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Sounds sublime
A conversation with Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine
Sam Beam on songwriting: "I rarely go into it with an agenda, like trying to get something across. It's more like a list of images that do suggest a meaning."

There's a richness to Kiss Each Other Clean, the new Iron & Wine album, that transcends Sam Beam's impressionistic lyrics, or his gorgeous melodies, or even the appealing timbre of his rootsy singing voice.

Kiss Each Other Clean is a great sounding record. Every one of its 10 songs is brilliantly produced, using minimal instrumentation, but not so minimal that it sounds earnest and twee, like it was made in Beam's garage. Its fi is most defnitely not lo.

There are acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, bass and drums, horns and vibes. And background vocals so colorful they'll blind you the first time around (sung mostly by Beam himself, via overdubbing)

And the album achieves something rare and precious - there isn't a weak tune on it. Every song is better than the one before.

The buzzwagon has been on the road for nine years, ever since Beam's early ethereal folk-pop came to light on The Creek That Drank the Cradle, on indie label Sub Pop, back in 2002.

With each subsequent release, through 2007 The Shepherd's Dog, the critics got louder, the fans more fanatical, and Kiss Each Other Clean - Iron & Wine's major label debut, on Warner Brothers - is the sort of breakout record that could very well catapult Sam Beam into the mainstream.

As for Beam, he doesn't much care. He's just happy doing what he does.

Saturday's sold-out Trustees Theater show comes smack in the middle of Iron & Wine's Kiss Each Other Clean tour. All the tickets were gone in about a week.

Iron & Wine, in this instance, is a full band. A large band. But Iron & Wine, really, is Sam Beam.

A native of Chapin, S.C. (in the northwestern shadow of Columbia), the 36-year-old lives just outside of Austin, Texas, with his wife Kim and their five daughters (age 1 through 13). He has a studio in the house, to which he retires to work, "just like a job," he says.

We caught up with Beam by phone, somewhere in the Midwest.

Sometime in the 1970s somebody earnestly told me what every line in "I Am the Walrus" meant. Then John Lennon said it didn't mean anything - it was just a string of words and images that he liked, put together. Are your songs meant to be interpreted, or are they just things you daydream?

Sam Beam: It's a bit of both, but I would say it's more of the latter. It's more about discovering something as you're writing - I don't really go into it with a specific idea of what it's gonna be. I just sort of start to daydream, like you said, and then like any other form of writing there's a lot more shaping the thing and re-writing than it is about the basic inspiration. I rarely go into it with an agenda, like trying to get something across. It's more like a list of images that do suggest a meaning. Because they do have connotations, and they do say something when they're put together. But it's not always something real specific.

So there's no A.J. Weberman going through your garbage and saying "This is what he means!"

Sam Beam: (laughing) I hope not! There's a lot of diapers in that garbage, man.

The arrangements are getting more complex, the sound is fuller and there's more of a band sound. Was this a natural progression for you, or a conscious decision to change?

Sam Beam: I definitely wanted to make it more of a band record. As much fun as we had on the last record, it was more of a "click track" record, and I felt like it was definitely really apparent a lot of the time. I wanted to cure that, and I had a band that I was playing with that was a lot of fun. So we took them into the studio.
That's as far as I went with it. I didn't really have much of an idea past that.

Did any of it have to do with the fact that you were moving to a major label? Did Warner tell you to beef things up?

Sam Beam: Actually, I made the record by myself. There were a couple of labels interested in it. Warner came in after the fact, after it was made. I'm not sure what kind of record I would make to satisfy a major label!

You've talked about you appreciation of the early ‘70s singer/songwriters on Warner/Reprise.  Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot. You said you liked the "dryness" of those recordings, the clarity of the voices and simple instruments. Tell me what that means to you, and why it's important to you?

Sam Beam: I like the freedom it gives you, as far as when you want to use an effect, it's harder to hear the effect - like you want to use a phaser or even reverb - it's harder to hear it when you have a lot of other effects going on. Your bass tracks have an awful lot of reverb already. So it's like a control - you have these dry things going on, then when you use an effect you hear it more. Because there isn't a lot of other effects going on.

It gives it a sonic contrast. That's always fun to do.

They did that a lot on those records you're talking about - I thought it was really striking. Yeah, I guess to go with the Joni metaphor, this record's more Court and Spark than Blue, that's for sure.

Next I'll be looking for your Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Sam Beam: You never know! I feel like I play such a genre potpourri. People will say "I hear this in your music," and I usually always say "Yes," because it's probably there. I like lots of different stuff.

The high harmonies and falsettos remind me of the Beach Boys.

Sam Beam: Oh yeah, they are famous for the vocal stuff, aren't they? Ten years into it now, I guess I've just been learning to use my voice. I guess this was the one to do it on. There's more of an R&B thing going on in this record, too, where there's more "vocal group" kind of stuff. Where they're singing a different melody, more than just turning the main melody into a chord.

And I love melody, just in general, so it's fun to be able to do that - add more melody, whether it's with strings or vocals or whatever you're doing it with.

Before Iron & Wine, you taught film studies in Miami. Why didn't you become a filmmaker?

Sam Beam: Well, it's a lot cheaper to make music, that's for sure. I was on that track, doing music as a hobby in my spare time, and one took over the other. I had more opportunity in music. Not to say that I'll never try to make a movie, but it hasn't happened yet.

I like all kinds of stuff. Movies and music, I think, are a lot like food. Why would you just eat the same kind of food all the time, when there's so much out there? There are some great foreign films, there's some great American action movies. I like all kinds of stuff. I think I'm too old to try to define myself by what I like, by making it as limited and obscure as possible.

What would you like to happen for Iron & Wine now? Is there a game plan?

Sam Beam: I feel like this whole career is such a fluke. It's all been a blessing. I'll just kinda keep doing what I do and see what happens, you know? Obviously I'd like to try and take it as far as I can go with it. But at the same time, I'm happy where I'm at now. So I don't have much of an agenda.

I'm always writing. I'd like to record again sooner as opposed to later. This last one took a bit longer than I would have liked.

Iron & Wine

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23

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