Tough Questions for Sam Beam of Iron & Wine
"What's fascinating about facial hair?" he says. "It's more fascinating that people shave it off every day."
Every assumption you’ve ever had about Sam Beam — the folk singer otherwise known as Iron & Wine — might go out the window when you learn that the epically bearded 36-year-old is a closet metalhead. “I went to school in Richmond [Virginia], and punk rock and metal is all we saw,” he says. “One of the best shows was Eyehategod. I got put in a headlock by a girl in the pit.”
You won’t hear any fiery riffs on Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine’s fourth studio album and first since leaving Sub Pop for Warner Bros. But longtime fans will find nice surprises among its 12 tracks, including hip-hop and synth flourishes absent from 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog and its crossover hit “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” (which appeared in the first Twilight movie). We caught up with Beam at home near Austin, where his in-laws were helping him prepare dinner for his expansive brood.
How difficult was it to leave Sub Pop, the label that launched your career?
It wasn’t an easy thing. We’re all friends, and the business was good. It was like breaking up with a girlfriend or something.
They’re not stalking you like a psycho ex, are they?
No, they’ve been real busy. You know, Warner Bros. is the same kind of thing, just with different people. I mean, I miss Sub Pop, because they’re like family to me. It wasn’t like they did something wrong and I was like, “Fuck all y’all — I’m leaving!” It was just time to change. Change is good.
Now that you’re on a major, has the Man given you any shit about your beard?
They haven’t. I was expecting some grooming suggestions, but they haven’t really said much at all.
You know your beard is fascinating, right?
Really? What’s fascinating about facial hair? It’s more fascinating that people shave it off every day.
Me, I’m a lazy bum, so I don’t shave. But these things that we do, like mow our lawns or wear high-heeled shoes — that shit just doesn’t make sense. In junior high, our history teacher was telling us about this French king — I think it was Louis XIV — who was totally bat-shit crazy. He invented the manicured lawn and the high-heeled shoe, and because he was the king, everybody followed suit — even though he was bat-shit crazy. Shaving just seems like one of those things to me. I mean, I understand people who want to have a clean-cut face and stuff, but it seems dumb.
So, when was the last time you shaved, anyway?
It’s been over ten years. I have children who have never seen me without a beard. I think I would freak them out if I shaved.
You have five kids, all daughters. Isn’t that statistically difficult to pull off?
I know, man. We’re a miracle of modern, I don’t know, baby-making. I would like to say that my wife and I had a plan in place the whole time, but I’d be lying to you. We didn’t exactly plan any of them. But, you know, it happens.
Would you like to have a son?
I remember that being important to me at some point, but I think it died out when the third one came along. I’ve been outnumbered for so long. I’ve heard lots of theories from friends, that I was either very cruel or kind to women in a past life. But who knows, man?
What’s the hardest part about living with six ladies?
I’m trying to think of what the easiest part is. No, it’s all a blessing. Girls are fun.
You have five kids, but this is only the fourth album. What gives?
I know. I know. I gotta get busy. Nose to the grindstone.
What’s your workday like?
I treat it like a job, almost like a Brill Building kind of thing. I really like the idea of punching a clock. I take the kids to school, come home and work, and then stop when it’s time to pick up the kids. I try to apply a certain amount of discipline to it and just accept that every day is not going to be awesome.
Kiss Each Other Clean has some jams on it. But given your headbanging past, have you ever thought about making a really hard record?
Yes and no. I have a hard time saying I’m going to make a whole record of just rock-out songs, because that gets boring, you know? And my voice doesn’t scream very well. I mean, I’m not going to do any crazy fuckin’ black metal. I try to push myself to new areas each time, but I’m not stupid either.
Your stage name comes from a dietary supplement called Beef, Iron & Wine. I have to ask: Where’s the beef?
What do you mean? You don’t have to ask me that. That sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?
If you’d kept “Beef” in there, do you think you would have been less successful?
I can’t comment on that. But I know that if I kept it on there, there would be something totally wrong with me.
Are you a vegetarian?
No, I’m not. I live in Texas, man. It’s hard to be a vegetarian down here.