On the eve of his accomplished Beast Epic release, Acoustic hangs with one of music’s coolest and hirsute players to chat new album, open tunings and that ace low end country blues sound
Words: Glenn Kimpton
When we catch up with Sam Beam, who performs as Iron and Wine, he is ready for the evening’s solo show in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The performance will inevitably be full of charm and strong tunes, as one would expect.
“Yeah I’m playing out solo tonight, which is cool,” he begins, cheerfully. “But for me, music is meant to be played with other people.” Considering his recent output – which includes strong collaborations with Jesca Hoop on last year’s Love Letter for Fire and Ben Bridwell on 2015’s Sing Into My Mouth – perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. “Playing with other people is a lot more fun,” he adds. “What I like about the solo shows, though, is that you don’t have anybody following you, so you can change songs on a dime and follow the muse. But the conversation between musicians is still more interesting and that’s what I’m really all about.”
That conversation is never clearer than on the new Beast Epic album, a set of 11 concise tunes that is fully deserving of the word ‘beauty’ in its truest sense. It’s a beguiling and unique record that immediately seizes the listener in a quiet grip and hangs on for 36 minutes. “I feel like beauty is what I strive for in music,” he says. “But beauty comes in a lot of guises and sometimes it ain’t pretty. Sometimes it’s where you’ve exposed something and come across a kind of resonant truth, and I love that. This album was a little different to make, because I wasn’t pushing quite so hard for something I didn’t recognise; I was just looking for something that struck me as true.
“I’ve been enjoying playing with a lot of jazz musicians lately, but approaching it from a bit of a folk angle. People have been doing that for years, so my template was those John Martyn records, or the Van Morrison ones to begin with. Even the Roberta Flack or Nina Simone records where they’re playing folk music, just with jazz musicians. They come with the same chord changes, just a different vocabulary and different transitions, and I really like that kind of music. That was in my mind at the time, but I didn’t have a specific idea of what it was going to sound like, and I think the results are all the better for that.”
One thing noticeable on the record is the space the arrangements afford; there is an unhurried, confident nature to it. “Yeah, that was intentional,” he nods. “I wanted the space on there to allow for that moment when a musician feels inspired to step forward, so there’s room for him to do that. But there’s also space for the lyrics to move on top as well. It’s a bit of a trick; people get used to improvising together, they know where the song is going and where there is room to make a bold move or just sit back and be supportive. It’s a fun atmosphere to create in a studio where it feels like a group of people working as one continuous in sync creature.”
It’s also a sure-footed musician who will strip back the sound and produce an album that throws another curve ball at the listener. “I do feel like there are a lot of similarities to the early stuff,” he considers. “Mainly because of the simplicity that there is to it, but at the same time it sounds significantly different to those records and it took the journey in between to get to that place…” He stops short and laughs. “I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how I’d describe it!”
Another way to describe the set is ‘acoustic’. Although there are some interesting dynamic and sonic shifts – not least the zany percussion intro to ‘About a Bruise’ – the acoustic guitar underpins each of the songs to create a steady hand on the tiller throughout.
“Yeah, this is the first record in a while where it’s been almost all acoustic,” he agrees. “I think there’s one song on there where I’m on electric guitar, but not really using it for what it’s capable of, just for variation. But I felt that that signature acoustic sound really glued all of the songs together; there is some variety in the types of songs, so it really fitted. I’ve been enjoying playing the acoustic at the home more often, so I tried to let that inform the recordings too. This whole album is pretty much acoustic, even the samples we used are like bowed glass or something! There were no electric sounds this time, but there are some really strange resonances on there. I wanted to stick to a smaller palette of sounds to draw from on this album; you still have all of these options, but it makes it more cohesive, especially when you’re trying to tackle different genres of music.”
Although a considered and subtle player, as Beast Epic testifies, it is clear that Beam knows his way around a fretboard, so we delved a little deeper into his musical background. “I only had so many instruments laying around, so I picked up an acoustic guitar because that was what was in the house,” he answers, simply. “My dad had one, but to be fair, most of the bands I listened to, be it punk rock or whatever, were all pretty much guitar led and had that driving percussive string sound. Going back, I maybe would’ve liked to have started on the piano, but guitar sure is fun. On this record in particular I used a bunch of different open tunings, I was having a ball just letting those bizarre chords that you come up with ring out and create these strange resonances. It was mostly open B, so really tuned down, but I’m notorious for using the capo, and if one string wasn’t working with what we were doing at the time, I’d just change it, so I don’t know half of them! Mainly it was like a DADGAD tuning, but with it all down to B; that’s how you get that twang and buzz and those deep resonances.” A little pause. “I like that stuff, man. It becomes less chimey and more textural and it also gives it a weight that I think they call ‘country blues’. You can call it whatever you want to, I just call it cool. I like the low end, I’m a sucker for the rhythm section and getting as low as possible into that groove.”
When it came to recording the new album, the band went up into Wilco’s Loft studio, and we all know how much Jeff Tweedy enjoys a decent acoustic. “Jeff has this incredible collection of guitars, so I was pretty much testing all of the time,” Beam says casually. “I ended up with a lot of parlour sized guitars and some lovely Collings ones too. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell you which ones I used, because I was always picking up something new. I sometimes used two or three for a song and hadn’t even realised I’d switched.”
It sounds like a ton of fun, but for Beam, it’s more of a sonic experiment. “I’m not really a gear person,” he admits. “So I don’t really have an allegiance to them; I just pick them up and try to make the best sound with what I’ve got. If it’s not working – I’ll reach for another. Every song is different, so I don’t really have a pre-set group of sounds I want. I think my voice is the only pre-set, everything else just kind of floats around it.” Unfortunately for Beam, he can’t load Jeff Tweedy’s attic onto a tour bus, so he makes sure he has some reliable instruments to take on the road with him and confirms that it’s less about the aesthetic of the instrument and more about the variety of sound it produces. “For the live shows I use these Taylor guitars,” he states. “I just love the pickup system that they have, it sounds really transparent and natural. I like them a lot better than the Piezo systems; it’s like a series of contact mics underneath the top and it sounds really cool.”
At 36 minutes, Beast Epic is a cohesive, compact set of songs – a choice that is becoming less usual these days for a major release (consider Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, which hits 74 minutes). But the ‘epic’ in the title doesn’t feel like irony. “Man I love short records,” Sam responds, with a cackle. “Even in a conversation, I want to be there slightly less time than I need to be. And I like the idea of giving [the listener] something that doesn’t answer everything, you know? I want an album to leave something for you to imagine that might not even be there.” He carries on chuckling for a bit at himself before concluding: “I think what it really comes down to is that I have a very short attention span. Short songs on a short record.”
Beast Epic is out now on Sub Pop.