Thursday, October 04, 2007

Interview with Sam Beam of Iron and Wine which I alluded to in Episode #90

| Interview by Joe Tangari |

Iron & Wine's Sam Beam made his name with a couple sparely recorded albums of haunting acoustic folk. His new album, The Shepherd's Dog, takes him to new territory, with a full band and a fair amount of studio wizardry, some of it courtesy producer Brian Deck.

Beam is also a man of multifarious talents-he's directed his own videos in the past and did the artwork for his new album himself. We caught up with him a week before the release of The Shepherd's Dog as he was preparing to embark on a tour of the Eastern U.S. and the UK.

Pitchfork: I imagine things must be pretty crazy for you right now, getting ready to release an album and go on tour.

Sam Beam: Well, it's busier than normal, but it's not too bad.

Pitchfork: You were in Britain earlier this year for one gig. Have you found audiences in Britain different from American audiences?

SB: They're not really that different. There are good places to play and bad places but you could say that about America, too. But this will be good. We haven't toured there in a while.

Pitchfork: Are you touring with a full band?

SB: It's like an eight-piece band now. There's Chad Taylor [Chicago Underground/Sea & Cake]. He's playing drums. Benny [Massarella] from Califone, who's playing percussion, Matt Lux [Isotope 217] on bass, Leroy Bach [formerly of Wilco] is gonna play keys and some guitar, Paul Niehaus is playing pedal steel, Patty [McKinney], who's been playing with me ever since I started playing with a band on guitar, and my sister's [Sarah Beam] coming. I think that's everybody.

Pitchfork: The new record is very different from your others, and I was struck by the seeming ease of the transition from the old, spare recordings to the fuller sound. Did you track all the songs with a full band or if you started with something more basic.

SB: I demo everything, just because I like to. But these were a bit less fleshed out than the others, because I knew I wanted to make a bit more complex record. I also knew I wanted to bring some other people in to do stuff that I couldn't do. So I left quite a bit of it open to leave room for surprises.

Pitchfork: Do you feel like having all the percussion around you frees you up as a guitarist at all?

SB: No, not really. It's all just kind of an intuitive thing. I don't really have much of a plan. The seeds of the song are still just me, the guitar, and a notebook. Sometimes the guitar line changes a bit, but not usually. Oftentimes, it's either putting percussion on it that stays out of the way of the guitar or purposely steps on it. It depends on the song, really.

Pitchfork: I know you've said you listen to a lot of African music in the past. Did that inform the way this record came out?

SB: Definitely. There's one song, "House by the Sea", which is almost straight-up highlife music.

Pitchfork: Yeah, it does sound West African, kind of like a King Sunny Ade thing.

SB: Yeah. You know, you start piling on arrangements-- usually, we take stuff back out. On that one, we kind of left it all in, like a big collage. I love that music.

Pitchfork: What other African stuff have you heard and liked.

SB: I really like Ali Farka Toure, some of the women singers, but a lot of it's field recording stuff. The newer stuff I can't get into so much. I don't know what it is, but... it's probably nothing that surprising, it's just kind of whatever we get over here.

Pitchfork: You have a cinematography background and you've directed your own videos in the past. Do you have any in mind for any songs off The Shepherd's Dog?

SB: I've kind of turned it over this time to a girl named Lauri Faggioni. Not because I didn't want to do them-- I really did. I just don't have the time these days, unfortunately. Hopefully in the future I'll be doing more.

Pitchfork: The video for "Southern Anthem" is interesting. Am I reading too much into it to say that it's a metaphor for racial reconciliation?

SB: No, it definitely is. It's not an essay, though-- it's more like a poem. It's not a math problem where there's a right answer, but definitely when you have a white guy and a black girl making out it's hard to skirt around the issue.

Pitchfork: Especially when the song is called "Southern Anthem".

SB: Right.

Pitchfork: A lot of people have kind of tried to set you up as this "Southern artist"-- is that video in any way a reaction to that?

SB: It wasn't really a reaction. Like you said, the song is called "Southern Anthem", so when I do a video I try to do something...It's fun to be able to revisit a song and do something that doesn't really illustrate the song but works tangentially or runs parallel to the song in some way.

But as far as people pegging me one way or the other, I don't think much about it, honestly. I mean, I do recognize that the context that I work in is the Southeast, because that's where I grew up and that's where I'm most familiar with. I want to write something that seems true in a certain way, and that's what I understand. But at the same time, I try to write human songs or human experience things that hopefully people who live elsewhere can understand. But the context is definitely kind of specific, usually.

Pitchfork: It's like cinematography plays into your lyrics in a way, because a lot of it is very visual, like on "Boy With a Coin," which is three images. On that note, I was actually curious whether "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" had anything to do with the Bush Administration.

SB: [laughs] Well, you could say that, I guess. You could read it that way, but you could read it a lot of ways. It specifically came from the idea of planes in the sky, but you can read it however you want to.

Pitchfork: I think it was something about the "righteous drunk fumbling for the royal keys" that led me there.

SB: [laughs] You could apply it to that, but you could apply it to some Shakespearean kind of thing too. I like writing in an illustrative, descriptive way. I prefer describing to rather than explaining. One, I rarely have anything to say. It's much more interesting for me to discover some meaning that you didn't know that you could create.

I'm sure my studies in screenwriting helped me do it, but I think it actually goes back before that. It's one of the reasons that I was drawn to film in the first place. I'm kind of interested in visual communication. For me it's more about suggesting than arguing a point. That way, it creates a rejuvenative entertainment value.

In some songs, like propaganda songs-and don't get me wrong, I love some propaganda songs. They're some of my favorite songs in the world. It's just that I don't enjoy writing it. The song succeeds or fails just based on whether you argue your point successfully. I like throwing images together, which create meaning if you listen to it one time, but if you listen to it another time you might get a different meaning.

Pitchfork: You have this unique way of recording your voice-my friend calls it a whisper falsetto. Did you sing like that before you started recording yourself? Is that just how it came out?

SB: It's hard to say. I mean, I didn't take notes while I was developing. [laughs] But part of it is just the limitations of my voice. But also a lot of the stuff when I was starting out, a lot of the subject matter that I was singing about didn't really call for someone to be screaming. I mean, you could do that, as a point of contrast, but it didn't seem quite right. A lot of it was love letters of a kind, so it led to the way I did it.

Pitchfork: On the new album, it's kind of on another level, with lots of effects on your voice.

SB: Nothing was really sacred when we were tracking. Like, we'd run it through a Leslie on "Carousel". It wasn't that we were trying to be kooky or anything, I just thought it was fun. On that song, the guitar and piano working together sounded like water, so I thought it would be fun to make it sound like he was underwater. It's just kind of an intuitive thing in the end. There's no right or wrong.


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