Published Jan 23, 2011Sam Beam is best known for two things: impressive facial hair that has inspired legions of beard-rock imitators and fragile, deeply emotive songs that just as many modern-day acoustic troubadours have tried to copy. But as Beam's musical scope as Iron & Wine has gradually expanded since 2005 EP Woman King, it has shown him to be a much more complex figure. Any preconceived notions about Iron & Wine are completely set aside with Kiss Each Other Clean, a daring mix of numerous styles that comes on the heels of Beam's move into the wider pop sphere via landing tracks in several high profile films and television shows. What is most surprising is how funky Beam can be when the mood strikes him. Although, lyrically, the songs are still rooted in the biblical imagery for which he's known, there are clear references to classic pop and R&B peppered throughout, most obviously in the female backing choruses and horn sections. While at some points Beam nearly slips into laidback, dude-with-a-guitar, Jack Johnson territory, his dark lyrical visions ultimately pull things back from the brink. Kiss Each Other Clean will undoubtedly divide Iron & Wine's fan base, but Beam must be praised for taking that risk in the first place.
This is your first record for Warner. Coincidentally, it reminded me of those great, eclectic singer-songwriter albums Warner specialized in during the '70s. Was that in the back of your mind?
I think it was more serendipitous because we made the record and then they came knocking. I just like their roster and I like the idea of a label that's open to "career artists." Doug Martsch, the Flaming Lips, Jack White ― all of those people seem to have a lot of artistic freedom, which is something I hope they grant me. It seemed like good company. But I do love all of those records you're talking about, and it's funny that the first record I've made that sounds like them ends up on that label.
It's interesting that you had the record done before you signed. Was it a matter of launching right into recording as soon as you got off the road?
Sort of. To be honest, I've made all my records that way. I think the only one that Sub Pop paid for beforehand was Our Endless Numbered Days. The rest of them have all been self-financed and then you see who's interested. I've always enjoyed working with Sub Pop, but it was time for something new ― change is always good. I'm writing all the time, so for this one we booked some time in the studio and got started. I tour a lot, but I also have a big family, so I try to stay home as much as I can.
The album seems like a natural progression, in terms of the broadening of your sound, which has been evident on the last couple of records.
I really don't like the idea of doing the same record twice, both for me and the listener. I'm always trying to push myself into areas where I haven't been before, so for this one, I do think there's a bit of an element of nostalgia for '60s and '70s pop, which I grew up listening to on the radio. There is also an R&B element, in the fact that there are vocal arrangements instead of straight harmonies, as well as a horn section. Both of those are new things for me and were a lot of fun. You take stuff you like from the past, or anything that you're drawn to ― old sounds, new sounds ― and you throw them into a big soup, stir it up and see what comes out.
It sounds like you've been listening to a lot of reggae also.
Oh, always, man, always. It sometimes seems that people aren't aware of how many different kinds of music I've always been into. It's good to get to a point in your career where you can stretch out and do different things. I remember at the beginning feeling obsessed with finding the perfect setting, or the perfect stage, for a set of lyrics, you know what I mean? It was like, "these lyrics can only sound best with this arrangement." The more you do that, the more you realize that's not true. Each time you do a song differently, it portrays the lyrics differently. It's fun to take different types of music that you have always liked and apply them to whatever it is you're doing.
In the last few years, you've had a couple of songs in major motion pictures, and that was the first time many new listeners heard you. Are you starting to become aware that there is this whole new fan base out there?
Yeah. I remember when we got the song in the movie Garden State a while back; I did notice that there were people at our shows of the sort that I didn't usually recognize. The same happened with the Twilight thing; it's great, because I don't make music for a certain type of person. I love to look out at a crowd and see old people and really young people, as well as people my age. I've never been about doing things that only a certain group of people will enjoy.
I think that what has always attracted me to your music is that it's always much more complex than it sounds on the surface.
I'm glad you said that, because that's what Brian [Deck, producer] and I always try to do when we make these records. It's great when you can either bob your head and get into a groove or just enjoy where the delicate things might take you. But I also love putting on headphones and noticing little details ― stuff that they put in just for the sonics. On the other hand, I try really hard to write lyrics that people can sink their teeth into on several listens.
In that way, the song that really jumped out at me was "Rabbit Will Run." There's the line, "I love what I cannot control," and it made me wonder if that's your general mindset.
Well, on better days. I find that I'm more at ease when I embrace that notion, but it can be hard to do. For the character in that song, that's definitely how he gets by. He's got all of this shit going on and he gets by through releasing it.
Your music has always had such a strong connection to the natural world. What do you think of all these weird occurrences that have been happening lately with birds falling out of the sky and schools of fish turning up dead. Do you believe we're living in the end times?
I think we've gone through the end times several times. Who knows what's happening.
Seriously though, more and more songwriters are drawing inspiration from the natural world and I think that your work has had an influence on that.
Really? I'll take credit for that. I mean, I feel that writers in general, whether they're songwriters or poets or novelists, we draw from what's around us, and at least, for me, nature is more common than city life. Those connections we have to different animals or trees are deep-rooted things. It's like fear of fire or fear of snakes ― a bird means something to us, just as a snake does. I've always enjoyed taking those familiar images and including them in the life of a song or more accurately, taking the cliché that an image represents and turning it on its head. I use them because they're fair game. It's the same reason I use religious characters: because they're part of the culture; they're part of our experience. You use those things, you use memory, you use whatever sensory things are at your fingertips ― smells, taste, the way things feel. Those are all our experiences, so that's all fodder for the page.
For some reason, I felt as if I've heard the phrase "kiss each other clean" somewhere before.
Maybe somebody said it to you, man. No, it was just one of those lines that popped out from a song. Sometimes that shit happens because of a "kuh-kuh" sound, you know, alliteration? But, to be honest, a lot of these songs ended up on the record because they all have a river image in them. There wasn't any grand sequencing idea; they were just this group of songs that had river imagery in common. It crops up in different ways, but sometimes it's just as simple as that. The last record, it was the dog image that a lot of the songs had. But as far as making that line the album title, I liked the idea of kids in a dream doing different things. The underlying message is that we're not clean, that something's wrong, while at the same time it's sexually provocative. It seemed to suit the record, because it is a heavy record, lyrically. Like all the records, it talks about life: the sour and the sweet, the good and the bad, both sides of the coin all the time. But it's presented in this danceable, upbeat way, so I thought that title alluded to that a bit.
Are you going to be changing things up live to perform this album?
Yeah, we've got a new band. You heard of a band called Califone from Chicago? Most of the guys are in the band now. The horn player on the record, Stuart [Bogie], from Antibalas and TV on the Radio, is with us. Nick [Luca] from Calexico is playing ― all kinds of people. I like having a big band because it gives you more options. They can always not play and I can do the quiet stuff, but when we want to do the big arrangements, we can. (Warner)