Sam Beam of Iron and Wine | Interview

by John Dugan

Published: March 2, 2011

Sam Beam talks about creating Kiss Each Other Clean, kindergarten art, trying to please your fans and beards. By John Dugan

Iron & Wine is largely the solo project of South Carolina–raised Texan Sam Beam. But when the proggy folk band passes through Chicago this week, it’ll be a homecoming of sorts. On the surprisingly funky and detail-rich Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam recruited local bassist Matt Lux and most of Califone to color in his outlines. We phoned Beam as he was eating noodles in Amsterdam to discuss the process and his facial hair.

The new record heads into new territory. Was the recording process different this time?
I treated it like a painting, where you make marks, walk away and come back and react to what you’ve done and tweak accordingly. In that sense, it’s different than some of the other records, where I would go in the studio and come out two weeks later with a record.

It reminds me of the way singer-songwriters used to work in the ’70s. They’d utilize existing bands as a backing group, and let them have their say on the record. It’s not a total control-freak situation.
Yeah. It’s embracing the idea of what it could be. I was more anxious to be surprised than merely translating something that’s going on in my brain. I come in with some blueprints and we’d dress them up in lots of different clothes. I find making records by myself incredibly boring.

You created the wonderful album cover. What was the idea there?
When you were a kid in kindergarten, you would color all over a piece of paper with crayons, cover it with black tempera paint and then scratch a drawing into it. It was kind of like that, where the colors tend to be a little psychedelic because they’re all happenstance, little happy accidents. That’s what I started with, but to be honest, I did draft after draft and kept on messing up.

There are R&B and jazzy elements to the album. Do you have hard-core fans who want more of the stripped-down you?
You know the answer to that question.

They probably e-mail you all the time.
I learned early on that you do yourself a disservice trying to replicate the record onstage every night. As a player, and for the audience I think, it’s a mistake. You know, and I have lots of different opinions along these lines. On the one hand, I like to make people happy, I want people to enjoy the records. But I can’t make records for that reason.

Do you feel any responsibility for making beards popular?
I never knew they were in, man. I never knew they were out of style.

So this isn’t a phase.
That I was, like, the first person on the planet with a beard was crazy. All my friends always had beards, because we’re all lazy. It never had anything to do with fashion, it was just because we didn’t have real jobs. I hate shaving, don’t you? If the music thing dries up, and I have to get a corporate job, maybe I’ll shave it. Or if I have to go into the witness-protection program or make a radical change in music style. If I go fully R&B, I might have to trim up.

Iron & Wine visits Riviera Theatre on Friday 4.