Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam talks about his evolution from skate punk to neo-folk hero, how songs should dictate tone (not the other Way around), and how a good melody always transcends unorthodox instrumentation.


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 to Garden 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 EP In 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, and The Shepherd’s Dog was subsequently voted one of the year’s 10 best albums by Paste magazine.

Producer Brian Deck returned for this year’s Kiss Each Other Clean sessions, 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. With Kiss 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.

After the writing phase, we started recording in April 2009, and I cut the basic rhythm tracks with the band in Chicago at Engine studio. I wanted to record the basic tracks with my band, because on the last album [2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog] we used a click track, and I think it suffered from that. We did the other half at my home studio, and then Brian mixed it at Engine. I would take parts home to flesh them out with different overdubs, adding parts and taking them away. I guess Brian and I treat songs like paintings, where we make some marks or throw some paint on, and then come back and do it again until they’re finished.

Do you think a record’s feel can suffer from using a click track?

Well, a click track doesn’t lack feel per se, but it definitely has a feel of its own, which wasn’t right for me.

What are your favorite tunings to write in?

I use DADGAD quite a bit, as well as open G [D–G–D–G– B–D]. On Kiss Each Other Clean, I used DADGAD on “Half Moon” and “Big Burned Hand.”

Do you bring several guitars onstage tuned to your open tunings, or do you just re-tune onstage between songs?

No, I usually have two guitars—one in standard tuning, and another in DADGAD. Sometimes, I’ll figure out how to play DADGAD songs in standard tuning, which is kind of fun.

Do you ever collaborate or do you prefer to write alone?

I mostly write alone, but I did an EP with Calexico back in 2005 called In the Reins, and that was a lot of fun and great creatively. So, yeah, I do like to collaborate, but the opportunity doesn’t come along that often.

What guitars did you use on Kiss Each Other Clean?

Oh man, my publicist said you were going to be asking me about guitars [laughs].

Don’t tell me you don’t like guitars?

I love guitars—each of them has songs in them! I just don’t have a proper inventory off the top of my head. They aren’t even all in one place. I know your readers would like specific setups, but I select tones because they serve the song, not because I’m trying to establish a certain guitar-and-amp setup that defines Iron and Wine.


Beam, his ’72 SG, and a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212 (right) rest between
takes at Clava Studios in Chicago. Photo by Piper Ferguson

Let’s talk about the tracks on the album and see if that jogs your memory.

I’ll do my best.

On “Walking Far from Home,” there’s a cool drone intro that sounds like an Ebow or some sort of Robert Fripper-y . . .

There really isn’t much guitar on that track. The drone is mostly processed piano and organ, but I think I did do a strummed acoustic guitar track through a Moogerfooger pedal as part of the drone.

The guitar on “Tree by the River” has a twangy, deliciously crispy overdrive. How did you get that sound?

It was a Gibson ES-335. It has humbuckers, but it can get a cool, almost Tele-like twang, too. The amp I used was built by Jesse Duke, a friend of mine in Austin, and it’s a big part of the sound. It’s a Fulton Webb 30 Watt, which has a ’60s Marshall channel and a tweed Deluxe channel. I flipped the half-power switch, turned it up loud, and that’s the sound it made.

“Half Moon” has a great mess of slide playing. Is that you?

No, it’s a friend of mine named Jim Becker playing slide on his Tele. He plays it with a volume pedal, so the volume swells sort of like a steel guitar. Actually, there are two tracks of slide. The other is me playing my ’57 Gibson ES-125 with a single P-90 at the neck. I love that guitar. I also played the chugging, blues-type rhythm on my early ’70s Strat through a tweed Fender Bassman.

I hear a Phillip Glass-type repetition going on in there, too.

Yes, there is. I did the arpeggio-type fingerpicking on a Gretsch Country Gentleman from Brian Deck’s Engine studio in Chicago. The warbly sound comes from a Moogerfooger pedal, again.

Do you use a claw-hammer or Travis-style fingerpicking technique?

I wish I knew how to do those styles [laughs]! I just use my thumb and index finger: The thumb plays the low end and the index finger does the higher stuff, which fills up a lot of space. The first thing I do when it comes time to overdub with the rest of the band is get rid of my original guitar track, because it usually doesn’t leave enough sonic space for the band.

“Rabbit Will Run” has a kalimba-sounding part that’s doubled on guitar. It sounds kind of like ’80s Peter Gabriel.

Wow, Peter Gabriel? Thanks for the compliment! That was a Jerry Jones JJ Original Shorthorn reissue—a really well-made copy of an old ’60s Danelectro. The lipstick pick- ups have enough of that tic-tac bass sound to fool you into thinking it’s a baritone guitar.

“Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me” sounds like finger tapping rather than picking.

No, its not finger tapping. It’s basically just me fingerpicking a blues riff on the Gretsch Country Gentleman. Then a clave track kicks in and it all sort of mixes together. I like throwing a bunch of different instruments together and processing them until you’re not sure which instrument is creating a particular sound and you can just sit back and enjoy the noise.

Besides the Fulton Webb, do you use any other amps?

Oh yeah. I have a Fender Tremolux from the ’60s that I used for its nice clean sound. I also have a little tweed Champ that I can crank for sustain. I also have an old tweed Bassman I used a lot, too. There are also tons of amps at Engine. I used an old Vox AC30 and Cambridge Reverb. There were a couple of blackface Fender Twins, a Super Reverb, and a ’67 Marshall Super Lead. I plugged into each of these at some point.

Do you mix it up with mic setups and techniques?

Brian Deck showed me a great mic’ing technique— a Shure SM57 dead center on the speaker cone and a Beyerdynamic M 160 off axis, but pointing at the cone. We used that setup on almost all the guitar tracks.

A lot of times, mixing genres yields horrible results—like country rap. But your work doesn’t sound incongruous. As a guy who got noticed as an acoustic player, what inspired you to start incorporating synths?

Well, just because I played acoustic guitar for the past several years doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to [pioneer- ing English electronic duo] Autechre and Radiohead and all that shit. I love all that stuff. I grew up in the ’80s in America, not on a mountain in Tibet! We dabbled with synths on the previous album, and this time we just figured, “Screw it—let’s do an album that’s mostly synth.”


Beam onstage on March 20, 2008, with a vintage Gretsch hollowbody and a
Taylor acoustic waiting in the wings. Photo by Benjamin Millar

What keeps you working with producer Brian Deck?

Well, he likes me, and I like working with people that compliment me constantly [laughs]. We are friends, and he is a great person to bounce ideas off of. He tells me what he likes and what he doesn’t. We also have similar subversive ideas about what pop music should be.

It’s interesting that you say “subversive,” because the weird synth sounds you used on the album do seem to go against the usual stripped- down singer-songwriter troubadour norm—except for Beck.

[Laughs.] Yeah, Brian and I both like different types of music, so we try to fit it in there, one way or another. I really feel like I can take the songs and put whatever texture I want on them. If you believe in your melody, you can do whatever you like.

Sam Beam's Gearbox
Guitars
1957 Gibson ES-125T, Jerry Jones JJ Original Shorthorn reissue, Gibson ES-335TD, early ’70s Fender Stratocaster, 1972 Gibson SG Standard, Taylor acoustics

Amps
Fulton Webb 30 Watt, blackface Fender Tremolux, tweed Fender Bassman, tweed Fender Champ, Fender Hot Rod Deville 212

Effects
Moog Moogerfooger, Boss DD-3 delay, Boss TU-2 tuner

Strings and Picks

Elixir .010-.046 sets, “Whatever pick’s in the studio”

Bob Mothersbaugh deconstructs how his love of blues masters and a de-evolutionary approach to playing and gear helped Devo revolutionize popular music.


Bob Mothersbaugh onstage with one of his beloved G&L SC-2s and a Line 6 PODxt Live. Photo by Jay Spencer
The late Kurt Cobain once said, “Of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most challenging and subversive.” Though Cobain didn’t make the best life choices, he did know a thing or two about bands challenging the status quo with their music.

Devo recently dropped Something For Everybody—their first album in 20 years— and, just as on classic Devo cuts like their 1980 smash hit “Whip It,” the guitars are up front and prominent. Supplying the guitar for Devo’s particular brand of social and musical subversion is Bob Mothersbaugh, who, given Devo’s reputation, you’d probably think was a half-automaton with a synth built into his chest. But Mothersbaugh is a guitar purist with affection for British Invasion bands as well as the old bluesmen. After all, you can’t deconstruct music you don’t know how to construct in the first place.

Premier Guitar caught up with Mothersbaugh in the middle of Devo’s summer tour to talk about his favorite guitar—the entry-level G&L SC-2—buying back his weird-as-hell custom Ibanez “Spud” guitar from a professional skateboarder, and his unsurprising habit of warping every opportunity for a signature-model guitar.

Who were your early guitar influences?


Well, I’m just old enough that I listened to the Kinks and Rolling Stones when they were happening. Then, of course, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix came along.

“I’m a Potato,” from Hardcore Devo, Vol. 1 (74-77), is an interesting mutation on the blues form.


Yeah, in the very early days Devo was kind of blues sounding. I listened to Chuck Berry and Keith Richards—those guys were big influences.

Do you still listen to the old blues?


I love it. Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor always do it for me.

When Devo was developing the de-evolution concept, did you consciously try to deconstruct the music that influenced you?


Donning the Devo “Everybody Mask” and a ’59 Les Paul reissue—probably the closest thing he’s got to an everybody guitar—Mothersbaugh takes the stage at the San Diego Pride Festival, July 18, 2010. Photo by John Hancock
Honestly, at that time I was young and that’s all I knew how to play. Devo’s main objective was to do stuff we thought was funny and made us laugh. We just thought, “If we went to see a band, this is what we would want to hear—this is what would make us laugh.” In the mid ’70s, devices to radically tweeze your sound simply weren’t available—at least to guys in Akron, Ohio—so we really had to work at it to come up with sounds that conveyed our particular brand of frustration and humor.

Do you remember your first guitar?

Oddly enough, it was a Coral Sitar.

Wow—no wonder your playing went sideways.

I know. After about six months I thought, “Man! I’m tired of these sympathetic strings.” So I took a jigsaw and cut them off, but it still sounded like a sitar. I figured out it was the plastic bridge that made it whiny sounding, so I took it apart and tried to find a new bridge, but couldn’t. The guitar was put in the barn and I kind of forgot about it.

Was your first amp as ill advised?

My first amp was some cheap head. I had a speaker that I strung up in a fruit crate, so the speaker was just dangling, suspended by strings—like a microphone shock mount.

I had no idea speakers had to be mounted to a board so they could push air. It was pretty ineffective, but when you’re a kid in a basement in Akron, trying to perfect your Pete Townshend windmills, it was fine.

What guitars are you using these days?

For the live shows, I’m using a ’59 Les Paul reissue—a Gibson Custom Shop instrument modeled after Mike Bloomfield’s guitar. For the new album, I used a 1964 SG and a couple of my G&L SC-2s. The SC-2 is probably my favorite guitar. I was introduced to them when we did the New Traditionalists album. I did an interview then where I mentioned buying a weird guitar called a G&L and how much I liked the tremolo system because it stayed in tune. The day after the interview hit the newsstands, someone from G&L called me and asked, “Hey, can we endorse you?”

Is there a G&L Bob1 Signature model we don’t know about?


Uh, no. G&L gave me three or four of their top-of-the-line guitars and then they sent me the SC-2, more of an entry-level student guitar, which is what I stuck with.

What drew you to the SC-2?

I love its [Magnetic Field Design] single-coil pickups, which have a really springy sound with great high end. The guitar itself is lightweight and plays really well. The tremolo has a great feel and, as I mentioned, it stays in tune better than any other I’ve tried. I can throw it against the wall and it still plays great.


G&L’s entry-level SC-2 solidbody is Mothersbaugh’s favorite electric, largely because of the clear, “springy” sound he gets from its high-output Magnetic Field Design singlecoils— but also because the guitar takes a licking and keeps on ticking. “I can throw it against the wall and it still plays great,” he says. Photo by Jon Wright

Besides the SG and SC-2s, did you use any other guitars on the new album?

Yes, I played a Rickenbacker 330 of unknown vintage that I bought from Doug Fieger of the Knack, as well as a custom guitar Ibanez made for me.

The blue one?

Yeah.

Is that a cloud or a spud?

It’s funny you should ask, because when we were in Japan in 1979, Ibanez asked me to endorse their guitars. I said, “Well, whaddya got?” and they showed me a catalog. I looked at them all and said, “Nah, no thanks. I don’t like any of these.” Then they said, “We’ll build you one.” So, very flippantly, I took a Magic Marker to a Les Paul-shaped guitar of theirs and drew scallops on it and said “Here, cut it like a potato, paint it brown, and put every possible type of electronics in it.” Then, about six months later, the blue guitar showed up. It was supposed to be a potato, but it wound up as a Japanese artist’s interpretation of what I had drawn—so it’s somewhere between a potato and a cloud.

During the dark days of the mid ’80s, after the band went on hiatus, I lost the Spud guitar. Years later, my friend Vahe Vahe of the band Nu-Tra heard that a pro skateboarder named Jason Jessee had it. We got in contact with him and I bought it back.

What about amps?

On the latest album, I used a WEM Dominator combo. It’s an old British tube amp that sounds incredible. Other than that, I just used a Line 6 PODxt Live.

Did you employ any interesting stompboxes?

I pretty much used the effects in the PODxt Live. I’ve used the PODxt Live for many years, so I know how to navigate it pretty well.

Do you still use the PODxt Live?


No, I’m down to my last working unit. They are long discontinued, so I switched to a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx. It’s an amp simulator and pedal simulator that sounds fantastic and is quite roadworthy.

Do you still play the La Baye 2x4 for your whammy-bar torture and crowd-surfing thing during “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”?

Every night!


Mothersbaugh onstage at the 2010 Coachella Festival with his La Baye 2x4 guitar, which features a Howard Holman-designed tremolo and what appears to be a non-stock single-coil in the neck position. Photo by Peter Dervin

Are you picky when it comes to cables and picks?

Well, I like coiled cords but they get all tangled up onstage, so I use a wireless system. I use Dunlop Gator Grip picks, because the outfits we wear onstage make me sweat profusely. The picks have a powder on them that gets sticky when they come into contact with sweat, so I don’t drop many picks.

You wouldn’t want to bend down to retrieve a pick, only to have your Energy Dome fall off.


Exactly, it would spoil the illusion!

Has the way Devo writes and records evolved over time?


Totally. The way we used to do it was that someone had an idea, and he’d start playing it, and everyone would just start playing along. Over the course of a couple of days, we would play a song over and over, and everyone would hone their parts. We had to play the whole song and remember our parts and think about the changes, because you had to play it all live. The last couple of albums we did in the late ’80s were all done with sequencers and synthesizers, and they had very little guitar. A lot of times, the whole song was pretty much done by the time I put a guitar part down, so I had to think of small guitar parts that didn’t clash with all the synth parts.

Most of the classic Devo tunes are heavily guitar based, and it seems that the more the band moved away from guitar on later albums, the less power the songs had.

Yeah, I’m aware of that [laughs]. Twenty years ago, someone in the band decided that guitars were obsolete and nobody would be using guitars 20 years from then, and they tried to make that a reality, which really didn’t work for us.

Well, we’re glad you put your foot down on that. Something for Everybody has tons of guitar on it—like the old days!

True, but when we started Something for Everybody, I said “Let’s play like a band, everyday.” Everybody said, “Yeah, that’s what we need to do!” And we did it for exactly one day. In my opinion, there wasn’t enough real jamming. The album was essentially assembled in pieces using [MOTU] Digital Performer or [Apple] Logic by whomever was in the studio at the time.

“So Fresh” sounds like classic Devo.


When we first tracked that song, I put a different solo—a more contemporary-sounding one—on it. But John Hill and Santigold [Santi White] came in to help produce the song, and Santigold said, “No Bob, don’t you remember your lead in ‘Be Stiff’? You’ve got to do something exactly like that.” So I thought about it for a minute and said, “Wow, you really know your Devo history.” Then I went back into the studio and whipped out a solo, a là “Be Stiff.”

Do you remember which guitar and amp you used for that track?

I used the Rickenbacker and WEM amp, as well as a little handheld Radio Shack amp that John Hill had brought in. I also used the Ibanez Spud guitar.


Mothersbaugh and his storied Ibanez “Spud” guitar. Photo by Natalie Montgomery

The riff on “Mind Games” is awesome, too.

I really like “Mind Games” because I play a guitar part all the way through it. After recording it I thought, “I know what would really make this cool.” So I took another track and doubled the whole part an octave higher. I’m pleased every time I hear it.

Care to comment on some older songs?


Sure.

“Girl U Want”—great riff. How did you get the guitar sound on that track?


The meat of the sound is the Ibanez Spud guitar, which has active electronics. I cranked up the midrange on the guitar, as well as the amp, which was an Acoustic that was sort of a Mesa/Boogie clone with a graphic EQ. I did weird things with the EQ, like making designs and patterns with the EQ sliders.

The turnaround following the solo is killer. It reminds me of George Harrison, in that it isn’t flashy but it serves the song.


I’ll take that as a big compliment—I’m a fan of George Harrison.

On “Freedom of Choice,” you double the synth line. Was it written on guitar or keyboard?


I remember Alan [Myers, former Devo drummer] had a phrase he played on guitar [sings guitar part], and he wanted to jam with me on it, so I learned it. At some point while we were working on Freedom of Choice, I said, “Hey, I think Alan’s bit would fit in there.” I love that album, because it represents a period where I really was into getting every kind of tortured noise from the guitar I could. But I think the songs from that album sound better live now, because my sound has more growl to it.

With all the technology being dangled in your face when you hit it big, did you ever use a guitar synthesizer?


Back in 1979, I used a device made by 360 Systems. It was a big box that sat next to your amp and required a special pickup. The 360 Systems people recommended I use a Les Paul, and at the time I was horrified—I thought Les Pauls represented arena rock, long hair, and Puka shells. But I got a Les Paul and took a jigsaw to it with the intention of making it look like a skull. I cut the little horn off at the cutaway and flipped it over backwards and thought it looked a lot better. The 360 was a horrible synth and really didn’t sound good. I only used it for one tour.

And here you are, some 30 years later, playing a Les Paul in an arena.


That’s de-evolution for you.

You perform onstage with synchronized video. Do you have to rehearse endlessly to get your music to sync to the video?

No, because we have a click track that goes to the drummer.

Does that leave you any room for improvisation?

Very little. For example, onstage last night I was thinking, “I should use the other channel of the Fractal Audio for the first part of ‘Jocko Homo.’” But I have a guitar tech [Ed Marshall] who is always watching the box to make sure it’s on the right setting. I tried to change it to the setting I wanted, but he changed it back. I thought, “Okay, we’ll have to discuss this after the show.”

Has touring become a grind?


I miss my family, but that’s about the only thing. I can deal with all the crappy hotels and overnight bus rides. It’s all good once we get onstage—that hour and a half— because I just love playing.

Bob Mothersbaugh's Gearbox
Guitars
Gibson Custom Shop Mike Bloomfield Les Paul, 1964 SG Standard with P-90s and a Gibson Vibrola, multiple G&L SC-2s, Ibanez Spud guitar with Ibanez active pickup system, 1967 La Baye 2x4
Amps and Effects Processors
WEM Dominator combo, Line 6 PODxt, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, Ibanez Tube Screamer
Strings and Picks
GHS strings GBXL .009–.042 (Les Paul and La Baye), GHS GBL .010–.046 (G&L SC-2s), Dunlop Gator Grip picks
Miscellaneous
Brace Audio DWG-1000x wireless system, custom medium-gauge picks printed with “Bob 1 DEVO”
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