by Reva Butensky
“Whether or not I want to be, I always end up being sort of a maximalist,” Ellis Ludwig-Leone discloses to me of his experience in composing for ballets, one of his many diverse musical undertakings. Yet this admission comes as no surprise given what he, a prolific young composer and bandleader of burgeoning talent, has created with San Fermin.
To label San Fermin is to straddle genre boundaries which don’t often overlap—indie rock, chamber pop, alt-classical—and still come up short. Ludwig-Leone prefers to dismiss the mystery of the question, self-describing the eight-person ensemble as “just a rock band… There’s two singers, and there’s more instruments than you’d expect.” Call it what you will: San Fermin is an immensely talented collective whose members each individually fill the role of musician, artist, and performer effortlessly, as they fill the air around with tangible sound and the crowd below with palpable awe. There’s good reason that as the house lights came up, the room replaced the ‘Jackrabbit’ finale chorus’ “Run for the hills, run for the hills, run!” with its own chorus of “That. Was. SO. GOOD,” echoing in a round.
Having also seen the penultimate show of their last tour in 2015, which ended in a similar cacophony of approval, I can see how in just a year-and-a-half their show has changed. The old songs are more solid than they’ve ever been and they’ve still got soul and excitement—with singers Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate sassing and taunting each other in ‘Parasites’ and trumpeter John Brandon climbing up a tower of speakers in ‘Sonsick’. Not to be omitted, the newest band member, violinist Claire Wellin, brings to the stage both a tuned fierceness and a vocal delicacy to resurrect a sound since lost from their live repertoire, namely that featured in the soaring soprano of ‘Oh Darling’. Seeing San Fermin draw in such special new talent and seeing Wellin integrate so seamlessly in only two months shows promise that the group can fluidly evolve and adapt to any number of “left turns” Ludwig-Leone may steer them into in the years ahead.
In our pre-show interview (complete transcript below), Ludwig-Leone explained the latest divergences he took in the writing process behind San Fermin’s newest album released in early April, Belong. He “wanted to make a record that you could smell.” Compared to previous concept albums, each track on Belong is meant to stand alone and stands to be distinctly aromatic. Tate’s suggestive baritone emits a musk throughout ‘Bones’, and Stephen Chen’s saxophone pulls off a fast-paced arpeggio to repurpose brass into something crisp and heady in ‘Oceanica’. Meanwhile, the aptly-titled ‘Perfume’ is one of many tracks that takes on a noticeably airier tone, making use of similar flourishes and pop-influenced mixing.
Yet what do unite the songs are a handful of themes personal to Ludwig-Leone that inspired their creation: confronting and working through anxiety and “the connection between feeling anxious and feeling ecstatic” as well as an “underlying desire to try to figure out how to connect to people.” Reminiscent of the Oxford student who holes herself up in the Rad Cam to pound out an essay, he describes his ideal songwriting setting: “I try to see people less when I’m trying to write because I think that the well kind of fills up faster.” And as it fills, the inspiration informs the song much like our DNA dictates human function; with the emotional inspiration serving as genetic code, Ludwig-Leone first transcribes sentiment into music and only later translates that expressive composition into language—lyrically, “when the voices come alive.”
Part of the magic of the live show is seeing the chemistry of this music and its musicians alike, adding just one more texture to the mix. From Kaye’s badass diva high-kicks to guitar spotlights by McDiarmid and Hanf at the edge of the stage to head-to-head duels of brass versus strings, every part could onstage become a defiant solo or a raging battle. Given that Belong is “a distillation of… [their] live sound,” it was hard not to see the performance as a product of ongoing sonic conversation; as overwhelming instincts and judgments, sparring; as polyphonic conflict with the self and the other, personified.
And yet it’s fun and it’s spooky and it’s seductive and it’s cathartic. It’s everything at once.
Perhaps the best way to witness a San Fermin show is to simply keep your eyes darting from instrument to instrument, actor to actor, voice to voice, and all around again: every one conversing. To understand the story, you only need to follow the music—if only you know where to look.
Reva Butensky: I’m going to start with Belong. In looking back at the original album, I saw that as having an overall theme, as opposed to Belong I imagine as having separate single tracks. So I was curious if from your perspective Belong does have one or two thematic arcs?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: The way that I write, I try to write a bunch of songs fairly quickly, and then I spend time working on them once they’re written. So because I write quickly, a lot of the same themes come out because they’re just kind of stuck there in your subconscious banging around. So yeah, I mean I think there are some themes, but you’re right. My goal was to write an album of separate songs. I had done more of sort of the concept-y thing on the first one, and the second one’s kind of a mix. But I think the third record is about—there’s a few themes: the big one is dealing with anxiety and sort of the connection between feeling anxious and feeling ecstatic. I’ve sort of spent my whole life riding that line. And I also think there’s this sort of underlying desire to try to figure out how to connect to people, which is maybe where the title comes from a little bit… like feeling at once that you’re not totally present or you don’t totally want to be somewhere but you also know that’s kind of where you should be. And then trying to work through that.
RB: And so, in tandem with that, the songs seem to come from a place that’s framed around Ellis. And I was curious if you know if any of the other band members resonate particularly with a certain album or certain songs?
ELL: That’s a good question, yeah. Allen and I grew up together. So more than anyone else in the band, when I write a song, he needs to resonate with it in order to sing it, which is sometimes annoying but it’s good for us. So when I write songs for him they’re often about things in my life, but our lives mirror each other in a lot of ways. And so I think that he is able to access a lot of the emotional zones that I ask him to go to because we have this shared history. So on this new record—I can’t really speak for him, I guess—he seemed to really click with a lot of them. I think ‘Belong,’ the song, and a few other ones. But he more than anyone will make suggestions sometimes about what the song is about to try to sort of guide it to a place he can access more. So ‘Belong,’ the song, when I wrote it was actually a bit sadder. The chorus was like, instead of “But I’m right where I belong” it was, “what it’s like to be alone.” And then I played it for him, and he was like, “Yeah, man, I just think that if there was more warmth here, I will be able to sing this.” And that was a useful suggestion, so I rewrote it.
RB: Do you feel that that changes your perception or ideas on the song? Do you feel differently like, “Oh, I’m not putting in what I originally intended”? Or is it a balance?
ELL: Yeah, it’s a balance. I mean, now the record is done and I like it and everything, but if you had asked me these questions while I was writing them… sometimes when there’s a back-and-forth like that, you’re sort of really fighting for the soul of a song, and I do think that he and Char, who are both on singing, will pull something a little more in one way. And it’ll only ever be a few weeks later that we’re recording them that then I actually really like that. And if I ever don’t, then I don’t do it, you know? I hope I answered your question.
RB: Yeah, definitely. I just feel like that’s something that always gets left out, the ‘how do other people feel?’
ELL: Yeah, no it’s a good question. I think that thinking about the way that the non-singers in the band, the instrumentalists, react to the music, I generally try to think of that in slightly more musical terms as opposed to ideological terms. So I want to make sure that Stephen’s reacting to the sax lines I write him in a way that’s explosive and exciting. And I want to make sure that the drumlines for Mike are challenging enough and left-footed enough and strange enough that there’s meat for him to dig into. Because otherwise you get a flatter performance, and I think that’s the way that relationship goes generally.
RB: So when it comes to writing those songs for a big band, how do you generally do that? What’s the order? Do you write lyrics first, keyboard first?
ELL: I generally start with the music. I’ll make a demo, so what I’ll do is I’ll basically play in a bunch of parts—I could start with the sax line, I could start with the drumline, I could start with the keyboard line—from song to song it really varies. Our music isn’t very riff based or anything, so it’s kind of these layers of a texture, and they kind of start to fill in. And then the lyrics probably follow 30% behind. So when a song’s about halfway done, the lyrics are just kind of starting. And then when the music is done, the lyrics are 70% there. And there’s a moment right in the middle where the lyrics get close enough, where suddenly the song pops to life.
RB: So how do you know when or in what way your lyrical ideas are going to play into it? Like, you know, “this is a happier song”?
ELL: I often will start at the very beginning. Like the impetus for writing a song comes from a, you know, non-musical spot. With Bride, for example, I had this experience at a wedding of feeling super freaked out and kind of had this moment, and I wanted to write a song about that, so I knew that. And then I started on the music. And then the lyrics kind of pop in.
RB: But you first feel out the music from the idea?
ELL: You feel out the music first generally because if I write lyrics first, I’ve found that things kind of get very four-square and kind of boring.
RB: Like a poem?
ELL: Yeah, you write a poem, and I make sure it’s metrically really tight… The closest thing to that was ‘The Woods’ on the second record where I did that. It reads like a poem. It’s very nursery rhyme-y.
RB: Okay, this just came to mind. There’s one musical progression in the middle of ‘Happiness Will Ruin This Place’ and I’ve just been curious in what way or for what reason that felt like the place in that song to put it?
ELL: The musical progression where the voice kind of comes in?
RB: Yeah, it’s kind of airy. The tone is very serious and then it sort of draws away and then comes backs. Is that the intention, or was there some other intention?
ELL: Why did I do that? I can tell you how that song happened. I wrote the song, and it sounded like “You Can Call Me Al” or something. It sounded like Paul Simon. It had all this big brass, and it was all building on a *boom boom boom bap* on the drum beat and it was this big thing. And Allen sang it, and I was just like “This sounds stupid. I hate this song.” So I was just going to cut it, and then I had the idea to basically cut everything out of the music entirely and just preserve the vocal line and the drum beat. And then I realized I only wanted the drum beat when he wasn’t singing. So I had a vocal line and a drum beat working when he wasn’t singing and that was it. And then I tried to do the simplest musical accompaniment I could possibly think of which was just the guitar line. And then the song was kind of there. And I just wanted to bring in something kind of strange, one strange texture, to even it out. And that was that vocal part.
RB: Thank you. Yeah, that was just a side curiosity.
ELL: No problem. It’s more fun to talk about the specifics, actually.
RB: And in the role of a musical missionary, one seeks to convert other friends, right? Naturally. So for the readership of the magazine, most of whom are Oxford students who might not be familiar with the band, in what order might you suggest introducing someone to your music? Would you recommend starting with a certain album or singles? I always send people ‘Sonsick’.
ELL: That’s a good one to start with because it’s one that started our careers. I think ‘Sonsick’ and ‘Emily’ and ‘Jackrabbit’ were the singles that carried the first two records. And ‘Methuselah’. But if I was going to send someone our music now, I would probably send the new record and then maybe a few of those ones. I like ‘Oh Darling’ which sometimes we play live now because it’s a song that really stuck with me. And hopefully not to get too bogged down on the whole “baroque pop” whatever-way-it’s-talked-about. It’d turn me off if I was just discovering the band. Ugh, god, it’s so stupid.
RB: What do you prefer?
ELL: Just a rock band! I don’t know! I think it’s a band, there’s two singers, and there’s more instruments than you’d expect. That’s sort of how I think about it.
RB: When people ask me, “Oh, what is it?” I just say “Baroque pop, but I don’t really know what that means.”
ELL: No one does, right? It means like snooty pop music, which I suppose is kind of right, but I don’t like that.
RB: Okay, so this goes back to the songwriting process and the differences that I feel distinguish Belong from the other records. Is there a musical shift in terms of what instruments are used or a production shift? It seems like a lot more airy and less like a heavy brass sound.
ELL: Yeah, I wanted to make a record that you could smell. Like, I wanted it to be textured and kind of light, I guess. And the second record was very manic and kind of bombastic. And so the way I tried to accomplish that was I had the saxophone stop playing in a sort of brassy way and basically have the saxophone turn into mostly doing textures, sort of arpeggios like that [in ‘Oceanica’]. And the trumpet parts basically got more selected. It was less of a sort of constant brass sound. In terms of the production of it, we went a little more pop in this record and I worked with a few mixers who have done stuff that’s a little more pop music, and the idea of that was to get a sort of slightly brighter sound. Did that answer?
RB: Yeah, I also found it to be more pop-y, but I didn’t know if that was intended or accurate.
ELL: I sort of realized that I really like pop music actually. There’s a lot of pop music that I obviously don’t like, but often when I sit down to write a song, it’ll push more that way than it pushes toward grungy indie rock. Because I’m not a guitar guy. I don’t play guitar, so a lot of the songs aren’t really based on the guitar so that already pushes us a bit away from the sort of jangly indie rock thing.
RB: Do you think that that’s a new direction? Bands are normally said to follow their third album, as if the third album is the direction the band will continue to take. Do you see that as the truth, or keep bumping around different things?
ELL: I definitely felt that way when I finished it and listened to it, and I think that I get kind of bored quickly with a formula so I have a feeling that probably as it goes on the band can take more left turns. I do feel like this album feels like the sort of distillation of what our live sound has turned into, and in that sense I think it’s really representative of what the band is. I think on the first record, people would be like, “Hey, I love the record, but the live show’s totally different. I love that too, but it’s a different thing.” And that’s very true. Now I feel like we are one very specific sounding thing, and that’s the record and the live show and they’re kind of the same. As it goes on, maybe the next one will have more of an orchestral feeling? I don’t know. I’m not sure.
RB: I have one question from a friend at home. She’s a dancer, and she told me that you’ve composed for ballets. So she was wondering what that process is like?
ELL: It’s cool and it’s really different because—I’ve actually done a lot of those. I think I’ve done five or six ballets. And with that, you basically have to leave room for the dance, which is hard for me because whether or not I want to be, I always end up being sort of a maximalist. But with dance you really have to leave room because if you’re filling up all the space, there’s none left for the movement. So often with the dance stuff, I’ll write something and then I’ll cut a bunch of stuff and then I’ll send it to the choreographer. And also you have to think more gesturally. So basically, think of a gesture and how it’ll map on the dance and repeat it and sort of expand it. Whereas when I’m writing for the band, I’m thinking verse/chorus a little bit.
RB: For the readership, we’re students and students first. And I think I at least personally resonate with ‘Better Company’ in that there are times you need to get withdrawn. You’re in a slump. So as someone who’s writing these songs, is there something that you tend to do get yourself out of a creative/artistic/musical slump? Any sort of go-to activity?
ELL: Well, I find that if I get away from people that it’s easier for me to write. So in the past I’ve gone away to write. Or on this new record I kind of holed up in my basement, which is what that song’s about actually, and just kind of didn’t see people. So really that’s what I do. I try to see people less when I’m trying to write because I think that the well kind of fills up faster… I also watch basketball. [I was] a big basketball player, big basketball fan. That’s my turn-the-brain-off activity.
RB: Mellow out to Melo?
ELL: Or try to.
RB: So you’ve been getting a lot of press, touring with bigger bands. I find it hilarious Paul Krugman wrote an article about ‘Belong’. That’s just so great. Where do you think coming into the limelight might take the band in the future? Either dynamically, or will different instruments be more or less necessary?
ELL: Whoa, dangerous question. That’s good. So you’re basically asking, “What does getting increased attention for the band do to change the band?”
RB: If there’s any way to know.
ELL: Well I think one negative side of it is that for me it takes the attention away from where it should be which is the music. And I can get caught up in the either pursuit of or the extra stuff that comes in. If you start reading articles about you, it’s going to change the way you think about your music, and that’s kind of weird. So I’ve tried on this record to recede from that so I haven’t read almost anything about the band. And that’s helpful. But in terms of how it changes the band, they like limelight a lot. And a lot of these guys came from classical music, which is a place that doesn’t have a lot of limelight. So when we’re on the stage of Lollapalooza or whatever, there’s something that takes hold and it changes the way they perform a lot and it changes probably a little bit of the way they’re living their lives. I think they get used to being on the road and they like doing that, but when you’re living on the road it changes your daily rhythms. I don’t know if that answers the question, but I just don’t know. I mean, if I think about this versus the first record, for the first record I was very wide-eyes and bushy-tailed about it. Just every time we show up somewhere it’s just “Ah! This is amazing! Cool city!” And now it’s like, “Okay, well I’ve actually played this venue before. How are ticket sales? Where are we staying? Are we staying somewhere nice? I want to stay somewhere nice this time.” [Stuff] like that, and it starts to get in the way of just having a good time, doing what you’re doing, which is this really cool thing. You get to travel around and play your music. You lose track of it sometimes.
RB: So if in the show, different members of the band start playing differently is there any sort of discord? Do you think the songs end up getting differently represented or performed as you intended them or as they are on the album?
ELL: A little bit. For the most part I think it’s good, and as the band has gone on, I write for them thinking about the live show. But there are songs like ‘Oh Darling’ which is a song we brought back recently because Claire, our new violinist, is singing lead on that. It’s really fun. But it’s a song with no sax part and no trumpet part. So John’ll go offstage, but Stephen kind of, like, plays a lot. And if we were recording it again, I wouldn’t have him do that. But it’s a live show and, like, whatever? So there’s a lot of that. And as a bandleader you kind of have to know what’s keeping everyone happy. What do they want to be doing? And you try to give them enough of that.
RB: And so if there’s one song tonight, or two, or eight, that we should look forward to the most, what’s the most fun, infectious song to perform?
ELL: The most fun, infectious song? Oh lord!
RB: Well, from your side! I don’t know!
ELL: From our side? Well ‘Parasites’ live is sort of a special thing. That’s one that on the record just doesn’t come across, but live there’s always something really cool that happens. John may crowd-surf during ‘Sonsick’—that happens every now and then.
RB: Yeah, he jumped down in New York.
ELL: I think he tries to mix it up a bit. To keep people waiting.
RB: Last time, I was right below and in front of John, right in the front, and I got a lot of saliva. It felt like a very special bond.
ELL: Ahhh. There is such a funny thing that happens that when he goes out in the crowd where you see the crowd, and he jumps down and everyone gets lit up and is so excited, and then they realize they have a trumpet blowing in their face. Because it’s really loud actually. So that’s really amusing every night, I always peek over when that’s happening.
RB: And then once he comes off the stage, he’s just a guy playing the trumpet. Like, “Go! Get back up there!” I mean, I wouldn’t tell him that.
ELL: *laughs* Oh, I’d be happy to tell him that.