Interview: Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) Talks Into Our Ears

Sam Beam is the genius behind the moniker Iron & Wine. Earlier this year, fans were given an early Christmas present of demos and B-sides, which included the soft acoustic and ongoing hiss vibe that drastically changed since the release of Kiss Each Other Clean. Now Sam has teamed up with Ben Bridwell of the incredible Band Of Horses to release the collaborative covers album, Sing Into My Mouth…

Why did you choose to collaborate with Ben and why record a covers album instead of writing brand new material?           

Ben and I have been friends for a long time. We grew up in the same town and his older brother is one of my good friends. We used to get together and trade music, keeping each other in the loop of what we listened to. We had a lot to do with the beginning of each other’s music careers, getting signed to Sub Pop in Seattle. Eventually we got busy doing our own things but we always talked about recording something together. We saw each other two years ago and decided it was time to clear our schedules and book studio time. We talked about the idea of writing some stuff together but the covers idea was a bit more fun just because there were so many great songs that we wanted to interpret. In the interest of time we could go in and not have to spend so much time developing songs. Our friendship was born sharing songs that we loved.

Why was the album released as Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell, not Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell?

My touring band contributed to the music. I’ve always thought of my recorded output as Iron & Wine. Maybe that will change someday…

What’s the inspiration behind the name Iron & Wine?

There was a home remedy called Beef, Iron & Wine that people used to take. I had never heard of it but I saw some on the shelf of a country store in South Georgia. It struck me as an interesting combination of words and the old bottle seemed mysterious to me. It sounded like a fun contradictory combination of words that seemed perfect for music.

Tell us about your history with film and how it shaped your songwriting and musicianship…

I went to an arts school and got into photography and cinematography. I had always been interested in movies but I didn’t think of it as something to pursue until I had access to the equipment. It was a real multidisciplinary art form where I could satisfy a bunch of things I was interested in, whether it was image making, storytelling or music. I pursued that for a while, working and teaching in the industry but then my music changed from a hobby into a career. There’s a lot of crossover between the two styles of writing. With cinema you’re limited to the description of action and dialogue, which makes for a real storytelling and visual style. I don’t really write screenplay songs but I was definitely drawn to film-making because I like visual storytelling. My songs are a lot like poems and some of my favorite poems are pretty visual in their approach.

I heard your versions of Peng! 33, Such Great Heights and Waiting For A Superman before the original versions. Explain the difference between covering a song and making someone else’s song your own…

Is there a difference? I’d imagine if you cover it, the song should become your own. I’m definitely interested in interpreting a song; finding something that wasn’t in the recording that I was familiar with and using a song as a script instead of something written in stone. Lyrics and chord changes have a lot of room to be manipulated. It’s fun to squeeze some other sentiment from a set of lyrics that might not have been emphasized in another version. I treat it like a draft of a play rather than some sort of tradition that has to be repeated over and over again.

Someone commented on the Stereogum announcement of Sing Into My Mouth, “I’ve long held the belief that once Sam covers your tune you might as well stop performing it yourself.”

That’s a ridiculous comment. It’s hard for me to enjoy interpreting a song if I don’t react to the music initially. It’s hard for me to fake it and luckily I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that. I just pick one bit I like and find something fun to draw out of it that hasn’t been done before. Honestly, I can try to sing any of the songs on this record just like the people who wrote them and it would still sound like my own interpretation and people would get something different out of it. It’s a matter of intention; I choose the song with respect and enthusiasm and hopefully something good will happen.

What are your opinions on ASCAP’s fairly recent cracking down on all live music venues having owners pay royalties?

I think it’s important but I don’t really have strong opinions. I’m a musician. I’m used to being robbed. I think it’s appropriate for large venues. Promoters make a lot of money and it’s a hard job. There’s a lot of money in concerts to be shared and people don’t like to share. At the same time I think it’s inappropriate for ASCAP to take away from small clubs that don’t make a lot of money. There’s a sliding scale that needs to be applied. I don’t go waving a flag for this kind of thing because I’m just trying to make a living.

Sticking with this theme, how does a “covers” album work in terms of copyrights and royalties? They are essentially your versions of the songs but the lyrics are not original…

It has to do with the publishing. You can play any song you want, obviously, but if you want to record it and sell it you have to pay them a portion of the profits. There are a lot of people to track down too, so that was interesting.

Tell us about launching your own record label, what inspired you to do so and if we’re getting some more of those old genius demos…

(Laughs) Yes. There will be more. In between labels I had a window where the music I was working on was going to take some time to develop, so it seemed like a good time to put out some old music. People had been asking for those old songs for a long time. Everything goes through my label Black Cricket now. There’s so much music I was recording years before the first record came out but I couldn’t put everything out. That wouldn’t be nice. The Archive series is a generous idea in the sense that I can put out old unreleased material, demo versions of records, cover songs and live recordings. Also generous in the sense that it’s for the fans.

Sing Into My Mouth is available now.

Interview by Scott J. Herman