By Jay Cridlin
Sam Beam can't believe it's been a decade since Iron and Wine's last performance in Tampa.
"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
"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, we talked about his life in Florida and more. Here are excerpts:
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 role 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.
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. (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.
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. 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 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, 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.