I may be caught up in a little wager in this interview. Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell is at pains to shower his friend and collaborator Sam Beam, usually known by his solo moniker Iron and Wine, and his band with fulsome praise. Every time he does so Beam lets slip a discernible chuckle, as if he’s ticking them off an interview-Bingo sheet. There’s a lot of laughter over our time together.
Both men are in buoyant moods for people who’ve spent all day fielding questions barked down transatlantic phone lines about their new album Sing Into My Mouth (read our review here). Despite Sam not being able to hear me too well, forcing Ben to take the early lead in most of the back and forth, they’re patient, accommodating and a lot of fun, clearly comfortable with the process and leaning on a long and close friendship for memories of their first meetings.
FRUK – Busy day, gents?
BB – Have we had a busy day Sam? [first chuckle]
You’ve known each other forever; how did you meet – was it eyes across a crowded room or…
BB – Sam and my brother are the same age. I came home for Christmas and went out for beers with them. We just hit it off; liked the same music…
You were both born in smalltown South Carolina – how far apart are your respective home towns, Irmo and Chapin?
BB – Super close, like a ten or fifteen minute drive. Rival football teams though! Call it a lucky coincidence.
SB – Ben helped me get started back then. This project was a moment where we could share each other’s enthusiasm for music.
What was it like bringing a friendship into a ‘professional’ engagement?
BB – Don’t say the word professional too loudly! There was nothing professional about it except for Sam’s talent and brains and his amazing band. You can’t call it a labour of love either, ‘cos it wasn’t laborious.
SB – Instead of sending each other a mix tape, we said ‘let’s make a mix tape’!
So, a covers album. Why not original material – was that ever discussed?
BB – We toyed with the idea of getting together for a decade, then met up 18 months ago with some time to spare. It’s difficult to commit to recording new songs ‘cos of the time involved, and we had all these songs that we loved. Our friendship and history made it more sensible to go back to songs we listened to and loved and try to interpret them in a way that felt good. We’re totally in love with the material, and the time we had to spare made a covers album right. So, yeah, we were dying to do a couple of originals but there’s so many – I was looking at Sam’s catalogue and couldn’t pick or decide 10 songs; it’s like choosing between your children.
Are you prepared for existing fans of Iron and Wine and Band of Horses to be surprised by seeing Sade and El Perro Del Mar among the choices?
SB – I hope they’re not; I have no idea what people are going to say – if they get hip to a song then great. To some these will be obscure, to some familiar. Our audiences are pretty similar I think. There’s some surprising interpretations – some people will find.
The UK knows Sade well of course; she’s very popular but considered to be very slick…
SB – I think Sade is possibly more popular over here. There’s definitely some tracks people will know – The Unicorn Song…
David Gilmour’s version.
SB – right, yes.
You opened my eyes to a couple – I’d never heard the Ronnie Lane track (Done This One Before)
BB – Woah, really?! That’s a great track – he wrote some great songs.
Are you faithful reproducers or do you want to make the songs yours? Do you buy into those two conventions for covers, or is there a third way; what was your approach?
BB – Even when I’m at home playing a song for myself I feel like its new ‘cos I’m playing it and there’s a new voice behind it – especially with Sam’s band, it felt fresh and different ‘cos I hadn’t recorded with them before or been part of the breadth of their beautiful skills. I can barely play three chords, so this is like all jazz to me man!
SB – but you own them, man! < laughs> Any time you do this, there’s a level of being precious ‘cos it’s a song you like, but its more fun to run with your knowledge of it and do something personal. Change the key or something, see what your version brings. Songs are a script, not a stone carving.
That’s a nice analogy
SB – It’s like Shakespeare plays; same dialogue, but each performance is slightly different. Personal experiences, different players, different settings. We never really talked about it, going into it, what our interpretations would be – it was just intuitive. We had a lot of fun with songs we really liked and were open to someone having an idea. It’s easy when you surround yourselves with talented people. Everybody in that room was a composer and they all had great ears – it’s very empowering.
The album shares a number of recurring themes; there are a lot of strong harmonies and a 70s feel to the production; do you recognise that, or is it just coincidence?
SB – Oh definitely; the production style was conscious ‘cos I think those records sound great! It was good to use that production style on songs of different eras too. Though I love the songs of that period, they’re not the ones I grew up with. I grew up with punk rock and the 80s, so it was fun to take songs from different genres and eras and play them off the same band and production style and see what came out.
SB – Also, like you said, I’m drawn to a song first by the melody – I like words, I like lyrics, but if it doesn’t have an engaging melody… that’s the initial key and the first knock on the door for me, so… Melody is important to me and to Ben I think. It was fun watching Ben sing and make the harmony choices he did.
BB – It should be noted that it’s Sam’s production talent that brought it together – his immense talent behind the board, and upstairs, his mind.
You’re touring the album soon – who’s insisting on no brown M&Ms?
SB – M&Ms are bad for you.
BB – It’s yet to start, but I think I can out-princess anybody in this field; I got so many demands, new demands every day. I’m looking forward to the match up, to see who’s the worst wanker between me and Sam.
Is it with a full band, or just the two of you?
SB – full band; we were rehearsing today. It’s most of the band on the record, with one or two substitutes, five or six people. We’ll do some solo stuff, some duo stuff. Most of the covers on the record and one or two that were intended to be on the record or just other stuff that we like, and we’ll do a couple of each others to keep it fresh.
Were there any tracks that didn’t make the album and if so, can you let us know what they were?
SB – It wasn’t really about not making the cut, there were just some we didn’t get to. We did the whole thing in about a week, so there’s really… we were working really steady, but by the end of the week we had enough songs for a record so we just called it. You had a Giant Sand song,
BB – yeah,
SB – there was a Belle & Sebastian song I wanted to do, a Jerry Reed Song I wanted to do…
BB – Oh man, put us in a room together and within 5 minutes we’ll have 10 songs.
SB – Picking the songs was not hard.
Howe Gelb was in the UK last year with Grant Lee Phillips, and recently Giant Sand were over – a Gelb song would be a good match for the covers on the record?
SB – Yeah, wonderful guy. I’m a big fan of Howe Gelb; very cool.
And after the tour; is it shake hands, see you on the road and back to the day job, or…?
BB – you gotta day job Sam?
BB – Yeah yeah, we’ve both got stuff, different projects; Sam’s working on a new album and the Horses are finishing off a record, so yeah, we’ll get on with our normal gigs and hopefully circle back before too long and try something different.
SB – There’s a lot of stuff left on the table.
Are you coming to the UK?
SB – We’re squeezing in tour dates between everything else but it would be great to get over to the UK with this stuff.
Not sure about you, but I counted at least ten compliments from Ben to Sam there; I’m guessing Mr. Beam filled his card. It’s great when two such busy artists can spare the time to dig beneath the CD cover, even better when it’s clear they’re having a good time talking about their project.
Sam and Ben turned thousands of miles into the back-porch of a local bar for Folk Radio; three cold beers and all the time in the world to shoot the breeze. If the radio’s on, let’s hope the barman’s playing an old John Prine or Bonnie Raitt number, or perhaps they’re bold enough to put Sing Into My Mouth on and press play. They could do worse.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate
01 This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (Talking Heads)
02 Done This One Before (Ronnie Lane)
03 Any Day Woman (Bonnie Raitt)
04 You Know Me More Than I Know (John Cale)
05 Bulletproof Soul (Sade)
06 No Way Out of Here (Unicorn / David Gilmour)
07 God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get) (El Perro del Mar)
08 The Straight and Narrow (Spiritualized)
09 Magnolia (JJ Cale)
10 Am I a Good Man? (Them Two)
11 Ab’s Song (Marshall Tucker Band)
12 Coyote, My Little Brother (Pete Seeger)
Sing Into My Mouth is out on July 17th
Pre-Order it via Amazon