Sam Beam was a painter and filmmaker who happened to write songs as a hobby for seven years before a friend loaned him a 4-track recorder. He went wild with the humble device in his home studio, producing, performing, and recording what was to become the first Iron and Wine album,The Creek Drank the Cradle, in 2002. Featuring acoustic guitars, banjo, and slide guitar, the album was immediately compared to the work of Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, and John Fahey.
That same year, Beam recorded the song “The Trapeze Swinger” for the film In Good Company, and his version of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” was featured in the film and soundtrack toGarden State. In 2005, Beam stepped away from Iron and Wine long enough to collaborate with the band Calexico—a band known for its trademark fusion of Southwestern rock, traditional Mexican music, and jazz—on the EPIn the Reins. In 2007, I&W released a third full-length,The Shepherd’s Dog, which was produced by Brian Deck at his Chicago-based Engine studio. Deck added just the right amount of studio polish and encouraged Beam to explore synthesizers and effects to go beyond the acoustic-heavy sound of previous albums. The results were nothing short of stellar, andThe Shepherd’s Dogwas subsequently voted one of the year’s 10 best albums byPastemagazine.
Producer Brian Deck returned for this year’sKiss Each Other Cleansessions, continuing the creative partnership that he and Beam have developed over the course of three albums. The comfort level and respect between Deck and Beam allows for a unique working relation- ship where they push each other to experiment, while still letting the songs naturally evolve in the studio. Not another hippy-dippy folk wannabe, Beam has become one of today’s greatest story tellers, crafting meticulous recordings that mingle memories of his parents’ record collection and hits heard scanning the car radio on family drives. WithKiss Each Other Clean, Beam again pushes Iron and Wine into new territory with layered textures and polyrhythmic sounds created with heavily processed guitars and synths. It’s an incredible mélange of folk, African, rock, country, and Jamaican musical traditions, all mixed up with ’60s and ’70s pop influences.
We recently spoke to Beam about his deceptively nonchalant approach to guitar playing and tones, his collection of cool old guitars and boutique amps, and why melody trumps all.
What aspects of your upbringing and childhood environment influenced the development of your sound?
Well, I grew up in the Carolinas, where there was a lot of country music around, and my parents were also big into classic ’60s Motown, so that’s what I heard a lot of as a kid. But I came up in the early ’80s, too, so New Wave was a big deal, skate punk was a big deal. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was just playing for a hobby, maybe an hour or two every now and then. It was just friends playing together at someone’s house. We weren’t doing any shows or anything. At 15, I started playing punk rock, because that was what I was listening to and that was what I could play, y’know—barre chords weren’t that hard to do. Learning complex chords structures took a lot longer. Over the years, I branched out and tried to learn everything, so I guess my tastes are all over the board, really.
What was your first guitar?
My dad had an acoustic guitar—I don’t remember what kind, but I remember the action was super-high and it was really hard to play. That’s what I learned on. Then my folks bought me a Strat-o-something copy, because that’s all we could afford. My amp was a little 15-watt practice amp that I beat to the ground. I remember my friend had a Peavey, and I thought that was cool.
Sam Beam playing a late-’70s or early ’80s Gibson L-6S Deluxe during sessions at Clava Studios in Chicago. His guitar boat is stocked with a 1972 Gibson SG Standard (middle) and two Taylor flattops. Photo by Piper Ferguson
What was the path from skate punk to the more sensitive singer-songwriter thing?
It was a long one, let me tell ya! There were many years digesting the music of my youth and classics like the Beatles and Bob Dylan and working on my own style.
What was your writing process for the new album?
I write all the time. I have a pen and paper in my hands now. I don’t write with records in mind—at least in the early stages. I try to treat writing like a job, with a certain amount of discipline. When events come together to make a record, I sort through the stuff I’ve got and decide what’s ready to be taken to the next step—and, of course, see which ones fit together in a loose thematic thread. But if you write a little bit each day, you’d be surprised how many songs you can have in a year. I have to say, though, that my process is based more on rewriting than inspiration. It takes a long time to develop most of my songs—my first ideas are rarely the best ones.