San Fermin

The Quiet Conductor

Nov 22, 2013 Photography by Tom O'Neal Issue #47 - September/October 2013 - MGMT
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While particularly verbose in conversation, needing only the simplest prompt to launch into the details of his life and work, songwriter and composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone is completely silent as a frontman. Despite being responsible for writing all the music and lyrics for his Brooklyn-based ensemble San Fermin, Ludwig-Leone relinquishes the vocal duties to an alternating pair of male and female leads.

"I think what I like about the dynamic of having a band where I don't sing is that there's equal weight given to everything," says Ludwig-Leone, who selected the Matt Berninger-level baritone of longtime friend Allen Tate and the harmonizing femininity of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig for the parts. "If I wanted to explore a certain range of emotions I can give the song to the male vocal and if I want to do the same with female vocal I'm not really biased because I'm not singing.... I'm almost a voyeur in this world that I've made [more] than being in the middle of the whole thing."

Communicating two seemingly separate points of view is a thread that runs throughout Ludwig-Leone's ambitious musical project and its self-titled debut, combining classical, avant-garde arrangements with the kind of modern baroque chamber pop that recalls Dirty Projectors.

Born in Rhode Island, Ludwig-Leone studied music composition at Yale University. In between his school work, he began cutting his teeth professionally by working as an assistant to contemporary classical music composer and arranger Nico Muhly. He worked on anything from score transcription and running recording sessions to helping with arrangements for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, The National, and Passion Pit.

After graduating, Ludwig-Leone began building an album around the concept of a male and female protagonist that would have a rather unique interaction over the course of the record, developing their dramatic arcs in an almost operatic fashion. It's flush with piano, strings, brass, poly-rhythmic percussion, glockenspiels, harmoniums, and countless other instrumentation. Ludwig-Leone says, "This record is about trying to find a place where everything is heightened, where everything feels like the stakes are really high and everything is being felt in a way that is as richly and intensely as possible."

These particular feelings and themes tie directly into the very namesake of the album and the band: the yearly Spanish festival in Pamplona that hosts the running of the bulls. "The idea of the running of the bullsit's people putting themselves in this life-and-death, really intense situation just because they want to, just because they want to be there," explains Ludwig-Leone. "Why would you do that to yourself? Why would you put yourself through this where you could be gored by this animal? I think there's something totally ridiculous about it. It's so over the top in a way that I think vibrates with the male character a little bit, in the way there's something heroic but almost to the point of goofiness. It's a little quixotic. There's something really poignant and powerful about it. And I think the record is really about trying to find, as a young person, ways to feel that way."

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's September/October 2013 issue.]



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