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On the Slide with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam

Ever wonder what college professors do outside of the classroom? Beyond the occasional run-in at the dining hall or library, most students are probably unaware of what their teachers do in their personal time. But they might be surprised–one of them just might have a record deal.

Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, a part-time filmmaking professor and father of two, has recently released his third album, Our Endless Numbered Days, off of indie stalwart Sub Pop. In 2001, his lo-fi tapes caught the attention of label exec Jonathan Poneman, who chased down Beam to ask for more material. The result was his debut album The Creek Drank the Cradle, which was made up of 12 tracks from that fateful demo. The album was critically acclaimed for its tender folk harmonies and striking simplicity, drawing numerous comparisons to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. However, an understated and reflective sensibility may be all he shares in common with these two tortured predecessors. Here, the singer-songwriter asserts that he spends more time settling quarrels on the playground than he does battling inner demons.

SPIN: How did you get started in songwriting?
SAM BEAM: I was always into music and writing in general. Hold on a second. [Child crying in the background] It’s not mommy. [Back on the phone] Sorry about that.

That’s my kid. Well, I mean I’ve been writing for a long time. Songwriting I’ve been doing for only 5 or 6 years.

So music wasn’t something you were pursuing before you signed onto your label?
No, not really. I just did it as a hobby because I thought it was fun. I was pursuing filmmaking actually.

What kinds of films did you make?
All kinds of stuff: sci-fi, historical fiction? I worked on a few short films and commercials. Hold on one second. [Talking to child] Don’t forget your shoes! Yeah, I got you. [laughs] I’m sorry, I have two little ones running around. You know honestly, I didn’t get to make too many films. I wrote a couple and worked on a bunch in film school. And then I got out of school and started working and didn’t have the money to make my own films. So I started doing music because it was a lot more immediate.

What other day jobs did you have?
Oh man, all kinds of stuff. Restaurant jobs… Now I teach a couple cinematography classes that are offered every other quarter. [Howling in the background] They’re on the slide at the moment [laughs].

What was your first tour like?
It was fun. I had a band that I take with me, which is my sister and a couple other friends.

Did your audience change at all from album to album?
Well it’s gotten bigger! The first album we went out for, we were the opening act on a 3-act bill and people were talking about their grocery bills and shit while we were playing. But now they pretty much come to listen to us, which is nice.

Is there anything you’re going to do differently for your upcoming tour?
We keep switching members around, so the people will be different and the songs will be different. But no, I’m not going to introduce the light show or anything. Hold on a sec. [Away from phone] Are you going to go down the slide, or what? [Child yelps] Sorry, there were politics at the sliding board I needed to deal with.

Do your songs tend to be more autobiographical or are you more interested in creating stories?
It’s hard to say they don’t have any autobiographical parts in them. It’s just me writing, so in one way or another, it’s definitely autobiographical. But they’re not really working out my personal problems or anything. I do try to come up with characters and get a little more creative. I mean, my life is boring [laughs].

No, you have kids! It actually sounds really busy over there. Do you ever play your own music to them?
No, I’m always tooling around on the guitar in the house, but they don’t really care. They’d rather play outside.

What happens on tour?
Oh man, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a pain in the ass on my family. Basically, my parents come and watch the girls, because my wife works too. It works out, but that’s why I don’t tour very much.

How old are they? Are they old enough to go see a show?
One of them is five and the other is one and a half, so they don’t go out too much. I took them to an all-ages show one time and they fell asleep about 10 minutes before I went on [laughs]. They slept through the whole thing! But maybe they’ll see it someday.

Has living in Miami influenced your music at all?
Yeah, there are lots of different rhythms and percussive stuff going on down here. But it’s probably not the music of Miami that influences me, more the fact that since I’ve moved to Miami, I’ve gotten a family. My time to go out is pretty limited and my influences are pretty limited, so my own music has gotten a little more insular. I’m influenced by the stuff that I’ve done more so than the stuff that other people have done since I’ve moved here.

How do you spend your free time?
Baby-sitting [laughs]!

So you don’t get a chance to listen to a lot of new music?
I buy diapers with my money instead of CDs!

Do you have any favorite artists?
Oh man, all kinds. I think the Shins are good. I like Holopaw. Those are all Sub Pop bands. I heard TV on the Radio recently–that was good.

If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing professionally? Would you be pursuing filmmaking full-time?
Yeah, I’d definitely be doing that for a dollar. I went to art school, so I did a little bit of painting as well. I’m sort of trained in the discipline of writing visually. You know, when you write screenplays, that’s pretty much all you do – description of action and dialogue, for the most part. So I try to apply that to music, but at the same time, there’s a lot of poetic license that you have in songs. And at the end of the day, I’m not writing screenplays, I’m writing lyrics, so I can pretty much do whatever I want to.

Do the students from your film class ever come up to you to talk about your music?
Just a handful. I mean, I don’t really wave the flag around, you know?

What do they say?
They seem to like it! I haven’t had anybody come up to tell me the music sucks. Not yet anyway.

Would you flunk them?
No, I’d probably give them an A!