12 Aug 2017

Iron & Wine's Sam Beam unleashes his inner beast

From RNZ Music, 1:00 pm on 12 August 2017
Sam Beam

Sam Beam Photo: supplied

Sam Beam is just as genial and easy-going as you’d expect.

Speaking in a thick South-Carolina drawl, he makes a point of reciprocating when I tell him how happy I am to be talking to him.

Shortly thereafter he’s teasing me about my age and being self-deprecating to an extent that seems excessive for an artist so beloved.

Iron and Wine’s sixth album Beast Epic is due out soon. It’s being hailed as a return to Beam’s folk roots, though truthfully he never strayed too far.

There’s less of the psychedelic production and syncopation that coloured his last two records Ghost On Ghost and Kiss Each Other Clean, replaced with the more immediate sound of a band sharing a recording booth.

It’s the loosest thing he’s done in a while, a change he credits to the jazz performers he enlisted.

“They’re all people who play jazz but they’re playing folk songs, and so these simple changes have this new expressive quality to them. They have a different vocabulary; a different word-bank to draw from to make these beautiful sentences.”

When Sub Pop Records announced they’d be releasing Beast Epic, it was accompanied by a lengthy statement from Beam, as well as a handy definition of ‘beast epic’: “A long, usually allegorical verse narrative in which the characters are animals with human feelings and motives”.

Beam seems to hint at the fine line between man and beast when he says “Animals who think and act and talk like humans... I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, or if you’re writing from the heart, that can be used to describe anyone’s work”.

Beast Epic

Beast Epic Photo: supplied

Iron and Wine records have always been awash in biblical imagery.

Beam was raised a Christian and now identifies as an atheist, but evidently still finds religion a fertile source of inspiration.

“As a writer I have to be very specific about who these people are that I’m writing about. You say ‘Bob’ and it doesn’t really mean a lot, but you say ‘Jesus’ and all of a sudden it has all this backstory and weight that you can play with as a writer”.

A return to a more stripped-back studio aesthetic also plays into the themes of the album.

“I have been and always will be fascinated by the way time asserts itself on our bodies and our hearts. The ferris wheel keeps spinning and we’re constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar.

“I think that’s something to celebrate, the way time repeats and keeps moving on. It seems better to embrace it and jump on for that ride, rather than try and resist it.

"It’s all like one line in your peripheral vision. It’s hard to look behind you and understand the distance, you’re always looking to the side and forward. You feel like the same person. But you’re not.”