EQ Interview Extras: Iron and Wine
The February 2011 issue of EQ profiles Iron&Wine's "Kiss Each Other Clean." Here’s more wisdom from Iron & Wine (Sam Beam) and producer/engineer Brian Deck.
Our Endless Numbered Days was move away from the DIY aesthetic, and you started working with Brian Deck and going into a studio, surrendering some of the control and responsibility. Was that tough for you?
Beam: It’s hard to do. I met Brian on this tour when he was playing in the Ugly Casanova band with Isaac [Brock] and we were opening for them. I was always such a Califone and Red Red Meat fan, and the stuff they did with Isaac was great, so I knew it was something I wanted to do.
But it’s hard to learn how to collaborate, man, after you do it so long as a hobby by yourself. It wasn’t actually that I was unaccustomed to collaborating. I had a film background and that’s all about collaboration, but with the film stuff I understood how it all worked, what the division of labor was, and the end result was something I always understood how to manipulates, whereas with music I was getting what I got with the equipment I had and I didn’t understand how to listen to a tracking session in a studio—it freaked me out. At the same time, I trusted Brian because we were good friends and I had a lot of good friends around me. It was a real steep learning curve for me, for sure.
Each record gets a bit more complex, I guess, and the palette is a bit broader. You look back at my early stuff and it seems more monochromatic, for sure.
Deck: When we did Endless Numbered Days, I was very interested to broadening the sound palette and he wasn’t at that point. We had conversations where he said, “I’d like to experiment somewhat, but I want to keep it close to home.” So at that stage, “experiment: might mean we used an electric guitar amplifier. [Laughs] The most experimental thing I did on that album was he sang through two microphones at the same time. I had an SM57 going through an old Vox amp and I would mix that, and he also sang into a C-12 and then those were blended together in different proportions for different songs.
I think he had it in his mind that he wanted to do a fairly faithful Iron & Wine record and see how that went, and then take it from there. Because he came back almost immediately and then did The Woman Came EP which was mostly him and me, and we got quite a bit farther out. For Shepherd’s Dog, the truth is he did some pretty intense demos where he’d actually layered a bunch of things up and we had sort of intended, when we did the actual songs, to do a more traditional kind of rock rhythm section, but it just didn’t work. We’d both become so accustomed to his demos and the way those had been layered up with hand percussion and stuff like that, we were able to use very little drum set on the record.
Were all the songs on Kiss Each Other Clean written around the same time and intended to be “an album”?
Beam: More or less. I keep writing all the time; I don’t write for records specifically. Then when it’s about time to record something, I look and see what I’ve got and try to tailor it to one project. It’s a little arbitrary, personal thing—you pick out which ones seem to go together, or maybe there’s a loose thematic thread, ‘loose’ being the operative word.
And it was worked on at both Engine Studios and at Sam’s House?
Deck: A lot of songs were started at his house and then taken a little bit further at Engine studios. Some were started at Engine and taken to his house. For the past two records, that’s what we’ve been doing—going back and forth. On the newest record he wanted to record with his live band and that’s what we did. We basic-tracked almost everything at Engine with live drums, bass, at least one guitar, scratch vocal. That was a pretty new thing for him that he hadn’t really done before. Everything else had been built click-track, acoustic guitar, second acoustic guitar, vocal, second vocal and we’d build from there.
Sam,you mentioned that you would sometimes have versions of songs that were radically different from each other. What’s an example on the new album of one that changed significantly from the original demo conception to what’s on the album?
Beam: “Rabbit Will Run” is one. That started as a regular 6/8 Southwestern thing, and then it turned into this whole other thing. I had been listening to some African music, where the band is playing in 6/8 and mbira’s and kalimbas and other percussion was playing in 4/4, and I just love that stuff. So we tried that and then it just opened up once I started messing with the thumb piano [mbira]. It was another thing where you just sort of trust that your melody will carry the thing.And then you throw whatever you want on top of that.
Deck: On “Rabbit” we also got rid of the drum set in large portions of the song and replaced it with some hand drums at some point and some other overdubbed toms played with sticks and other percussion doo-dads.
Is your sound exploration process with Brian something that stretches out over months for a specific song, or do you tend to work on one song at a time in a shorter time span?
Beam: It depends. Our decisions definitely change over time. We just try to stay open to what presents itself for each song. Sometimes we’ll go too far and we have to pull back a little and remember what we enjoyed about the song in the first place. Any idea can be a good starting spot and then you see where it will take you. That’s what’s fun about recording, as a opposed to playing live shows. In a live show, you have the moment and if you’re not fully into that moment, it’s going to suffer. Whereas with recording…well, I like making things—I come from that art school background where making things was what I liked to do, and you always leave yourself open to new ideas. You make a couple of strokes on the canvas and walk away and have a cup of coffee, and then you go back and maybe it looks different or you react to it differently. So it ends up taking a few months.
Deck: It’s a big canvas, and we’re throwing everything at it and finding out what works and getting rid of stuff all along the way. Then, when it comes time to mix, there’s quite a bit of paring down making sure what’s very effective in there. For the past two records we haven’t had the mix discipline of wanting to make certain that it was easy to perform live. That has never entered into the equation. Usually, he’s already moved on to new arrangements by the time he gets to performing the record live. [Laughs]
How do you ever know you’re done with a song?
Beam: You could work on it forever, to be honest. [Laughs] There were definitely a couple of others where we went through a few different versions, started over from scratch. “Monkey’s Uptown was one.” That started like a Television tune, a real guitar-heavy thing, and ended up sounding a little like that Eddie Grant tune, “Electric Avenue.”
Are you usually heavily involved in the mixing?
Beam: Yes, but this was a unique one for me in the sense that I kind of painted myself in a corner and spent too long tracking the record and we were getting ready to have a baby and I was trying to get it finished before the baby came so I wouldn’t have to think about it. So Brian and I thought it might be fun this time for him to do it by himself, because he has a studio at his house, so we basically did it over the phone. He understands what we were trying to do with the song, and sometimes he’d have a flash of inspiration in the middle of it and send me that. He would send me mixes over the Internet and we’d talk about it and make adjustments.
Deck: I’d usually spend a day, sometimes longer, getting a mix together and send it to him and get his comments. Usually it was ‘there’ by about the third revision; sometimes it took a little bit longer. I’ve been doing this all the time now. I haven’t mixed in a studio with the client around for a couple of years. Not because I don’t like to, but because the economics of making records these days dictates that it’s effective to do that—less travel, fewer hotel bills, less expensive studio rental.
Brian, do you have any advice for young musicians and engineers to keep them from being too maniacal about layering and fussing with their music?
Deck: [Laughs] Actually, I do. I think the best thing to tell people about how to prevent themselves from studio overuse is to really try to sharpen the vision of what their songs are supposed to be and finish writing them before you get into the studio. I feel like a lot of people today spend less time composing and making sure something is written and arranged in the most engaging way possible, and then rush headlong into the recording process before it’s time to do that.
Also, when people are forced to use a small number of resources as efficiently as possible, I think they get more inventive. When you’ve got a really powerful laptop computer and Logic Studio, you have way more power in your hands than The Beatles ever had. But I haven’t heard anyone recording an album on Logic Studio on a laptop that comes anywhere close to Revolver. And I’m not talking about the sound of it. I’m talking about conceptually. It’s in the songwriting and the vision of the songs.
People say the strength of a modern-day studio is you have the leisure to experiment endlessly and come up with things that you couldn’t have come up with otherwise, and that may be true—you might want to spend some time experimenting—but experimenting endlessly is very seldom fruitful, and I think if you’re as prepared as you can possibly be when you start working—prepared meaning fully rehearsed, having fully written something—that then frees you up to identify happy accidents as they happen and how to make them work with what you had already planned on doing.