San Fermin | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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San Fermin

Banding Together

Aug 17, 2015 San Fermin Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

Ellis Ludwig-Leone has a degree in classical music composition from Yale University. He has earned residency at the prestigious Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. He has written for a wide variety of ensembles, as well as a ballet. He has been named 2015’s Composer-in-Residence for the Alabama Symphony. Yet for all the accolades, the initial foray into the musical world for the leader of Brooklyn-based collective San Fermin happened most serendipitously, at the age of eight, at the local library.

“My dad had taken me to sign up for basketball,” says Ludwig-Leone. “There was a piano there, and I just started fiddling around. And the lady said, ‘Oh, there’s someone who knows how to play the piano.’” Ludwig-Leone had never touched the instrument before in his young life. “All the other kids were kind of banging on it. The perhaps apocryphal story is that I was better at it.”

Ludwig-Leone spent his formative years studying classical piano and playing keyboards in rock bands throughout high school. After graduating Yale, he decided to take what he’d learned in theory, classical study, and rock and roll and combine them. Ludwig-Leone decamped to Banff and wrote what turned out to be 2013’s San Fermin, a grand orchestral work that astutely combined classical sounds with pop smarts and dual male-female vocals.

“I knew I wanted to make a record that was sort of an hour long experience that felt like it had an arc, a beginning and an end, and I wanted there to be songs and interludes,” says Ludwig-Leone. “But I didn’t have any plan for it beyond that…. I certainly didn’t plan on touring.”

As the story goes, Ludwig-Leone was persuaded to put on a concert, during which his musicians read sheet music. From the concert, the band got a record deal, and with that came touring expectations. Pairing down San Fermin‘s some 22 players to a core eight, Ludwig-Leone took his show on the road. He already had the songs for his next San Fermin album constructedhe composed them in the lag time between getting his record deal and the debut’s releasebut through touring he realized that things needed changing. So, says Ludwig-Leone, “I tore the songs apart and ripped holes in them, changed things and added new stuff, and came up with something that felt more true to my mind state.”

“Writing actual parts, a saxophone part or a guitar part or a violin part, you have an image of in your mind,” he continues. “But from touring, now I knew who these people were. And I knew what they played like. I knew what was going to work…. Also, I was trying to make something that felt like it was relatable for the people in the band. It wasn’t any more like, ‘Hey, I just made a bunch of songs guys. Let’s play them.’ We had this group experience.”

San Fermin’s second album, Jackrabbit, as a result, feels like more of a group album. The songs still meld the classical and rock of Ludwig-Leone’s background, but this time they benefit from the familiarity and heft of a group of musicians who developed bonds both musical and personal on the road.

“I think we finally sound like a band,” says Ludwig-Leone. “The music itself is still really layered and complicated and there’s all sorts of crazy things that happen, but it’s a little less in your face, like, ‘Here’s the string interlude. Here’s the pop song.’ This record feels to me really all kind of mixed up and not trying to be anything but itself.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s April/May/June 2015 print issue. This is its debut online.]


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