If anyone has seen both Americas, it’s Allen Tate. In fact, he’s been shuttling between them for the last three years.
“There are a lot of different people and a lot of different experiences you can be having living in this country, and not all of them go together,” Tate explains, his baritone voice booming with laughter. “But I subscribe to the idea that people are good and want good things for themselves and the basic needs for their family, even if they’re operating from places of fear or what they think the solutions or causes of their problems are wrong.”
Best known as a vocalist for Brooklyn-based Baroque-pop outfit San Fermin, Tate spent the majority of 2016 on the road, completing a thirty-six month cycle in which his band played at least one show in each calendar month. Enjoying a break coinciding with the holiday season, Tate is making the most of his “free” time by doing what he’s known best: heading back on tour in support of his debut solo album, Sleepwalker. If anything, it’s given Tate a great deal of perspective as the country prepares for a Donald Trump presidency.
“I’m hopeful that as long as the conversations keep happening and happen more frequently, discourse tends to lead to the right answers, even if it’s a long and winding road.”
As we chat over the phone on a snowy Saturday in 2017, Tate’s measured optimism gives me renewed hope to keep fighting.
“It’s definitely heavy times, and I don’t exactly know what my banter will be like on this tour. All you can do is stay positive, because there’s more than enough to keep you down.”
Allen Tate plays Washington, D.C.’s Sixth and I on January 18 and Brooklyn’s Rough Trade on January 20. Sleepwalker is out now on Votiv Music.
Brightest Young Things: This is your debut solo album, and really the first piece of work where you’ve been the principal songwriter and composer since becoming a full-time musician. When you and I first spoke it was the early days of San Fermin – you had only recently quit your job at the legal nonprofit and left behind thoughts of going to law school. Now you’ve been touring the world performing for the last three years. I guess what I mean to say by all of that is: how do you feel?
Allen Tate: [Laughs] I mean, I’m not even sure how to begin to answer this. I think all this time off tour is hard, there were a couple of months where I was wondering which one was the true North. Am I most used to being on tour and being in a different place every day at this point, or just being home at my apartment in New York? We got after it so hard for the last three years, and until this past August , we had played at least one show every calendar month since September 2013. So, we just stopped. By the time we go back on tour in April, we’ll have basically have been off for like seven months.
I think for everyone in the band, everything was going so fast, and even though it was a planned break, and we all knew it and had other music to work on and other stuff to do, it’s just very, very different. But yeah – I’m extremely happy and grateful for what the last few years have been for me, but it’s another example that you can plan all you want but you’ll never really know what you end up doing. [Laughs] For all the time I spent in the researching law schools and dual degree programs, with like a PhD in philosophy, and all the time I spent in the library, I probably should have been looking at guitar amps. [Laughs]
BYT: Do you ever stop and think “what if?” Do you have that Sliding Doors moment – what would your life look like if you had passed on working with Ellis [Ludwig-Leone] and never even recorded that first track?
AT: At this point, I can’t imagine my life without San Fermin or playing music. Right before the band started, it really was a thing that I had to make peace in my head that music was probably going to have a diminished role in my life because I’d have to do other stuff to make ends meet – that I probably wouldn’t get to spend a lot of time playing, or have to make a concerted effort to organize situations where I could play music a little more.
One of my roommates from college, who was on the basketball team with me, was valedictorian of the College of Arts and Science and we were both planning on going to law school. He went right after school, and I decided to take that year off to see if there was anything to do with music, and was probably going to go after that. He ended up going to Penn, works for a firm down in Dallas, and actually just got engaged – it’s great.
It’s funny to have Jude in my life – he’s pretty much living out what I might have been doing. He’s really happy and lots of benefits to that kind of life – he certainly makes a lot more money than I do working for a law firm than touring the country. [Laughs] But I think the way my brain works, I think at some point I’ll go back to school, probably to study more philosophy; I really enjoyed my time in the classroom. I’m lucky with San Fermin because everyone in the band is very sharp, so the conversation in the car is never dull. All that is to say that I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, but it would have been a very different life to be pursuing a job as legal counsel for somebody, and working at a firm, and having three years of law school behind me.
BYT: I think these deep thoughts and feelings can translate pretty well into songwriting, but I do understand that itch. I think that Dave 1 from Chromeo is a grad student at Columbia – there was some article a few years ago about him TAing a class, which is kind of hilarious. So maybe we’ll get you grading philosophy papers for undergrads in a few years. [Note: Dave Macklovitch is a PhD candidate in French Literature at Columbia University, and a professor at Barnard College]
AT: [Laughs] I’d be happy to do it.
BYT: This album was a reflection of the time you spent in Copenhagen after touring, the first real break you’d had in a while. What was that experience like? You went by yourself, right?
AT: Yeah, I went by myself. I’d only been to Copenhagen once before, maybe six months earlier on tour with San Fermin, and that’s where I got the idea that was maybe where I wanted to go. I knew the main purpose of the trip – and even then back in April I’d been playing around with the idea – was to go somewhere by myself. In some ways it was to avoid procrastinating, and in others it was to force me to really hyper-focus.
That first time touring with San Fermin was amazing, but compared to what I was used to it was incredibly overstimulating, and so it was the kind of thing where I felt I needed to carve out a piece of time to just do this and be alone with my own thoughts and figure it out. I’d even played around with the idea of telling my friends I was out of town but getting an AirBnB somewhere else in New York, but that seemed a little too eccentric. [Laughs] It ended up working out nicely. I guess I wanted to be alone, and experience that. I wasn’t totally planning for some of the things that I came to while I was there; it wasn’t like I wanted to go there and be like “how lonely can I make myself?” But the idea of going someplace where I would be alone with my thoughts unless I sought people out was interesting to me. I know about three more people now in Copenhagen than I did when I arrived, and I still don’t even know them that well.
I think it was an important trip for me. I would get up each day and walk like eight miles a day, all around the city, then come back and work on music at night. Wake up and edit and delete accordingly the next morning, and then go back out for a nice walk. I did this for like three and a half weeks.
BYT: Did you go on this trip with the express purpose of writing an album? If not, what was your intention in terms of artistic output?
AT: I used to write songs all the time before San Fermin – in college, and certainly in high school. Towards the end of college I was playing a lot with Ellis and trying to revamp our high school band and do different stuff with that, but I was slowly coming to peace with the fact that I would probably be playing music much less after college – so I wasn’t writing as much, I wasn’t in the habit in the same way.
So, I went to Copenhagen and I set some ambitious goals: three weeks, two songs a day, and I’ll have plenty to cut and pare down. It’ll be great! I’ll come back and have like 12 songs that I’ll be really happy with or something like that, and that’ll be the record. [Pauses dramatically] Of course, I went there and it was overwhelming. I sat down and tried to write, and anything I put together felt like garbage – I was worried I was wasting time, and money, and energy, and I felt that way for the first couple of days. What was I doing? It took me a while before I could settle in, and I think I wrote six songs while I was there and ended up cutting two of them. I definitely had some pretty outlandish hopes of how prolific I was going to be while I was there. [Laughs]
I at least wanted to get started. Up until then I had done so much planning about how I wanted the record to sound like, and had kept a running list of things I had heard in other songs that I really liked. But it’s easier to not start a thing and keep putting it off than leave a thing unfinished that you’ve already started. So that was the goal in Copenhagen – if I could put a dent in it, I would at least feel the guilt of leaving something unfinished in a way that I wouldn’t feel about a hypothetical record that I was going to make.
BYT: Where would you ideally like to see your career go as a solo artist and part of San Fermin? Is there anyone you model your trajectory after?
AT: [Deadpan] Beyoncé. [Laughs] I don’t really think there’s anyone in that I would model myself after in terms of career arc, or maybe I just can’t think of them. I was really happy to get the album out, and am looking forward to writing more music. It’s a really nice balance to have San Fermin, which is such a unique musical experience, and only having to worry about singing and flailing while on stage, and hanging out with some of my best friends.
But I’m also glad to have an outlet to work on my own music – it’s nice to have both of those pots going at the same time. I’d like to keep doing both in the future, and put out another record. I now know it takes me quite a bit of time to get ideas down, so I’ve already started working on things, and I think it won’t be as focused on one central idea as Sleepwalker was on themes of solitude. I’m really looking forward to working on that, and touring the next San Fermin record. I spend a lot of time with seven other really great musicians I really like, playing music we really enjoy and care about, and people come see us. To have both of those things going is pretty amazing, so the goal is six more San Fermin records and six more solo records. Or Beyoncé – I’m not picky. [Laughs]
BYT: You’re playing in D.C. at a very interesting time, historically.
AT: [Laughs] Yeah, I hear there’s a thing or two going on this weekend.
BYT: Yeah, your show might be one of the last things we enjoy before the world ends. I can imagine it’s difficult to live in this reality as an artist and a person of color – which I also feel. What’s keeping you sane today? Does it affect you guys in New York the same way?
AT: It’s certainly the kind of thing where if you think about it too hard you can almost drown in it. [Pauses] I think you just have to have faith in humanity. I think there were a lot of turn-offs about the election that were understandable, but if on a basic level what people didn’t like or disengaged with during the course of the election was all the bad stuff: the arguing, and name calling, and horrible things about one other and watching people fight; to feel like people don’t care about your issues. That seemed like the sentiment across the board. If most people are turned off by that kind of thing, then that would lead me to believe that most people are oriented towards good stuff.
Even though it ended with this result in terms of people disengaging and lack of turnout, I’m really, really, really clinging to the thought that there are good people out there and around, and if anything all the bad in front of us has really activated my friends and family in ways I had never seen before. People are going out and doing things, and paying attention and getting involved. I’ve been looking for silver linings wherever they can be found, but it’s daunting. Especially thinking about driving around the country with San Fermin – we’re a very diverse band; depending on who’s playing the guitar we’re almost half Asian. We definitely look like Brooklynites, and we hop out of this big CIA van, dressed in all black, in the Midwest, and it turns heads. Even some of the well meaning but not-so-well executed questions that Charlene [Kaye, vocalist] and I get about our backgrounds or anything like that.
BYT: I think that’s a good perspective, and I’m trying really hard to be more empathetic and believe that conservatives are doing things that they truly think is right for the country. But then they try to repeal Obacamare and leave millions without health insurance and I just don’t get it.
AT: I grew up in a small town outside of Philly, and I drove home to vote in Pennsylvania because it felt significant. A lot of people have big issues they’re dealing with in their lives but most folks don’t know who to be angry at. And repealing Obamacare became this big buzzword during the election – that’s why they think they’re paying so much for healthcare. And there’s certainly problems with it, for sure, but the reason you’re paying so much for healthcare is much deeper than repealing Obamacare. And if there’s no plan to replace it, we’re in even deeper water.
BYT: I’m hopeful we’ll get a lot of great art and creativity out of this situation. I’m looking forward to some wonderfully moving protest and social justice art coming out over the next four years.
AT: I don’t think anybody’s about to be quiet about it, no matter what happens. [Laughs]