Allen Tate has grown accustomed to sharing the stage.
As a lead vocalist for Brooklyn-based San Fermin, Tate’s unique baritone is just one element of meticulously crafted chamber pop. Though the band’s creative direction is led by composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, it takes a large team of musicians to bring his ideas to fruition.
Having played a supporting role since San Fermin released its self-titled debut in 2013, Tate is now exploring life as a solo artist. His first effort recorded under his own name – Sleepwalker – was released this past October. The songs he had written back during a six-month break in touring for San Fermin have found new life as Tate readies to present them live.
Tate – a Philadelphia area native – will return home for a solo show at Johnny Brenda’s this Thursday along with Typhoon lead singer, Kyle Morton. It’s the second of four shows Tate will play over a four-day span.
About a month ago, Tate played a gig at World Cafe Live and was supported by a full band that included members of San Fermin. This time he’ll be alone in the spotlight.
“…When you’re used to having seven other bandmates on stage, it’s kind of funny to be out there by yourself all of a sudden,” said Tate.
Sleepwalker is brief – clocking in at about 29 minutes – but profound. Its foundations were laid during a three-week trip Tate took by himself to Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood.
Tate spent evenings writing and mornings editing. In the afternoon, he’d venture out to wander foreign streets in silence. Tate made it a point not to listen to any other music while he was there.
He didn’t set out with the intention of analyzing loneliness, but it naturally became a source of inspiration for the record.
“When I describe it to people, I think that going to see how lonely I could make myself was not the idea,” Tate said. “But it was to go and be alone and see what I was like alone. I had felt really overstimulated and wanted to focus and sort of say, ‘What do I feel like I want to say?’…I just wanted to see what came to me, in a really organic sense.”
Sleepwalker is as a result a portrait of introspection. It’s a thinking man’s record, and certainly offers a greater appeal to listeners who can appreciate what it’s like to be trapped inside your own mind.
Tate had optimistically hoped to write what would be a complete album in his Copenhagen Airbnb. He ultimately found that in his case, creativity cannot be forced.
“…Some of the other people in [San Fermin]…like [singer Charlene Kaye] is a machine. So is [drummer Michael Hanf]. They can both get into the van, no matter what we were just doing, and boom, laptop’s open and they’ll go right at it…write new stuff, mix…and it takes me a while,” said Tate.
Tate said he had been writing songs since middle school. That creative outlet continued to develop when he and Ludwig-Leone crossed paths in high school. Years later he found his time as a student at NYU winding down, and music began to take a back seat as law school loomed ahead.
Tate began “making peace with music,” as he put it.
To his surprise, a clean break from music was postponed. San Fermin signed a record deal after just its second show. The band’s forward momentum has not slowed since. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience for Tate in many ways.
But how does a songwriter find the time to flesh out his own ideas when the tour bus isn’t parked in one place for more than a few hours at a time?
“At some point I definitely knew that I wanted to get writing again,” Tate said. “But it took me a little while to get going.”
Tate eyed San Fermin’s extended break as his opportunity. He took full advantage of having talented, like-minded bandmates ready and willing to offer their services. Sleepwalker is produced by Ludwig-Leone, and multiple members of San Fermin played on the record.
“We’ve been writing and making music together since we were 15,” Tate said of working with Ludwig-Leone. “So at certain point there’s no comparison to just the ease and understanding of transferring ideas and discussing stuff because we’ve been working together for so long.”
“The same goes for almost all the other guys,” he added. “Pretty much everyone that played on the record, we all ride around and spend half the year playing music together and talking about music together. So it couldn’t be a more comfortable situation.”
Preparing to play live has presented Tate with an opportunity to reflect on his work and view those songs in new light. The chorus of “Don’t Choke,” for example, features support from female vocals. Tate joked that he played around with using his own “screeching falsetto” as a replacement, but found it to be “too jarring.”
Tate said he’s already begun working on ideas for a second solo record. And the lessons he learned the first time around – notably being creatively resourceful – have provided a spark.
“I think it is a really sparse record,” Tate said of Sleepwalker. “But pushing myself to work with even fewer parts or to hone the parts that are already in there is probably the biggest motivation and the most central idea to this early songwriting process that would be the next batch.”
San Fermin’s third album – Belong – is due out on April 7th. Their 2017 tour makes a stop in Philly at World Cafe Live on May 12th.
Here’s Tate’s take on the new record, as well as some leftover bits from our conversation.
TTDS: Ellis gave NPR an interesting quote in describing the general vibe of the new record. He said, “It’s a call from that little nagging voice telling you that you might be a bad person, or at least want bad things.”
AT: The most interesting San Fermin stuff that we’ve done, there always feels like there’s a lot of dualism. Whether it’s either that my voice is so low, and Char’s parts are so high…the baritone sax and the violin…sometimes it feels like a rock band, sometimes it feels really composed. I think those sort of [in-betweeners] are the most interesting stuff, when there’s a little bit of friction. Whether it’s good and bad, or a saxophone and a violin.
TTDS: What have you been listening to lately?
AT: Jay Som. I found her by accident on Spotify. I immediately tweeted at her and was like, “I have no idea how I found you, but your record is awesome.” I listened straight through to her record. In this time off from San Fermin I’ve been trying to up my guitar chops. I’ve been listening to a ton of old blues guitar stuff, which is way harder than I had originally assumed.
TTDS: What about early musical influences? Did you listen to anybody a lot growing up? Or pick anything up from parents or family?
AT: It’s totally my dad’s fault, but Stevie Wonder. He’s pretty much the number one. I think I was a senior in college…I got a turntable and stole like half of my dad’s Stevie Wonder albums because they hadn’t been played in years. Of course I got a text like six months later asking where they were. They have not gone home yet. I won’t relinquish them…Tons of Radiohead, but so does everybody. Interpol, for sure. The Roots, growing up in Philly, I think I saw them like 10 or 12 times before I graduated from high school. The Roots were probably the first time that live music made a connection for me. I listened to all kinds of stuff, but I was always really obsessed with lyrics, whether it was hip hop or the worst emo bands…just lyrics, that’s what I always listened to really closely in music. But once I started going to Roots shows, there were a couple times that I saw them and it was just like, “Man, this is it.” It was just a whole other level. That showing, being that impressed with a single performance, being that into it with a crowd, is something I think about a lot. Certainly with playing with San Fermin. If you come to one of our shows, you’re signing up for something that’s going to be different from the norm.
– Mike Still