Down the Rabbit Hole in California with San Fermin

Music Features San Fermin
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“It’s gonna be a tight fit, but it’s all good!” San Fermin trumpet player and de-facto tour manager John Brandon texts me. I’m about to board the eight-piece Brooklyn baroque-pop band’s tour van during a four-show stint starting in Los Angeles and ending in San Francisco. The band is smack in the middle of a 26-show stretch over 37 days, across Europe and now North America, in support of their recently released sophomore LP, Jackrabbit.

Where on the self-titled debut album, 25-year old composer and bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone wrote music, lyrics and extravagant arrangements that would be enacted by as many as 23 different musicians, Jackrabbit was written by Ludwig-Leone to be played by him and the seven band members that now comprise San Fermin. The focus has always been on Ludwig-Leone as the writer, but they’ve now grown into a more complete band together. “If you watch the live show and you think this is just about me, then you’re totally missing it. The writing of the song is just 1-2 percent of the band,” he says of the unique indie act that features male and female lead vocalists, a trumpet, a baritone sax, drums, guitar and a violin player who also sings—all of which are prominently featured on every song.

Ludwig-Leone’s loosening of the grip, if you will, has brought San Fermin to life with a richer live experience, featuring numerous powerful punctuations from every band member. San Fermin is now less “Ellis’s band” than a band where each person actively affects every facet of the music and has fully vested his or her life into this project. I wanted to know more about these seven other people, and hopping on this tour was the only way to do it. What I found was harmony within these personalities, but not without sacrifice and the weird realities of life on the road.

Charlene Kaye – Lead Vocals: The Female Slash
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Driving down Santa Monica Blvd, through LA’s colorful West Hollywood neighborhood, the classic Troubadour club awaits me on the Beverly Hills border. San Fermin is loading in for their second California show, a mere two days after taking to the stage at Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Tonight’s show is being recorded for Last Call with Carson Daly, so a 15-person production crew is hanging around the venue. The production manager has laid out consent forms for each of the eight band members to sign and is comically trying to corral each of them to sign off on their future TV appearance. Drummer Michael Hanf, sporting a ratty tank-top, Crocodile Dundee hat and minimal tattoos, is noticeably peeved by this process. He mutters some words about the details of the document being bullshit.

On the other side of the room, cool as a cucumber, sporting a black leather jacket and a beautiful smile, is 28-year-old singer Charlene Kaye. Charlene took over lead female vocals from the departed Rae Cassidy about a year ago and brought an infusion of power that has elevated the band’s sound. Jackrabbit’s eponymous single is positively her song and is quickly replacing “Sonsick” (the song that put the band on the map) as the main single a crowd waits to hear at shows.

Before playing with San Fermin, Kaye was part of a musical theater collective fronted by Glee’s Darren Criss, whom she went to college with at Michigan. She describes it as “an internet sensation that parodied Harry Potter.” Not what I was expecting to hear, but even more random is her role as “Gash,” Slash’s counterpart in an all-female Guns N’ Roses cover band called Guns N’ Hoses. They ran into Slash and company once at a practice space and the unmistakable guitarist, wearing hoop earrings and a backwards baseball hat, muttered “You guys are like our mirror in here!”

As much fun as these projects were for her, Kaye felt her creativity sputtering: “I was trying too hard and things were getting more tangled. I decided to sit back and not write for a while and it was exactly then that San Fermin came along.” She connected with the band through a voice coach who had worked with the band’s other vocalists and gotten wind of the opening through a random e-mail. “I felt like I really connected with the band’s sound, because I’m also a huge Sufjan Stevens fan,” she says. “He’s someone who influenced my early writing, and I could for sure hear that kind of spirit and that kind of attention to detail in arrangements. It resonated in a big way.” The Stevens comparisons are nothing new for San Fermin, and the decadent arrangements are indeed a parallel.

Kaye is so articulate and comfortable when we talk, and this spirit is present in her vocals on stage. If there’s ever a hint of complacency from a crowd, she lifts them back up to her exuberant level. She was the missing piece for bringing Ludwig-Leone’s vision of the female lead to fruition. Later during soundcheck, she’ll light up the room with simple warm-ups, and before our interview can end awkwardly, she interjects: “I’m gonna try to find some ice cream. You wanna come?” So it goes.

Allen Tate – Lead Vocals: The Shooting Guard
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As soundcheck wraps up, the band is pumped. I’ve never seen a man with a massive saxophone strapped to his back doing calisthenics while playing the way Stephen Chen does, but the band is jumping with him. Singer Allen Tate eggs him on and peppers him with playful kung-fu kicks, but Chen never breaks stride. “We’re gonna rock!” the saxophonist proclaims in his earth-toned tank-top as they break.

Tate walks outside on his own with his camera slung over his shoulder, and the two of us convene for a walk through West Hollywood to find “a cafe that’s not Starbucks” before the evening’s show. He’s been a staple with the band since before its inception, as Tate (now 26) and Ludwig-Leone have been friends since they met at a Berklee School of Music summer camp in Boston when they were 15. “If it wasn’t for this, I’d be in law school,” he says, and Tate’s talent is one that Ludwig-Leone did indeed write for on San Fermin, he of the deep baritone voice reminiscent of The National’s Matt Berninger.

Strangely enough, his voice was the subject of scathing words from notable Pitchfork critic Ian Cohen, who seemingly couldn’t get over “the staggering degree to which Allen Tate sounds exactly like Matt Berninger.” I get it, I suppose—they are both baritones—but it stops there. Tate’s voice is deeper than Berninger’s, and when I hear him warm up with Eddie Vedder’s love cry on Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss,” it drives home the distinction.

Tate laughs when we discuss the review and he demurs gracefully with sports interview analogies: “It’s like we’re a No. 20 seed now, and we’re out there to try and topple the No. 5. Everyone feels the need to speak their mind on whether they like us or not, which shows how far we’ve come.” Indeed he is the shooting guard to Ludwig-Leone’s point, but he’s a stoic presence in many ways. He largely keeps to himself on long van rides and says that “It’s a rush being on stage and losing yourself.” He looks like he’s doing exactly that in moments when his eyes close and his head drops back momentarily, savoring the feeling when the crowd erupts in anticipation of him delivering his thunderous vocals. His baritone establishes him as a positively forward male presence for Ludwig-Leone’s numerous male/female dichotomies, and the latter speaks like a brother of the transformation in Tate since Kaye’s arrival: “Our live show is different because of her. She’s so lively and interacts with the members, and Allen has really opened up.”

It’s no surprise that this has been reflected in the writing, as Tate’s character has morphed from this introspective and almost downtrodden tragic figure on early songs like “Torero” and “Renaissance,” to at times a more sinister persona like on “Woman in Red.” The character seems to be the most dynamic one in the project, and he’s embracing it: “There’s a lot of gas left in the tank!”

Tyler McDiarmid – Guitar: Quality Control
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The LA show is a real banger. Natalie Prass opens the night off and even invites Ryan Adams up on stage for two songs. The crowd knows how lucky they are, and spirits flare. Standing in the rafters with some of the band members, I notice how in awe violinist Rebekah Durham and drummer Michael (Mike) Hanf are of Adams. “He’s been one of my favorites for years,” Hanf says.

It’s a very chic LA crowd, but it’s a combo of young and old. Along the front of the stage is a man no younger than 65, as well as kids who look well under 21. The confluence of the band’s energy rattles all ages to bits, and “Parasites” absolutely brings the house down. On “Sonsick,” Brandon races off the stage and up the steps to play his trumpet solo on the balcony by the soundboard, and it’s the best moment of the night. When his bars are over, he pants and stands above the crowd looking into space, processing the emotions of his display of showmanship, similar to Tate’s “lose yourself” moments.

There are now so many moments where each member has their own time to shine. Whether it’s the vocalists trading turns at the forefront, or Durham’s bluegrass explosion on the fiddle for “Parasites,” or Chen’s booming sax solo on set-opener “The Woods,” it’s a sign of Ludwig-Leone gaining trust in these players and allowing himself to experiment with more adventurous arrangements.

But if there’s an anomaly in the makeup of San Fermin, it’s the 34-year-old father of three, guitarist Tyler McDiarmid. His parts aren’t the flashiest, but Ludwig-Leone keeps him by his side on stage. In LA, he’s the most dashingly dressed of the group with a spiffy slim-cut suit and skinny black tie down the center of his white shirt a la The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser. We catch up after the show and he tells me that he’s also a mixing engineer on SNL and tours with San Fermin “since SNL doesn’t tape every week.” He works on SNL “whenever Lorne Michaels decides the schedule,” he adds with a chuckle. He even worked the 40th anniversary special and was on the mixing boards for timeless performances from D’Angelo and Alabama Shakes this season, so color me jealous.

His role with San Fermin seems to be a serendipitous one: he met Tate while teaching him guitar at NYU. “He was my student for two semesters, and he brought in the chart for ‘Methuselah,’ [off the debut album] which he thought he’d be playing live at the time. Six months later he e-mailed me asking if I wanted to play a couple gigs. And now it’s been a couple hundred.”

McDiarmid is also a four-time Grammy-nominated jazz engineer. “This record we just finished, for the Gil Evans Orchestra, will hopefully be a winner,” he tells me. I notice later in the van how he’s Ludwig-Leone’s go-to on technical issues. When the songwriter went to go do some work with producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol, Jónsi), McDiarmid went along with him. “It’s almost like I’m a quality control checker,” he says—which isn’t a far cry from the truth, as he recorded all of the pianos and guitars for Jackrabbit.

Michael Hanf – Drums: københavn
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When I left the Troubadour the night before, the merch line was out the door. Brandon was happily tending to dozens of fans, while other members of the band took turns hopping behind the table with him. He’s a well-oiled machine of a tour manager and has all of the details hammered down for every tour stop. He and I stay in touch before I connect with the band the next morning at their Hollywood hotel for our trip to Santa Ana. This is the first time I see the van getting loaded, and it’s a geometry project for sure. All of the gear for the eight members and their new elaborate lighting have to fit seamlessly into the trunk of the Sprinter along with everyone and their stuff inside the van.

Kaye’s boyfriend is visiting for a few days from New York, so they drive separately, and I sit with Hanf in the back of the van. He explains to me how his frustrations with the Carson Daly release forms stem from “old rules of the music industry” that he goes on about. He gives me the history lesson on how TV appearances work for bands, and I’m clearly talking to a seasoned music professional.

Hanf had never been out of the country until he played with a band, and as I flip through the 28-year old’s passport, I see countries ranging from Korea to Brazil and over 20 stamps for Copenhagen (stamped as “københavn”). He tells me how he plays with a Danish dance rock band called Hess Is More, but since he was introduced to San Fermin through the band’s old drummer, he’s been full steam ahead with them. He’s proficient in the vibraphone and majored in it at College of Charleston. It makes me think of how his classically trained pacing on “Methuselah” the night before really stood out.

We arrive at The Observatory in Santa Ana, and it’s a very SoCal place. It’s in the middle of a massive office park, and there are dudes floating around with long blonde hair, flip-flops, Arnette sunglasses and calf tattoos. The bar has only four beers on tap: Corona, Bud Light, Pacifico and an Orange Wheat. The 1,200-capacity main room has five tiers, with the top one reserved for seating and bottle-service. But San Fermin is playing in the smaller, 300-person Constellation Room.

Rebekah Durham – Violin/vocals: “This is what I want to do”
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In the green room, I start noticing the nuances of being an eight-piece band on the road for an extended period of time, how the best form of communication sometimes is a GroupMe messaging app. “I’m not speaking it, you have to GroupMe it to me!” Ludwig-Leone half-jokes.

Kaye’s boyfriend shows up and they’re very affectionate, and it’s clearly a byproduct of the strain or longing that a long tour schedule can put on a relationship, so when that significant other shows up for a couple tour dates, it’s enough to steal away his or her attention for a while. As a touring musician, you have to enjoy that time together whenever you can, even though sometimes it’s smack in the middle of “work.”

The same mechanism is at work when Durham’s brother comes down from the Santa Barbara area for the show. She squeezes in a dinner with him after soundcheck and at the end of the night, you can just see the happiness on her face as she’s talking to him. Later in the van, she tells her boyfriend (who’ll also be joining her in San Francisco) on the phone that the night was “Amazing!” simply because of seeing her brother. Nowhere does she go into the sound issues that plagued the band throughout the evening.

While the crowd didn’t seem to notice, every member of the band is pretty much in agreement that “Everything that could’ve gone wrong did” as Ludwig-Leone puts it. The venue wanted to move their set up an hour to better squeeze in the ska band that was playing a separate ticketed event in the same room at 11 p.m. Ludwig-Leone’s laptop just about went kaput along with numerous other sound issues, and the venue’s security was rudely funneling fans out who were taking pictures with the band after the show. Kaye, already sporting a tired voice, was visibly shaken and had an emotional exchange with Ludwig-Leone after the show. “She just felt kinda helpless up there,” he later tells me. But you wouldn’t have ever guessed it from the crowd.

Earlier in the day, Brandon and the band’s manager (who was in town for the two LA dates) made the savvy decision to drive up to Santa Clarita after the show, so as to avoid LA morning traffic and get to San Francisco faster. There are two big days in San Francisco planned, including a show at the Independent that had been sold out for a month and a half. On the evening drive, I finally get a chance to sit down with Durham, who’d been hard to pin down up to this point.

“Ellis was looking for a violin player who could sing,” she says. When she finished her Masters at Juilliard, she was looking for non-classical stuff: “I was playing with a singer/songwriter, but I didn’t like it. I was still playing orchestra, and I met people that formed a bluegrass and folk trio. But it lacked direction. When this came about, I was in Colorado at the Rocky Grass festival and was like, ’shit, this is great.’ I was almost moving back here from New York too.”

She’s very outdoorsy, loves Colorado and feels like that’s where she’ll end up eventually, but she’s found a comfort zone with San Fermin. “It’s perfect for my background, and as Ellis has gotten to know us better, there’s more freedom. As time goes by, this is what I want to do.” Her feelings are typical of two major themes with this band: That over time, Ludwig-Leone has given more of the sound over to his bandmates and that a lot of members in San Fermin weren’t feeling creatively challenged before they came aboard on this project.

John Brandon – Trumpet: The Instagram King
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“My main goal in life is to make all of my friends happy.” This is John Brandon in a nutshell. Good vibes follow him around everywhere he goes, and he’s one of the most joyful people I’ve met. He’s the type of dude who’s invaluable to the band: He’s a savvy social media wrangler who stays in touch with fans he meets at the merch table after shows. During soundcheck, if his trumpet part isn’t up, he’s texting away to make sure the next tour stop is in order and sends detailed schedules for the next day every evening.

He met Ludwig-Leone at Yale in 2008, where he was a masters student at the school of music, and they wrote trumpet parts for ensembles for a semester. “Ellis was the only one who was a person too,” he tells me nostalgically on our van ride to San Francisco. Brandon relishes the tour life. He was a music teacher in the Bronx before this, and he’s really settled into his element. His Instagram feed is a thing of beauty, from photos of him playing his horn on top of a mountain to taking a trumpet selfie during his “Sonsick” solo with a crowd of thousands at a festival.

“It’s fun to travel with this many people ‘cause four or five of us can sleep and we still have a lot to talk about. It’s like a rolling party,” he says. He’s a real joker who blurts things out like “Woop! Just got a Tinder match!” or tells me slyly that “I wear women’s jeans by the way, so the more times you mention that, the more likely I am to get a GAP sponsorship.”

But he admits that he’s “met so many friends on Tinder too,” and it plays into the notion that a touring band has to be okay with a couple of hours in a city serving as the bridge for a long-standing friendship. It’s no surprise that someone like Brandon can make friendships so quickly and easily while on the road. And when friends and family come to visit at a show, conditioned touring musicians will pack the same emotional release into two hours that others would get in two weeks. They have to.

Stephen Chen – Saxophone: “Pleasantly well-equipped for tour”
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We arrive in San Francisco for the first of two shows, and night one is at The Independent. It’s been sold out for a well over a month, and energy levels from the band have been stored appropriately for this occasion. Shortly after soundcheck, Chen and I take a walk from the venue to nearby Alamo Square. It’s one of the most picturesque parks in the city, overlooking the famous Painted Ladies houses.

Chen also went to Yale and three years after graduating, got the now-notorious “e-mail from Ellis,” who had written the first San Fermin songs and needed a baritone sax player. “Everything at Yale musically, happens with an e-mail,” Chen jokes. He’s been a part of the collective from the start, but he also juggles time with his other band, Great Caesar, where in contrast to San Fermin, he does a lot of songwriting. “From a compositional perspective, I’ve been influenced a lot by San Fermin as a songwriter,” he says.

For a guy who admits that this is his first real interview, he’s incredibly forthcoming. “What I want to achieve as a songwriter is to write music that influences other people,” he says. “That’s what it means to contribute to a culture.”

He adds that “every week that I’m not on tour with San Fermin, I’m on tour with Great Caesar. It’s been a dream to be a touring musician, so here I am and I’m pleasantly well-equipped for tour.” Which brings up an interesting point about where the members of San Fermin are headed. While most of them seem to be fully committed to this as their main hang, others like Chen and Hanf (who’s set to record a solo album following this tour) have begun to build musical careers on the side for themselves as well.

Ellis Ludwig-Leone – Keyboard/Composer: Under the Bright Lights
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The show at The Independent goes off. The crowd is treated to a raucous San Fermin set, Brandon and Chen commanding the stage, moving with grace and playing their hearts out. Kaye and Tate’s physical and empowered performances, Durham’s emphatic violin wowing again on “Reckoning” and “Parasites,” Hanf and McDiarmid as tight as can be, with Ludwig-Leone providing the backing platform for the success of the evening.

He and I meet the next afternoon for one final interview, before the final show at the bougie and private Battery Club. Later that night, the band will have their cushiest experience of the week, where the usual green room burgers and fries get replaced by an arugula and fennel salad with steak and braised chicken served in an extra-large Le Creuset dutch oven. Gone are the few sixers of cheap beer, and in their place is Racer 5 IPA and Cotes du Rhone. “Look at how good of a mood we’re in when we have a day off!” Hanf says, not realizing that it isn’t even a day off—they just got an opportunity to sleep in and don’t have to rush out of a city immediately following a show.

Sitting at an udon shop, Ludwig-Leone looks scruffy, wearing a Pandora hoodie. “I lose a hoodie on every tour,” he says. He only orders a yellowtail roll because he earlier “had some stuffed French toast that’s just sitting so heavy…” He instantly knows what I was observing for the past four days and tells me that “when I put the band together, I basically lucked out, I think. It’s weird how everyone is sort of the same mental page.”

And this is really the crux of what makes San Fermin a band that’s built to last. There’s not really a dominant personality in the group; they all kind of dominate in their own way. In fact, it always seems like everyone is getting their way, but there’s just a certain harmony about it all. You get the feeling that everyone is happy with this project, and the explosive performances reflect that.

Ludwig-Leone’s ideas on the topic are well-formed. There’s not a stutter to his voice when he talks about his goals and aspirations for San Fermin. He’s operating in a comfort zone with these artists who have committed to being a part of his vision, and that’s a really intense and fortunate position for a composer like him to be in, even when he acknowledges that his goal for them is one that could change their dynamic: “From a practical perspective, I’m definitely really aware that these people are all great musicians that need to get somewhere in their lives, and it’s to help them in whatever way you can,” he says.

When he was younger, Ludwig-Leone was a basketball star. On the first album, “Torero” talked about being “under the bright lights” of being a high-school star, and he and Tate have bonded over the experience that they both shared as basketball players. “It’s interesting ‘cause I was a really bad teammate when I was in high school. I was kinda aloof,” he says. “I would run out for breakaway dunks, that was my thing…I’d rather do that. To ‘take one for the team’ never made sense to me. But now…I really get it, ‘cause everything I do is to make sure the team survives.”

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