It’s been 10 years since the release of 2015’s In the Reins, the collaborative EP between Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine and Calexico. Earlier this year Beam once again collaborated with Calexico’s core members of Joey Burns and John Convertino for a full-length album Years to Burn. The album finds the bands reunited once again and the product is nothing short of narrative and instrumental brilliance. We recently spoke with Burns and Beam to discuss the creative journey behind Years to Burn, the ways that music brings people together and the importance of our exploration of the natural world.
“We’d seen each other between the years,” said Burns. “Sending each other tracks and ideas to collaborate on for each other’s projects. The plan was always to collaborate again, but it was a matter of all of the musicians finding a time to actually meet and record.”
As a result, the bands had no time to rehearse before recording. Despite this, the impromptu nature of the recordings only solidified the talent and friendship between the artists.
“To be blunt, they’re not really difficult songs,” said Beam. “They’re fairly straightforward. But Joey brought in a song or two and I brought in some songs and I’m kind of the writer, so I’ll come in and say these are the changes or this is what the map looks like, this is what the script looks like, now how is the scene’s gonna play. Everybody in the room is a character in the scene. They all have their roles that they’re gonna play for this arrangement and it’s not really about going in and achieving the right thing, as it is achieving what we do on that day.”
Burns agrees with that assessment from Beam. He talks about fine-tuning the arrangements and the possibility for error.
“Everyone has the responsibility go and learn their parts as best they can and come in and work together to fine-tune it,” Burns said. “There is a possibility that there could be error. But you have to trust in yourself and others in the process. It is sort of a reminder of that.”
Both Beam and Burns speak in great detail about the recording process and how easily they slipped into the familiar space of working with one another.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
“It’s really easy. With a Calexico album all the responsibility relies on John and me, especially me, but with Sam since his songs are so solid they stand strongly on their own and we’re just coming in with support,” said Burns. “We want to give the right feel the color, the tone, the mood. There’s just enough comfort in knowing what you’re gonna have there to give you support and that’s what you look for in a collaboration. It was seamless. The only thing we had to focus on was just playing together and getting good performances and those all came together pretty well.”
“I really like being in the room with these guys cause I like the way they play music and I like their friendship and it’s nice to let everyone say what they will, it’s about discovery and not as much as it is about carving out the perfect arrangement,” said Beam. “I think as a younger man, I was worried about doing everything right and now I like team effort. Everyone has opinions about what it should sound like and it’s nice to come together and make something that we all couldn’t have individually made.”
Nature and the elements figure strongly on this album. When asked the importance of natural themes and the effect it has on their process, Beam goes into the inspiration nature has on his work. He explains how it can represent specific feelings and be interpreted differently by listeners. “I let the language start talking back,” Beam said. He thinks a bit longer and ruminates on the act and process of writing.
“I use a lot of the same writing disciplines that a lot of poets do with associative language,” Beam said. “Inanimate things have a lot of feelings in my songs. It’s a fun way to communicate a feeling instead of just describing or explaining how much you feel something. It’s much more fun to describe a scenario where someone can imagine those feelings and feel what you’re talking about without explaining how they should feel. Certain natural images creep up in my work a lot. I like natural, elemental images that are generous in their connotation. Like birds. Put a bird on it. They can mean lots of different things. Just like water can mean so many different things depending on how you use it but everyone understands when you use it what it is, what it feels like. With birds they can represent freedom, depending on how you use it. They can represent the separation between the wild part of the earth that we don’t have access to. These kinds of images are so generous in their theme because it’s not just one thing that they give us and they can say lots of different things. So yes, I tend to use physical things rather than explain feelings. I feel like what happens with that kind of language and images is it doesn’t tell people the right way to feel or successfully prevent them from feeling a certain way. Sometimes there is a more concrete narrative that I’m going for and sometimes I just like to discover which way it’s going and go and combine it with certain images that feed that story. That’s why I enjoy writing. You’re always getting into something that you don’t know where it will end up.”
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
Would Beam recommend that people listen to this album out in nature? “I never have a specific answer to that,” Beam said. “On one hand I want to be able to just listen and say that’s great but if you want to take the time to dig in you’ll have to sit and actually listen. Words aren’t always a passive, listening kind of thing. But it’s nice if you want to wash your dishes to it or pump gas, clip your toenails. Maybe if I thought about it for half a second more I could’ve come up with something better. But it’s all I had at the moment.”
For inspiration, Burns is also struck by nature but is very much invested in the collaborative aspect of performing. “The inspiration was the first project we did,” Burns said. “I love the groove I love the special guests. The touring of course was all about collaboration. For me that was the main glowing heart of this project and of course getting back in touch with Sam and waiting to see what we wanted to do and pick up where we left off and figuring out where to go next.”
Did this collaboration tease anything out them that they didn’t know they could do before? Burns says yes.
“More so than anything it was really blending vocally with Sam,” Burns said. “I feel like we hit a really great place. It’s one thing to do that with practice but it has a lot to do with what you can and cannot do. It wound up really coming together. Sam is so gracious and easy to work with. He is very grounded, very positive. He knew from his perspective what I was trying to do and was guiding me. We really worked off each other and that is that spirit of collaboration.”
One thing that strikes the listener on Years to Burn is the use of time. In “Old El Paso,” time drops out and the last half of the record feels different from the first.
We talked about it a little bit,” Burns said. “Sam sent his suggestion of a sequence and I liked where it was and something like this has to be in the middle, because it feels like your stepping through a portal of time. You’re losing time. There’s no rhythm and its gonna completely change the flow and the feel and the identity of something.”
Beam laughs when this is mentioned. “We definitely didn’t talk about that, but I like the idea,” Beam said. “We both like the idea of hanging space, sonic space where there is no real metronome and lyrically what’s happening goes back and forth between the past, present, future. It’s the way the narrative works for this. I love that kind of stuff, but I also think the subject matter of it is pretty obsessed with time and the past. It’s definitely nodding to the fact that we did this project awhile back and we looked at how time played itself out with us.”
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
Burns alludes to this swerve on the record when discussing another song, “Midnight Sun.” “I was just kicking around this idea and it might work well cause it’s different from the other songs,” Burns said. “It’s more of a drone and live I think it will translate to the stage cause it will allow for more improvisation and chaos.”
When they perform Burns feels the sparks fly. He felt that flicker and the influence of Neil Young on “Father Mountain.”
“It just felt so good and when Sam went in and added some of his own backing vocals. I thought ‘Oh damn that’s awesome that’s really good.’” he said. “Then I’m sitting there in the back of the control room and I thought I could do this. That song, that feel, kind of reminds of Buffalo Springfield, West Coast, Neil Young kind of groove. It’s got that feel. I was able to bring a little bit of Neil into the picture.”
The last and arguably the most important thing that listeners glean from this album is the respect and friendship that these musicians share and how moments of musical understanding bond them.
“I think the most important thing is giving space and holding space,” he said. “You hear that a lot these days in regards to relationships and in communities. It sets the tone and it is the most common denominator that brings people together, but I think beyond that is tone and just listening to one another whether its taking turns listening to one another or whether its listening and working together. It is such an important thing. It’s the most positive thing we can do as humans. Working in harmony is so symbolic. I’m really happy to have this opportunity to be around for awhile and it makes me feel good to share my experiences or possibilities that I have I can offer. I love helping others. I’m okay of being in that position of being in a supporting role. Once you have enough time doing your own thing and singing your own songs you really feel good about helping others out cause you’ve learned a little and you want to share whatever you can and give others opportunities and experiences to grow and it feels good to be part of this arc of songs. Humans have been around this planet for a long, long time and we’re building on these experiences we’ve accumulated and we need each other so music underscores that importance.”
All Photos: Sharon Alagna