Calexico and Iron & Wine: In the Reins, Again

Mike Ayers on October 11, 2019
Calexico and Iron & Wine: In the Reins, Again

photos by Piper Ferguson

Calexico and Iron & Wine move past the handshake introductions of their initial collaboration to become a true, blissful band of brothers.

It’s just after 6 p.m. on a hot June day—the first day of summer—and hundreds of people are already lined up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to see Calexico and Iron & Wine join forces onstage. This meeting of the minds has happened only once before, almost 15 years ago, when the two folk-rock acts teamed up during what now could be considered their early days. Tonight’s a rebirth of sorts, one that wasn’t on anyone’s radar until just a few months ago, really.

As the clock ticks toward show time, the two bands have congregated in the Bandshell’s narrow and cramped backstage area. Stacks of road cases and speakers and roadies running around tuning instruments provide a makeshift mountainous landscape that you have to navigate in order to get to a small, narrow corridor. There are two doors tucked back at the end of this hallway. The sound of children’s voices fill the air, as does the faint strumming of an acoustic guitar.

Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam is sitting in his dressing room, casually tuning this acoustic guitar—his signature beard almost touching the instrument’s neck as he runs his fingers up and down. He looks up, as if he’s slightly startled, awakened from “the zone,” and flashes a warm smile.

“We had a great time doing that last record and touring it,” Beam says almost immediately. “It became really familial. [Getting back together] was always in the cards and whenever we saw each other, we’d talk about doing it. But I’d get busy, or [Calexico] would get busy—procrastination can be a strong fucking force. It’s really hard to swallow that it took 14 years. Looking back, it feels like yesterday.”

The “yesterday” he is referring to was 2005, when Beam was around 31. As a songwriter, he was on the rise. His debut album, 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a surprise hit. Since the tunes were recorded as home demos on a 4-track, the production was extremely lo-fi. Seattle label Sub Pop got ahold of the recordings and offered to release them as is.

At the time, Beam was living in Miami and working as a college film teacher. If you read old interviews from that era, then you’ll get the sense that his musical career was purely accidental. But music fans clamoring for something rootsy and authentic-sounding, beyond the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, were already on the hunt and immediately gravitated toward Beam.

For his follow-up, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam pivoted his sound to something more polished, recording at Chicago’s Engine Studios, partnering with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter) and allowing the record to take on a professional sheen. Almost as soon as the album was released, Beam moved to the head of the budding indie-folk class that had been gaining popularity throughout the decade. His work almost immediately became associated with words like “fragile,” “naturalistic” and “vulnerable,” thanks to songs like “Naked as We Came,” “Bird Stealing Bread” and “Sodom, South Georgia.”

“I don’t think [the songs] are terribly different than what I usually write about,” Beam says, reflecting on his work now versus then. “There’s no thematic through line. There’s some similarities through the songs, some things that are touched on in different ways. Middle-aged people write differently than younger-aged people, because you have a different bag to draw from. You’re not so interested in some of the more romantic visions that you clung to earlier on in your life.”

In 2005, Beam decided to take a stab recording with Calexico—they joined forces for In the Reins, a seven-song EP that paired Beam’s flourishing songwriting with Calexico’s Southwestern desert-folk vibe.

“When I first met them, they freed my songs up a lot,” Beam recalls. “No matter what move I made, I always felt supported by their musical gestures behind me. So that was a new feeling and an empowering feeling—to let me go further than what I thought I could do. They thrive on improvisation and spontaneity.”

It’s about an hour before showtime, and Joey Burns is in the adjacent dressing room. There are no guitars in sight, and his stage shirt is still hanging from a wall-length mirror. He’s in a fantastic mood, too. His family is with him and there’s a massive turnout for the free show: Thousands of fans have now shown up and are waiting for them to go on.

Over the course of Calexico’s 20-plus-year career, guitarist Burns and drummer John Convertino have earned a reputation as master collaborators. They’ve backed songwriters such as Victoria Williams and Neko Case, and served as a house band of sorts for the soundtrack to the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. But mostly, since In the Reins, they’ve been focused on their own albums, releasing five full-lengths during the past 14 years.

They started kicking around the idea for a follow-up to In the Reins a few years ago, when the 10th anniversary of the first effort was approaching—Beam and Calexico ran into each other on a few occasions at festivals, but finding a time when everyone’s schedule lined up became the only thing that was preventing a proper follow-up from actually happening. The stars eventually aligned and they finally found a few days in December 2018, convening at an Airbnb in Nashville just before New Year’s Eve.

“We stayed in a beautiful house, and it was full of instruments,” Burns says. “I just loved the space. And I’d only heard Sam’s demos [for the album] a week before. There were no rehearsals or planning sessions. He’s pretty laid back in that regard. And trusting. That trust really came through.”

In just five days, Beam and Calexico recorded Years to Burn, along with keyboardist Rob Burger (Tom Waits, Bob Weir, Norah Jones) and bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing). The album clocks in at 30 minutes and is technically just eight songs, but they consider it a full-length this time.

“Everybody in that room—they’re all arrangers, producers, composers in their own right,” Beam says. “There was no shortage of ideas—you just have to let them create a space where everyone feels like they can create. They are incredibly sensitive listeners. They’re listening for how to fill out your sound. It’s super empowering, super fun.”

“Sam works pretty fast,” Burns says of the short amount of time they spent in the studio. “I tend to not work that fast on a Calexico record. I tend to come to the studio with not a lot of material written. I come with sketches of music and I use the studio time as time to work on it. He’s very focused. He loves the studio, he loves the experience—all the aspects. He’s there when the doors open and he’s the last person to leave.”

Beam’s work ethic lends itself to a project like this in a different sort of way. He’s constantly recording, whether it’s at his home in North Carolina these days or on his phone, wherever he may be. He mined some of his old recordings and even brought melodies that he says were kicking around since the days of Iron & Wine’s 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.

“When we started to get more serious about doing this thing, I was looking through what I had,” Beam says. “A project like this is great for giving homes to orphans. Little bits and bobs of songs that don’t get finished for some reason or another, until you have a deadline and can focus.”

One of the album’s highlights, “Father Mountain,” started out as a few of those bits and bobs, before rearing its head years later. The track sounds like classic Iron & Wine, with Beam singing about nostalgic memories of home, love, maturing and moving on, centered around Teresa, the song’s anchor and muse. Similar themes pop up in the rustic-sounding “Follow the Water,” where Beam talks about getting rattled on roller coasters, small town thugs and lightning bugs, and picking up the pieces after “I fell out of the palm of your hand.”

But the album also packs in some out-of-the-box moments that certainly nod to Calexico’s knack for studio experimentation. The instrumental “Outside El Paso” comes off more like a late-‘60s Miles Davis composition than anything Iron & Wine-related. And the album’s centerpiece, “The Bitter Suite,” features eight minutes of interlocking parts, where the first piece, “Pájaro,” is sung in Spanish by trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela, before it morphs into “Evil Eye,” a rhythmic rocker, with fluttering horns taking command of the song’s sonic space. The last three minutes mellow out with Beam’s contribution, “Tennessee Train.” Each song could have stood on its own, but they deliberately strung them together into a natural sonic arc.

To that end, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and when both Iron & Wine and Calexico became better songwriters; it just happened gradually over the past 14 years as they constantly worked on new material. Beam’s musical narratives have become richer and more compelling, as shown on 2017’s Beast Epic. Calexico have expanded their sonic palette outside of the Southwest, in both a rhythmic and lyrical sense.

“The strange thing is: It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time,” Burns says. “It doesn’t feel as long as it sounds or looks on paper. Maybe there is something to music, that it can stretch. It can stretch the concept of time. [Years to Burn] does have a beautiful connection to the last record. We were very pleased with some of these gifts, some of these surprises. We relied on the muse itself, which was spending time together in the space.”

By the time Iron & Wine and Calexico take the stage in Brooklyn, the sun has nearly set. Different types of New Yorkers litter the crowd, but look hard enough, and a few things seem to tie together the people on the blankets dotting the lawn. Like Beam, Burns and Convertino, they’ve grown up. New York is no longer simply a playground to romp around, like it was 15 years ago, when they were in their 20s. It’s a place where they’re now raising kids and taking them to actual playgrounds, in between midlife career ups and downs. It’s a place that has weathered disappointments and triumphs, some recent, some now many years removed.

Reconnecting with an old creative partner can be challenging, even if it is also appealing. Burns says that, in order to prep for several months on the road, stretching across the U.S. and Europe, they gave each other some creative homework. Beam was tasked with learning five Calexico songs and Calexico practiced the same number of Iron & Wine tunes.

This night in Brooklyn is their second show of the tour, and if there were kinks to be worked out, no one could tell. Onstage, the band looked at ease, as if they’ve been doing this with each other all along. The say the connection really happened during their first tour together in 2005-2006. That run of shows was modeled after Bob Dylan’s 1975 legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue,” where Calexico and Iron & Wine each performed a set of their own material, before joining forces for a third, collaborative set. They point to a late-night drive to Chicago in a fierce snowstorm as the moment that cemented them as lifelong creative partners, regardless of time and space.

“The first record we made was a handshake with each other,” Beam says. “We didn’t really know each other that well. We’d never played music together. That recording is them supporting me—us meeting—and me having the material. And it was fun. But over the course of touring that record, we became a band. And this project picks up from that tour. It’s much easier to pass the baton around and become this three-headed monster, instead of two people behind one person.”

This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe below.