Sonics were a primary concern for Sam Beam as he and producer Brian Deck set out to make "Kiss Each Other Clean," Iron & Wine's first studio album since 2007 and a more lushly arranged set than its three predecessors.
"We definitely talked about sonics early on," Beam tells Billboard.com. "Brian and I were always enamored with the L.A. recordings from the late 60s and early 70s, when everything got clean all of a sudden. Then, over the course of it, a lot more R&B stuff came in with more vocal arrangements rather than straight harmonies. I hadn't done horn section stuff or used sax on records, either, and we thought that would be fun. We just approached it pretty intuitively to try to stay open to what may come along. It's all kind of thrown into a big soup and stirred up."
Beam says the 10 songs on "Kiss Each Other Clean" range from as far as a decade ago ("Tree By the River") to as recent as just before the sessions started ("Glad Man Singing"). "I don't really sit down to write a record," he explains. "I'm writing all the time, so when it seems time to put a record out, you look in your bag and see what songs you have that might work together well."
And in this case, he notes, some of the tunes made it onto the album because of a recurring theme of water and rivers in them.
"It comes down to that, sometimes," Beam, who's pictured on the cover standing in a river, says with a laugh. "I realized a bunch of songs used the river in different ways. It's a classic metaphor for life, sometimes as a force of destruction, sometimes it's redemption or rejuvenation. It's fun to have the same image crop up in different songs and be presented in totally different lights."
Beam says he started writing the opening track, "Walking Far From Home" -- which was released as a special Record Store Day Black Friday single in November -- while on tour in Australia and New Zealand. "When you're out and about in the middle of that kind of journey, it's fun to start with images you actually see and daydream and come up with new images," he notes. "That one took a long time to finish."
"Kiss Each Other Clean," due out Jan. 25, is Beam's first major label release, for Warner Bros. after three previous outings on Sub Pop. But the album was finished prior to signing the deal, so it had no impact on the creative process. "It's been great so far, though," he reports.
Mostly, however, Beam is looking forward to playing the "Kiss Each Other Clean" songs with his new band, an eight-piece outfit that includes most of Califone, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra saxophonist Stuart Bogie, Calexico associate Nick Luca and singer Rosie Thomas.
"It feels like this is one of the most fun bands I've had in a long time," says Beam, who plays shows Jan. 25-26 in Los Angeles and Jan. 29 in New York before heading to Europe in February and returning to the U.S. in April. "We can do the quiet things and we can do the big, loud numbers and everything in between. Everybody's game to change things. Nothing's sacred. It's a lot of fun, man."