Sam Beam and Joey Burns on Iron & Wine and Calexico’s second get-together

(From left) Joey Burns, Sam Beam and John Convertino
Photo: Piper Ferguson / Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

Back in 2005, the Latin-influenced Americana band Calexico and folk-favoring singer-songwriter Sam Beam (who records under the name Iron & Wine) teamed up for an EP, In the Reins. Nearly 15 years later, the two have rejoined forces for a follow-up full-length, Years of Ruin, and a tour that will see them share the stage.

Ahead of both acts’ first-ever public Vegas performance, Beam and Calexico’s Joey Burns explained how their latest collaboration unfolded.

On the first collaborative record, In the Reins:

Sam Beam: For me, it was about learning to collaborate, how to trust the teammates around me. Not that I was super-controlling; I didn’t have a whole lot of experience. All of my experience up to that point had really been writing songs in my room and then filling out my band with friends who could play. It was a whole new palette of sounds and types of collaborators that I was exposed to in that project, and it was really empowering.

I didn’t really think about it at the time, because I was just experiencing all the changes and trying on new musical clothes. But looking back, it was super-transformative—I mean, for me, I can’t speak for them (laughs).

Joey Burns: [Calexico bandmate] John [Convertino] and I have done a lot of different collaborations over the years, and leading up to that point, we had so many sessions that took us from being a rhythm section in a band in Tucson to working with a whole slew of people around the world. Getting to meet Sam was a really beautiful turning point for me. I was reminded of some of the artists that I fell in love with, that really turned me into a singer-songwriter, and after making that record together, I thought, “I’m just going to go back to the song.” I focused more on the songs and I went inward, and I trusted myself as a singer-songwriter.

That had a really important aspect to my development. After we had met and recorded together and toured together, I made a record with Calexico called Garden Ruin. And a lot of people all of a sudden responded, like, “Oh, now I get what you’re about.”

[Other people] were like, “Wait, something’s missing. Where’s the mariachi influence? Where’s the twang? Where’s the soundtrack? Where’s the lo-fi instrumental segues?” It was interesting.

On reuniting to record Years to Burn:

JB: There was never really any talk of doing another record and another year of touring until about the 10th anniversary of In the Reins, when we got all sentimental about, “Aww, we should do it again” (laughs). And it just took another four years to lock in those dates. This time around, instead of having all of Calexico with just Sam Beam, Sam proposed doing half and half—have half the Iron & Wine band and half the Calexico band. John and I, and Jacob Valenzuela, the trumpet player, went to Nashville to record.

[We had] Sam demos, and I wrote a song, and then we just sort of made up a bunch of stuff right there on the spot, which was sort of like picking up where we last left off. We became a band on the road in 2005. But it had been a good chunk of time between our last gig and this recent recording session. It was really interesting to see where it falls together in regards to that ability to work and play together. It didn’t take very long at all.

SB: I didn’t really sit down and say, “All right, let’s write a Calexico record.” [But] it was always in the back of my mind, on the horizon. I would sort of dog-ear songs that I thought would work well—a melody or snippets of songs. Sometimes it’s great to have a project like this that gives you an excuse to finish something, because sometimes it’s really hard to find a focus for something that you’re struggling with.

That said, it wasn’t a thematic through line. It was totally subjective. The sound of them made me think of playing them with Joey and John. And I liked the fact that some of them had this theme of friendship, of family. That was serendipitous.

On the biggest difference recording Years to Burn:

SB: For Joey, John and me, it was our first time recording in Nashville. It was different this time, because we knew each other. When we got together the first time, we had met, but we had never played music together. It was a meeting process … like a power lunch (laughs). Whereas [for] this one, we had all this history. We had all this time put in playing together and becoming a band. We were a touring band kind of playing folk-rock tunes, and that’s where we picked it up.

[For Years to Burn] we put in an obstacle: We’re going to do it in five days, and it will be what we finish in that short amount of time—the best snapshot of our best ideas in those five days. [We won’t] get too caught up on what the perfect arrangement for every f*cking song might possibly be. In that sense, it was also kind of freeing. We just got together and played and had fun; let your instinct guide you, for better for worse. It was more about just reuniting with friends than it was making the perfect musical statement. It was more of a progress report.

On why their collaborations work so well:

JB: When we met, [Beam] was like, “I want to make these sound furthest from Iron & Wine’s recordings as possible. What do you normally do on this song?” For example, on ‘Broken Bed,’ I said, “Well, we would probably put a trumpet solo.” He said, “Well, let’s put two trumpet solos on. Let’s do it different for both of us.” We kind of push each other to take the opportunity in a collaboration to do something that you normally wouldn’t.

The beauty of doing a collaboration the first time is that there’s no expectations, and nobody knows what to expect. You know, it could have totally flopped and tanked. But we were all really open, and in the process, we were listening along the way. Instead of trying to have a fixed idea, both Sam and the members of Calexico are really good at going with what you’re hearing back from either the playback or on the stage.

SB: When we played together the first time, I was just learning how to play in a band. I had lots of experience writing songs and recording them, but not sharing it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to share; I just didn’t really know how. And they made it easy, because they were super-supportive. They came with great ideas, but they were also generous. It was a nice sharing relationship, and it’s still that way.

On playing Vegas:

JB: [I’ve] never performed there, never hung out. I’ve got a few friends [there], so I’m excited to get to visit.

Being in a band in the ’90s called Friends of Dean Martin, it would have been nice to have played Vegas back then. We had to change our name to Friends of Dean Martinez. We called up Dean’s manager, Mort Viner, and he said, “Yeah, you can use the name, but just give us 33%.” We didn’t have any money back then—and we weren’t probably going to make any money. I don’t think we really did. But it was sure fun.

SB: I actually have played there one time, but it wasn’t a show. I played a wedding (laughs). It was within the last year or two. But I had never been there, either. It was definitely a kick in the head. I don’t really know what to expect from a Vegas audience, but I’m looking forward to it.

CALEXICO AND IRON & WINE October 2, 7:30 p.m., $40-$90. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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