It's ironic to think that one of the largest bands going on the road this spring will be Iron & Wine. It's a group that began a decade ago with one member: Sam Beam, whose first album was a stripped-back, nearly-solo affair. Beam is still the songwriter and voice of Iron & Wine, but he has a lot of company on stage these days, nearly a dozen musicians in all with a horn section and backing vocalists added to a six-piece band.
"It gets to be a big handful of people, but I think it's fun," Beam said in a recent interview. "I do a lot of solo shows, and I enjoy that, too. But it's a lot more fun to play with other people. Also, I think it gives you more options when you're on the stage. You can have everyone stop playing and do a solo song, but then when you want to do a large arrangement, they are there.
"The people I'm playing with right now are really fun," he said. "Everybody's got a lot of good ideas. None of the songs or the old arrangements are very sacred. We don't really play the record note-for-note. We kind of play the spirit of the songs and also change things around quite a bit, where we'll take old songs and sort of beef up the arrangements like the new songs and take new songs and strip them down like the old songs."
As Beam hinted with that comment, the Iron & Wine big band of 2011 is a direct reflection of the path his music has taken over the course of four studio albums.
After a pair of low-key, largely solo albums – the 2002 Iron & Wine debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle,and 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days — Beam's approach began to expand when he teamed up with Calexico to make the 2005 EP In the Reins, on which Calexico applied its varied instrumentation and mix of Southwestern rock, Mexican and jazz music to a set of Beam's songs.
With his 2007 Iron & Wine album, The Shepherd's Dog, Beam began to add instruments and expand his arrangements, and now he's taken that approach further on his new album, Kiss Each Other Clean. Still, Beam is judicious enough with the instrumentation that many of the new tunes still connect back to the spare settings of the first two Iron & Wine albums.
For instance, the new song "Walking Far From Home," has plenty going on – from the eerie undercurrent created with its electronic-type hum and deliberate bass line, to ever-building harmonies, percussion and piano. But there is enough separation between instruments and enough intimacy to make it easy to imagine the song in a solo format. The same goes for "Rabbit Will Run," which has all sorts of instrumental bells and whistles added to the world beat rhythms that form the foundation of the song, or for "Me And Lazarus," which builds from its quirky synthesizer-based melody to include horns and backing vocals.
The bigger twists on Kiss Each Other Clean come on songs such as "Tree By The River" and "Half Moon," which take things more of a poppy direction with easy-going vocal melodies, harmonies and bright vibes, or on "Big Burned Hand," which has a Steely Dan-ish quality in its wacky saxophone line.
"Definitely, there's a bit more of an R&B quality to this one, especially with the horn section and the way the vocal arrangements are approached," Beam said. "Rather than just straight vocal harmonies, like a circle of people singing, this is more like a vocal group. So that in itself, just those R&B little qualities, just those in themselves suggest a bit more of a pop element. And R&B suggests a lot of economy in the way they approach arrangements. They're generally short, concise arrangements."
For Beam, there's a simple reason why he has continued to embrace a wider range of instrumentation and build up his sound.
"Well, it would definitely have been hard to get more minimalistic, to strip things down more than those early records," Beam said. "Obviously, you want to make different sounding records. I like that idea. I'm not saying that something new is the only goal when you go into recording something. But I don't like to feel like you're stale. You definitely want to shake things up a bit. So obviously the thing to do was to beef up the arrangements, not necessarily just for bombast, but to add some complexity. I like lots of different types of music, so it's fun to be able incorporate all of that stuff, sometimes in the same song, which is even more fun."
While Beam's sound has evolved from album to album, he said his songwriting approach hasn't changed much since the early years, when he was happy to leave his songs in their solo acoustic form.
"I kind of approach [songwriting] pretty similarly, because I feel like a song should be able to hold up whether you do it with a big band or you do it yourself. It should be able to survive just as an a capella song," he said. "So I kind of approach it kind of similarly at the beginning stages. It's just when it comes time to record the thing, I tend to be less satisfied with doing exactly what I was doing before, so you try to stretch out a bit."
Together, the four Iron & Wine albums have earned Beam a place as one of rock's most unique – some would say idiosyncratic – songwriters, often writing story-telling songs that are full of clever wordplay, intriguing and vivid imagery and plenty of room for lyrical interpretation.
For a guy who has his share of musical gifts, Beam, 36, was something of a latecomer to music. He once had an established career teaching college cinematography in Miami and as a filmmaker. Writing music and making demos was merely a part-time hobby when his career took a turn in 2000.
That's when some recordings he had sent out caught the attention of Sub Pop Records. The label approached Beam about making an album, but Beam, who now has five daughters, had to consider his family obligations and his career in film in deciding whether to take on life as a touring recording artist.
"Like anybody else who makes music, it was a dream that you had to be able to make living out of playing music," Beam said. "But the reality of building a career over time and what that would mean was a lot different than a dream. And I'd already had children at the time, so my responsibilities were a little bit different than if [Sub Pop] had called me when I was 17 and said 'Do you want to make records?' I would have said 'Hell yes.'
"I still said hell yes, but just slightly more under my breath, with hesitation," he said. "At the end of the day it just seemed like too good of a thing to pass up."
Film's loss has been music's gain ever since Beam made that choice.