Iron & Wine on “Beast Epic”

Vulnerability is the Best Policy

Sep 22, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Job satisfaction is never a concern for Sam Beam. The simplistic joy of musical expression he experienced recording as Iron & Wine for the first time is still the dominant feeling in the studio 15 years later. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the vulnerability that marked those first few records is still front and center on his latest album, Beast Epic (on Sub Pop).

More recent entries in the Iron & Wine catalog have been marked by sonic experimentation, but Beast Epic returns to an artist laid barequestions without answers, notices of beauty amid painful experiences. Beast Epic is anchored in who Beam has always been yet features a lyrical maturity that only comes after a decade-and-a-half.

Matt Conner (Under the Radar): We're 15 years from the release of The Creek Drank the Cradle and the early signs from Beast Epic hearken back to those early recordings. Is that due to the recent release of the Archive Series, which are those old unreleased home recordings?

Sam Beam: It's funny because when I'm in the middle of writing or making records, I don't think about how long it's been. It's only when I'm doing interviews that I start framing the body of work. It's a kick in the head. [Laughs] I've gone through lots of phases, but I've never run out of things to be interested in, which is what is very exciting about music to me.

On past records, there would likely be some new arrangement I wanted to get into or a writing style I wanted to try. This one felt a lot more similar to the first records because I didn't really go into it with anything in mind. I was just writing in my spare time really, just for fun. This one was similar in the sense that I just let go. I didn't have anything to push toward. I was doing it for the love of doing it, and I really did love doing it. It was an inspirational time of writing.

I'd also released the reins a bit on musical pursuits, too, in terms of what the arrangements sounded like. I was falling back on things I'd learned and tried along the way and let myself just do what I do. I definitely implemented a lot of things along the way I wouldn't have been able to do on those first couple records. It wasn't a lack of concentration, since this was a very concentrated effort, but I'm usually trying to push into some unknown area for myself, some uncomfortable place to see what happens. I think that's fun and exciting. [Laughs] This one wasn't that way. It was exciting no matter what I did. That can sound conceited, but as an artist, it was a new and comfortable place that was also exciting. Those usually don't go hand-in-hand for me.

You speak as if there's always a next project for you. Has it always been that way or have you ever questioned whether there's more water in the well, so to speak?

I always assume there's a next album. It's what I like to do the most. I remember early on having that feeling like, "Do I have another thing around the corner?" It mostly just comes from insecurity. It happens when you let your mind get in front of your heart, your critical mind in front of your creator heart. If you start to think about it, your critical brain starts to shut down opportunities when your heart wants to keep putting things out there. It's really a matter of figuring out which one you're supposed to listen to the most.

It's easy to be insecure about what you do because we're all very self-conscious. We like to destroy things. It's easy to put something out there and start to criticize it, but it's harder to let go and make things without any sense of awareness about it. When I'm able to do that, and now that I've been doing this for several years now, I know those things come and go. There'll be moments where you're critical and others where you just let go, let things come and make sure you're there to get them down.

I don't really worry about those things anymore, because I've been through enough cycles to know not to be too hard on myself. That kind of stuff just bogs you down and makes it harder to create than when you just experience your life and wait for those intense creative periods to come around.

Do you remember when you stopped worrying? Was there a tipping point?

Just a couple records you in, you realize that's how the pattern works. You feel like, "Welp, that's all I'll ever have to say," because you go through these long dry spells. Then all of a sudden, new songs pop up. Some other things happens in your life, another development, and everything you wrote about beforeour obsessions we return to over and over againseem just as fresh as when you wrote about them the first time. You now have a very different perspective. It just depends on what you've lived through.

Some of these new songs sound weathered, with a perspective that's realistic and measured. Yet they're also buoyed with hope. I'm thinking of "Call It Dreaming" here, but it's true of others.

I don't think I would have been able to write these songs as a 20-year-old. They're not exactly written for 40-year-olds, but someone in their middle age will have a different perspective of what I'm saying, having been beaten by fate so many times but also seeing hope around the corner which makes you reach for it. That song in particular is like, "Please, say it's here that these good things happen" when you know it might not or probably won't. It's a prayer. It's a dream. Let's say what we want instead of just describing how shitty things are.

On a good day, that's what you want for a song-that it holds the good and the bad in one statement that's challenging and interesting. Over the years, I've enjoyed putting myself into a new sonic space that was challenging to myself or unfamiliar. There's a lot of freedom in wordplay and associative lines that I didn't really have access to earlier in my songwriting, just because you get bored and you try something and hear something and try to apply it to what you're doing. Those are new ways of approaching things where you try to step out over the ledge a bit.

On this one, I felt I wasn't so interested in putting myself into a new sonic space or expression but rather just hearing what I was saying, what I was putting across, and arranging it not only in an interesting way to me but an appropriate way. There have been times over the years when something felt appropriate for a lyrical idea and then you realize you can do things a million different ways. With this one I was trying to get across the simplicity of what I was saying and have it reflected in the arrangement. They're not simplistic, but they're clear and economical.

Was the recording process simplified then?

This album was in the moment and the record is pretty much live for the most part. There were a few overdubs, but everyone in the room is kind of a composer in their own right. There was no shortage of great ideas, but from the beginning, we were all on the same page about a less-is-more approach. When we got off on a tangent, it was easy to remind ourselves as a group to move on.

Because we applied this discipline of doing it live for the most part, it also takes care of a lot of that second-guessing. It's fun to get creative and come up with different arrangements and overdubs. I've had whole records that were made where we recorded the whole record then overdubbed it and then recorded over the overdubs. That's a fun way of working and I wouldn't have been able to make this record without making those records, but that's not what this one was about.

These songs are all vulnerable and it sounds like that was your recording approach as well. Did that affect the cutting room floor?

I feel like it's important for what I like to write songs about. That's appropriate for this group for sure. There's a brokenness to them but I also don't think they're just sad. They're just honest songs about our frailties and our strengths. There's a song that I've been playing for a couple years called "The Waves of Galveston" that we did for this one and it didn't seem to fit into this group of songs. That was one that was left on the floor.

By the way, where did the title Beast Epic come from?

I just really liked the way it sounded. I came across that description in a poetry glossary as a way to describe stories like The Tortoise and the Hare, where you have animals acting like people. I think that's a fun idea anyway. I think it can describe all of us. There are a lot of connotations with it. Normally I pick a line from a song and throw it on there. This one I liked how ambiguous it was, but you can also apply it to any of the songs on there.

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Iron & Wine 2017 Tour Dates:

Oct. 12 - Chicago, IL - Thalia Hall*
Oct. 13 - Chicago, IL - Thalia Hall # - SOLD OUT
Oct. 14 - StPaul,MN - Palace Theatre #
Oct. 15 - Lincoln, NE - Rococo Theatre #
Oct. 17 - Missoula, MT - Wilma Theater #
Oct. 18 - Seattle, WA - Moore Theater
Oct. 19 - Eugene, OR - McDonald Theater  #
Oct. 20 - Portland, OR  - Aladdin Theater - SOLD OUT
Oct. 21 - San Francisco, CA - Warfield Theatre
Oct. 26 - Los Angeles, CA - The Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian*
Oct. 27 - Pioneertown, CA - Pappy & Harriet's* - SOLD OUT
Oct. 28 - San Diego, CA -  Balboa #
Oct. 29 - Phoenix, AZ - Van Buren #
Oct. 30 - Albuquerque, NM - El Rey  #
Nov. 01 - Dallas, TX - The Kessler # - SOLD OUT
Nov. 02 - San Antonio, TX - The Aztec Theater #
Nov. 03 - Houston, TX - The Heights # - SOLD OUT
Nov. 04 - New Orleans, LA - Joy Theater #
Nov. 06 -  Ft Lauderdale, FL - Culture Room#
Nov. 07 - Orlando, FL - The Beacham #
Nov. 09 - Washington DC - Lincoln Theatre #
Nov. 10 - New Haven, CT - College Street Music Hall  #
Nov. 11 -  Boston, MA -  Berklee Performance Center # - SOLD OUT
Nov. 12 - Northampton, MA - Calvin Theatre #
Nov. 13 - New York, NY - Town Hall #
Nov. 14 - Brooklyn, NY - Brooklyn Steel*
 
# w/John Moreland
* w/OHMME

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