In 2018, after his band San Fermin had finished up the touring for its third album, Ellis Ludwig-Leone wanted to take some time off to write the fourth. He was proud of the first three albums, but he was approaching the boundary of 30 and he wanted to take stock of where he’d been and where he was going.
To do that, he needed to get away from his home turf in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood and its constant onslaught of texts to answer and events to attend. Iceland seemed a good getaway; he’d enjoyed his previous visits there and he accepted an invitation from an Icelandic friend to stay in Isafjordur on the island’s northwest corner.
“I like to get away when I’m generating material for the band,” Ludwig-Leone says over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “I need to shake things up. When you get outside of yourself a bit, you look at things with a different perspective. You’re not stuck in the daily rhythms of your normal life; you have 24 hours to devote to the project. The landscape always seeps into the writing.”
He’d begin each day in Iceland by taking a walk that led to an old fish-processing plant on the town’s harbor. The boxy red building had two block-and-tackle contraptions for lifting fish out of the boats. Silhouetted against the crystalline sky of the Greenland Sea, these hanging chains resembled gallows (as seen in the photo above).
Always perched nearby were a handful of cormorants, similarly morbid-looking birds with long, snake-like necks and wings that they often spread to dry as if they were messengers of death opening their black cloaks. After his walk, with these images in his head, he’d return to his keyboard and wrestle with what he wanted to say on the next record.
“We’re in this weird time in America right now,” Ludwig-Leone says, “and a lot of artists I really like are reacting to that here and now with a social message. I also feel that impulse, but when I sat down to write, I realized that I just don’t work that way. I have to deal with it by connect to something older and deeper. But how do I do that without sticking my head in the sand and doing a record just for my own sake?
“Maybe the answer was to do something a little more surreal, a little more literary, more of a story than the last record. I was thinking of Pan’s Labyrinth, those sort of weird adult fairy tales that double as metaphors for our lives. And I thought of those cormorants.”
That led to San Fermin’s new album, The Cormorant I, which will be followed by The Cormorant II next spring. The title track opens the proceedings with bird calls blending in with the sounds of children at play, thus cementing the connection between nature and childhood. Several female voices describe someone awakened by playground voices and morning light but still remembering a dream about “ a great black cormorant, his wings … vast and open wide [with a] razor beak and diamond eyes.”
In the dream, the bird spoke in a harsh voice “rising from an ancient sea caked in salt and fish scales,” and that sound is suggested by the sawing cello, sustaining baritone sax and rumbling drums below. “On this morning you will die,” the cormorant announces, “but before then you must try to show me what you were.” Here is an oracular prediction and a threatening command to justify the subsequent songs about the dreamer’s youth. This framing device is far more dramatic than, say, a similar request from a beard-stroking therapist.
Each of the songs that follow presents a different childhood memory that leaves the narrator wondering why things didn’t turn out as hoped. “Tell me, Father,” a young boy asks on “Cerulean Gardens,” “Did I do it right? Where did I go wrong again?” “Why do you have to be a goddamned saint?” a twentysomething woman asks her lover on “Saints.” “Don’t you see it only makes this hard?”
“We all have these memories and concerns about the nature of truth,” Ludwig-Leone suggests. “You think you’ve lived a certain life and been a certain kind of person, but the only thing connecting you to that is memory is the narrative you tell yourself. There’s a line in ‘The Hunger,’ ‘How did I get like this? I was such a nice kid.’ I think that has a resonance beyond me. It was time for a check-in at nearly age 30: Who am I and how have I changed?”
The Cormorant I is a fantasy narrative, but it’s more interested in a psychological dig like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth than in the special-effects razzle-dazzle of a Marvel movie. The musical equivalent of the cinema’s CGI are studio gimmicks that sound good one year and dated the next. The musical equivalent of cartoon characters are shock-value lyrics that upon a second listen prove as shallow as they are clever.
Ludwig-Leone achieves the eerie atmosphere of a dream world not with sound effects but with traditional instruments combined in unusual ways. A baritone sax may roar against piano triplets; a violin may dance above a rock rhythm guitar; stacked vocals may hold a chord while the synthesizer shifts the harmony below. The lyrics evoke a strange world not with lazy vagueness but with specific images that provide enough of the picture for us to fill in the rest.
“I’m not out there singing,” the keyboardist says, “so my arrangements are a big part of what I bring to the table. I look at every single part and ask myself, what kind of journey is this instrument going on, how can I make it interesting enough to make it worth memorizing, to make each instrument seem integral.”
Such thematic, long-form music is a staple of both the classical music that Ludwig-Leone was trained in and the rock ’n’ roll that he has always loved. San Fermin’s first two albums were both concept albums about modern romance, and the composer has also been working on ballets, operas and choral works.
“I’ve been working in these longer forms with motivic development,” he says, “and I realized I liked this and wanted to do more of it. I was a good English student in school; if I hadn’t been a musician, I’d have been a writer. There’s something exciting about stories told at larger scale than a pop song. I also love pop music, because it’s really good at getting a visceral reaction in just three minutes. That’s why I’m in a band, but I also like a depth and grandness to the storytelling. With this record, I want to combine the two.
“In Iceland, I spent some time thinking about what makes this band special. If you look at our records, there’s often a concept, often a narrative—and that stands out in the current musical landscape. I thought, ‘This is what I do: these stories with fable concepts.’ So I decided I would lean into that aspect of my work.”
Of all the memories that the dreamer dredges up for the cormorant, the most compelling are those about fraught attempts at romance. “Summer by the Void” describes the feeling at 17 when “the air around was abuzz with the sound of summer romance in the branches…. I’m adrift on a sea of something just underneath.” Singer Allen Tate captures the druggy feeling of first love, while the horns warn of the heartbreak void just a step away.
“The Living” depicts the roving packs of young people on the sidewalks of any big city on a Saturday night, constantly moving in hopes that they will bump into someone who might satisfy their craving for arousal and affection. “The night is a-crawl with vampires and night owls,” Tate sings over female “oohs” and a thumping bass drum. “Our bodies are a-buzzing; we’re joining the prowl. It’s hard to quite describe it; it’s like we’re part of something bigger.”
That last sentence is crucial, for Ludwig-Leone isn’t interested in exploring his own particular memories so much as the memories of his whole generation and its challenges in making connections. His process has a built-in protection against narcissism, because Ludwig-Leone knows he’s not going to be singing the songs himself, so he has to imagine them in the mouths of others.
“The thing about having these singers is that the songs are never all about me,” he says. “Even if it starts that way, it gets fictionalized. It has to be a bit theatrical because I know another voice is going to sing it. When I’m writing for the female voices, there’s more imagination involved, a side of me that I don’t always let out comes out. But whenever I become too self-absorbed and nostalgic, I have the female voice come in and say, ‘Stop being so indulgent.’
“‘The Hunger,’ for example, came out of a conversation with a female friend who was talking about how difficult it is to keep putting yourself out there on the dating scene at our age. I’ve been in a relationship for a lot of years, so I was fascinated by her story. I wanted to put myself into that voice and write a song.”
The nature of The Cormorant I, with its dream frame and its reassessment of old memories, dictated a slightly different sound for San Fermin. Instead of the dense, bristling sound of 2017’s Belong, the new arrangements are more understated, more open, relying more on strings provided by the acclaimed classical group the Attacca Quartet.
“This time, I wanted to back off,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard to be overstuffed if you’re writing music in a landscape with no trees. But the subject matter is crucial; I was trying to create a space where there was room for memories. One of my favorite songs on this album is ‘Cerulean Gardens,’ which is guitar for most of the song, but there’s all these interesting harmonic things going on that wouldn’t get noticed if the arrangement was overstuffed. I tried to resist throwing a saxophone on it.”
Ludwig-Leone, who studied composition at Yale and apprenticed under classical composer Nico Muhly, has the chops for writing this kind of music. Like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the National’s Bryce Dessner, Ludwig-Leone combines his art-music training and his lifelong love of rock into music that never sounds like a contrived fusion but rather a natural product of twin enthusiasms.
He originally thought of the 2013 debut album San Fermin as a one-off project, but when critics began raving about it and audiences started showing up at live shows the ad-hoc group became a real band. Listeners were often puzzled by who was in charge on stage, because the male and female singers introduced the songs and they kept trading lead-vocal responsibilities, but the instrumentalists kept looking at the shy, hunched-over keyboardist for cues. That was Ludwig-Leone.
The 2013 debut had a bull on the cover, a nod to band’s name, inspired by the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain, famous for the running of the bulls. That record was a kind of musical play about a man’s pursuit of a reluctant woman, and the 2015 follow-up album Jackrabbit, with a long-eared hare on the cover, was its sequel. The 2017 album Belong had no animal on the cover and was a collection of unconnected songs. For this year’s The Cormorant I, the thematic through line is back and so is the illustration of an animal.
The band had been touring steadily for four years by early 2018, and everyone needed a break. Ludwig-Leone told the musicians, “Guys, go do your own thing; I’m not going to call you for a year.” Tate, violinist Claire Wellin, singer Charlene Kaye, saxophonist Stephen Chen and percussionist Michael Hanf worked on solo projects. Guitarist Tyler McDiarmid became sound engineer for Saturday Night Live. Trumpeter John Brandon continued to work rock and jazz gigs.
Ludwig-Leone went off to Iceland to write the first draft of the new songs during April and May of 2018. He refined them over the summer in Brooklyn and, as always, first ran them by Tate, his friend since high school. Ludwig-Leone began recording in September by calling musicians in individually or in small groups to add parts to the larger puzzle. But the band hadn’t reconvened in its entirety till the first week of October to begin rehearsals for this fall’s tour. “Welcome back, kids,” Hanf told his bandmates. “Summer vacation is over.”
Everyone is back in the fold except Kaye, who had announced in 2016 her plans to go to graduate school and to pursue a solo career. In her place is Karlie Bruce, now sharing the female vocal duties with Wellin. Aki Ishiguro is now filling in whenever McDiarmid’s SNL duties are too demanding. A two-month North American tour begins October 15 in Concord, New Hampshire.
“The songs always become more muscular on stage,” Ludwig-Leone notes. “Some of them are punched up; we repeat some of the choruses so people can sing along. In a live show, you get to see in real time the arrangements, which are more important in our show than in some bands. We try to curate that experience for the audience so they can follow what’s happening.
“We’ll mostly focus on this new album, but we’ll also do three songs from the second half of The Cormorant, and then bring back some oldies such as ‘Emily,’ ‘Jackrabbit,’ ‘Sonsick,’ ‘Methuselah’ and ‘Bride.’ People who like our catalogue will be happy; I’ll never refuse to play a song that everyone wants to hear just because I’m sick of it.”