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March 23, 2006

In the reins: Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) brings Calexico on the wings

If you know it, you could detect Sam Beam’s voice within any piece of music, played on any medium, at whatever volume, no matter what kind of crowd noise may be competing for your ears. His breathy, wood-stove timbre is that distinct. Not that you’d really ever be confronted with such a condition, as his Iron & Wine nom de plume is now a tag for a kind of music: a hybrid subgenre of singer-songwriter and alt country with the kind of twist that got him on the famous indie record label Sub Pop. Really, Beam — a heavily bearded Floridian who is a husband, father and former film professor — will never be copied. His records, particularly Our Endless Numbered Days and the recent EP Woman King — the latter 23 minutes and 58 seconds of sincere, terrorizing low whispers, hums and fingered strings that whiplash Neil Young on a good (not great) day — have received vast critical acclaim, with resounding cries of affirmation from even the weirdest corners of musical criticism. His new EP, In the Reins, is a collaboration with the mighty Calexico that sees both on their high games. Frankly, it sounds more like an Iron & Wine record, if only because Beam is at the helm. Imagine Iron & Wine with Calexico as the backing band. There ya go. LEO got a few minutes of Beam’s time on the phone a couple weeks ago. Here’s some of what he had to say. LEO: By all accounts I’ve read, you had a nice life carved out for yourself before everyone started hearing and liking your albums — a college professor, right? Sam Beam: Yeah, I was adjunct. I didn’t have much carved out. LEO: But wife and kids? SB: Yeah, music wasn’t my priority. That’s for sure. LEO: How much has your life changed in the past couple years? SB: Drastically. I write songs for a living and go on the road for a couple weeks at a time every now and then. So, yeah, it’s a big difference. LEO: Are you happy with the way your music’s been accepted by a more mainstream audience? SB: I’m happy that people seem to enjoy it, yeah. LEO: Has it affected the way you write songs? SB: No, not really. I started writing them for me only, I was kinda the only audience member. I still kind of do that, really. You can’t predict public tastes, man. It’s a ridiculous little venture. LEO: Do you read reviews? SB: I used to read more than I do now. Just ’cause when we first started putting (records) out, it was fun to just know your stuff was out there and people were listening to it. But I’ve kind of quickly come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really help you put the pen to the paper, whether it’s a good review or bad review, either one.LEO: Do you write outside of writing music? SB: I used to more than now (laughter). I don’t know. Well, I used to be more involved in filmmaking, stuff like that. Now, when I have spare time, I’m trying to work on songs, just so I can keep doing that. LEO: How did the collaboration with Calexico come about? SB: The fella who’s putting the record out, his name’s Howard Greynolds, he runs Overcoat Records, and he actually contacted me about the same time Sub Pop did about putting out the first record, and so I talked to him for quite awhile, he’s a good friend. So one of the ideas that we threw around was that of putting out — the way that first record came out, which is all the home recorded stuff — take some of the songs and have Calexico sort of be the backing band. Obviously that never really panned out. But we always batted the idea around of working together. So we eventually just cleared the schedules and did it. LEO: I think a lot of times collaborations can come off as, like, “Here’s a pile of throwaway songs that we tried to make something of” or something like that. But I really do think it’s a solid record. SB: Thanks. I don’t know, the songs were all stuff that didn’t make it on the record, so in a sense they were sort of throwaway songs (laughter), but we didn’t treat ’em like that. I mean, (Calexico’s) so professional, they’re so talented; they could take any song and make it interesting. LEO: What do you do when you’re not on tour? Do you still teach?SB: No, I don’t teach anymore. I do as little as possible.