San Fermin’s self-titled debut record, released a little over a year ago now, is absolutely bursting with ideas and creative flourishes at every corner. It’s frankly difficult to take it all in on first listen, with new details emerging every time you make it through. The angular pop of Dirty Projectors, the lush orchestration of Sufjan Stevens, and the baritone gloom of The National all come to mind at different points, but ultimately San Fermin is a large, ambitious work all its own. The highlight is "Sonsick"--a panic attack disguised as a sunny pop song, anchored by an unstoppable, soaring chorus.
Bandleader and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone is only a couple years out of Yale, where he studied classical composition and worked with the legendary Nico Muhly. The record came together during time at the Banff Centre in Alberta after his graduation, and he assembled a group of 22 musicians to bring it to life in the studio. The band is currently touring as an octet, with Ludwig-Leone on keyboards and percussion. He was kind enough to speak with me recently in advance of his band’s Wednesday appearance at the brand new Woodward Theatre.
Nat Tracey-Miller: What are you most excited about embarking on this fall tour?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Let’s see, uh, excited to really be playing some new songs from our second record, which I’ve been working on, and actually we really haven’t played any of them live yet, so it’ll sort of be the first time, and we’ll be interested to see how they do.
N: Now that you’ve been on tour with a rock band for a year, is there anything you’ve approached differently with the composition, having spent more time in that setting?
E: Yeah, well you know, it’s much easier to imagine it live as you’re writing it, and so you kind of maybe consciously or unconsciously tailor the songs to hit their marks in sort of a performance setting, which is something I definitely wasn’t thinking of on my first record. There’s more energy, there’s probably more drums on this record, and a lot of that has to do with the live setting.
N: Were you composing for the current lineup of San Fermin?
E: Yeah, pretty much, I mean, I started writing these songs like a year and a half ago, so at that point the band still wasn’t really touring that much. I wrote it without really thinking about the live group as much, and the band itself, but I’ve been writing during the whole time period we’ve been touring, so definitely the songs...you fit the songs better to the players, you think of how that specific player is going to sound and how that specific instrument is going to sound played live, and it definitely helps.
N: Do you feel any differently about the first round of songs after touring them for a year and a half now?
Yeah, well you know, they really changed on the road. I listened to the first record the other day for the first time in like a year, and it’s kind of amazing, all the tempos are different, and the energy is really different. So listening back, I still like a lot of the songs, but they feel much, sort of, they’re more lush, but less to the point than the live version, so that’s definitely changed my perception of it.
N: With artists like Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Perry, this seems to be a really perfect time to coexist in the rock and classical worlds. Do you have any classical projects you’re working on right now?
E: Yeah, I’ve got some pieces that I’m working on. I’m writing a piece for the Alabama Symphony, which is going to come out early next year, and I’m working on three ballets for a ballet company here in New York that we’re going to put on in October. A few other things like that, so I’ve got a lot on my plate for future projects, but we’re just finishing the second record now, so I’ve sort of been putting those off until we finish the record, because you want to make sure you get that finished. The ballets are actually happening simultaneously, they’re actually happening in October, so that has been a little bit of a balancing act, for sure.
N: When you’re composing, whether it’s for rock or classical, do you ever just hit a wall? Do you ever just get stuck?
E: Yeah, I mean, of course, it’s a common thing. When I write, I try to isolate myself a bit, and really dedicate all of my resources to the task at hand so you don’t get sort of sidetracked. But that’s easier said than done, and I think that whenever I get stuck, I’ll put something aside, and work on another project, maybe a very different kind of project, and I find that helps keep everything looser. There’s not too much mental strain on any given one thing if you spread yourself out a little bit.
N: Nico Muhly has been extremely good to Cincinnati over the last few years. What was he like as a mentor?
E: He was amazing. Great composer, but also the way he approaches all his projects is something that I really took to heart. He doesn’t bring any ego to the table, he’s a very open collaborator, and very flexible. He’ll try a bunch of different things and he works really fast, and I think that’s really what you want approaching music, because you can’t get too fussy, you can’t get too stuck in your ways about it. Music is by definition a collaborative and a sort of social thing, and some people can be sort of sticks in the mud about that. And I think what’s so cool about Nico is not only did he have great ideas, he had a lot of great ideas, and he could work them out very quickly. It was really inspiring.
N: Is there a particular show or festival from this past year that stands out as a favorite?
E: Well you know, there’s a few. We played a show with St. Vincent at Celebrate Brooklyn, which was just kind of surreal for us, because a year ago we were going to see bands there, and now we’re going to play there, so that’s been an amazing, amazing thing, because it’s right in our neighborhood. And then I remember there was a show in Ferrara, Italy, where we were playing in front of this amazing medieval castle, and we were opening for The National, who are one of our favorite bands, and there’s just kind of a surreal setting all around.
N: Do you have a favorite record from this year, or any favorite recent discoveries?
E: There’s a lot of really good stuff that’s come out recently, I’m trying to think what’s stuck the most. One of the things that’s been interesting about touring is that you see so many new bands so quickly that you try to be a little more omnivorous about your listening habits, so I’d actually say that I’m doing less of that thing where you listen to one record obsessively and more just trying to hear everything that’s out there. So honestly, that’s been the best part about touring. Or one of the best parts.
N: You’re touring with a new singer, Charlene Kaye. How did you connect with her?
E: She was recommended to us by some mutual friends, and she’s been really a star from the beginning, she’s a great performer and she’s been a really great addition to the band.
N: Well we’re really looking forward to having you back to Cincinnati, I caught you at Midpoint last year, and you guys were just outstanding.
E: Oh, thank you! That was one of our very first shows, actually. We’re psyched to be back, that was one of our first experiences playing a festival, might have even been the first one, and it was awesome.