September 21, 2010
As promised in the first part of this two-part series of “From the Archives,” here are some samples of the reporting I did to augment my earlier sit down with Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, just before he signed a deal with Sub Pop Records. This reporting resulted in a story in the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times,” which you can read here.
First, here is a simple between Q&A Sam and I compiled from email that followed our face-to-face interviews (This was mostly to flesh out details. I always have more questions as I begin writing a piece, and I would never call any story I turn in a finished work, just turned in at deadline, so I probably could have kept asking him questions)…
This was in response to an email dated May 19, 2002:
Hans Morgenstern: What singers would you consider an influence on your music?
Sam Beam: Lots of influences, primarily J.J. Cale and Nick Drake.
HM: There are lots of references to Christian imagery in your lyrics. Are you Christian rock? Maybe a follower?
SB: I’m not a Christian. I think the imagery slips in there so often due to the fact that I draw so much of my musical inspiration from the area where I grew up. I was raised in South Carolina, and the Bible belt tends to leave a very lasting impression.
HM: Did you know a friend of yours gave your demo to someone at Sub Pop?
SB: No, I didn’t know. His name is Ben Bridwell*, and he and I had been sending each other our music for quite some time (he was part of a band called Carissa’s Wierd) and Subpop was interested in doing a 7-inch with them and so he kind of stuck some of my music in their ears while he had their attention. I think half of the city of Seattle has heard of Iron and Wine thanks to Ben Bridwell. He’s really quite a saint.
HM: Did you record these songs to get signed?
SB: No, I had no real plans for getting signed. In fact, I was doing research at the time in order to release it myself independently. I honestly didn’t think anyone would be interested. Luckily I was wrong. Personally, I never really liked the idea of making a demo. I believe the music should come about for a different reason anyway. If I were to have sat down and tried to write songs in order to be signed, or to please some people that I’ve never met before, the songs probably would never have come about. Songwriting is hard enough without the added grief.
HM: How did you wind up on the Yeti compilation?
SB: Ben Bridwell again. He is good friends with Mike McGonigal and when [McGonigal] was putting together the Yeti #1, he asked if he could use one of the songs. It’s funny, Mike says he got emails from Czechoslovakia saying, “Iron and wine… what the shit fuck… where I find.” That was the defining moment, when I realized I had finally reached the Czechs… I knew I had a calling…
HM: How did you feel when you heard Sub Pop wanted to release your album?
SB: It was great.
HM: Did you ever think you’d release your songs on such a big shot label?
SB: Are they a big shot label? When I ask most of my friends in Miami if they’ve ever heard of Sub Pop, they say, “Who?” No, I never dreamed of it. It’s really very flattering.
HM: Why were you doing music in the first place?
SB: It seems like I’ve always been doing music. Ever since I got a guitar when I was 14, it’s just been a hobby of mine. It wasn’t until I came across a 4-track recorder a couple of years ago that I started thinking a little more seriously about it. Until then, it was just something to do in those spare moments of the day while trying to resist watching television.
SB: Yes, she does have red hair.
HM: How old is she?
HM: What’s your heritage (what part of Europe are your roots from?)?
SB: Scotch, Irish and English (hence all my internal conflict).
HM: Did you ever think you would be a making a career out of making music?
SB: No, in fact my father had some experience with music promotion when he was in college and warned me very early on not to look at it as anything but a hobby. I think it stuck, I never thought of it seriously as a career. He’s right in a lot of ways, the history of the music industry was written by thieves. So I just spent my spare time playing and writing out of pure enjoyment. I’d still do it, to be honest. The record deal and tour still seem pretty unreal.
HM: If you can, would you be satisfied to do that?
SB: Who doesn’t dream of being rewarded just for doing something they love to do?
HM: What’s it like to get your hobby turned into a career?
SB: When it happens, ask me again.
I think I hit them all, let me know if you need anything else. Good luck Hans and thanks for all your interest–
Talk to you soon-
* * *
You never interview just one person for an artist profile, and as I first saw Sam performing with Rene Barge of Cavity on that fateful night described in Part 1 of this post, I had to include him. After all, he was the more famous of the duo at the time. Plus, it turned out that odd pairing at Churchill’s was no fluke. They would play in that format again at now defunct club called Billabong (I believe it was located in Hollywood, Florida), a week or so after the publication of the original article.
Were there ever recordings made of the two playing these meandering prog-rock instrumentals? I would love to know. I had an old cell number for Barge, but I have not been able to reach him.
Rene Barge interview:
HM: Why is Cavity no more for you?**
RB: I did not feel ourselves as a unit. My needs at this time have been shifting
towards things more personal.
HM: How does it feel to turn from frontman to drummer?
RB: It’s quite different, focuses shift, so do sensibilities.
HM: What do you bring to Iron and Wine, creatively?
RB: The drums and percussion that is required. A patient and easy drumming that
locks into and rides just beneath intricate guitar playing. Oddly enough, it’s
got to find its place without interruption.
HM: Have you ever played drums before?
RB: About 10 years ago.
HM: Will you do anything else but play drums in this project?
RB: Sure, in time.
HM: Is this your full-time music job or are you keeping busy with other things?
RB: This is full-time and I do keep busy with other things.
HM: Are you going to tour with I&W, if need be?
RB: Yes. We leave on tour June 15 throughout the NE and MW with Ugly Cassanova and The Kingsbury Manx.
HM: How do you like being linked to Sub Pop Records?
RB: The folks at Sub Pop are fantastic, they are a true pleasure.
* * *
It’s Hans at the Miami New Times. I was just finishing up the Iron and Wine story, which we will run before Sam heads out on the road, and I wanted to have something from you in the piece (which is due Monday). Can you answer a couple of quick questions for me?
Jonathan Poneman: My pleasure!
HM: First, what is your title at Sub Pop?
JP: CEO, I guess.
HM: How did you come across Iron and Wine?
JP: I was introduced to Iron & Wine by way of a CD compilation that accompanied the first edition of “Yeti”, a pop culture ‘zine published in Seattle. I was initially entranced by the meditative quality of the music. Eventually I became enthralled by Sam’s voice and words.
HM: How soon after hearing their recording did you want to sign them?
JP: After a little badgering, Sam sent Sub Pop two CDs full of songs. After listening to both CDs once through, I was utterly convinced that working with Iron & Wine would be a tremendous opportunity and an even bigger honor.
Having now listened to both CDs dozens & dozens of times, I can say in full confidence that Sam is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
HM: What did you hear in Iron and Wine’s music that made you want to sign them to your label?
JP: Great songwriting– eloquent, spare and timeless. Beyond that, Sam has a knack for arranging that makes each song quietly arresting.
JP: Yes, he is.
HM: Why end that club?
JP: This’ll be the second time that we’ve ended it. It may return someday. It just felt like the time to give it a rest for a spell. If we had a dozen singles of Iron & Wine quality laying about, we’d certainly keep it going for another year.
Thanks! That’s it. I hate to do this to you, but I need your answers as soon as humanly possible, as my story is due no later than Tuesday, first thing in the morning. Much appreciated! Thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s a big deal that a guy from little Miami is signed to your prestigious label.
* * *
So those are some of the emails containing a bit of the raw information that would form the story published in the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” way back in 2002, just before Beam found his career in music. I leave you with the last song I recorded of him performing at Club Revolution, in Fort Lauderdale on April 12, 2008. It’s the full song of “Naked As We Came.” It’s a fitting end to this 2-part blog post, as it features just Sam and his guitar, like back in the old days, except on a bigger stage.
*He was singer in Carissa’s Wierd at the time of this interview but has since moved on as the frontman of Band of Horses.
**Cavity broke up about a year before this article was printed.
September 20, 2010
Iron and Wine’s website has only seen a few news bits dropped this past year. Most recently the band announced the title of its new album, Kiss Each Other Clean, slated for release sometime in early 2011. Not only is there finally some news of a follow-up to 2007’s the Shepherd’s Dog, but also a new tour. Mastermind Sam Beam corralled the band and kicked off a small tour in Europe only a few days ago. A longer North American tour will commence for a couple of dates in October and then again in mid November.
As far as how it pertains to the neighborhood from where I am blogging from (the Greater Miami area), the band has scheduled a stop in Miami Beach on Nov. 18 (tickets went on sale just this past Friday). I do plan to be there, video camera in hand.
So that’s the news on Iron and Wine, which makes it all too suiting for another installment of … “From the Archives” where I offer up some of the older stories I had written for press, prior to this blog.
I had the honor of knowing Beam as a local, low-key musician before his sudden rise to fame after signing to Sub Pop Records in 2002. As many Iron and Wine fans know, Beam originally hailed from Miami before he turned over is home-recorded demos to Sub Pop and got national exposure (he has since moved to Austin, Texas). Click on the retro-era mug of Beam for a link to the original story I wrote for the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times”:
But I don’t want to simply dwell on the published piece. I also would like to offer some behind-the-scenes perspective on what lead to the article and some of what occurred during the writing of the piece. This two-part blog posting, will not only reveal some of the work I do to compose an artist profile but also offer some of the unpublished information on Beam before he became the rock star he is today.
I first heard Beam’s guitar playing wafting out of Churchill’s Hideaway in the Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti, sometime in the later part of 2002. This was before he had even signed to Sub Pop. I think that night was supposed to be one of Churchill’s famous noise festivals, but what I heard as I approached the front door of the famous pub was this amazing droning, progressive electric guitar music. The musicality was like nothing I had ever heard during one of those festivals, and it wasn’t just because it was melodious. It also came from the fingertips of a very talented player, and one I had never seen on the local music scene before.
The guitarist had a strange, long bushy beard, unheard of on rock musicians in that early era of the ’00s (it has since become a trend bordering on cliché). His only accompaniment was Rene Barge, a local musician and former singer of underground noise punkers Cavity, on drums. They played meandering instrumentals that sounded like math-rock merged with country. Beam plucked his guitar strings in a manner that could have fooled the audience (if they had been paying attention) into thinking there was more than one guitarist on stage. Even the ringing effects emitting from the lo-fi guitar amp added a depth to the duo’s sound that made it sound more like an quartet than a two-piece, making for a mesmerizing aural experience. I, for one, was blown away.
After the show, Barge would introduce me to the guitarist, Beam.mBeam came across as a very friendly and humble sort, appreciative of meeting a new fan. He informed me that he was about to sign a recording contract with Sub Pop, and I immediately suggested a story in the “New Times,” a publication I often freelanced for back in those days. He would later send me a CD demo of tracks that would mostly become his debut for Sub Pop, the Creek Drank the Cradle (they were essentially the unmastered tracks).
I had been expecting more of the droning, melodic prog-rock stuff I had heard at Churchill’s– the kind of music a less hyper Robert Fripp might have produced. Instead, I heard this super chill singer-songwriter stuff with a country-fied twinge. I must admit, I was at first disappointed, my expectations being what they were. When I asked Beam about the music he had created with Barge, he told me the CD he gave me is what Sub Pop was planning to release. I proceeded with the story anyhow, though it would not be until the second (and last) solo live show I saw of Beam that he had truly won me over again with this atmospheric, mostly acoustic side.
I describe my first live Beam solo experience a bit in the article above. What I never mentioned in the article, though it would have been a colorful detail, was how terribly Sam was screwing up his songs in front of the small audience. Though intimate, the spectators also featured some big shots like the CEO of Sub Pop Records, Jonathan Poneman, and Isaac Brock of Mouse on Mars, who wanted Iron and Wine to open on a tour for his side project, Ugly Casanova. A smattering of movers and shakers from the local music were also there (some just to meet Brock). There was a barbecue brewing and Sam was there with some of his family. It was all real casual and cool. But when Sam took the stage, with his sister next to him on vocals and tambourine, he would start playing but seemingly trip on the tricky guitar lines of his creation. I could also tell he was shaking a bit with nerves. I thought, man, is this guy really going to get signed? Is this all a joke? But Brock and Poneman were super supportive and positive of Beam’s talent. Beam later admitted to me he was nervous as hell to be playing in front of these guys.
The next time I saw Beam, he took the stage at the One Ninety restaurant and club, in October of 2002. This was the show the article was promoting. The venue was an obscure spot for local music that I had never been to or since for a live show. Besides myself, in attendance were only the patrons of the establishment, some students of Beam (he was teaching a cinematography class at Miami College at the time), my then “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” editor, Jeff Stratton and another local music writer who had also recently written a piece on Iron and Wine, Shawn Bean. On stage, it was just Beam and his guitar, and I finally heard the music as it was meant to be heard. He played the guitar with amazing prowess, letting the delicate, swaying melodies flow, as he sung in that beautiful hushed voice. He was relaxed and jovial, as he students hooted in support.
After the show, I had him sign my just-released Creek Drank the Cradle CD that night (see image at left), on my editor’s suggestion, as he felt Beam was going to go places. The only other local musician I had seen go places up until that point was Brian Warner, a.k.a. Marilyn Manson , and that was way back in 1995. I never felt any inclination to have my CDs and records signed by local musicians. In this case, though, I was glad I did.
Though Beam had later recommended we hang out and finally go over our shared love of cinema (I too had once taught a college film class), I never followed up. The next I knew, Thurston Moore had become an early fan and I heard his music accompanying an M&Ms commercial in a movie theater. I’d never personally hear from Beam again.
So, that’s what I think about when I recall this story. In the second part of this post, I will offer some of the straight-forward Q&A culled from emails between myself and Beam, Barge, and Sub Pop CEO Jonathan Poneman (besides email, there were also telephone and face-to-face meetings that added to the short profile linked above). In the meantime, I leave you with a video I recorded of Iron and Wine performing “Upward Over the Mountain” at Club Revolution in Fort Lauderdale, on April 12, 2008. This is the full song without cuts, sounding pretty damn good: