Catching Up With San Fermin

Music Features San Fermin
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Of all the new bands that have appeared over the last year, San Fermin were quick to stand out from the pack due in large part to the style of songs they produce. The 17 tracks that make up their self-titled debut fall outside the usual form by featuring odd harmonies, several movements within a piece and at least some confusion as to who is the lead singer. There is a male voice, Allen Tate, along with a pair of female voices, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (both of Lucius), but neither write the music. In fact, all in all, they’re hired hands. The guy behind these beautiful songs is Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a Yale grad who conceptualized a way to tie in his love for classical music with his love for pop music to outstanding results. We caught up with Ludwig-Leone at New Albany, Ind.’s Boomtown Ball (a one day festival curated by Houndmouth) to get the scoop on how it all came together and what comes next.

Paste : You’re about a year into traveling with this eight-piece band.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, our first show was just a little over a year ago, but our first tour started in September. I guess a year and a half if you count from our first show, but really it’s been about eight months since we’ve really been a band.

Paste : I know you had one band before back in high school. Did you all tour, or is this the first time?
Ludwig-Leone: Talking about jumping right into it, I had never toured. I had a band in college, but we played a couple shows in New York and that was it. Once I started this band, I recorded the record. Didn’t even think it was going to be a band, just a record. Then when we got a record deal, I realized we’d have to tour, so I put the eight-piece together. We’ve now been on the road, I’d say we’ve played 130 shows since September.

Paste : Nine people in a van. Are you getting used to the touring life yet?
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, it’s actually really great because you never get sick of them. There’s always someone new to talk to. It complicates some things. Hotels can be a drag. You find yourself sharing a bed, which is not what you want to be doing. But I like it. Sometimes we’ll meet three- and four-piece bands, and it feels like the dynamic can get really stale. But ours, we have guys and girls, people of all different ages and [who] are in different parts of their lives, so it’s nice. It feels like a constantly new experience.

Paste : You’re not the lead singer. You hired your friend to be the lead singer and pulled in other vocalists as well [Lucius provide the female vocals]. It would seem that you would come out swinging with an identity crisis. Like there has to be this whole explanation and the more popular you get, that’s going to be more of a thing. Is there a comparison with any other band in this situation that you can look toward? Jethro Tull? It’s the explanation of “who I am” vs. “who this band is.”
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, it’s one of the things that makes it sort of difficult sometimes, but also makes us a unique story. So we’ve gotten the good and the bad side of that. But it’s interesting, I can’t sing. I’m just a terrible singer. It’s never been something I’ve wanted to do or been good at. My background is in writing instrumental music, and so it just made sense to me when I was making this record to hire Allen and the girls. It really wasn’t until we started touring that it became, like “oh, this will be interesting, because I’m not even in the front.” And that’s totally fine with me. I really like that. All I really want to do is make the music and make it exactly how I want it. The performance, I don’t really want it to be about me, I want it to be about the whole thing.

Paste : So there’s no part of ego that says, “I’m not the face of the band” to a new fan?
Ludwig-Leone: Not at all. Sometimes it feels like it evens things out in a nice way. I would say that I’m the least remarkable part of our live show. I just play straightforward keyboards, but there are all of these virtuosic musicians up there and the singers and everything, so you know, I do the interviews and I do the music, but the performance is less about me than anything. I think that’s a cool dynamic to navigate because our live show has grown into something that feels different than our recorded music in a way that I’m not sure it would if I were the center of it.

Paste : Is there a way for you guys to find a way to improv and develop the songs through all of this while still seeing your complete vision?
Ludwig-Leone: It takes discipline, yeah. Our songs are very linear in that nothing really repeats in terms of the instrumental lines. They’re always sort of changing. And so what we’ve actually ended up doing is, for a couple of songs, we reimagine it as far as adding little solo sections, or adding boxed-off areas where there is a little bit of an improvisation. And then we go right back into the song. That’s sort of been how we’ve dealt with it, because we’re definitely not a jam band. There’s no aspect of that at all.

Paste : I like the furrowed brow as you say that.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, I can get pretty specific about arrangements, but live I think we’ve really found…when we started playing live, I thought we’d be playing performance art centers. But honestly, we’re most comfortable in a sweaty rock club now, and that has to do totally with the players, how they’ve sort of owned it. Our first concert was with sheet music. Totally a different thing. And at this point it’s like, if people aren’t jumping around and if our trumpet player isn’t hanging from something by the end of the show, it’s a weird show for us. It’s changed really quickly.

Paste : You talk about the style of the songwriting, it’s an amazing piece. Nothing really sounds like this right now. I like to imagine that when you wrote it, there were lots of pieces of whiteboard around with explanations, because when you’re teaching this to people, it isn’t verse-chorus-verse-chorus.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, it was very sheet music-oriented when I was writing. I wrote the whole record before I knew any of these guys would be playing it, except for Allen, the singer. And so I wrote it all as like a score with parts. Then I brought people in, one by one, and recorded it. So we hadn’t actually played live ever until after our record was done. That whole transition period was really bizarre because I was hearing these songs live for the first time. I mean, we have eight people live, but 22 on the record.

Paste : How realized were the songs when you first conceptualized this? I read somewhere that you thought it up on a plane ride to Canada. So how long did it take you to really form these songs?
Ludwig-Leone: That’s true and it’s also a reduction. My whole senior year of college I was thinking about doing something like this, because I had this band and I was writing all of this classical music and they didn’t talk to each other. There was no synthesis of that. And I felt like I could see how that could work. But yeah, on the way to Canada, I wrote out a structure for what I wanted this thing to be and a loose narrative concept to it. Then I tried to write the rough draft of a song every single day. I wrote, front to back, pretty much the whole record in order in like, two and a half weeks. So they were pretty much there. But for me, what makes a song is the very specific subtle stuff, and that comes when you live with it longer. So once I got the framework of the thing written, I went back in and would tweak things. It probably took six weeks to get it to a point before I got comfortable to start recording.

Paste : And that style of songwriting, like you said, putting together the classical and the pop, because I feel like we get to this point in pop music where it just becomes so stale. Somebody then has to come and push through. I don’t know that more people could do what you’re doing, but I’d like to hear them do it. I see signs in hip hop. Do you find that you’re going to be able to go further down this avant garde path, or does the next record become a little bit more about pop?
Ludwig-Leone: It’s interesting that you asked. We’ve been in the studio the last couple days starting on the next record. It’s already written. Same sort of process.

Paste : Are you giving up some of the creativity this time? I mean, you’ve got a band now. Are they part of it?
Ludwig-Leone: I’m writing on my own. But a few of the songs, we’ve started playing live before they’re recorded, so that’s changed them a little bit. And some of the songs people just play what’s written there. Now everyone’s been in the band about a year and they kind of know what I want and like, and they know what they want and like in their own voices, and so when I was finishing parts of the songs, they would help a little bit. But it’s interesting talking about “where does it go from here,” because I felt like, on the last record the big goal was to try to synthesize some of the things. And then it’s like, once you’ve established the world, where do you actually push it? And I think what I’ve found is that, that a good hook or a catchy thing can actually hook people and take them somewhere really weird. But you can go anywhere you want once you have them. So this record, I think it’s simultaneously more pop, and much weirder than the last record.

Paste : That’s exciting.
Ludwig-Leone: I hope so. The Kanye record is a good example of that. In some ways, it’s so inaccessible, really aggressive. But on the other hand, he’ll have these lines that the way he delivers it is so—I don’t want to say catchy because those songs aren’t very hooky—but there’s a certain swagger to them. I’m totally not saying that our record is like his record at all, but it’s interesting what he realized, and what a lot of my favorite artists realized, is that you can take people anywhere if you have the right combination of ingredients. So with this record, that’s what we’re trying. The songs are generally shorter, but they’re more manic. They go from one thing to a really different thing very quickly. And it’s a little bit more aggressive.

Paste : Are you working with a concept this time around?
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, but it’s a little bit more subtle. By now, I feel like the gender roles on the first record are a little bit cut-and-dry for me.

Paste : So you need something more now.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, I feel like I shuffled the deck a little bit. Whereas I feel on the first record it was like the male songs sounded one way, the female songs sounded a different way. The male songs were about one thing, the female songs about another thing. In this one, I really tried to splinter them together, so that they all contain both themselves and their opposite at the same time, if that’s possible. On the first record, you might hear a song that might not be representative of another song.

Paste : So there’s not one long story that you’re trying to tie together?
Ludwig-Leone: Not quite as much. But if I have to narrow it down to what this record’s about, if the first record is about, “Oh my God, I’m an adult. What do I do,” this record might be like, “Now that we sort of know what we’re doing, isn’t it weird that we turned into the people that came before us?” That’s sort of the theme that holds it together, but honestly, I’m still figuring it out.

Paste : How long before you start scoring films?
Ludwig-Leone: I actually have a few things that have come in that I’m looking at doing.

Paste : It just seems like such a natural jump next to what you’re doing.
Ludwig-Leone: Totally. I’d love to it. If the right thing solidifies, and it looks like it might in the next few months, I might do something like that. One thing that I do feel really weird about is music serving plot, which is funny because I know people hear these records as a conversation and as a dialogue and maybe there’s a plot to it. But I actually really don’t like it when the music takes a step back behind something else. So that really bothers me. I want—when you’re into the music—I want you to feel like you have no sense of time at all. That you’re just in it. And I always feel like when there is anxious music under an anxious part of the movie, it just feels like it’s cheapening it. But I’ve been doing these ballets, and they’re an easier way for me to be able to become comfortable with that concept. It’s not all about the music there. You have to let the dancers do their thing.

Paste : It’s a bit like likening you to Owen Pallett, who just did a ballet, but also musically you guys have so much in common.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah, he’s great, and one of these guys who has his footprint in so many things. Really great instrumentalist as well. I don’t know him personally though.

Paste : I should also bring up that you’re a big basketball fan.
Ludwig-Leone: I am!

Paste : Did you watch any of the NBA finals?
Ludwig-Leone: We went to a bar in our hotel. Allen played college basketball as well. That’s how we became friends, bonding over that. So we realized that, “oh my god, we’re going to be in Indianapolis during the Pacers game. It’s going to be crazy.” So we went to the bar where there was a good amount of people, but they weren’t even watching. I was really confused by that. I guess if it’s not the Hoosiers, it’s not as big of a deal.

Paste : It’s interesting, the whole marriage of sports and musicians. Those are not common bedfellows.
Ludwig-Leone: Allen and I will often talk big-picture about the band, or band dynamics, and we’ll find ourselves really drawing on the dynamics of being in a team. Talking about him as a pass-first point guard. It works.