San Fermin: strumming with the bulls
Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s band, named for the Pamplona festival but at home in Booklyn, blends classical craft and indie cred
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: ‘I kind of converted to classical music when I was in college, but I used to go to sleep to The Doors’ first record when I was a kid’
His musical project might be named after the famous “running of the bulls” festival in Pamplona, but there is nothing wild, brutish or frenzied about Ellis Ludwig-Leone. The 24-year-old is the chief architect of San Fermin, a collective that blends elements of classical music with an epic indie-pop sensibility.
The classical aspect is down to the Massachusetts-born, Brooklyn-based composer’s recent background in music. After experimenting in bands during high school, he went on to study composition at Yale, although his childhood was not necessarily steeped in classical music.
“I was writing chamber music and instrumental music at college,” he says. “In my senior year I put together a concert where I did classical music, but I also brought in a band that I was playing with, which included Allen Tate, our singer in San Fermin. We did the show, and I did some arrangements for the band, which didn’t work – they were very much over-the-top. But I saw all these different elements, and right after that, I figured I could combine this whole thing into a cohesive sound.”
Both his parents were artists and would listen to Paul Simon, Radiohead and REM in their studio and while ferrying the young Ellis to piano lessons. “For the most part, rock music was my first language,” he says. “I kind of converted to classical music when I was in college, but I used to go to sleep to The Doors’ first record when I was a kid. I guess the way that the story ended up being written was that I was a composer first, who ended up making this pop record – but I would say that I was actually an aspiring Ben Folds piano player as a kid, and then a classical musician, and then a pop musician.”
During college, the young musician also assisted Nico Muhly, the young American contemporary classical composer who has worked with people such as Björk, Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons. His influence on the nascent San Fermin, says Ludwig- Leone, was palpable.
“I got a little hung up early on about the differences between the different kinds of music that I was thinking about. Working with Nico was really interesting, because it was like, ‘Actually, all of this stuff has a lot in common – you just have to be thinking about it in the right way’. That was super-informative, because it stopped being about what kind of music it was and started being about what was just good.”
When it came to writing his eponymous debut album, which was released last year, Ludwig-Leone spent some time living in the picturesque Banff, a Canadian town along the Trans-Canada Highway in the Rocky Mountains. At the time, he says, he wasn’t even sure what he was writing or how it would take shape.
“I wrote this record without really knowing who would play it – just knowing that Allen would probably sing it. So when I came back to New York, I had this record all written out in sheet music, and, one by one, I just sort of assembled the players who would eventually record it and play in the band with me.”
There is no doubt that the environment had an impact on San Fermin, but removing himself to write in a cabin hasn’t led to a stripped-back sound; instead, this is an ambitious, quietly sumptuous album.
“I think there is a certain grandiosity to being in a place where there are mountains and where you’re surrounded by beautiful nature every day,” says Ludwig-Leone. “But even more than that, getting away and being alone was a big thing. There’s a certain isolation that comes with that; everything feels a little bit more intense, a little bit more important. And I think you really need that inflated sense of everything meaning more than it is in order to get the momentum required to write a record like this. I took a lot of inspiration from the fact that I really wasn’t spending a lot of time with anyone; I was very lonely, and that was definitely one of the most important aspects of the album.”
Despite the solitary nature of its composition, more than 20 musicians ended up playing on the record (now pared down to a touring unit of eight). Having delved headlong into both the classical and contemporary worlds, he says both are satisfying – the “deep, visceral” aspect of being part of a rock band and the “attention to detail” that you get with an ensemble – but he hopes to continue to dip in and out of both as his career progresses.
There is also that Ivy League elephant in the room, which Ludwig-Leone says has been with them from the start. Isn’t it difficult to maintain your cred as an indie musician of sorts when you’re a Yale graduate?
“We had a friend of ours from NPR introduce us on stage in Chicago last year, and he said something along the lines of, ‘On paper, this band is one of the most annoying bands in the world. They all went to nice schools, they’re all living in the last good neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, ’” he says, grinning. “And a lot of it was true. But we try to just own it and say, yeah, that’s sort of who we are, but we’re also trying to make honest and unpretentious music for people to get into.”
San Fermin play Whelan’s on April 16