Iron & Wine's Sam Beam talks about solo performance, filmmaking, his life in Florida and more
Sam Beam can’t believe it’s been a decade since Iron and Wine’s last performance in Tampa Bay.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” Beam said by phone from a recent tour stop in Chicago. “Where did the time go?”
Back then, he was just a shaggy, bearded troubadour playing whisper-soft ballads at a club in Ybor City. This time, though ... he’ll be a shaggy, bearded troubadour playing whisper-soft ballads at the Straz Center in Tampa.
“I’m gonna play this show solo, so it’ll probably be more like the records back then and the shows back then,” said Beam.
The return to solo performance is a little surprising, given Iron and Wine’s evolution over the past decade. Though he found fame and acclaim through dreamy, contemplative folk albums and singles (his cover of the Postal Service’s Such Great Heights appeared in the film Garden State), Beam has added rock and jazz to Iron and Wine’s sonic palette, and has expanded his band accordingly. Iron and Wine’s latest, 2013’s Ghost on Ghost, is something of an homage to jazzy AM rock of the ’70s — Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Elton John, Jim Croce.
But the way Beam sees it, a song doesn’t need to be performed by a set number of musicians in order to have the desired impact.
“I don’t really write a song with the finished product in mind. I wrote some chords and the melody, and you can put any kind of arrangement behind it,” he said. “The song is a script. You can use whatever actors or put whatever scenery you want. Some work better than others, but there’s no right or wrong answer.”
The movie metaphor is fitting, since Beam, a South Carolina native who now lives in Texas, studied film during grad school at Florida State University. He’s also lived in Orlando and Miami, giving him legitimate roots in the Sunshine State. When we got him on the phone recently, we talked about his Sunshine State past and more. Here are excerpts.
The last time I saw Iron and Wine was in 2009. You were playing with about eight people, and the sound was so much bigger and more joyous. Was there a time when you decided you weren’t really fulfilled writing music for just a couple of people?
This is frustrating, because it’s not “achieving what I want.” It’s not that kind of a thing. I played solo shows all throughout my entire career, but sometimes you like to shake it up, and I’d like to see what would happen if we put these other voices in there too, because I never consider a recording the end-all final version of a song. It’s just a song, you know what I mean? You sing it 10 different ways every tour. It wasn’t like I felt, “Finally, I’ll achieve what I have always been envisioning.” It’s not that kind of thing. It’s just, “Let’s see what else we can try. See what else this could be like.”
You went to film school at Florida State in the mid-’90s. What year did you graduate?
I left Tallahassee in ’99. I was in Orlando in ’96, then I was living in Tallahassee from ’97 to ’99 and Miami until 2005.
Did you have any particular formative musical experience during your years in Orlando, Tallahassee and Miami?
I knew I wanted to go to film school in Tallahassee, so I went down (to Orlando) to get ready. I was working at studios and restaurants and stuff; didn’t really have a lot of friends, smoking a lot of weed, listening to a lot of music. (laughs) So in a weird way, it was a very formative musical experience. A lot of time to just listen to music, you know what I mean? I’m a friendly guy, but I just didn’t know a lot of people there. So I had a lot of time to sit and absorb music, which was really big.
And then grad school, not a lot of people come through Tallahassee, but there are some very passionate music listeners in Tallahassee. I remember Low coming through and really enjoying it. I met a lot of people that ended up in my band, because those are the people that I was hanging around with when I started making those songs that eventually I had to tour on. E.J. (Holowicki), our bass player, was my roommate from grad school. So those musical connections were definitely Florida connections.
At this point, we’re 15 years out from when you left Tallahassee — does your film background continue to play a role in Iron and Wine?
Eh, you know. I never really felt like it played a huge rule in the first place, but a lot of people like to talk about it. (laughs) I think they assume that I was interested in writing a thing that I wrote about because of my movie training. I don’t know if it helps or not.
That said, I don’t have a lot of time to watch movies these days, but at the same time, I’ve been taking meetings with people and met a lot of directors, which is weird. I had a meeting with a director’s agent a couple of weeks ago, and it was like, this is the f---ing moment that I would have killed a man for 10 years ago, when I was in Tallahassee. This is one of the magical, mysterious things — the stuff behind the door that I wanted to see but didn’t have access to, because I was doing music. (laughs) Now that I’m into music, everyone’s interested in what I want to make. Isn’t that strange? If you pursue something directly, you’re denied it, and then if you come in through the back door, sometimes you get in. It’s just so bizarre.
But at the same time, it’s really exciting, ’cause there’s a lot of material that I would love to make into movies. So maybe someday. I don’t know. I’m having a hard enough time finding time to write songs at the moment. Just so much going on. But I’m working towards it.
It’s funny, because Such Great Heights had been around for a couple of years before Garden State, but that does seem to be the point where it really caught everyone’s attention. At that time, did you think, “Well, this isn’t how I expected to make it in the film industry, but I’ll take it?”
It was definitely a kick in the head, that’s for sure. I love irony. (laughs) Even at my own expense, I love it. And the Twilight films even more so, just on a whole ’nother level. It’s just bananas that the thing you’re so interested in would come at you in a totally different way.
With this being a solo show in Tampa, how will that take shape? Do you curate a setlist? Do you take requests?
Yeah, all of that. I’ll jot some songs down just in case no one wants to hear anything in particular, but if people call stuff out, I’ll definitely play it. I just try to have fun. It’s just me and them. Me versus them. Me and the audience.
I like the phrase “me versus them.” That’s an interesting way to describe a performance.
(laughs) It feels like that sometimes.
Even today, now that you’re not playing clubs, and playing theaters instead, do you still feel there’s a combative element between performer and audience?
Only if you make it. It depends on what you want from them. I definitely felt like when I first started out, I had something to prove. And I wasn’t a particularly secure performer. I’m still not. But at the same time, I’ve f---ed up in front of enough people to not worry about it and survive. (laughs) I guess I just feel more like a ringleader these days, rather than just a deer in the headlights. You have a very vital role in how much fun the people have, not just in what you perform musically on the stage, but in how you interact with them. You control the entire room, obviously. You can be courteous and fun and keep people engaged without just feeling like you have to put your head down, and if they don’t appreciate what you do musically, then f--- ’em. I’m not like a song and dance man, but at the same time, I know how to be nice to people. (laughs)
I can imagine, 12 years ago, you play a song like Upward Over the Mountain in a small club, in a way, you’re almost daring some jackass who’s had a few drinks to yell out.
Pretty much. A little bit too serious for what people are accustomed to in that setting, for sure. I definitely remember early on just being totally demoralized. I’m up there playing this really quiet song, and I can hear these two girls on the front row with their backs to us, leaning on the stage, talking about their f---ing grocery lists. I remember those days. But at the same time, luckily, I think because we got involved with the Sub Pop label, they had an audience already groomed. They were the curators, in a way, in this music-listening community. People were waiting for what Sub Pop put out. And I think we got really lucky and those ears heard us and pretty much immediately knew what we were about. I didn’t really have to deal with a lot of people that were just checking us out to check us out. Granted, they were small shows, but people went in knowing what to expect, and knowing that it was a show that you wanted to hear.
You’ve spent time all over South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Texas. When you come back to an area where you spent time in your formative years, do you revisit old haunts, or reflect on on times past?
Of course. I’m a human being. (laughs) It’s strange, because I’ve had a couple of experiences like that recently, revisiting old stomping grounds. Definitely, you feel unattached. It feels really familiar, but it also just makes you really reflect on how quickly time passes, and also as a traveler — not just somebody who goes on tour, but we’re all travelers in a certain way, right? Sometimes you move a lot faster than you think, and it’s a strange thing to come to an old familiar place and realize how fast you’ve been traveling, or how far.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*