Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with Brooklyn-based Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the brains behind San Fermin. If you’ve not yet heard the band, I’d highly recommend giving “Sonsick” a listen; it’s a fantastic musical snapshot of the sweeping sound Ellis has created with this project, which is a well-balanced hybrid that combines both classical and contemporary sounds. We talked about all sorts of things, from the upcoming release of San Fermin’s debut record in September to the running of the bulls in Spain. Read up on all that below, and be sure to catch the live show at Glasslands tomorrow night OR in DC on Saturday at the Living Social House w/ French Horn Rebellion and KISSES! Here we go:
I wasn’t going to drag your moniker in here immediately, but I’m sure you heard about that Australian woman who was totally gored in the chest at the running of the bulls yesterday…
Yeah, it’s a weird time to be called San Fermin; I have a Google Alerts for the name, and it’s a weird event. It’s not all good.
It’s totally bizarre to me that people would put themselves through that. I mean, I get it, I get that it’s the thrill-seeking aspect, but JESUS! Every year I feel like something bad happens, and you just see some of the footage when things go awry, and it’s like…what are people thinking.
It’s a really weird thing, because people put themselves in this position where they’re at risk for serious bodily harm, and I’m actually really not a risk-taker at all; I would never skydive or something like that, and when I was younger, I was always the last person to hop into someone else’s pool late at night or whatever. I’ve always had a respect and a fear for people who do take risks like that.
Yeah, I’m the same way; I appreciate that people can put themselves into those situations, but I get vertigo even thinking about roller coasters and things like that. Now, you studied music at Yale, right? Was the central focus of that geared more towards the classical spectrum of things?
At Yale I studied classical music, and the whole music program was geared toward classical music with sort of an emphasis on German classical music. I studied that all throughout, and my senior thesis was in classical composition, but all the way through I had rock bands as well, and even in high school I was in a series of bands. So I always had my feet in both worlds, and it became clear to me over the course of college that there were lots of similarities, and no real reason for there to be that big of a distinction; there are certain ways to think about writing classical music than if you’re writing a song, but music is music, and you find that the best stuff can generally be applied pretty readily across the board.
Right. And so in terms of this specific project, then, was it the result of those things coming together for you that you decided to begin, or was there another specific catalyst that set things into motion?
My senior year I put on a senior concert, and in the first half of it I presented this six-part, minimalist song cycle I’d done that was for two sopranos and a string quartet and trumpet, and it was couched in a lot of the things I’d learned in school. Then in the second half of the concert I brought in the band that I had at the time, and I had all these crazy string arrangements for it, and had the same players who’d been on for the first half of the concert stay on and play with the band. I’m pretty sure that didn’t work at all, it was kind of terrible [laughs], but it was just because it was kind of that first attempt at getting people on a stage all at once. It was fun, though, and I think that having done that I realized, “Oh, I can see how this would work.” Then right after I graduated I went off to Canada and wrote this record, kind of always with that image in mind, and that’s pretty much what ended up happening; it’s the same lead male singer that’s in San Fermin, and then I recruited some female singers to take the roles of the opposite female character. But I do think that concert was the moment.
Cool. And speaking of the vocalists, you had the whole record written before you brought other people in, so is it sort of like a movie script where you’re bringing in actors to have all of it play out, or did they have any input that you took into consideration afterwards in terms of tweaking things?
It was very much like bringing in actors; I was recently talking to an actor who’s in a two-person play, and he was saying how you’ve got a script all written out, but there are infinite ways it can go depending on how you deliver the lines. Allen and I have been working together since we were fifteen, so I definitely wrote with him in mind, but it was really interesting because you’re constantly wondering how he would sound or if it was something he would say. Inevitably you’re going to be wrong a few times; you show it to him and he has different thoughts about it, so there’s definitely tweaking that happened in terms of dropping words, adding words and changing words, and that really takes it from being at that script level to being something that feels organic and alive.
Right. And in terms of the writing process and getting things ready, was there anything you really struggled with, or anything you found to be especially easy?
Well, I studied string writing and brass writing and classical vocal writing, so I really knew what I was doing with that stuff; things became clear pretty quickly, and that was great. The hardest thing was that with an indie singer it’s so personal; the timbre of the voice is so important, and the lyrics are so important and intimate, that you really want to make it sound like it’s coming from the heart of that voice rather than having it feel like a voice that’s just singing words that you gave. That’s the magic moment. So it was really about repetition and constantly tweaking melodies, and just this kind of constant refining process until it felt authentic.
And did you consult with anybody while you were writing, or did you sort of wait until it was all done? How do you find that process of working creatively mainly by yourself at first?
I certainly secluded myself while I was writing; I was in Alberta, and I didn’t have phone service for most of the day and the internet barely worked, so I did stay pretty in my own head for the beginning, with the generating of the material. But then I tried to incorporate a lot of people along the way; once I’d gotten the rough material down I sent it to Allen, and that went through a round of back and forth demos. Then I sent it to a few close friends, and that brought about another round of changes, and then I got up a listening audience of about twenty of my friends and people whose opinions I really respected, and I gave them sheets of paper to write down thoughts as they listened to the whole record; that was actually really interesting, because at that point I’d been working on it for months, and you sort of lose perspective on where you are. It’s nice to have all these people have a first listen and give you their feedback, because you realize, “Oh, this part is much more interesting than I thought, and this part actually isn’t that interesting.” You sort of read the room, and it’s not the only thing that informs it all, but it’s really helpful to constantly be introducing people to the work so you’re seeing it with fresh eyes.
That’s a smart idea! Now, when you actually perform on stage, is there a lot of planning involved for the live experience? Because it’s a huge sound, so have you had to really strip things back to make it functional?
Yeah, that was actually one of the difficult things; there are twenty-two performers on the record, I believe, which is kind of untenable for a live performance, at least at this point. Our first performance was at Pianos in December, and we had thirteen people on stage, which is still insane, but I pared down the strings and the brass a little bit. It’s been sort of a slow process of refining it down to what we really need, and expanding the roles of a few instruments to sort of encapsulate as many of those lines as possible. Now I think we play with eight people mostly, which is still a lot, but it’s a considerably more tenable number for a tour.
Definitely. And speaking of touring, it looks like you’ll be on the road in July and September, but what about after that? Do you have any other major plans besides that (and besides the record coming out September 17th) for the foreseeable future?
We haven’t announced it yet, but we do have a full September and October slate planned for touring, which I believe we’re going to announce very shortly. That’ll take us into November, and then from November on it’s kind of up in the air; we’ll see where things are going as we get closer to it, and with the response to the record and everything, but hopefully the idea is just to really push this thing, do the fall tour, hopefully do a spring tour, maybe SXSW, and just give it a little momentum.
That’s awesome! And do you have plans to do more videos anytime soon? Because the one for “Sonsick” is great, but maybe you can actually do the Toddlers & Tiaras plan eventually…
[Laughs] That one was really met with a certain amount of silence from the record label. But yeah, I have plans for another music video for one of the songs on the record, and we’re in talks with the director about that to finalize the details. Hopefully we’ll have that done before the record release, too. It’s a very cinematic record, and there are a lot of motific connections across the thing; I’ve always had this idea of having a bunch of these videos dealing with the same characters and blending into each other, so we’ll see. There are sometimes certain limitations as to what you can actually do at this financial stage, but I would really love to have a suite of videos that all kind of connect.
That’d be really cool. Now, what is something you’re especially proud of about this project? Because you’re allowed to be proud considering how much you’ve accomplished! Is there anything that stands out in particular?
Well, at first it was such a personal project, and it was really just me; I didn’t know how it would go or what it would be like, so I think I’m most proud of and most excited about how it really feels like a band now, and how there’s a social bond that’s come from that. I really couldn’t have even imagined it a year ago, and just being able to travel around with these people who made the music their own and turned this into a touring band and a group of friends is an amazing process to be a part of. It’s kind of what the whole thing is about; obviously music is about self-expression and saying what’s on your mind, but at the same time, it’s about sharing, you know? It’s about using that to engage with other people, and I’ve really found that that’s happened with the performers in my band.
So go see what it’s all about tomorrow night at Glasslands, and/or in DC on Saturday at the Living Social House. In the meantime, be sure to follow San Fermin on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest updates.