A move from Seattle’s Sup Pop Records to Waner Bros. wasn’t the only recent change for Sam Beam. He and his wife had their fifth daughter last year, as he began work on the just-released Kiss Each Other Clean, his fourth full-length studio record. If 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was a departure for an artist who began making bedroom recordings so quiet as to not to wake his first child, the new album is miles further down that road. The restrained urgency of those early albums are no longer held back on songs like “Rabbit Will Run” and “Glad Man Singing.” Beam might describe the new album as early ‘70s Los Angeles, but it also sounds like he borrowed a Vox Continental from The Doors and Stevie Wonder’s clavinet. What hasn’t changed are the compelling vignettes and unforgettable melodies that mark the bulk of his catalogue. The former film professor spoke to Paste from Hollywood, where he was preparing for a performance on Conan.
Paste: You’re on the road with a huge tour coming up—how does that work with a family of five girls?
Beam: Oh, it’s awesome man. My wife was so ready for me to leave—nah, I’m kidding. It sucks to get everything you’ve ever wanted and have it keep you from your home. It’s terrible. On the one hand, it’s great because opportunities have come up that I’ve never had before, and the career’s taken a real good turn, but then you have to be kept away from your home life. It’s tough. But everybody’s healthy and okay, just ready for daddy to get home.
Paste: Do you have any sort of traditions when Daddy leaves, a big goodbye party or anything?
Beam: No, not really, because I have to leave too often and we’d be partying all the time.
Paste: Any way to take them with you?
Beam: Not yet; I’m working on it. They come to some of the festivals and stuff. They’ll go to a one-off show, but the bus isn’t really— My youngest is nine months old, so it’s not really the spot for them. But some day—we’re working on it.
Paste: You’ve got your first record coming out on Warner. How’s that affected the making of and marketing of this record?
Beam: Well, it didn’t really affect the making of it at all. I made the record and then the labels came knocking. So they were interested based on what they heard, not what they felt potential for. I think that would be funny. You know, it’s a major label; they have more resources in radio and older relationships. It’s also a little different than most bands that are on a label like Warner that are looking for Warner Brothers to make them into something, whereas we’ve kind of had a trajectory of our own.
I put out a lot of records on Sub Pop, and I thought a change would be nice. It wasn’t like Sub Pop did anything wrong; change is good. It’s just honestly a little bit too early in the relationship to tell what’s coming about because of what they’re doing and what’s coming about because of the work we’ve already done.
But at the same time, I think they’re great. I signed on because I like their roster; they have more resources than the label I was on before, and they have a roster—obviously they don’t tell Wayne Coyne what to do, so I was sort of hoping to get sort of in that camp.
Paste: Speaking of change: the sound on this record is a far cry from what you were doing early on with The Creek Drank The Cradle. You’ve sort of been marching this way for a while, but what was it that inspired you to get the sound you got out of this record?
Beam: I guess it depends on what aspects you’re talking about. As far as songwriting and the way we approached it, we sort of picked up the way we left off. We did talk very specifically about capturing sounds. I wanted to do a live-feeling record, so we went and tracked it live, at least the rhythm section stuff in Chicago. And we talked specifically about late-’60s, early-’70s, or mid-’70s Los Angeles recordings where the reverb was taken away; everything was recorded very dry. So whenever you use an effect, it was a bit more jarring because a vocal with a lot of reverb was very strange in a mix of really dry-sounding acoustic guitars and drums and stuff.
So I like these super-contrasty sonic textures. I like dealing with sharp contrast. It’s the same with synths and acoustic instruments: they’re jarring when they’re put side-by-side, and I like that kind of stuff. It’s time to flesh it out a bit more.
Paste: So have you been waiting all these years to unbottle the funk too?
Beam: Well, there was some funky shit on the last one [laughs]. Even Woman King is kind of funky in its own way, I guess. You keep introducing sonic textures, and—it’s not like we really set about and said, “We really can’t do that. Of this list of things we really haven’t done, what should we do?” You just go in the studio and stay open. It’s not like the only criteria is that we haven’t tried something before. You try lots of different things, and as you go along, you try different things. I don’t think I would’ve known how to incorporate a clavinet in the first record or two; you just learn as you go.
Paste: Would you say this album was pretty fun to make, then?
Beam: Oh, definitely. Hands-down. It was super fun. I like to surround myself with people that I enjoy, and I enjoy the company, and I also enjoy their playing. I like people who surprise me, people who have ideas. It’s a ball. It’s an absolute blast.
Over the years, you learn it’s not so much about what you end up with. Making records is about the creative process; you be open it, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s not a math problem. So you just go in and have a good time, and whatever feels the best, that’s what you keep. But you stay open to everything, whatever you wanna try, you should try it. So in that sense, the pressure’s off. You just kinda go in and do what you do for fun for a job.
Paste: The title Kiss Each Other Clean, where did that come from?
Beam: Well, it’s a line in the last song on the record, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me.” It has these images of the happy kids climbing on cars and kissing each other clean. I thought it would be much like all the records; they’re heavy records lyrically. They talk about life—the good and the bad, warts and all. The good stuff, the bad stuff, the sweet and sour. So some people call it heavy, but at the same time, this record, moreso than the last one, feels more upbeat, more uptempoed, kind of a danceable thing at moments. I thought it was important to sort of give a nod to that in the title. When you say you’re “kissing each other clean,” you’re insinuating you’re not clean, that something’s fucked up. But at the same time, it has the flip side of that. It has a positive ring to it, a shadow to it too.
Paste: The cover has you standing in a river, and there’s quite a bit religious imagery on the album and in the past as well. Where does that come from? I know you grew up with a religious background, but it sort of keeps popping up in your music.
Beam: Well, religion’s a big deal. Yeah, I grew in the Carolinas, going to church. Those are the characters that I know, but also I use them because they’re such a big part of the culture. I hope anybody in Europe can enjoy the song, but the context is specifically American. No matter how abstract your tune goes, you do yourself a favor if you give it a context, at least in your mind. Then when you write it, you know who those people are. And the context of this is specifically American, and so it’s a big part of the culture.
Paste: You’ve got characters throughout your songs. Do you have favorites that pop up again and again or do you return to a certain version of that guy that you’re singing from his perspective?
Beam: At the end of the day, they’re probably all different version of me, I guess. I dunno, I never really thought about it. I just kind of approach each song as it comes; I hadn’t thought about them being the same person. Maybe they are.
Paste: Getting ready to be out on tour, is there anything you’re excited about as far as going out with these particular players?
Beam: Oh, definitely. These guys are a super-fun band, and I’ve played with most of these people before, but never in this configuration. Most of the guys—you know the band Califone from Chicago? It’s most of the guys from Califone. And Nick Luca, who’s done a lot of stuff with Calexico. Stewart Bogie is playing the horns, he’s from Antibalas and TV On The Radio among other things. And Rosie Thomas is singing with me, among other things. And I think Marketa [Irglova] from The Swell Season might be singing, too, so it’s just a big, fun group.
It’s fun to have a big group because then you have more options; when you do the solo stuff, that’s all you can do. It’s fun to reinvent things in the solo environment, but as far as arrangements, you’re kinda limited. But with the big group, you can do the big stuff, or they can stop playing and you can do solo stuff. It just gives you more options.
Paste: So you as a former film professor, did you get to see Califone’s movie?
Beam: I did. I saw it at South By Southwest when they sat at the bottom and scored the thing.
Paste: Yeah, I saw the same thing at Sundance last year.
Beam: Oh, very cool. That’s actually how I got ahold of these guys, ‘cause Tim wants to go do movies, so I was like, “Well, you know what, I’ll take care of your band for you while you’re taking care of those things.”
Paste: So, do you keep doing film stuff? Are you involved in that world at all anymore?
Beam: Yeah. I did a video for The Swell Season last year. And then I’m getting ready to do one for myself soon. Just music videos, really.