Sam Beam, better known by his stage and recording name, Iron & Wine. (Piper Ferguson )
It was a rainy day in Austin, Texas, and somebody's hair just got pulled. As Sam Beam, 36, spoke into the phone, there was a rustling on his side of the line, a couple of giggles and a small scream. "Guys," he pleaded to his daughters, "I'm trying to talk here." He returned to the conversation with a warm chuckle. "Man, they're crazy today. Wrestling! What was I talking about?"
Beam, otherwise known as esteemed folk auteur Iron & Wine, is married with five girls, ages 9 months to 12 years, and is a self-professed homebody. But he'd been speaking of the influence that Los Angeles had on "Kiss Each Other Clean," his fourth album and Warner Bros. debut, out Tuesday. (His band plays successive nights at the Wiltern this week.)
"In '60s music, there was lots of reverb. Everything was psychedelic," continued Beam, "but in the early '70s, the L.A. studios started making things really dry and clean." The radio hits of that era provided Beam his gold standard for the new record. He and producer Brian Deck looked to albums from Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and the Steve Miller Band for inspiration.
"It wasn't like we made a diagram, though," Beam said. "You've got to leave yourself open to surprises. There are a lot of things thrown into the soup: African touchstones, Jamaican stuff. But the R&B element that came out, that was definitely a surprise, and we chose to run with it."
The first single from "Kiss Each Other Clean," called "Walking Far From Home," embodies that more than most. At its surface, the song showcases the most polished Iron & Wine sound to date, but it also features a Motown-friendly swing and soulfulness that goes down easy with lyrics about sinners and angels, hungry faces and liberated prisoners, ostensibly set in Beam's native South.
There are other surprises on "Kiss Each Other Clean," including the album's 71/2-minute closer, "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me." Lithe, West African highlife and lurching jazz carry the eclectic epic to its finale, where Beam moans the blues over honking baritone sax, a ladies choir and electric guitar evoking Neil Young's darker moments. It's anything but clean.
"Brian and I both have a fairly subversive attitude toward pop…," said Beam. "We like to play with genres and turn them on their heads. We also both like a real heavy groove."
This coming from the man who first pricked up the world's ears with a whisper via his all acoustic LP debut, "The Creek Drank the Cradle," a collection of spare home recordings released by Sub Pop Records in 2002.
It was a bold and unlikely move for the Seattle indie label at the time — a folk tunesmith with a sprawling beard was not the usual fare for Sub Pop, a label more known for aggression than wistfulness. But in the intervening years, that signing proved prescient. Iron & Wine has been a consistent critical favorite, and Beam's third album for the imprint, 2007's "The Shepherd's Dog," debuted at 24 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart. Musical placements in "Twilight," "Grey's Anatomy" and "House, M.D." helped broaden the appeal.
"When we first started working together, Sam had established an aesthetic that was almost demo-like," said Deck from Chicago's Engine Studios, where he's recorded each Iron & Wine album since 2004's "Our Endless Numbered Days." "It worked well for him, and he didn't want to mess with it too much, so I became the guy that was going to induce him to experiment."
Thanks to his acclaimed work on Modest Mouse's 2001 full-length "The Moon & Antarctica," as well as records by his own experimental bands Red Red Meat and Califone, Deck's reputation as a progressive, hands-on producer preceded him. Still, he credited Iron & Wine's evolution to Beam's vision primarily and described their long-running collaboration as uniquely gratifying.
"It's a rare thing that a producer and an artist get to work this much together, and it's great," said Deck. "The communication becomes second nature. There are no restraints."
Beam likened the process to drawing — "every track you make is a mark, and you can use the eraser, or you can draw more" — and said that philosophy extends to the impressive cast of supporting players he and Deck wrangled to contribute to "Kiss Each Other Clean." Saxophonist Stuart Bogie, a member of Brooklyn's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, agreed.
"I was brought in to color things," he said. "They encouraged me to just emote, to paint musical shapes." Though "The Shepherd's Dog" featured a handful of outside musicians, the inclusion of brass and instrumental improvisation were firsts, and they underscore the distance between the Iron & Wine of today and the project's spare folksy roots.
The eight-piece band Beam assembled for his tour dips into the on-album roster, including Bogie, three members of Califone, pianist and Nico Muhly collaborator Thomas Barlett (a.k.a. Doveman) and Chicago underground jazz bassist Matt Lux.
"A lot of the tunes on the first few records were love songs," said Beam. "These ones are more psychedelic in content, so the presentation can be a bit more aggressive." Indeed, the lyrics on this album teem with vivid imagery, broad-stroke emotion and Biblical signposts — a product of his South Carolinian upbringing, and perhaps the time Beam spent as a professor of cinematography at the University of Miami.
Perhaps most surprising, that aggressive tack can be found in Beam's voice these days too, where impressive verve and range have replaced his signature hushed coo. As he spoke over the phone, the tinny notes of a music box suddenly butted in — an interlude from one of his girls. There's a song on "Kiss Each Other Clean" called "Glad Man Singing." Is that supposed to be him?
"On my better days, for sure," he said, before letting out another low, easy chuckle — confirmation that despite the wet weather, this was indeed one of those days.