Sam Beam... (Iron and Wine) Passing Afternoon's article (fan site)
Sam Beam lives exactly the way you want him to: In a sturdy, octagonal farmhouse on a chunky plot of land 20 miles southwest of Austin, Texas. From his driveway-- which overlooks the town of Dripping Springs, in so much as that town exists-- it's easy to be cowed by central Texas's barren, boundless hills, which roll right on into the sun. This is Willie Nelson country, perfectly immortalized by Johnny Cash in 1975: "There's lone star pearl and fried chicken and one big cloud of smoke/ Plug it in and turn it on and the music goes for broke, down at Drippin' Springs."
It's early on a Friday morning in the heady, overscheduled deeps of South by Southwest, and Austin is already crawling with coastal transplants. Beam's home is an antidote to the badge-bedlam of downtown, to the extent that it practically feels art-directed: I climb out of the car and head towards his doorway, stepping over a rusty red tricycle which has been parked, askew, on the edge of the pathway. A scrum of chickens bobbles out from under a bush. The sun is soft and forgiving, and it's tempting to read the landscape-- almost comically pastoral-- as a bold-type metaphor for Iron & Wine's bucolic folk music. Even the threat of scurrying tarantulas-- which appear infrequently, Beam assures-- can't crack this particular spell.
At some point in the next two weeks, Beam's wife will give birth to their fifth child. Already a father to four little girls, Beam is well-versed in the nuances of "High School Musical" and Taylor Swift. He promises that his daughters are uninterested in the fuss he kicks up in his home studio, but his humility is so knee-jerk and genuine-- a quick, sheepish smile, a glance at his feet-- that it's hard to imagine him acknowledging any audience at all.
Beam released The Creek Drank the Cradle, his debut LP as Iron & Wine, in the fall of 2002. Indie rock (which still felt like something of a genre) hadn't yet embraced folk music as its own, and music magazines (which still existed) were frantically heralding a "Return to Rock" as dictated by a handful of fussily dressed New York bands. Post-Shins, pre-Postal Service, Sub Pop was still the label that released Bleach, and Beam's placement there-- facilitated by a series of fervent, fortuitous recommendations from Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell and YETI publisher and sometimes Pitchfork writer Mike McGonigal-- felt like something of an anomaly. Americana hadn't been fully commodified for the hipster set.
Now, eight years later, Beam is preparing to release his fourth full-length, Kiss Each Other Clean, a streamlined pop record that's about as far as he can drift from the minimalism of his debut. He recorded a good percentage of Kiss in Dripping Springs, and today we follow the short stone path to his studio, a light-filled space adjacent to his home. It's crammed with a cornucopia of stringed instruments; a small drafting table, where he's been sketching ideas for the album's cover art, sits to the side. A gold record, for a cover of "Such Great Heights"-- his contribution to 2004's Garden State soundtrack-- hangs in the bathroom (humbly, opposite the toilet). An orange ashtray is loaded with cigarette butts, betraying a steady penchant for hand-rolled American Spirits. Listening outside, we let the wind add its own odd, percussive bits.