EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: San Fermin
Brooklyn’s San Fermin recently dropped a gem of a debut album, a dazzling swirl of orchestral, contemporary-classical-indie-pop. The band, the brainchild of composer/songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, are currently on tour across the US, with more upcoming dates in Canada and the UK. We sat down with Ludwig-Leone and vocalist Allen Tate after a recent gig at The Echo in Los Angeles, Ca. The two charming young gents let us know how the tour’s going, how their band and album came to be, and what’s next in store for them.
The Owl Mag: First of all, great gig, you guys.
Both: Thanks a lot.
TOM: How far into the tour are you guys?
Allen Tate: We’re kinda doing it in legs. We did a two-week leg in the Midwest, and we just started here. We flew into LA, did a gig in San Diego, played another one at [Hollywood club] Bardot last night, and then this is our third show of the leg.
TOM: How’s the tour going so far?
Tate: It’s good. Compared to the Midwest, you guys have better weather [laughs]. No, but it’s been a lot of fun.
TOM: That’s great. How has the fan reception been going so far?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Really good. It’s still sort of surreal when you go to a place, and you’ve never been there before, and there’s all these people who have heard your music. So far, people have been great, a lot of sell-outs. Tonight was pretty close to, if not a sell-out. It’s great to be doing it for these people.
Tate: Everything we could ask for, for sure.
TOM: Have you guys gotten to see any of Los Angeles?
Tate: Here and there. More than most places. We’ve spent a couple of days here, so we sort of walked around Echo Park a little bit, where we’re staying. In most cases, we get to a place in time to soundcheck, we play, and then we drive off in the middle of the night to the next place. We’ve gotten a little bit of Los Angeles, it’s been great so far.
TOM: Now, how did you two meet?
Ludwig-Leone: We were at like, rock ‘n roll camp. It was a songwriting camp at Berklee College of Music, I think we were 15. We met there, and actually, I lent Allen my guitar, and he scratched it all up.
Tate: I’m not very good at guitar [laughs].
Ludwig-Leone: We stayed in touch. He lived in Philadelphia, and I lived south of Boston, so growing up, we had to make a real effort to hang out. He’d come up for a week or two, I’d go down for a week or two.
Tate: We played in a lot of TERRIBLE bands together. Yeah, we’ve been friends since we were 14 or 15.
TOM: How long ago was that.
Ludwig-Leone: Ten years?
Tate: Yeah, almost ten years.
TOM: Nice. Did any of those earlier bands sound at all like San Fermin?
Tate: Absolutely not. It kinda sounded like when you put a fork in a garbage disposal.
Ludwig-Leone: When you’re 15, your influences are pretty different than when you’re 20, 24. This record was written differently. We used to sort of do this thing where we’d write songs about girls, and it was kinda goofy. This one came from a very different place. We kinda took a break from college, I studied classical music, Allen was a law student at NYU. We were at different schools, we sort of took a little break, I had a classical ensemble. Then when we came back together, when I went to go write the record, I had a very different facility with the music than I had when we were working early on. Allen’s voice, in the meantime, had shifted down by another octave or so.
Tate: Just below human hearing.
TOM: Amazing. A lot of the songs have these complex, complicated arrangements with lots of layers. How do you write the songs? Do you write them on guitar?
Ludwig-Leone: No, I write with a keyboard that has all the instruments in the band queued up in this software, Logic. I start with longhand, I actually write out the notes for the key, important things, and then I’ll play in things just as they come. A song could start with a vocal line, or a drum beat, like “Sonsick” did, or it could start with a violin line, or a trombone line. Whatever happens musically first, is what it builds off of. The lyrics and the melodies sort of happen as the harmonies are being built.
TOM: Do you have the songs fully formed in your head before you set them down, or do they build?
Ludwig-Leone: Aaaah, no. I have like, harmonic and melodic motives, definitely for sure. I’ll have an idea of what the song is about, and then maybe one or two sort of important lines, and then things just build from there.
TOM: Speaking of important lines, one line that comes up a couple of times throughout the album is “I can’t fall asleep is your arms.” Does that have any special meaning to it?
Ludwig-Leone: I’ve always had trouble sleeping. It’s pretty straightforward if you’re looking at it from a couple’s perspective, like “I can’t find this comfortable place, even though I’m supposed to be comfortable.” I think a lot of this record is about that. It’s about looking for meaning and importance in your life while simultaneously feeling like all the places you’re supposed to be feeling comfortable and feeling good, aren’t quite right. I used that line to deal with that.
TOM: How did you get together with vocal duo Lucius to make the album?
Tate: This band’s full of a lot of weird connections. I was at NYU. In my last semester I needed some elective credit, and I decided to take something really easy, so I started taking guitar lessons for credit. The guy who taught me guitar is now our guitar player, Tyler [McDiarmid]. We were in the early stages of recording the album and demos and that kind of thing. We’d had some friends sing some of the female lines, but we were pretty sure that wasn’t gonna be the final thing. Tyler is a recording engineer, he did a lot of jazz work, nominated for Grammys, things like that. I knew he had a pretty good network, and so I went to him, and said “Do you know any female singers in the area who might want to collaborate?” He put us on Lucius, and pretty much as soon as we heard it, I was like Whoa, this is a pretty unique sound. They do a great job on the album, giving life to this female character.
Ludwig-Leone: Kind of aloof.
Tate: But yeah, so it came through Tyler.
Ludwig-Leone: What’s interesting is that these songs now, [new, full-time female vocalist] Rae [Cassidy] owns them. When we play live, it’s one person, opposed to two. The way Rae sings, it’s really unguarded and emotional in a way that’s very different than the record. It’s really interesting to see how the songs change, and sort of take on a new life. Like, in “Oh Darling,” the line “Oh Darling, I’ve been so miserable” goes from being a sort of aloof, too-cool-for-you-thing, to like “No, that woman’s really miserable.”
TOM: That’s amazing some of the emotion you guys are able to bring forth in your music. Allen, how long have you been singing? Are you classically trained?
Tate: I could not be less trained. I’ve been singing, and a total lyric junkie, for as long as I can remember. My mom used to make me harmonize with the radio in the car, probably because she got sick of me singing along with everything. But no, I really don’t have any formal training. Like Ellis said, if you listen to some of the earlier stuff we did, I was singing in a higher register, and I’ve kinda settled into this. I certainly sing a lot, but not a whole lot of training.
TOM: Allen, you seemed surprised when Ellis said you guys were going to play “Methuselah,” is there any reason for that?
Tate: Between us, we usually play “Methuselah” in the middle of the set, right before “Torero;” we play the album in order. The reason we didn’t play it is because Tyler went to go turn on his guitar, aaaaaand there was no sound there, so we moved on to the next one. But it worked out, tonight as an encore. Hopefully we played it off well.
TOM: Yeah, you guys did. Why did you guys choose the name San Fermin?
Ludwig-Leone: When I was writing the record, three of the interludes were actually called “San Fermin,” parts one, two, and three. There’s this concept of — take the running of the bulls. People are putting their lives on the line for this kind of ridiculous thing, so like, why? Why is that happening? One of the motivations for the record was, I felt like a lot of the things I was doing in high school, I was still doing, but they felt less intense. I felt a little more numb to it. It was weird. One of the reasons I really wanted to write the record was to get to the bottom of that, and break that.
So in San Fermin, people do this thing, they put themselves in this crazy rigamarole, and almost die, just to feel alive. It was like a little bit of a starting off point. We’re trying to wake up here. I mean, the first song on the record is about waking up.
TOM: Do you feel as if you accomplished those ideas in making the album?
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah. What’s funny is that I wrote it when I was 22. I’m 24 now, so it’s funny that people are finally hearing these songs. Now, I think that my life, our lives, are pretty drastically different than they were then. I had just graduated college, it wasn’t a given that I would be a musician, or that any of us would. Allen was thinking about law school. That’s not happening now. That sort of fear about what the future holds, and that sort of immediate search for meaning were a really big motivator for this record. We made a record that’s definitely about that. Now, there’s different things that I’m dealing with and thinking about. If I was to write — we’re actually working on the second record right now. That record looks pretty different. I just think it’s about being true to the time when you write it, being true to that mindspace.
TOM: Everything’s kind of a snapshot of when you make it, and where you are at that point.
Ludwig-Leone: Absolutely. That’s all you can do, ya know?
TOM: You guys played a cover of “Heart in a Cage” by The Strokes. What’s it like arranging a Strokes song for San Fermin?
Ludwig-Leone: That was fun actually. I did that in like, 35 minutes.
TOM: No way.
Ludwig-Leone: Yeah. The Strokes song, it’s three chords. The things that you immediately think about are “how is this going to fit onto these people?” What’s great about is that it’s the first time, ever, with San Fermin, I’ve been able to arrange something, and I know exactly who’s going to be playing it. When I wrote the first record, I knew Allen was singing, obviously, and beside that, I really didn’t know anything. Whereas this time, it’s like “Oh, Stephen Chen is obviously gonna play that saxophone line, imagine what he’ll look like.” It really helps, it’s very easy, once you know who you’re writing for, to do that. So yeah, I listened to it maybe two or three times, and then I didn’t listen to it again. I just did it from memory, so I skipped some stuff. I think there’s a whole scale that’s gone, and a bunch of things like that. And there’s a few things that are sort of signatures of our sound, like skipping a beat every now and then, re-harmonizing things. The chorus has a different chord in it, there’s a D-Major chord, rather than A-Minor. Things like that, just trying to find places where you can wring a little bit more emotion out of something that already is a great song.
TOM: Is there anything else you wanna add?
Tate: It’s been a lot of fun, and we could not possibly be more thankful for all the support that we’ve gotten so far. It’s been great to go out and meet people, and share this with everyone.
Ludwig-Leone: And if you’re in LA, we’re coming back in March.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, a few days after our interview, a trailer containing ALL of San Fermin’s equipment was stolen from the Red Lion Hotel in Portland, Oregon. They lost everything they had, but managed to borrow gear for a gig in Seattle. Being the standup group of folks that they are, San Fermin plans on honoring their tour dates for the rest of the year, and have set up a PayPal account for fans wishing to help them out. For more information, including a detailed breakdown of what was taken, and a link to where you can help, check out their post HERE.