words by tom johnson
photograph by craig kief
As a teenager, discovering my thirst for music in the CD-boom of the mid-nineties, I had no idea what an EP was. It’s muscular, older sibling, The LP, was a phrase that stuck around, held onto by those who bridged the gap between the vinyl years and its snappier new format that was ready set to change music forever. Then came the noughties, the file-sharing years, the boom of the internet, this wild new technology that shrunk the world, making available the lost and hidden, like a piece of land suddenly overturned, unearthing roots and bugs and all.
And in the aftermath lay the golden-nugget rarities, sometimes deep and profound, other times fun excursions from the norm; work you never even knew existed now waiting to be discovered and downloaded, left overnight to slowly appear on your desktop, whole new worlds to explore in the quiet of the morning. Suddenly I found out that artists didn’t just share full albums every couple of years, but also released small, lesser known collections in the gaps between, of songs that existed outside that major realm.
My love for the humble EP was born. The first one I remember buying was Iron & Wine’s Woman King – a five-song collection released in 2005 – stumbling upon it whilst passing away the hours of the day in a record store in Cardiff. Excitement heightened by the surprise, it was also wonderfully affordable, a five-pound trinket in the age of the expensive CD album.
Sandwiched between the tender balladry of Our Endless Numbered Days and the experimental flourish of The Shepherd’s Dog, Woman King was a melding of Sam Beam’s worlds, old and new. It felt adventurous and exciting, like sneaking a glimpse into a diary, or being led around Beam’s private home space; something more wholesome than a full album, understandably pushed to as many people as possible.
That same year Beam also released In The Reigns, another striking collection, this time a collaboration with the colourful Texans, Calexico, and his third major minor release, a trio of EPs which also included the hushed marvel of 2003’s The Sea & The Rhythm, a small family off-shoot as important and formative as any of their full-length brethren.
“I think what happened was that it became a fun way to keep working,” Beam tells us, as we sit down with him in the height of 2018’s summer grip. “When I started there were a couple (of EPs) around that I thought were really great. There was this band called Rex, from Chicago. They were sort of indie, alt-country. One of my favourites. Mogwai also had some really great EPs around that time too.”
“Bands used to put out a record a year, if not more,” he continues, explaining why he enjoys the format so much. “They would burn out fast but at the same time they were consistently working. It can be frustrating to make something and then have to wait a couple of years to put something out, just because of the promotional machine where the wheels are so large and the gears move slowly. I understand it, but at the same time it has nothing to do with our creative process. So the EPs were a way to keep working.”
“It was chance to do whatever you wanted, to get a little more experimental. I used them to grow quite a bit,” Beam confirms of those earlier releases. “Actually I feel like sometimes I would make these creative jumps with my EPs and then I’d put out a full length and people were like ‘What the fuck! What happened? Why are you doing this music now?‘ and I was like, well, I’ve kind of been developing it for a little while…”
So Woman King completed a set, of sorts, and then Iron & Wine’s relationship with the EP fizzled out somewhat, replaced by a mounting collection of B-Sides and his ‘Archive Series’, of which there have been three released thus far, since their 2015 inscription. Until, that is, this year, with the announcement that the Weed Garden EP will enter the world in the shadow of Beast Epic, as the end of summer rolls around; the release containing six songs pulled from the same period of time that led to Beam’s wonderful 2017 full-length effort.
“It’s kind of a clearing-the-closet release,” Beams confirms. “These songs were either recorded during the same sessions, and didn’t make the record, or I was working on them at that time but didn’t quite get them finished. That’s why it’s called ‘Weed Garden’ – these song are those weeds!”
Announced with the sharing of its opening track, What Hurts Worse, the EP instantly falls into place alongside its familial fellows, as poignant and weightless as the Beast that spawned it, and those aforementioned releases. “Some of them turned out a little more surprising than others,” Beam says of the final versions of these diary-like tidbits. “I really enjoyed the one with the strings, Milkweed. They’re all different though; some I enjoyed recording, some I just like what they saying. I think ‘Talking To Fog’, for example, is pretty poignant.”
“I just really like short records,” he continues, explaining why the format has been such a prescient force through his career. “The more concise the better. I feel like people, myself included, have a shorter attention span now. So it’s nice to be able to stay concentrated. Anytime you have fewer things to absorb you observe it differently and listen to it differently. It’s a concentrated statement.”
Included on the EP is ‘Waves Of Galveston’, a song that has been kicking around for a little while, played live on stage and in session. “That’s an older one, probably the oldest song in the group,” says Beam of the track. “I’m kind of writing all the time and I don’t really sit and portion things out for each album, but it was one of the songs that had a more reflective feel and I knew I wanted to do it as an acoustic thing. I guess it pointed me in the direction of where the rest of Beast Epic went.”
“It got left off in the end because it didn’t quite feel like part of the group,” he continues, “it sort of sits between the Ghost On Ghost stories and these more reflective songs. The language is different. The language is much more similar to the Ghost On Ghost songs. I felt like the way I was using language on Beast Epic had its own feel, more associative than the kind of storytelling that was happening on Ghost, in a way that I thought was really exciting; I was aware I was pushing it in a really fun direction.”
Released on August 31st via Sub Pop, Weed Garden draws to a close via the plaintive ‘Talking To Fog’, a four-minute paean to the quietude of mornings, to the woven fabric of relationships, as gently moving as Sam Beam has ever been:
And for all of his excursions and explorations, for all of the chopping and changing, it’s this line that neatly ribbon-bows Iron & Wine; a writer of songs that seep through our bones and into the ground, ready to be unearthed once more; weeds amongst flowers in the waning Summers Clouds.
‘Weed Garden’ is released on August 31st, via Sub Pop
You can buy it here