Getting to the heart of San Fermin with songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone (free show at Boot and Saddle tomorrow)
Last month San Fermin, the project of Yale graduate Ellis Ludwig-Leone, released its grandiose debut album. If you’ve checked out the band’s website after listening to the incredible single “Sonsick” on repeat this summer, you already know the story: After graduating, Ludwig-Leone went into the mountains to write an album about, “youth, nostalgia, anxiety, unrequited love.” The album combines elements of rock, with soaring orchestral arrangements to create one of the fullest, most complex indie releases of the year. Tomorrow night, San Fermin will play a free show at new South Philly venue Boot & Saddle. Get tickets here, and in the meantime delve a little deeper into the album after the jump as Ellis Ludwig-Leone talks about his influences, punting puppies, song meanings and much more.
The Key: I know that you received classical training at Yale, and it’s very prominent on this record. But there were definitely elements of rock and pop in the mix as well. I’m curious who are some of your non-classical influences on this album?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: There are some influences that are pretty obvious on this record… Sufjan Stevens, The National, Dirty Projectors, people have picked up on those and they’re totally right. I grew up listening to Sufjan’s Come On Feel The Illinoise! and it’s probably still my favorite record. The other, maybe less obvious ones definitely include Paul Simon — Graceland is a top 5 album for me, every sound on that record is so considered and purposeful. And Abbey Road by The Beatles was a record that as a kid I would listen to front-to-back. The second half of the album, as the songs start to blend together, is mesmerizing and brilliant and was a model for the second half of my record.
TK: And speaking of influences did any of the singers have influences on the songs’ styles as well?
ELL: Definitely. Working with Allen Tate, the male lead, is interesting because his voice is so low and his delivery is so deadpan, so you have to go into writing with that in mind. I knew that I could get away with writing more grandiose things for him, because his delivery undermines the lyrics and makes for an interesting friction. The female singers, Holly and Jess of Lucius, came into the project after the songs were already written, so they had less of an imprint in that way. But they sing in unison, which does this interesting thing where it flattens out the sound, so their character can sound a little aloof and impersonal, which worked well with the lyrics. Now those songs are sung by Rae Cassidy, who has a more emotional and almost desperate sound, which changes the songs’ meanings in a really interesting way.
TK: Did you find it difficult to write certain songs from a female perspective, or was it a very similar process to writing the male perspective songs?
ELL: It was pretty similar. The female character came from a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the things I was writing for the male character. He was saying all these grandiose and over-the-top things, and it felt right to cut him off at the knees. Neither of the characters are me, which is nice, I can push them further in any given direction than I personally might go.
TK: I read that some songs focused heavily on instrumentation as substitutes for certain characters’ voices. For example, the deep baritone saxophone on “Sonsick” and “Crueler Kind” for the male voice. Can you talk more about how instruments play a role in adding a “voice” to the songs?
ELL: Haha, that’s an interesting idea, did I say that? I mean, the thing that’s nice about writing for instruments is that they can fill in the blanks, in a way; they say the things that aren’t being said outright in the lyrics. So in the interludes particularly, I wanted to make these instrumental landscapes, and sometimes against those backgrounds a solo instrument will play, like in “Lament for V.G.” and “At Night, True Love.” There’s a way to listen to those tracks in which the trumpet and saxophone stand in for the main characters. And then in the songs, a lot of times the instruments will play vocal lines from previous songs, so I guess those have the effect of a “substitute” for the missing vocalist, as you say.
TK: Another question about “Sonsick,” watching the music video, it seemed like there was a lot going on, with the snail and the dog’s birthday and the giant bull. Can you talk a little bit about the meaning of the music video?
ELL: Haha, the first concept I had for the video was to have a bunch of little girls dressed up in pageant outfits just punting the hell out of a bunch of puppies, but the record label didn’t really go for that. So then I came up with the treatment that we ended up going with, about a little girl who leaves her parents and finds a bull in the forest, while the parents replace her with a dog. The plan had a very Grimm’s fairy tale vibe to it. The dog was the key, I know some families in which they can’t really talk to each other, so they only talk about the dog– it’s this common ground they all have, and it keeps them from having to deal with each other. That kind of dynamic is what the singer of “Sonsick” is afraid of, I think, that falling for someone just leads to a future of tee-ball games, house renovations and other unglamorous things.
TK: There are a lot of ancient references on this album, like “Daedalus” “Methuselah” and “Casanova.” Why did you choose to name certain songs after these people? Is it more representative of the music in the songs or the personalities of the characters?
ELL: “Methuselah” sounds like a love song but I think it is loosely about dying– Methuselah is the oldest man in the bible, and one of the images in my head when I wrote that song was of an old man floating out to sea. There’s lots of imagery in there– lions on beaches, dirty bouquets, men in boats, roses–I let the images sit and allowed the music to sweep us through them, like a boat on the water. “Casanova” is used more in the colloquial sense of the word, rather than the name. The Casanova line is about how his ideas about romance have changed over time: “Spider got me when I was your age, a Casanova / Funny, people start sounding the same when you’re older.” “Daedalus” is purposely more ambiguous; the name has multiple associations and I wanted to let the listeners try to sort it out.
TK: Since some of the band members were brought on as sort of characters for a story, do you see any new additions in the future as new songs and stories come to mind?
ELL: As new songs are written, I think the most noticeable change will be that the female and male characters will get a little more mixed up. They’ve both become realer to me now, whereas when I wrote the first record, they were much more abstract. I think the female character in particular will get a little more complex… she’s more interesting when she’s pulled in two directions at once, rather than just being aloof. The male character too, I think he will become a little less idealistic, a little sharper and less exhausting. But in terms of adding new lead singers, I don’t think so! I have my hands full with two for now. In the best way, of course!
TK: Now that you’ve been touring for a while, do you get a sense that you and the band have grown as performers or that the dynamics of the song change a lot when you play live?
ELL: Yes, the songs definitely evolve. Maybe it’s a function of where we play — we mostly play rock clubs, so we don’t play most of the interludes and we amp up the energy of the songs a little to suit the venue. But also as the band has gotten closer we all trust each other more to loosen up. Sax parts get elaborated on, trumpet lines get switched around, I play a drum for certain songs… every member of the band is a stand-out musician, so it’s kind of fun to showcase that in the live show. It’s definitely a performance rather than a recreation of the studio sound.
TK: I know you just released your first album, but I’m curious what’s next for you and the group? Are new songs already being written?
ELL: There’s another record on the way! I’m pretty deep into it already. The hope is to release the second record as soon as the first one has gone through the cycle of touring and radio and all that. It’s funny because I wrote San Fermin two years ago, but the songs are just now being heard. It makes one anxious to move on to the next thing. My hope is that now we are all sorted with a label and manager and all that, that I won’t have to wait another two years to put this one out!
San Fermin plays a free show at Boot and Saddle with Literature and Panic Years tomorrow night, October 25, . More information on the 21+ event can be found at the venue’s website.