Many things qualify Sam Beam as one of the most awesome men on the planet. He can grow a hobo beard that falls somewhere between hipster-cool and serial-killer-crazy. He's raising five young daughters with his wife outside of Austin. And, despite the sometimes gloomy nature of the music he makes as Iron and Wine, he ends approximately one-third of all his sentences with a laugh.
But the one thing that makes Sam Beam more awesome than anyone you know is his rooster. The bird interrupts our conversation at least a dozen times with its loud, screeching crowing. Beam tries to get away from it, but the rooster follows him like an attention-starved dog. "This fucking rooster keeps trying to scratch my kids," he chuckles. "I don't know how much longer he's going to last. Do you know if you can train a rooster?"
Beam sounds pretty laid-back on record. In real life, he's even more so. He talks about music, family, and his fans with the same slightly twangy, no-worries tone. You get the impression that a life-or-death call to 911 and one to Domino's for a large pizza would sound pretty much the same. It's just the way he is. "I don't write my songs to piss people off," he says. "I'm not provocative."
Iron and Wine's latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is filled with Beam's usual themes of relationships, politics, people, and sex. It's a funkier album (by white-guys-with-acoustic-guitars-and-plaintive-voices standards) than Beam's other three records. "It was the most fun record for me to do," he says. And it sounds bigger. "I never go into an album with an agenda. But this record was a way to include more stuff that I listen to. On the first record or two, I was trying to stamp an aesthetic on the thing. Now it's more freeing to include a lot more and see if that old aesthetic holds up."
At times Beam sounds like a pre- "Footloose" Kenny Loggins, all soft-rock-'70s (that's the bad part). But his post-hippie idealism comes naturally, so his musings on religion and the rustic life never sound artificial. That's the good part.
Kiss Each Other Clean has lots of sounds running through it. The usual mandolins, fiddles, and banjos you find on Iron and Wine records are here. But so are R&B horns and keyboards, dropped in from the mid-'70s. It's a layered, multi-textured record that sounds unlike any other in Beam's catalog, even though you can instantly peg it as an Iron and Wine album. "I like the idea of a cohesive record," he says. "Even though I never write with that in mind. I put my head down and work on the one that I'm in, pull my head up, and notice that I've done sort of the same thing I've done in other songs."
The new album was released at the end of January. It debuted at No. 2 a week later. Nine years ago, when Beam put out the first Iron and Wine album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, he was 28 years old and a film professor living in Miami. There weren't too many bushy-bearded neo-folkies around back then. But as 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days and especially 2007's The Shepherd Dog expanded Beam's audience, so grew the number of bushy-bearded neo-folkies.
(Iron and Wine also increase onstage. Beam does almost everything on the albums by himself. His current tour includes eight musicians, from the usual rhythm section and keyboardist to a horn player and backing singers.)
Beam still finds inspiration in the same things he cared about back when he first started making music. Kids, a major-label record deal, and a very loud rooster haven't changed him much. "I still like love and death and sex and God and all that fun stuff," he says. "Because images can have a different meaning from song to song.
"My songs are more like poems than journal entries. I don't use them as therapy, I'm not working something out. It's not like Plastic Ono Band by any means. I just like to make things. I just have a lot more poetic license in a song than you could in a painting. You can say "yeah, yeah, yeah" in a song. That's more sexy."