Live On The Bridge


Iron & Wine

Sam Beam of Iron & Wine comes to the studio to perform a few songs and talk about his new EP, Weed Garden. He is also interviewed by Jon Hart here at KCPT.

AIRED: January 26, 2019 | 0:26:46

("Waves of Galveston" by Iron & Wine)

♪ Leave the waves of Galveston but only if you can ♪

♪ 'Cause you've been hid behind the seawall ♪

♪ Gently folded in the sand

♪ Papa left you for Heaven after your mama lost her song ♪

♪ And though your baby left you for Houston ♪

♪ No one stays there very long

♪ There's a graveyard by the pizza parlor ♪

♪ A gate that only closes

♪ Snowbirds fly away like secrets ♪

♪ No one really wants to know

♪ The climbing moon's always shining ♪

♪ On the kind of shells you keep ♪

♪ The broken horse tied to the water tower's ♪

♪ Running in his sleep

♪ It's too bad

♪ That you ain't got a soft place to fall ♪

♪ It's too bad

♪ Texas leans to the least of us all ♪

♪ And says, if you can make the music ♪

♪ Then you can have the dance

♪ If you can shoot the pistol

♪ Then you can wear the pants

♪ So leave the waves of Galveston but only if you can ♪

♪ 'Cause it's the only place

♪ The Lone Star kind have offered you a hand ♪

♪ Your baby left you nothing but a dog she left for dead ♪

♪ You never knew you were a burden ♪

♪ Till it hit you on the head

♪ It's too bad

♪ That you ain't got a soft place to fall ♪

♪ It's too bad

♪ Texas leans to the least in us all ♪

♪ And says, if you can make the music ♪

♪ Then you can have the dance

♪ If you can shoot the pistol

♪ Then you can wear the pants

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Truly an honor to be joined by Sam Beam,

who you know you are Iron & Wine, right?

You're Iron & Wine right now.

- Right now I am, Jon, yeah thanks. (laughs)

I think so.

- The band kinda varies.

Sometimes it's you, sometimes it's a big band.

- Yeah, it's a band with one permanent member.

- Yeah.

So you have been incredibly busy,

and I hope you don't mind if we just sort of

rundown a little bit of a laundry list.

- [Sam] Sure, yeah.

- First of all, Grammy nominated Beast Epic.

- Yeah, that was nice, huh?

- Yeah, pretty cool, right?

Weed Garden, the EP that has followed

and seems to be a bit of a companion piece.

The two that I'm gonna kind of

get a little bit out of the way are

the ones that preceded them.

They were a little bit unusual.

You did the duets record with Jesca Hoop

- Right, yeah.

- And you know the thing that I loved

about Love Letter for Fire is that you described it

as your Kenny and Dolly

Islands in the Stream. (laughing)

- Yeah, we used to do that song, too.

- Yeah? - Yeah, in the shows.

Kind of a broken bent kind of version of it,

but actually it was really fun.

I always liked that template for songs.

It expands the narrative.

It's like it's all about subtext

instead of actually like a monologue.

It's really fun.

- Yeah.

You, for maybe the first time ever,

sort of gave up the complete total

dictatorial control over songwriting.

- Yeah, yeah, that was a real treat, too.

I mean I think I got lucky with someone

really talented that I trusted,

and was really inspirational.

- So, Sing Into My Mouth was a covers record

that you did with Ben Bidwell of Band of Horses.

You grew up with him.

- Yeah, we did, yeah.

We grew up in Columbia, South Carolina.

We were roommates for a while,

and we used to you know get home from work

and listen to records and talk about music.

And then he went to Seattle and got busy,

and I went other places and got busy.

But we had a lot to do with

the beginning of each other's careers.

So it was fun to be able to come back

and sorta revisit what we did when

we were roommates decades ago.

- He was instrumental in sort of shifting your life path.

- Definitely. - You had gone

out and gotten an MFA.

You were painting, and then photography,

and film started up.

- Right.

- And music was a hobby until Ben passed

a demo over to Sub Pop?

- Yeah, and they called me.

I was pretty sure they had the wrong number.


'Cause I thought I knew what Sub Pop was.

I mean in my mind it was Nirvana

and Soundgarden, those things.

But, yeah, it was a real treat, yeah.

So I tried to return the favor.

So when he started the Band of Horses

I tried to take him on tour and give him a leg up

'cause the music was great.

- Yeah.

The film thing was what you were really into.

You were you were making films, you were teaching.

I just was really struck when you were talking

about your songwriting process,

that you sort of talk about your songs

as if they're stories,

and I wondered if your background in film

sort of led you to write that way.

- Well, definitely.

I mean they definitely come from

the same kind of source material,

you know creative little whatever my interest.

Yeah, it seemed to go towards narrative

and visual storytelling.

I think it's part of the reason why I

describe more than explain a lot in stories,

you know it's a bit more like you can enter

into the song because you have

a relationship with birds, and stones of your own,

instead of me describing like how to feel

or describing in depth how I feel.

You relate it to your life.

I paint a picture that people can recognize.

And so I don't really grab from screenwriting and stuff.

I think I was just interested in that

because they felt similar to me,

my approach to painting, my approach to songwriting,

my approach to screenplays

whereas they shared a common bond.

- You know when we got the record, I was almost troubled,

'cause I would look over at the cover

and it would say Beast Epic,

and it was sort of like Beast Epic, what is that?

Beast Epic turns out to actually be a thing.

- Yeah, it's a thing.

I have a poet's dictionary, poet's thesaurus,

since that sounds pretty lame.


But it's really fun.

They have definitions of like of what a sonnet is,

and things like that,

but it also has like little pieces

that you discover something.

A beast epic is a term used to describe

a story where animals act like people.

Like The Tortoise and the Hare, Goldilocks,

The Three Bears, these kind of things,

where I just thought that was wonderful way

to describe ourselves, animals acting like people. (laughs)

- Yeah.

I want to talk about the songwriting just a little bit

because on the face of it

it's like your songs are so beautiful.

- [Sam] Thanks.

- They're just they sound so soothing and so warming,

and yet at the heart of them there's conflict

and difficulty and struggle.

- It's like me. (laughs)

No, I mean I think it's like all of us.

I make music that I like.

I also think that my voice is a thing

that I can't really get around.

I tried to shout over punk rock songs,

it doesn't really work.

The things that I like to write about, they are complicated.

There are soothing parts about it

and there's also, life is complicated.

I think that's what's interesting about it.

- Like, I love your lyrics, right, and I listen to them,

and I take my own meaning out of them,

and maybe some of that's even the meaning that you intended.

- [Sam] (laughs) Maybe.

- But the thing that strikes me about it is

is that for all of the meaning in your lyrics

your songwriting begins often as gibberish.

- Yeah, I've talked to a lot of people.

I think that's a pretty common thing.

Unless you approach a song like I have this set of lyrics

and I'm gonna find a melody to put them to,

usually you're just fooling around on the guitar

and messing around like you just happen upon a melody,

and then the words you start, yeah,

like you said just singing gibberish,

just consonants and phrases.

That's just part of the process that I enjoy,

just sort of messing around on the guitar

and humming nonsense. (laughs)

- I've heard it descried the title

a couple of different ways.

One was sort of like these are the

songs that were weeded out 'cause they didn't quite fit,

and then going back into the weeds to finish these songs.

You know the thing that I kinda came to

is that it's like you share a trailer with my wife.

It's like she doesn't want me to pull

the dandelions because they're so pretty.

So you strike me as being the guy

that would find beauty in the weeds.

- (laughs) Yeah.

Yeah, on a good day.

Except when I'm out there on my knees pulling 'em out.

- You've done EPs before.

- Yeah, I think they're fun.

I mean because they're a bit non-committal. (laughs)

There's so much music now that you have

to put a lot of energy into promotional work,

and so those machines are the wheels

are large and don't move very fast.

But an EP it's sort of more for the fans,

and just sort of a way for me to keep working.

Yeah, it's just a fun way to keep working really.

I like to work.

- Yeah.

So you know famously one of your Eps

was a collaboration with the guys from Calexico.

- Yeah.

- And I've run into a few interviews

where you say that you're gonna go back to work

with those guys. - We are, yeah.

Yeah, this year.

- Can you like hurry that up a little bit? (laughs)

- Well, I mean I don't. (laughs)

- I don't want you to cut this short.

- (laughs) Yeah, I guess I'll go.

Yeah, I'm excited about that.

I love playing with them.

So we'll see what happens.

- Yeah, absolutely.

You picked up guitar at 15 and started

playing it with your friends,

and again it was just sort of a lark, a hobby.

But I kinda wondered if maybe that you

got sort of permission to do that in your own head,

maybe without even knowing it

because your grandmother had played piano by ear?

- Yeah, she did, she played in church by ear.

Yeah, I think it's just sorta in the family.

My Irish side of my family loves music.

I mean all my family loves music,

but they were the ones who sorta dove into it.

Yeah, permission is a funny thing.

I mean I grew up in the South where you know

the arts are important, but only when they're successful.

It's hard to like really embrace the weirdos.

So I've had to give myself permission over the years

and I'm glad I figured it out as a grown-up.

- Yeah, so you listened to country music,

you heard the hymns in church, Motown 70s R&B,

and so with those influences you went out

and played punk music. (laughs)

- Yeah, you know I was swimming in the

same water as everyone else my age.

But, yeah, it's funny in hindsight to look back

and see how much of a influence those forms

and those structures and those melodies had on on me.

I still think my favorite melodies are hymns.

- Yeah.

We'd love to hear another song if we could.

- Let's do another one.

This is one from the Beast Epic record.

It's called Thomas County Law.

("Thomas County Law" by Iron & Wine)

♪ Thomas County Law's got a crooked tooth ♪

♪ Every traffic light is red when it tells the truth ♪

♪ The church bell isn't kidding when it cries for you ♪

♪ Nobody looks away when the sun goes down ♪

♪ Thomas County Road takes you where it will ♪

♪ Someone's singing on the far side of other hills ♪

♪ And there's nowhere safe to bury all the time I've killed ♪

♪ Nobody looks away when the sun goes down ♪

♪ There's a couple ways to cross Thomas County Line ♪

♪ You can't see beyond the trees, they're too tall and wide ♪

♪ And I never seem to see around my brother's wife ♪

♪ Nobody looks away when the sun goes down ♪

♪ There are castles for kings

♪ There are birds without wings ♪

♪ I could whine 'bout it all

♪ But I won't

♪ Thomas County Law's got a crooked tooth ♪

♪ There ain't a mother with a heart less than black and blue ♪

♪ When they hold 'em to the light, you can see right through ♪

♪ Every dreamer falls asleep in their dancing shoes ♪

♪ I may say I don't belong here, but I know I do ♪

♪ Nobody looks away when the sun goes down ♪

♪ Nobody looks away when the sun goes down ♪

- [Jon] That was really lovely.

- Thanks. (laughs)

- Lots of music out there.

The two most recent of course, Beast Epic and Weed Garden.

So both of those were recorded

in Chicago at Jeff Tweedy's studio.

- Yeah, they've got a fun little clubhouse

that I managed to steal the keys from, keys for anyway.

- Clubhouse is pretty much the the operative word there.

- Yeah, it's really cozy.

I've met them over the year you know at festivals

and things, we have a bunch of mutual friends,

and so, yeah, luckily I got to work in their little space.

It's what I imagine like the Beatles' submarine was like.

It was like everyone, George and Ringo,

everybody had their own little bunk,

and like a little workstation.

I'm serious, Glenn has like all

these percussion little shelves.

It's crazy, but it was super fun.

- Yeah, when you started out,

it was not unlike what we're hearing today,

and then as your career progressed

you kept layering on more things,

and experimenting, and it got bigger and denser.

You know you picked the appropriate time to do that

when you moved from Sub Pop to Nonesuch,

'cause the big labels always want bigger, right?

So that sort of facilitated that.

- I'm not sure what they want. (laughs)

They want success.

- But you know after you've experimented,

and after you've learned from all that experimentation,

this time around you sorta took everything

that you'd learned and settled back into the old ways.

- Yeah, I mean I definitely,

you know as you grow and you live and keep working

you're always trying to push it into some new area

of you know creative work just to keep yourself interested,

and just see what's around the corner.

I always like what's around the corner more.

It's always more interesting than

what you're working on at the moment.

So yeah, I couldn't get much quieter,

so I just you know was developing things.


And so with this one I wasn't really

like pushing any like sonic, you know,

pushing myself sonically.

I just was listening to what the songs were saying,

and it just seemed more appropriate

to have a bit more of a stripped-down approach.

It wasn't like I have to do something

different than the other ones.

I felt like the other ones were kind of fun

in the sense that they were complicated sonically,

but the message was simple,

you know it's just a strange contrast.

Whereas this one I felt like it was more appropriate

just to sort of let the lyrics be heard

and let the song just sort of come and go really.

But at the same time I feel like there's

some you know complex arrangements

that I couldn't have done at the beginning

without making those more fleshed out records

playing with a lot of jazz musicians and things like that.

You know you sorta learn how to make

a complicated but also beautiful and broken

and human expression just in a minimal way.

- So mostly acoustic this time.

- Yeah, I think it was all acoustic honestly.

I think what I was really interested in

in electronic sounds was like this sort of dissonance

to counterbalance all the pretty

that you were talking about earlier.

But I've discovered you can make a lot of racket with

(laughs) dissonant noise with acoustic instruments too,

yeah, it seemed like the way to go.

- So everything was simpler, everything was more laid-back,

but that also gives space for some of your

band members and some of the arrangements.

You've spoken of it as if it's

almost improvisational at times.

- It definitely was.

I mean there's pretty simple you know folk kind of forms.

There's only so many chords.

We're not modulating all over the place.

But inside those spaces there's a lot

of room to make melodic decisions,

you know as an accompanist there's

lots of room for improvisation.

I was approaching it a lot like some

of the early '70s Van Morrison records,

you know when he was playing with jazz musicians,

or like those John Martin records, obviously, like the Joni.

I mean those records have a really soft spot in my heart.

And so inside that format there's

a lot of room for, yeah, expression.

- You know when you play with

people that are that accomplished,

you have the production credit,

but you've said that it was almost

like a roomful of producers.

- Yeah.

Yeah, basically I didn't feel like we needed a producer

because everyone came in with good ideas.

I just sorta was the filter, (laughs)

really. - Yeah.

- I got to say yes or no.

But I like being in charge. (laughs)

- You know you've mentioned already

that you like to keep working.

The songwriting early in your career,

you said that it was almost like the Brill Building.

You know you dropped the kids off to school

and then you would go to work.

- Yeah, yeah, I tried to apply some discipline to it.

'Cause I feel like you know the more that you do it

you keep those muscles kind of loose

and working, the easier it is.

Now I'm not so good at that. (laughs)

I don't know, life is complicated.

- Well, you know, having five daughters has a tendency

to sort of. - It complicates things.

But at the same time,

I mean I enjoy doing it just as much, if not more.

I think I'm just not quite as hard on myself.

- Right.

You've spoken of your recent

songwriting as being more relaxed.

Is that just in the amount, or?

- Definitely in the amount.

I haven't been working as much.

But at the same time, you know,

just the approach is different.

I felt like I had something to prove to myself.

I think it was 'cause I didn't really

like have a musical background,

just like my whole career felt like a fluke.

So I had to like prove to myself

that I deserved to be there.

- We'd love to hear one more song if we could.

- Sure, yeah, thank you.

Yeah, thanks for having me.

This song is called Autumn Town Leaves.

("Autumn Town Leaves" by Iron & Wine)

♪ In this autumn town where the leaves can fall ♪

♪ On either side of the garden wall ♪

♪ We laugh all night to keep the embers glowing ♪

♪ Some are leaping free from their moving cars ♪

♪ Stacking stones 'round their broken hearts ♪

♪ Waving down any wind that might come blowing ♪

♪ Mice move out when the field is cut ♪

♪ Serpents curl when the sun comes up ♪

♪ Songbirds only end up where they're going ♪

♪ Some get rain and some get snow ♪

♪ Some want love and some want gold ♪

♪ I just want to see you in the morning ♪

♪ Dogs lay down in the evening heat ♪

♪ Fish do worse when they leave the sea ♪

♪ Songbirds only end up where they're going ♪

♪ In this autumn town where the lights can change ♪

♪ Some get mercy and some get blamed ♪

♪ Some get lost when they feel the river flowing ♪

♪ It's all holy smoke and the flame dies fast ♪

♪ We hold our hats while the days fly past ♪

♪ Cold wind comes and we wait but it keeps going ♪

♪ Fathers, sons and holy ghosts ♪

♪ All come back or they all come close ♪

♪ Songbirds only end up where they're going ♪

♪ Some get hard, some go home

♪ Some want flesh and some want bone ♪

♪ I just want to see you in the morning ♪

♪ I just want to see you in the morning ♪

- I'm so sorry that that's over. (laughs)

- (laughs) Thanks.

- Sam Beam, Iron & Wine is our guest.

And I just want to say that you

don't have to do these things.

It's such a gift that you've given us today.

- Oh, thank you.

- [Jon] We so appreciate not only

your artistry, but your time.

- Thank you.

And thanks for all your support over the years.

I do it because we're a team.

- [Jon] Yeah, I appreciate that a great deal.

- [Sam] Thank you.

- [Jon] Sam Bean, Iron & Wine on The Bridge.

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