Analogue Music | Allen Tate

Allen Tate

By Matt Conner

Allen Tate says he "white-knuckled" the recording process the last time around.

As the baritone vocalist for experimental pop band San Fermin, Tate's certainly not a stranger to any aspect of the music industry, but it's still a different—even vulnerable—feeling entirely when an artist steps out on his own for the first time. Three years ago, when Tate released his first solo album Sleepwalker, he kept a tight grip on everything. This time around, he was ready to let go.

Our worldview is often marked by a dominant lens of plenty or scarcity, and the latter often takes over when we're allowing fear to rule over us. Tate says Sleepwalker's sessions were marked by scarcity—of time, of ideas, et al. In the Waves, Tate's brand new LP, is a carefully crafted response to a number of things, including his own creative process. It's also an exercise in plenty.

Recorded with John Agnello (Waxahatchee, Son Volt, Dinosaur, Jr.), In The Waves is an impassioned and intriguing set of nine songs anchored in Tate's intentional approach. In many ways, Tate pushed himself to be creatively uncomfortable, yet he was also much more relaxed knowing the music would be there. Plenty over scarcity. We recently sat down with Tate to talk about his creative process and what he learned since the last time around.

Analogue: This is your second solo album. Is it good for you to take breaks like this from San Fermin and dive into other projects?

Allen Tate: I am coming to know it as that. With San Fermin, for the first four or five years, we probably played 1,000 shows. We're all upset that we haven't been keeping count, but we're in that neighborhood. It'd been so all-consuming that when I made Sleepwalker, I was like, 'Oh, there's a window of a few months, so I'd better do this now.' There was a window where I could write it and then I knew we had more touring to do and then there was a window to put it out. That was already looking ahead for the better part of a year.

Now when I write stuff, I always come back to San Fermin feeling better for having worked on other things. I think that's true for pretty much everyone in the band, including Ellis [Ludwig-Leone] who writes all the music. Everyone else has varying levels of being like a hired gun or being in a band, depending on what stage in the process we're at. In terms of our creative process, a lot of members of the band don't see the music until they're doing a demo or they're getting sheet music to go into the studio. Then we build more of a relationship with the song as we're rehearsing before tour.

Credit: Ryan Doubiago
Credit: Ryan Doubiago

For me, I've known Ellis for so long that I'm always the first person he shows earliest demos to. I've known him also for long enough to say, 'This sucks' or 'That's awesome' or 'That line is goofy. I'm not singing it.' [Laughs] Those are fights that we're totally comfortable having.

Doing this most recent one helped me appreciate it a little more. Then pretty much immediately after I recorded my record, it dawned on me that I wanted to start recording and producing other people, so I've started doing that a lot. Every time I work on something else, I feel a little bit better about everything I've worked on. I think it builds perspective and I think it takes a certain weight off of it.

I played sports growing up and there's this mentality of giving something all you've got. It's like, 'Play this like it's your last game.' That totally works for sports and lots of things in life, but I think if you try to go into writing a song like it's the last song you'll ever put out, you freak yourself out. You probably won't end up writing a great thing. It's when you're not thinking and you don't need to write anything that you end up in a better place with it. You don't have that pressure and you're not white-knuckling the process the whole time.

So I think, in that way, every time I do something else outside of the circle, San Fermin benefits from it and my experience benefits, but so does everything else that I'm working on.

Analogue: Have you ever tried to bring that sports mentality, that 'give it everything you've got right now' idea, into the music?

Allen: If at all, it was with performance. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and The Roots are one of my favorite bands. Seeing them early on was one of the experiences that made live music really connect for me. I was a big fan of music and my parents played music in the house, but I hadn't gone to too many concerts. One of my friends had burned me a CD and told me they were playing the Tower Theater and that we should see them. I was riveted. I didn't even know live music could be like this.

Then that summer, they did the first iteration of Roots Picnic, which they do now in New York and Philadelphia. Early on it was just something they did at Penn's Landing in Philly and it was mostly Philly acts and someone who was more of a national act they could draw. I saw them play and back then they'd play their set one before the headliners. I guess it was maybe the second year I ever saw them and the headliners, who for the sake of anonymity shall remain nameless, were playing after The Roots, who just crushed. They had everyone the entire time. It's a hot day in the summer and people were just losing it while singing along to every word. After their set, not another note could be played. The headliner came out and it wasn't that people didn't like it, but the crowd has nothing left to give. I thought, 'Wow you can play so well that the next band can't come on. That's incredible.'

Early on while touring with San Fermin, even leaving what I do out of it, everyone on stage is such a great player and everyone loves it so much. It was almost unspoken, but we would go on stage and it was like, 'I want to do this 30 minutes in a way that if you're the next band, you're upset that we're here. We want to make it tough for you to play after this.' That's as competitive as things get.

Analogue: Earlier you mentioned the difficulty of finding a window to record. When you are able to finally able to do that and get it out, do you remember the emotions that came with finally getting that chance?

Allen: The whole process was kind of funny. When I saw that window, I'd built it up too much to myself. We had three weeks at the end of a European tour and then we were gearing up for a co-headlining run with Courtney Barnett for five or six weeks. We'd just played in Europe for a month and when we were in Copenhagen, I just loved it. It was one of my father's favorite cities and I'd always heard him talk about it. People in that part of the world are very nice, but it's also a place that if you don't talk to other people, they won't talk to you. So it has the solitude that you need to write or that I was after at the time, but there's also plenty to do. I was walking 10 miles per day just exploring. It was a nice balance.

However, I'd built it up in this way that I thought I'd get there for four weeks which would let me write 20 songs. From there, I'd pare it down. Unfortunately I got there and immediately had a panic attack. I guess I had to reevaluate the whole thing. [Laughs] Maybe I can't write this much. At the time I was writing like it would be the only thing I'd ever put out. San Fermin was on this upward trajectory. We really don't have a lot of time between things, so that white-knuckling made me suffer at that point. Everything was done in that tight grip.

Not to mention, I underestimated what it would be like to spend a month in a place where you don't know anyone. You're alone with your thoughts in a very specific way, so I think that's why it's dark and lonely-sounding. That was the intended aesthetic but it was a more pronounced experience than I thought it would be.

As soon as I finish a thing, I always think, 'Now I know what I was should have done.' I think that's a process everyone goes through. When I got to the end, that's the feeling I remember most. I'd written so much of it feeling like it'd be the last thing I'd ever write and at the end I was like, 'Oh, I wish I'd done x, y, and z.' I immediately wrote a song shortly thereafter because I went on tour with Kyle Morton from Typhoon. During that tour, he wanted me to play for 45 minutes and my whole record was 30 minutes, so I had write some new material. I wrote a song that's now on In the Waves, the new record, but suddenly I had this idea and it's like, 'Oh, where were you?'

As the band has changed, the fear that would be my only chance to do it has decreased. We have a lot more time off now and you make the things you want to do fit no matter what they are.

I remember the waiting period feeling really vulnerable. I thought, 'I sent my dumb songs to these people who've done records that I love. This is going to be so embarrassing...'

Analogue: How much are you looking back at In The Waves thinking, 'I should have done this or that'? Or are you more proud of this than other things?

Allen: I'm definitely really proud of it. Part of the goal for In The Waves was I was so unsure of myself with Sleepwalker that I kept it really close to San Fermin. I also deferred a lot of decisions. I tried to stay with people that I knew well enough that I knew it was okay to mess up in front of. That record was very much a San Fermin party, which was great because these are my people. But when I was done, I wondered if I would have gotten a more profound result if I'd pushed myself in less obvious ways—the rooms I put myself in, who I put the music in front of when it wasn't done yet, even the kind of songs I tried to write.

I wanted this to sound less sad. Also when I was recording Sleepwalker, I wasn't sure I was going to play it live, so the instrumentation didn't matter. When we recorded In the Waves, I knew I wanted it to feel like a live band and sound like one when you hear it. I have this notebook where I write down what I want things to be. Some of the first things I wrote were "never more than five or six tracks of anything at a given time." I wanted it to be something I can recreate every night just the way it sounds on the record. That's not a goal for every record, but that's what I was stuck on at this given time.

I made four demos and started showing them around to producers, which is how I met John Agnello, who produced and engineered and mixed the record. Even doing that felt like putting myself out there in a way I wouldn't have done so before. I think I sent my first batch to three producers and they all responded really positively. I remember the waiting period feeling really vulnerable. I thought, 'I sent my dumb songs to these people who've done records that I love. This is going to be so embarrassing. They're not going to associate me with that thing I thought was a good idea when I sent it.'

When I met up with John, he's a really busy guy and he said he had a window right at the beginning of the year. Our first day of recording was January 2. That meeting must have been just before Halloween. He said, 'How many songs do you have? Are you ready to do the record?' The truth is that I had those four songs and half of one other one. I looked him dead in the eye at this place in the West Village and said, 'I've got 9 or 10 but I think I'm gonna write one more.' [Laughs] He said, 'That's great.' Then I went home and said, 'Oh my god, what am I doing? I need to write so much now. But in a way, that pushed me in the right kind of way, too.

In the end, we ended up recording 11 tracks. There's only nine that will be on the record, but there's an acoustic version of one song and then there's a b-side that felt a little left for the rest of the record, so it will come out at some point. So I tried to find ways to make myself uncomfortable in different ways and I think it worked.

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