As the lead vocalist of Brooklyn-based baroque indie rock band San Fermin, Allen Tate brought his sterling baritone to crowds all over the world, from beloved New York haunts to London and Grenoble. When they perform, Tate and his bandmates turn the venue into a deconstructed ballroom dance cum variety show, with Tate pranking drummer Michael Hanf, or jumping from the stage to interact with the audience.
But when Tate performed his first solo record, Sleepwalker, for a release party on October 27 at Berlin in the East Village, he turned introspective. He held the microphone like he was inhaling the bouquet of a rare wine and created a space for himself that was both within and separate from the people surrounding him.
Sleepwalker is an album structured around interiority, that dwells in the mental spaces we inhabit when we go too far into a wormhole. “The ideas on the record are about touring with San Fermin, when I went from [working at a] legal nonprofit group to suddenly being overstimulated by touring and crowds,” Tate tell the Voice. “When people are excited about a band, things can feel like they’re moving whether you like it or not.”
Tate began writing the songs of Sleepwalker on a three-week solo trip to Copenhagen to recover from touring. The resulting record is a study in the different ways that loneliness manifests—being alone in a new environment versus anonymity within a crowd. Tate reflects on how living in New York influenced his art as much as did the time in Copenhagen – “I think the intensity with which people do their work in New York, is the thing that’s rubbed off most on me – people will just pore over their craft. You have to believe that you can hack it to be here, otherwise you just won’t last.”
Tate’s own artistic intensity comes through in his lyrics—He considers himself first to be a writer. Tate and Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the visionary of San Fermin, have writen songs together since they were teenagers, and developed a shorthand for looking at each other’s work. “At this point, when it’s the other person’s song, it’s much easier to come in with no emotional attachments and say ‘this idea isn’t as clear as you think it is,” says Tate.
On Tate’s transition to writing his own album, Ludwig-Leone says, “I think for him one of the hardest things about writing songs is that he has to draw on emotional stuff that makes him uncomfortable. But as a friend, it was cool to see him do that, because I know it’s there, and often writing about it is the best way to deal with those demons.”
Whereas San Fermin sounds like the soundtrack of a Prohibition-era music hall or a bawdy artists’ salon, Sleepwalker is the record of a poet’s attic, a solo hike on a perilous cliff edge, a submersion in the self. But for Tate, finding his stride as an independent artist is not an antithesis to the band’s work. He said that the solo work provides him with “a diversity of outlets, a number of ways to engage with music.” It’s a short record, twenty-nine minutes, but it tells the story of finding one’s level of comfort with the self and others. Tate’s lyrics leave us with this thesis from his explorations: solitude is both a cause of and an antidote to anxiety.
Allen Tate plays Rough Trade NYC on January 20.