Calexico/Iron & Wine

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After years apart the two powerhouses reunite for a new album Years to Burn

Denver Botanic Gardens | August 19

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Story by Timothy Dwenger
Photo by Piper Ferguson

Seventeen years ago, the former film professor and ­burgeoning songwriter, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, was introduced to Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico. While it took a couple of years before they would enter the studio together to record their debut EP, In the Reins, the collaboration served as a coming of age of sorts for the 30-year-old Beam.

“I hadn’t put out that much stuff, maybe two full-lengths and a few EPs. The first record was material I had done at the house, the second was the first one I had done in a studio, and then the next thing was that short Woman King EP and then the Calexico project,” Beam remembered during a recent interview with The Marquee from his home in North Carolina as he was getting ready to take his kids to the pool. “It was the first time I had gone into the studio and collaborated with other musicians. I had a collection of friends who were really supportive, but Calexico was another band in their own right, and it was really fun to get in, mash it up, and see what happened not having an idea what we were going to come out with. We were all just open to the experience. I felt immediately like I could do anything. I could jump and they would catch me.”

The risks the group took in the studio on In The Reins paid off in spades as the southwestern flair of the instrumentation paired effortlessly with Beam’s hush whispered vocals and songs like “History of Lovers” and “16, Maybe Less” are representative of the best Iron & Wine has offered. Given that this experience took place so early in his career, it’s not surprising that it served to influence Beam significantly in the years since those first recording sessions. “I feel like I’ve been looking for that experience every time I put a band together,” Beam admitted. “That feeling of trust and no shortage of ideas and support. Everyone is part of a team and not just a collection of lone wolves. I think I enjoyed that experience with Calexico so much the first time that I can’t settle for less than that every time I put a band together.”

Obviously, Beam has had significant success with this approach over the past decade and a half as he has amassed an eclectic catalog of six full-length albums and an adoring fanbase that hangs on every breathy couplet, but the thought of another project with Calexico was always in the back of his mind. “We have kept in touch over the years and it was always part of our conversation. There was never a moment where we saw each other and didn’t say ‘I can’t wait to do that again’ or ‘let’s figure out when to make some music again.’ It has always been part of our conversation,” he revealed. “I think we ended up at a Christmas show at the Beacon in Manhattan a couple of years ago at the same time as Calexico and we played some of the songs we wrote together and we played some of each other’s songs. It had been ten or so years and we were like ‘Jesus man, where did all the time go? If we want to do this, we are going to have to make it happen!’ It was just a matter of putting it on the fucking calendar. If you don’t just put it on the calendar, the right time will never present itself. So that’s what we did.”

In December of last year Beam, Burns, and Convertino finally met up in a Nashville studio and invited trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela from Calexico along with longtime Iron & Wine collaborators, bass player Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) and keyboard player Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio) to join them. “I definitely wanted everyone to take part. That was the only way to make it feel like a true collaboration, a melding of the bands instead of just an arm-wrestling match,” explained Beam. “I brought in songs that we used like a script but had lots of room for interpretation. Some of their choices were things I could have expected, but there were also surprises that I was hoping for. We’ve all experienced a lot of life. Some people got married and had children, I had a couple more kids. There’s been a lot of life in between so we’ve all developed as people and as musicians. I feel like the first time we sorta met each other in the studio and became friends and a band along the way and I feel like that’s where we picked up in the studio in December.”

The resulting album, Years to Burn, features trademark Iron & Wine folk ballads alongside more exploratory and jazzy pieces that came to life during the recording sessions. The centerpiece of the album, the eight-minute “The Bitter Suite,” showcases the dynamic range of the band while also providing a little window into the fun the band is having in the studio (bitter suite…get it?) “We had a ball. We’ve all been lucky enough to fall into a line of work that we love doing so it’s almost like we go to work to play. For everybody in that room, I think one of their favorite activities to do is record,” Beam said. “As musicians, John and Joey thrive on spontaneity, chance, and discovery — things that improvisation and just sort of winging it produce — those unplanned and unguarded musical moments. That was something that I learned touring with them years ago, so I definitely wanted to make sure there was room for that.”

Beam hopes that some of that looseness and spontaneity follows the band as they tour behind the album through the end of the year. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say ‘okay, here have ten minutes and fuck off,’” he said laughing. “But there will be moments when people can make different choices from night to night. If something happens or if someone is taking melodic leads, I’ll give them space ’cause there is a lot of room in our arrangements to let things go a little bit within the structures of the songs. It’s listening and trying to create something fresh each time you perform it. Not so much like ‘here’s my fifteen minutes to whack off in front of everybody,’ — not to disparage jamband music — but that’s not really what I do, and I don’t really think that’s what Joey and John are interested in.”

So, while Beam pretty much ruled out a twenty-minute-take on “Father Mountain,” the album’s brilliant lead single, he did promise something different from the last time the two bands toured together in 2005. “Last time their band would play their songs and then my band would play our songs and then we would all get on stage and do the songs we did together. It was this ridiculous amount of people. It was super fun, but I also have no idea what we were thinking. It was a big rolling boulder of a party,” he said. “This time it’s the six of us who were in the studio and it’s all mashed up. A lot of things will be recognizable from the older material, but a lot of things won’t be. Last time we became a band on the road, this time we started straight out of the gate as a band and that’s what we want to get across on stage.”

Denver Botanic Gardens | August 19

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