Iron and Wine: Interview
Sam Beam’s Culmination of Creative Energies
When I called up Iron and Wine's Sam Beam last Tuesday, he had no idea who I was
or what I wanted. "But that's okay,” he said kindly, proceeding to answer
approximately 50 questions he didn't study for. We had plenty of things to talk
about--with two full album releases, an EP release, and several compilation
singles emerging in unexpected places since 2002, Sam Beam is a busy man.
TMT: You're on your way to Texas, right?
Beam: Yeah, we're getting ready to play in Denton
TMT: I was just checking out your tour schedule.
Are you going to see Billy Bob Thornton in The Alamo to celebrate being in
Beam: Am I going to? I
don't know. I don't have any plans to see it yet.
TMT: Okay, it's probably best you don't.
Beam: Really? Have you seen it?
TMT: Yeah, I saw it. I'm just interested in
historical things like that, so I thought I would check it out. But it wasn't
Very Great, to say the least.
Beam: Uh huh.
TMT: So have you had any exciting stories from the
road? No girls throwing their clothes on stage or anything cool like that?
Beam: Not that I remember. They might have, but I just
didn't see it if it happened.
TMT: I saw you guys play in Atlanta the last time
you were there. I think it was maybe February or so.
Beam: Oh, at the Echo?
TMT: Yeah. Y'all seemed to be kinda frustrated with
the sound problems, but it was really amazing how everybody fell silent when you
started to play.
Beam: It was, yeah, it was really overwhelming.
TMT: But that concert was the first time I heard
you play "Waiting for Superman.” I must say, I love your version.
Beam: Well thank you!
TMT: Have you been playing any new covers on the
Beam: Well, we played one. It's a Howlin' Wolf song
called "Smokestack Lightning."
TMT: So is your version better?
Beam: I wouldn't say that.
TMT: So tell me a little bit about the new album.
Our Endless Numbered Days is your second full-length album. From what I
understand, one of them was recorded in your home, and this new one was recorded
in the studio with Brian Deck.
TMT: Which experience did you find more enjoyable?
Beam: I don't know whether one or the other was more
enjoyable. I mean, they're definitely different. The biggest difference, I mean
obviously, is the sound quality. But also, other than just recording, the time
clock, right. I really had to deal with the time clock. The way we did it in the
studio, we didn't have the money to stay there all year. That was a new
experience that wasn't so great, but at the same time it's a trade-off. They
have a lot of great microphones and stuff.
TMT: A lot of listeners have commented on the
change in intimacy between the two recordings. Do you prefer one to the other?
Beam: No, I don't really prefer one to the other. I
don't really write songs just to be recorded in a certain context. They have to
exist, whether I record them at the house or record them in the studio or play
them live, you know, or in the bathroom or whatever. I don't really write them
with that particular sound in mind. I don't really have a preference. There's
definitely a certain quality to the home recordings, a different kind of quality
to the studio stuff.
TMT: I found that several of your songs really have
this striking imagery. I'm especially thinking right now of "Cinders and Smoke.”
Do you ever approach songs like this with merely an image and work from there?
Beam: Yeah. I mean, all of them are kind of different.
They all start differently and progress differently. In that one, the melody
worked out and it seemed like such a change from what I had been doing up until
then. You know, the reggae beat and all that stuff, the rhythm. But I thought it
would be interesting to make some kind of image of destruction and rebirth. And
so the whole metaphor of the barn burning down came out of that.
TMT: Music critics are silly, I'm sure you know
this. But I think we often make the mistake of assuming that songs are
autobiographical. I freaked out the first time I heard the Wilco song "She's a
Jar” because I thought, "oh no, Jeff Tweedy's beating up on his wife.” But would
you say that your more narrative-driven songs are written from your personal
perspective, or do you use a constructed persona for point of view?
Beam: It's both, really. Everybody uses a certain
amount of autobiographical material just because you have to have something
personal to relate to what you're writing about. But that doesn't necessarily
mean I've done all those things or experienced all those things. Very seldom. My
life is kind of boring. It's much more interesting to start with something
personal and move more and more into fantasy or more and more into what I've
been told. Or the opposite. You start with just pure fantasy and work it toward
something more personal. I think I used to write a lot more confessional kinds
of songs, but I think it's just more interesting to me not to do that.
TMT: Your lyrics are very poetic, I might have
already mentioned. I read once that you enjoy reading poets like Galway Kinnell
and Robert Frost. Your lyrics, I found, are very Frost-like, like the bird
imagery in songs like "Upward Over the Mountain” and you also seem to share
Kinnell's view of life as sweetened by impending death.
Beam: If you read a lot of modern stuff, it's a pretty
common theme. I guess you have a lot of things to cherish, like family; lots of
stuff like that sweetens the deal because it's a finite time so you try to enjoy
TMT: Do you tend to read poets whose aesthetic
agrees with yours, or do you draw influence to form your own aesthetic?
Beam: Mostly the latter. I don't really get a whole
lot into stuff that reminds me of myself. I'm kinda boring. [laughs] But I try
to find stuff that I don't understand, something that's new. To me that's where
the art of poetry lies.
TMT: Do you ever write poetry yourself?
Beam: Yeah, sometimes. When I get in a songwriting
rut. Not that often.
TMT: I really want to ask you about "Sodom, South
Georgia.” It's such a great song, but it's so ambiguous that I don't know where
to begin. If I were taking a stab at it, I would go the recapitulation-of-life
route. Especially the lyric: "Papa died while my / lady Edith was born.” It is
almost like death bringing about new life in a way.
Beam: Right. Yeah, that's definitely part of it. There
are several things going on at one time. Honestly, at the very core of it, it
was about hypocrisy in terms of racism. And so the rest of it just built around
there. Yeah, it's a lot of different stuff. You said it's pretty ambiguous, and
that one I enjoy mostly because of that. It's very rare that I come across a
line like the chorus that works in so many different ways.
TMT: From what I understand you've been in Miami
for quite awhile now, but you're originally from South Carolina.
Beam: Right, yeah. Columbia.
TMT: The last time I was in Key West the waiter at
a cafe looked at me funny when I asked for sweet tea. Do you consider southern
Florida part of the South?
Beam: The population's really different. Not really,
TMT: Your lyrics,
moreso on A Creek Drank the Cradle than on Our Endless Numbered Days, seem to
suggest a defiance of Southern teachings, yet there also seems to be a lingering
nostalgia for the South. The same thing goes for religion; rosaries are broken,
fear of the Lord is gone, and some of your characters ("Passing Afternoon”) seem
almost resigned to believing "in the hymns [their] mother[s] [sang].” Yet the
narrator of "On Your Wings” asks for love from God, and Jesus the Mexican boy is
a very likeable character.
he's kinda too perfect.
Is all of this an expression of your personal ambivalence, or do
you think that these things are inseparable from the things you've been raised
Beam: Well I
think it's inseparable from the places I draw a lot of characters from, the
context. I'm not a religious person, but I grew up in the Bible belt, so it
definitely left a mark. I think now I'm just more interested in how religion
plays into culture.
Faulkner suggested, especially through works like Absalom, Absalom, that
southerners have a legacy incomprehensible to all but children of the Old South.
How do you feel about that, as a southerner?
if Faulkner said it, I believe it.
Are you a Faulkner fan?
totally. But that's true of any place. It's hard for somebody who didn't grow up
in New York City to know what it's like to grow up in New York City. So that's
not such a hard thing to imagine.
I keep comparing you to Faulkner, but it's because you seem to
share this almost love/hate relationship with the past, like you can't separate
yourself from those images or those beliefs even though you don't cling to them.
Is that accurate?
Beam: Yeah, I
mean I really love where I'm from, but there's definitely pros and cons to the
area. But at the same time, I think any area is like that.
You graduated from Florida State University with a masters in
Yeah, film production.
Are there any particular movies out there that you've imagined
your music as a perfect soundtrack for?
Beam: No, not
really. [laughs] I mean there are movies that I really like, but I don't really
think about it that way. I think it would probably work in several different
types of movies because it's ambiguous enough, like we were talking about
Are you planning to make movies in the future?
Beam: I'd love
So is that an ultimate end to you, like this music thing is
temporary and you want to do movies or are you pretty satisfied?
Beam: I was
always gearing up to do movies. I was going to continue doing music as a hobby;
it's just become more than a hobby. Movies are very attractive to me because I
went to an art school for college and did photography. I liked to write. So it's
a multi-doctrine kind of an art form, you know what I mean? You exercise a lot
of different creative energies into one statement, so that's what attracted me
to it in the first place.
Last week I showed your video for "Southern Anthem” to my English
101 students here in the heart of where the Civil Rights movement took place. It
was part of a project for an essay they have to write. Among the six videos I
showed them, yours got the strongest reaction. Did you direct that video
What kind of effect were you hoping for when you made the video?
definitely to rouse certain people that that would rouse. The whole idea behind
the song was sort of the opposite of what you think of a southern anthem. It's a
contradiction as far as our "southern heritage,” whatever that is, and how it's
played out as far as the media's concerned. You know, southern anthems are
nostalgic, silly songs. And so the contradiction between the way the Civil War
sort of played out, the people and stuff. And so the video was basically an
extension of that, changed. Take a pretty common scenario, a lover's spat, and
just put kind of a twist on it to make it a contradiction of what you would
think of a lover's quarrel.
I showed some pretty controversial videos and was surprised that
yours affected them the most.
Beam: That is
surprising. But I think the race issue is still a big deal. At least it is where
I'm from. I'm sure a lot of people would deny that, but we're still guilty of
You've been teaching at Miami International University of Art and
Design. Are you planning to go back to teaching anytime soon?
Beam: No, I
actually just quit right before we left for the tour. So I'm done for awhile.
Did the faculty there start to treat you differently once you were signed and
Beam: No. A lot
of them knew about it, but I don't really wave the flag.
Are you going to move from Miami now that you've quit doing that?
Beam: No, I'm
staying in Miami because my wife's in school there. We can't really go wherever
because she's a midwife. We're kinda limited as to where we can go.
It's only legal in certain states.
that's right. That will sort of determine where we go.
Isn't it legal in California?
Would you like to suggest a theme for our mixtape generator?
Beam: Oh, you
mean I come up with a theme for a mixtape and people think of songs that would
go on. [laughs] No, I'm going to pass. I would try to come up with something
really clever, and it would just be kind of dumb. Okay, songs from 1976 that
start with the letter ‘B'.
Okay, somebody can do that, I promise you.
For you, Mr. Beam:
Songs from 1976 that start with the letter ‘B'
requested by: Sam Beam
compiled by: Leah
01. Queen – "Bohemian Rhapsody” (A Day at the Races)
02. Manfred Mann's Earth Band – "Blinded by the Light” (The Roaring Silence)
03. Neil Young/Stephen Stills – "Black Coral” (Long May You Run)
04. Deep Purple – "Burn” (Made in Europe)
05. AC/DC – "Big Balls” (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap)
06. Ramones – "Blitzkrieg Bop” (Ramones)
07. KISS –"Beth” (Destroyer)
08. Paul McCartney and Wings – "Band on the Run” (Wings at the Speed of Sound)
09. Bob Dylan – "Black Diamond Bay” (Desire)
10. Bad Company – "Burnin' Sky” (Burnin' Sky)
11. Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers – "Breakdown” (Tom Petty and the
12. Peter Frampton – "Baby, I Love Your Way” (Frampton Comes Alive!)
13. Barclay James Harvest – "Believe in Me” (Octoberon)