Sam Beam and Joey Burns on Iron & Wine and Calexico's latest collaboration, 'Years to Burn'

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Sam Beam (left) and Joey Burns (right)
Sam Beam (left) and Joey Burns (right) in The Current studio (2017/2018). (Emmet Kowler/Nate Ryan for MPR.)
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Sam Beam and Joey Burns on 'Years to Burn'
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"When we left each others' company last time, we made a pact — a blood pact," said Sam Beam. "I cut my hand and Joey cut his hand, and I said, 'I will see you in 14 years in Nashville, to the day.'"

Sam Beam is stretching the truth a bit here — he and Joey Burns didn't make a blood pact, but they did leave their first joint recording session with a lasting friendship, new album, and an enthusiasm for future collaborations.

Beam is better known by the moniker Iron & Wine, and Burns plays in the Tucson band Calexico with drummer John Convertino. Iron & Wine and Calexico released their first collaborative album, In The Reins, in 2005. 14 years later, they have followed up with a new album, Years to Burn.

I caught up with Burns and Beam to talk about Years to Burn, and in the process learned more about the friendship that fuels their collaboration. You can use the player above to listen to our entire conversation.

After 14 years of scheduling conflicts, the pair found the time to record a new album, and released Years to Burn on June 14. At just 32 minutes long, the album leaps from tender folk songs to brooding, improvised jazz trumpet. The musicians spent less than a week in the studio, melding previously written material with new and improvised passages.

"We both brought songs, just so we would have a conversation starter, but we're also hoping to meld the two writing styles," said Beam.

One of those songs is "In Your Own Time," which Beam wrote back when he and Burns first met. The two were introduced by manager Howard Greynolds, before Beam released Iron & Wine's first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, in 2002. Beam recorded The Creek Drank the Cradle's songs as demos at home, and planned on re-recording them with Calexico. While this never happened, Beam dug up "In Your Own Time," a previously unreleased song from The Creek era, and reworked it for Years to Burn.

They recorded "In Your Own Time" during their last day in the studio. "It's about being vulnerable with the people that you love," said Beam. "So it was a fun one to do on the last day of this session."

While some of the material on Years to Burn had been in the making for years, other songs came to life spontaneously. Burns wrote "Midnight Sun" in the studio, the night before recording the song. John Convertino pitched the concept for the ominous and improvisatory "Outside El Paso" in the Dallas airport. "Why don't we just do something free and experiment?" he asked Burns.

The album weaves a lush tapestry of musical styles. No where is this stylistic diversity more evident than on "The Bitter Suite," a song split into three parts. "'The Bitter Suite' wasn't thought of initially to be a tryptic," said Burns. "It was one song, 'Tennessee Train.' And then I loved the changes in that song so much, I thought, 'Let's just see if we can play with that — with that song being the theme, and then doing some variations on it.'"

"The Bitter Suite" opens with "Pájaro," an acoustic song sung in Spanish by Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela and Sam Beam. "Jacob is fantastic, not only as a trumpet player but also as a vocalist and as a songwriter," Burns said. "So I thought, 'Why don't we translate some of the text from 'Tennessee Train' into Spanish and see what happens?' Sam came up with a really great rhythmic pattern on the guitar, and Sebastian Steinberg, our bass player, also joined in, and it just became a really beautiful moment. And it was short and sweet. And then we were done — we were like, 'That's cool. I don't know where it's going to go on the record, but that was cool.'"

"We were just coming up with material, and then the idea to combine them came a little later," explained Beam. "We had a limited amount of time in the studio, so we were just throwing ideas out and see what happened. Trying to be open to discovery."

For Beam, the album's title (which comes from the name of its penultimate song) represents a few different sentiments, including just how long it's been since Iron & Wine and Calexico's last release.

"It's a way of looking at your life," said Beam. "You can either look at your life as years to burn — just trying to get by — or how finite our time is. It's kind of a generous line; open to interpretation. I don't think it's intentionally being obtuse, it just gives you room to let your mind wander inside."


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