San Fermin is the brainchild of composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who graduated from Yale with a degree in classical music three years ago. Their self-titled debut album, released in September of 2013, came to life after Ludwig-Leone spent two months locked up at the Banff Centre, a secluded retreat for composers, tucked away in the Canadian mountains.
His goal was to write a complex, fully orchestrated chamber-pop album that explored the questions that come with becoming an adult, as told in a cinematic dialogue between an idealist man and a realist woman.
His approach was not autobiographical, as is often the norm in the singer-songwriter tradition, and he did not plan on singing the male lead vocals himself. While writing the album, he didn't know who would be playing it. All he knew was that his longtime friend and collaborator Allen Tate would sing male vocals. The rest of the band was assembled later on and currently includes Charlene Kaye (vocals), Rebekah Durham (violin/vocals), John Brandon (trumpet), Stephen Chen (saxophone), Tyler McDiarmid (guitar), and Mike Hanf (drums).
The final product gained Ludwig-Leone and his band great critical reviews and allowed them to take the project on tour.
Now, a year removed from San Fermin's debut, Ludwig-Leone gives Music Times the scoop on the forthcoming sophomore effort, what's he's learned over the past year, the challenges of touring with an eight-piece ensemble, and whether he feels secure in his new adult life.
Music Times: It's been almost a year since you put out your debut album. I know you've been working on new music. Can you tell me more about what's next?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Right now we're just putting the final touches on the second record. I think the goal is that it's going to be out sometime at the beginning of next year. Although I'm not sure what the dates are.
Once we finish this summer we will be going quiet until October, then I think we are going to put out a song, then go on a co-headlining tour across the country with Courtney Barnett.
MT: On your last album, you secluded yourself up in Canada to write. Was it the same process this time around?
ELL: I went away in the same kind of way. I went to a different place a little closer this time in New Hampshire. I think it's really helpful for me to get away from everything and write. It puts you in a better mindset for sort of being able to say what you want to say.
The characters changed a good amount I'd say on this record. It's less like an argument and more like they are trying to figure things out together. It's a little bit less like a "she feels one way he feels another way" and more like everyone's f**ked up about it. That's kind of how it's been happening.
MT: Is the soundscape similar? I heard you were looking to go darker on this record.
ELL: It's definitely darker. It's got the same sort of general instrumentation, but it's definitely darker. The last record, the general shape of things was slow-building songs, and this record is very different. It's, you know, very quickly changing - big one minute small the next. Much more manic I guess.
MT: Are you exploring the same sort of themes?
ELL: The first record was sort of like, 'Ok here we are here, what do we do?' This record feels like it's a little farther down the road, and there's this question of you know what you're supposed to do, but you don't know if you want that. There is a little bit more of a straightforward voice rather than the, "Oh we are people, and what do we do with that?" sort of blank canvas thing that was on the first record.
I haven't totally put words to this yet. But it just feels like they are stuck somewhere. They know taking the next step means something really significant, and they're not sure which direction that step should go in.
MT: Now that the band has sort of solidified, did the other members contribute to the compositions or lyrics this time around?
ELL: I actually wrote a lot of the record before we started touring. So I did the same sort of process of writing on my own first. But I knew generally this time who was in the band, so that helped a lot. I wrote it with those people in mind. Some of the songs we play live now. So with those ones, some of the things that we do live made it on to the record. The songs were definitely suited to these specific people more, but also there are more elements of the live show in spots on the record.
MT: The themes in your first record touch on figuring out your next steps in life and your hopes for the future. A few years removed, do you feel you have a better grasp of where you want to go or who you want to be now? Or are you still on the search?
ELL: Now I feel like it's kind of fun because luckily we've gotten quite busy, which is great because we're always touring. So in some ways I really know what my direction is. I know that today I am going to San Francisco and tomorrow I'm going to Boise, Idaho. But because you know all of those specifics, it actually allows you to put off larger questions. I think being on tour is like an extended childhood. You're not making big decisions. In one way I have more direction but also less because I also haven't made any real strides as an adult other than being in a band that's touring.
MT: You'll be playing Loufest this weekend. What's it like bringing such complex compositions into an at-times wild environment like that? Do purposely chose higher-energy songs?
ELL: Yeah. It's definitely different. If we had been doing [Loufest] last year, right when the band was forming, I would have been totally terrified. You just kind of tailor it to what you know the audience is sort of pining for. So when we've done Lollapalooza or Firefly, we'll often play more upbeat stuff - things that catch you quicker. But we've been playing so many rock clubs now that it's like you know what comes across well. So for events like this, you just hit them hard with those songs that you have that sort of translate well to a festival audience, which is kind of different than a headlining show where you can sort of tailor the show more patiently.
MT: Do you have to use fewer instruments or do you have to make it less intricate because you have those limitations on time and space?
ELL: When we tour, we tour with eight people, and that's the same no matter where we play. So we play the same arrangements and all that. We've got it down to a pretty good science as far as getting on stage and getting it set up quickly. But sure, last month we did a show with the Colorado Orchestra where we actually did the full arrangements with interludes and all this stuff, and obviously all of that doesn't make it to a festival show. But it's all pretty much there with those eight instruments on stage.
MT: So you're saying some of the new stuff that will be on the record you've already been playing live?
ELL: We play a couple of the new ones live now, which is actually kind of fun for us because it's not the same old songs.
MT: With the last record, you original wrote the orchestration then adapted it live. This time around did you think more about its live incarnation?
ELL: Totally. When I was writing the second record, I wrote the full orchestration first then I would be thinking the whole time about how it would look live and how we would translate it to the eight players. I would also make the live score ahead of time so we could try some of these things out on the road before we recorded them.
MT: What have been some of the biggest challenges since forming the band?
ELL: I think you know one of them is actually from a practical standpoint: trying to stay healthy and sane when you're living a pretty insane lifestyle. Like for all of us it has been quite an adjustment because you're playing a show at night then driving for ten hours then playing a show the next night then flying somewhere else. It sounds cool when you're told about it, but then when you do it not only is it not cool, but it sort of threatens your ability to keep going. It's so exhausting and mentally demanding. So one of the things we've learn is to just treat yourself well and take it as marathon instead of a sprint, where sometimes we don't go out after the shows because we just got to keep it together.
You have to really treat it like a job. Our drummer Mike [Hanf] often says, 'Remember this is a job guys, don't forget.' I think that's important because sometimes there's this feeling of wanting to party all the time. I'm playing music for a living and life is great. But if you go about it that way, you'll have a short run I think.
MT: Have you had any defining moments on the road?
ELL: Every now and then there is a moment like that, and it kind of satisfies you for a couple of months. Most recently at Lollapalooza, we played an after party show the next day. It was crazy because during the set we didn't even have to sing because everyone in the room was yelling along to our songs.
I always thought that would be really cool to experience that as a musician and then to really see a whole room of people knowing your lyrics was kind of amazing. Every now and then we'll have a show that feels like a real step up. Playing with that orchestra in Colorado felt like that. Even early on in January in between our first and second tour we did a one-off in Milwaukee and we played Turner Hall, which was by far the biggest room we had played at that point. I remember coming out on stage and seeing the room was full and being like, 'That is really surprising.' So there are definitely those moments. And you kind of follow up that feeling because sometimes there are shows where there is nothing to take home from it except for you got to play another show.
MT: Have you ever thought of doing some sort of collaboration?
ELL: I think on this record there is maybe a little bit more of that spirit just within the band, which was cool. I love collaborating with performers and making things fit them more. But a far as co-writing, there has been some talk of concerts down the road where we might do a collaborative piece with another musician, but at this point it hasn't come totally to fruition.
MT: Other than your work with San Fermin, are there any projects in the pipeline?
ELL: Yeah some cool things. In October there is a ballet group called ballet collective which is a bunch of New York City ballet dancers. I am going to do a night with them where they perform three ballets that I've written this year, which will be in New York in for a couple nights at the Skirball Center. So that's kind of cool. I'm also writing some orchestral pieces right now - one for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, which I'm pretty excited about. I think that will be in March and actually my band is going to perform with the orchestra later that day. It will be a cool double bill.
You can check out San Fermin's Loufest set this Saturday, September 6 from 1-1:45 p.m. at the Bud Light Stage.