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1/23/2003

Music > Music Feature

Common bonds

 

Let's face facts: There's not a city in Florida likely to ever vie for the title of The Next Seattle. Two Sunshine State bands, however, are poised to put a bit more shine on the state's reputation.

From the turquoise wonderland of Miami and the rural college town of Gainesville come, respectively, Iron & Wine and Holopaw. The former, a one-man bedroom-folk project; the latter, a quintet swirling equal parts old-time country and moody, spacey atmospherics. And both are putting out records bearing the insignia of Sub Pop records, the "little" label from Seattle that unleashed Nirvana on the world.

Two heretofore unknown bands from the same state making near simultaneous debuts on one of independent rock's most revered labels smacks of more than mere coincidence. Could it be something in the water?

"The culture down here is like anything goes, you know. It's such a hodgepodge, it's hard to have a well-defined, homogenous music scene," explains the soft-spoken Samuel Beam, whose Iron & Wine debut, "The Creek Drank the Cradle," was released in September.

Beam, a South Carolina native, moved to Miami after graduating from Florida State University's film school, following a friend who'd taken a teaching job there. "We were working on this screenplay," he explains. "I wasn't doing anything else, so I moved down here ... and I sorta stuck."

While the screenplay -- a project Beam will reveal little about other than that it was "all about pirates" -- is on hold for the foreseeable future, Beam is keeping himself occupied with swashbuckling pursuits. He's got a family: a wife in graduate school and two daughters, ages 5 years and 4 months. And he's got a gig of his own, teaching cinematography and scriptwriting at Miami's International Fine Arts College.

Oh, and the music thing.

Iron & Wine -- named after a protein supplement called Beef Iron & Wine that Beam spied in a Gainesville country store -- began five years ago when Beam, who'd long toyed around on guitar, got his first four-track recorder. He sent some recordings to friend Ben Bidwell in Seattle, who in turn passed them on to Mike McGonigal, editor of the music and arts journal Yeti. McGonigal placed one of the songs on the journal's accompanying CD, where Sub Pop execs heard it and immediately began bugging Beam for material.

Listening to Beam's muffled acoustic picking, tender slide-guitar touches and bitter honey voice on songs like "Promising Light" ("But now I see love/ there in your car where I said those things") and "Upward Over the Mountain" ("Mother forget me, now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to"), it's easy to get swept up in the creaky Southern imagery. Think Elliott Smith with a splash of "As I Lay Dying."

Beam draws on his film experience to convert scenes and people from his life into his imagery-laden tales. "When you do screenwriting, you're really limited to action and dialogue," he explains. "I enjoy songs where you can sort of see what's going on, where I can tell you how sad I am or how happy."

"Most of the scenery comes from back home. The people, their wants, their character comes from here," he figures of his country-tinged folk dirges. Beam, who played in a few louder bands in his youth, admits of his country leanings: "You can't really grow up in Carolina and get away from it."

The fellow Floridians in "Holopaw," with whom Iron & Wine is touring, also have roots planted firmly in Southern country/folk tradition and draw upon visual arts to create their eerily evocative songcraft.

Led by singer John Orth, a Jacksonville native with a background in fine arts, Holopaw brings a fuller sound to the table, buffered by instrumentals from Tobi Echevarria, Ryan Gensemer, Jeff Hays and Michael Johnson. But the music on the band's just-released eponymous debut is as subtle and nuanced as Beam's.

Borrowing its name from the town 25 miles southeast of Kissimmee -- Orth just found the word "beautiful" -- Holopaw got its break when Isaac Brock (frontman for Seattle alt-rock powerhouse Modest Mouse) caught the band by chance at a warehouse show during a stint living in Gainesville. "I bumped into him a few days later," recalls Orth. "He asked me to come over and work on some songs."

Those songs were for a Brock side project, Ugly Cassanova. So impressed with Orth's band, Brock briefly entertained starting a label to release their music. He decided he didn't have the time, so hipped his hometown buddies in Sub Pop instead.

Holopaw's murky, atmospheric twist on traditional country is reminiscent of the halfway between Louisville's My Morning Jacket and late folk singer Nick Drake. Orth's haunting voice emerges, as if from a fog, atop a bed of guitars, bass and unobtrusive keyboards.

Where Beam's work has a cinematic, narrative feel, Orth's songs are more poetic, full of fleeting snapshots. On "Abraham Lincoln," ostensibly about a Nebraska bridge, "clouds rush in and lose focus" and rooms "fill with aquarium light." In the wanderlusting "Teacup Woozy," "there are Chinese lantern-lit gardens/ there are many ways to Ohio."

Though many of the songs are set in places far-and-wide, Holopaw is perhaps the perfect soundtrack for the band's Central Florida home base.

"It's a pretty rural place as soon as you get outside of Gainesville proper," says Orth. "I think when most people think of Florida, they think of beaches and they think of theme parks. [But] it's really beautiful country. There's a lot of springs nearby, and a lot of live oaks. It's a pretty lush place."

Orth puts his fine-arts degree to work as a painter and once penned a weekly comic called "A Humble-Shine Production." His muse is stimulated by visuals. He first started singing while working at a group home in Colorado where a lot of the staff played guitar, but the South has always been in his heart.

"I take a lot of Polaroid pictures, and in Colorado I didn't do that," admits Orth. "There were these amazing landscapes, but the things that somehow creep into my writing or my art are things like old motel signs or fruit stands ... [things that are] really abundant in the South. And those details are what make up much of the songs."

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