There was a time when Sam Beam, the creative force behind Iron & Wine, was more famous as a film professor than a musician. His main gig was teaching students at a South Florida postsecondary institution about film history and cinematography.
"Now it's like the Art Institute of Everywhere," Beam says. "That company Art Institute of Everyplace has one in Miami. But it used to be called International Fine Arts College."
In those days, only a select few heard the products of Beam's songwriting, including Ben Bridwell, the eventual frontman of Band of Horses, who contacted the music editor of a zine in Seattle and sent over a few Iron & Wine compositions, one of which appeared on a compilation that caught the attention of Sub Pop Records. And the rest, as they write, is history.
Many Miami music fans, however, first heard Beam playing instrumental postrock on electric guitar with a then-more-famous musician on drums: Rene Barge, frontman for the sludge metal band Cavity.
That night, Beam shared a demo CD of what would become his first album, Creek Drank the Cradle, for Sub Pop. And those recorded songs offered an entirely different perspective on his musical abilities. The lyrics were literate and atmospheric, while the music, sometimes featuring slide guitar, was folksy and austere.
"When it came time to do stuff by myself," Beam says, "I didn't really want to rock it the fuck out in my bedroom by myself," he laughs. "And also, the types of songs I was interested in writing, they felt good to be delivered that way."
It was just a short time later when he found himself presenting a showcase at what was then known as the Dorsch Gallery (now Emerson Dorsch) for Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman and Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, who wanted Beam to be the opening act for his side project Ugly Casanova.
"I had played like maybe two or three times with other people," the now-assured performer recalls. "I was freaking the fuck out. I was so nervous. I had to play to see if Isaac wanted to take me out on tour, basically 'cause I was already signed with the label. So I was playing for Isaac to see if I could hack it."
Sitting in a chair on a small stage outside the gallery, Beam mumbled and smiled, his white teeth shining through his bushy beard, for a handful of people, which also included his wife and young daughter. It proved embarrassingly disastrous. Some hipsters left early.
Even though the singer-songwriter had already signed the Sub Pop contract, he could hardly finish a song on his acoustic guitar, fumbling the parts on several occasions and stopping to apologize. But it didn't matter. Brock had already made up his mind — he wanted Iron & Wine to open for Ugly Casanova. He even followed the performance with a cover of Beam's "Jesus the Mexican Boy," albeit while wearing a tiny Speedo with an American flag on the crotch.
Since then, the Iron & Wine mastermind has released several recordings for Sub Pop and 4AD/Nonesuch Records. His songs have appeared in commercials for brands such as M&M's and on all sorts of soundtracks. And just as his playing style varied during his early years in Miami, Beam has experimented with an evolving sound across five full-length albums. More and more musicians joined the project. Strings and horns brightened up the songs.
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"I don't like to be doing the same thing over and over again, so I keep trying other things," he says.
"It's like any art that you put out. Someone's going to like it; someone's gonna hate it. People who like the old stuff don't really like the new stuff. It all depends on who you ask. Any time you put something out, someone's going to say it's great and someone's going to think it's a piece of shit. So you kind of do what you enjoy."
He finally returns to South Florida for a gig at Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room, nearly four years after a show in Miami Beach that featured a horn section and two drummers, among other musicians.
This time, however, "it's a solo thing," Beam laughs. "So it'll be just me and my guitar, like the old times."