An Unpredictable Journey - EMusician

An Unpredictable Journey

Since emerging on the music scene in the early 2000s, Iron & Wine—the nom de musique of idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Sam Beam— has produced an impressive body of work that touches on many styles, is laced together with simple and complex lyrics rich in imagery and metaphor, and become more technologically sophisticated with each album.
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The Fearless Musical Adventures of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Producer Brian Deck

by Jack Britton

Since emerging on the music scene in the early 2000s, Iron & Wine—the nom de musique of idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Sam Beam— has produced an impressive body of work that touches on many styles, is laced together with simple and complex lyrics rich in imagery and metaphor, and become more technologically sophisticated with each album. Beam has moved from the sparse, DIY, home-4-track feeling of his much-loved debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, to albums featuring all sorts of interesting musicians from the indie rock world playing everything from marimbas to kalimbas, synths to bass clarinet, and some of the most unusual sonic touches this side of a Tom Waits disc. The strong melodies and ethereal lead vocals that have always been a trademark of Iron & Wine are still very much intact, but this year’s model, as captured on the just-released Warner Bros. album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is intent on taking listeners on a fascinating and unpredictable musical journey.

Since they first paired up on the 2004 Iron & Wine album, Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam and Chicago-based producer Brian Deck (a former member of Red Red Meat, Califone, and producer of discs by Modest Mouse, Gomez, etc.) have been creating ever more adventurous albums together. Kiss Each Other Clean took about a year to make, and involved considerable commuting between Beam’s home studio outside of Austin and Deck’s Chicago base—Engine Studios, which he co-owns—and then telecommuting at the mixing stage. From beginning to end, there was a free-flow of ideas and copious experimentation.

Beam’s recent projects have started with fairly developed demos he makes at home “on an outdated Pro Tools system I have,” he says, “but using pretty good mics and instruments, and I have Focusrite and these great Shea Ako mic pre’s. I’ll play Brian the version I want to pursue first, then play him some of the other versions I’ve tried, and we’ll pick out things we like—he’s a great idea board. I’ll throw stuff at him and he’ll say, ‘What about this? What about that?’ We both like lots of different types of music, so it’s a lot of fun to get together.

“We did the whole [2007] Shepherd’s Dog record at my studio, but this one was about half-and-half. We would go to Chicago and do rhythm section stuff tracking live with the band, and then I would take it home and sort of flesh it out in my studio, then go back and do horn overdubs and stuff like that, back and forth.

“I end up treating the record process a bit more like making a painting than going in and recording a moment in time,” he continues. “It starts out live, but then I would take out stuff and overdub over the top. Once you establish the melody and a certain tempo, you can kind of do whatever you like, and if you remove the foundation, then you’re sometimes left with this great floating thing that still has a groove to it. It still has a live feel to it—it doesn’t feel like a click-track thing—but it’s not a conventional approach.”

Adds Deck, “Everything evolves over time. It’s a big canvas and we’re throwing everything at it and finding out what works and getting rid of stuff along the way, and then when it comes time to mix, there’s quite a bit of paring down making sure what’s in there is as effective as it can be.” Trap drum lines were eliminated, hand percussion added; bass lines gave way to a synths and electronic pulses (lots of Moog Voyager); guitar parts (and reverbs) appear suddenly and disappear as quickly; vocal parts, some electronically altered, move through the sound field in strange but effective ways. “For the last two records, Sam’s been interested in taking the vocals as far as our imaginations can go,” Deck explains.

Beam and Deck both bring their multiplicity of shared and individual influences into the studio—Beam borrowing from African music, the Beach Boys, Eddie Grant, putting what he calls a “Zappa- Beefheart horn section” on one song, and in places going for the clean sound of late ’60s, early ’70s L.A. recordings of artists like Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan; while Deck takes off from great experimenters like Tom Waits, Brian Eno, and other more modern, cutting edge artists, engineers and producers, as well as the sound of classic late ’60s British recordings. It all comes together on Kiss Each Other Clean in a wonderful profusion of brilliant and fresh musical and sonic juxtapositions.

Deck notes, “I had an epiphany when the Recording the Beatles book came out and it had detailed descriptions of how they were working with the equipment and gizmos they had at the time. In 1966 and ’67, they would often play a song all day long and try a large range of tempos and styles, and sometimes completely different styles of playing a song would get edited together into one take they would then overdub on. Well, Sam and I wanted to have that attitude—where nothing about the songwriting process would be held as precious during the basic tracking. We were going to try to experiment as much as we could while maintaining an honesty all the way through—admitting whether or not we got something we could move forward with, and if we didn’t, no matter how much work had gone into it—we’d trash it and start again.”

Because Beam’s wife was having a baby this past spring, Deck mixed the record alone in his home studio for the most part, mixing in the box with summing through a Dangerous Audio 2-Bus. He’d then send the mixes to Beam over the Internet and they’d make changes over the phone. “We did a lot of premixing along the way,” Beam says, “but for the final mixes, he definitely had a good time and took a lot of liberties. That’s okay—I trust him,” he laughs.