove my oldest into town to school, and they played one of the new songs, “Tree By The River,” on the radio, and she just started giggling. It’s just funny to them. Like, they were giving away tickets on the radio because I’m playing at the station here, and they thought it was funny that the station was giving away tickets like it was a big deal. They got a kick out of that. There are too many of them for me to take on tour, so that whole part of my life is strangely separate from my family life. I go away and work, and then I come back and be at home. It’s strange for them when those two worlds meet.
AVC: Do you include them in your songs?
SB: Yeah, definitely. Whether they end up in the shape the song takes at the end—I mean, there’s bits and pieces, and other things. They’re all in there, kind of as memories and fantasy potpourris, really.