Interview San Fermin: ‘Despite The Huge Setback, Everyone Is Committed’

Aside from stolen gear, 2013 has been a year in which Ellis Ludwig-Leone used his classical composition prowess to great effect.

24-year-old composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone and his band have spent much of the past few weeks far away from their hometown of Brooklyn, in the damp and dreary confines of the UK. Driving up and down the country - “everyone’s scraping the bottom of the barrel for energy and nobody has showered for a few days” - they’re on the road in support of their self-titled debut full-length.

“I’ve been to England quite a few times with my parents when I was younger,” Ludwig-Leone explains fondly. “They are painters and showed in a gallery in South Kensington - but this is my first time [visiting] in a long time. It’s the band’s first time to most of these other cities… Manchester, Sheffield, Brighton, Glasgow. It’s been amazing to have great crowds every night, such a warm welcome.”

It’s been a tough trip, though. In a tale that seems to befall many bands these days, not long before they left for the UK San Fermin’s trailer was stolen, and gone with it was a great deal of equipment - thousands of pounds’ worth. “That was rough. We were at a hotel in Portland. When we awoke, somebody had burned off the trailer with a blow torch.

“They found the trailer eventually but it had been emptied out… no sign of the equipment. We’ve been raising money on our website to help pay for replacements, which has helped, but we still have a way to go. Luckily, we’ve borrowed some equipment and we’re back on the road. It’s nice to see that, despite the huge setback, everyone is committed enough to push through.”



Released through Downtown Records, the band’s debut was conceived following Ludwig-Leone’s graduation from Yale in 2011, where he studied music composition. Holed away for a short stint in the comparatively remote Banff in Canada, he came away with an outline later brought to life by a team of vocalists and musicians including Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius, and vocalist Allen Tate.

“I could only stay out there so long,” Ludwig-Leone reminisces of his time in the Rocky Mountains. “I had a job and obligations to attend to back in New York, so I knew I was working in a set period of time. Also, I kind of liked the idea of writing it quickly; I had been thinking about it for a while and I had a lot of ideas swirling around. I think writing quickly allowed them to interact.”

The remote environment was a perfect catalyst for what was to come, an awe-inspiring backdrop to perfectly complement Ludwig-Leone’s grand ambitions. “When you’re alone somewhere, your emotions swell to fill the empty space,” he explains. “It’s easier to be moved and easier to suspend immediate judgment of the thing you’re making, to give it a little room to grow. It would have been hard to write some of these songs between like, helping my friends move into their apartments or whatever.”

“Despite the huge setback, everyone is committed.”

As with many great albums, there’s a concept at play. “It’s loosely a conversation between a male and female vocalist. The guy is kind of grandiose and dramatic, whereas the girl is more cynical and reserved. He sees her as the answer to a lot of his problems; she finds his efforts embarrassing. Then there are these interludes that provide a setting for the conversation. It was an effort to argue out some issues I was thinking about at that time in my life, just out of college and confused about a lot of stuff.”

The recording itself was a slow process. Mostly conducted in Ludwig-Leone’s own bedroom, it came together “part by part” over about six months. “Every musician who came in had thoughts about their parts, and together we would make decisions about what to record. The most collaborative moment on the record was definitely at the beginning, right when I came back from Canada and I sat down with [lead vocalist] Allen Tate, who has been my best friend for years and was the first critic of the record. Together we went through and adjusted lyrics, changed melodies, that kind of thing. As the record started to come together, I became more sure of what it was and was probably a little less open to changes.”



Allen has been a cornerstone of the release. The only person Ludwig-Leone “knew for sure would be on the record,” it wasn’t until later that other musicians started to play a role. “He and I had played in bands for years, since we met at age 15. So I wrote the male vocal with his voice in mind - I had to, since it’s so low and distinctive. The various other players fell into place thereafter, assembled from friends and friends of friends.

“Holly and Jess from Lucius, who sing the lead female parts, were a recommendation from our guitarist, and after hearing their music I just called them out of the blue. I had been writing all this chamber music in school, where it really wasn’t that unusual to write a piece before knowing who would play it. So this just felt like the natural way to go about things.” Indeed, his studies were key in his approach, helping him to “think about form in a way that opened up a lot of musical doors.”

“I like when all the musical bits of a song have a poetic, as well as functional, role in the music,” Ludwig-Leone continues. “I think I got that from Classical music - we would study these Schubert lieder where little musical motives would interact with the words and grow into something bigger later in the song. I love that stuff.”

San Fermin’s self-titled debut album is out now via Downtown Records.

Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online or to download on iPad now.

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