A Conversation with San Fermin at Wayhome 2017

There are certain artists that take many years to find a sure footing in the music industry and be recognized for their work. San Fermin is not one of them. A short while after getting out of university, Ellis Ludwig-Leone began composing music for his best friend, Allan. Soon after that, they gained a record deal and began writing for an entire band. Their numbers quickly grew and so did their success.

We sat down with San Fermin’s lead musician, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who writes and composes all the music the band releases, to discuss their festival experience and San Fermin’s beginnings. 

Kimberley Drapack: How did you meet and form the band?

Ellis Ludwig Leone: Allan, one of our lead singers, and I had been close friends for a long time. We met when we were like 15, and I’d always had bands with him. I went and studied classical music in university and when I graduated I wrote this record for him to sing, and I didn’t really have any plans for it, I just thought it would be fun.

We recorded it and got a record deal and then suddenly, the record label was like, “you gotta go tour.” That changed everything, then we had to get together all the band members. It totally went in a way that I did not expect.

K: Fresh out of school you were ready for the next step, and then it found you. 

ELL: Yeah. I studied classical music and I was thinking about going that way and suddenly, we had this record that was getting attention from people who weren’t classical musicians at all and then I sort of just realized that it was a pop record. That led to touring a lot and, now, here we are.

K: Tell us about your early years. Was it easy to get your off the ground or were there other obstacles you had to overcome?

ELL: The cool thing was that we had a lot of press attention right away, which I am thankful for now because I probably didn’t realize at the time that that was fueling everything and bringing people to the shows.

That said, you can be on lists, but people still need to discover you. You still play these shows where you’re taking eight members of a band — it’s a big band — and you’re taking them to these expensive places, and the logistics are crazy.

So the big challenge for the first couple of years was making it work financially, which is kind of a boring problem, but real. Everyone kind of bought in and devoted their time to it and now we’re at a point where it feels like it’s a real, stable, good thing that everyone loves doing. We’re going on tour for half the year.

K: Touring is always fun?

ELL: Yeah, it’s great and it’s tough. I think a lot of people who don’t tour, when they hear, “oh, you’re going to Toronto this weekend, that’s great, I’d love to go there” but a lot of what we see is hotels and venues. Every now and then you have a day where you can explore a city but there isn’t a lot of downtime and travelling.

There are moments when your body hurts. You’ve gained weight because you’ve eaten like shit, and those are real sacrifices that I think people, when they talk to you, don’t really take seriously, but there are things that are downers. For the most part, I really like it.

K: What was your time like at Yale? Did you feel as though your formal education offered a guideline for your future music career?

ELL: I think so. When I was in school in classes I often felt like a little bit of an outsider. When I started an indie band, I still felt a little bit like an outsider but I think it’s sort of good to always feel outside of the paradigm. Then you are thinking about it, and you’re questioning what’s good, what draws you to it, and what doesn’t. I think that was a pretty big thing for me.

I was just writing music in a way that made sense to me and happened to make sense to other people. It helped me think about how to write for all those instruments.

K: So you write every piece for each section? 

ELL: Right. I write a score.

K: So it’s within your classical training?

ELL: You saw the show, so it’s gone away from that a little bit. Which is what happens when you’re playing festivals or rock. You’re playing these venues that are made for rock bands so you sort to push towards that. I happily did that. But there is still a lot of that classical stuff in there where parts are notated, I think about the arrangements a lot, and I’m very careful with how I divvy up the notes.

K: Was that something you kept in mind when you were writing your newest album?

ELL: The new record was kind of interesting because as I was writing it, I really knew who I was writing it for, because I’ve played a hundred shows with these guys. When I write a sax line, I really tailor it to Stephen, when I write a trumpet line, I tailor it to John. I think that’s led the live show to be more of a coherent, explosive thing.

K: So, it’s come a long way from knowing your bandmates for years now?

ELL: For the first record, I just wrote it. Whoever I could get to play it, it was great, but it was a different relationship.

K: You released your self titled album in September of 2013. Can you explain some of the emotions and backstory behind the records on this album?

ELL: That was a very exciting and weird time. A lot of stuff went really quickly — it went from a sort of bedroom project to where the third of fourth show we ever played was a Tiny Desk concert. The fifth or six show we ever played was Bowery ballroom, and suddenly we were doing this thing.

I didn’t know what keyboard to play, I was still making all these decisions. It was a really intense time because there was all this stuff coming down the pipe that I was figuring out how to respond to as it happened.

“Oh we have to make a music video?” Well, fuck… I don’t know. But that was really exciting and cool. I remember hearing Sonsick, which was our single on that record, on the radio for the first time.

K: What was that feeling like?

ELL: It was crazy! I was just driving with my girlfriend or something, and I thought, “wow… people know this song.”

K: Are there ever times where you felt like there are other songs you would rather play instead?

ELL: Yeah… let’s leave it at that. There’s a few singles that we play because the fans expect them, but we’re kind of over it.

K: Your third album, Belong, released in April of this year and your single was released through TIME magazine. What can this album teach the listener about you, or just in general?

ELL: The thing that I wanted to do with this record is that I wanted to write a record that felt both more accessible to people — just from the type of sounds, there are no interludes, it’s more direct songwriting -—but also make the lyrics more personal. In the past, I’ve hidden behind the lyrics a little bit. I think it was accomplished. I think the songs have a bit more of a glossy sheen to them. If you spend time with it, it’s stuff that comes from deep and somewhat tumultuous place in my life. Pulling off that trick, making something seem sleek but also have depth, is somewhat difficult.

San Fermin

K: Are there certain songs that you listen to in this album or earlier albums that you don’t listen to all the time, but you hear them and it brings you back to a certain moment in your life?

ELL: For earlier albums that definitely happens. There is a song on the first record called Daedalus. I was in Banff while writing it and I was thinking that the record needed a closer, something special. We were writing it and leaving the studio and thinking that I made a really good song there. Then I didn’t play it for years, and we played it the other day for the first time.

K: What is it like making a setlist for a big music festival like Wayhome?

ELL: For a festival like this you have a stripped down set, where I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily all of our best songs but in a way it’s all the songs that work the best in this setting. Some songs I really like that you just can’t play here. You can’t really play the acoustic ballads. You need an audience who is all there for you, but here you have people that are here for you and people who are walking by, and you want to be able to catch them with a festival jam.

K: In making that setlist, are you driving for that?

ELL: You think about that and you think about songs that are immediately graspable and that hit hard, and you think about the image that you want to project at that festival. Are you trying to reach new fans or are you trying to play the funnest, most party song? Or are you trying to curate this sort of thoughtful experience? When you have forty-five minutes on the main stage, you think, let’s hit them with our best. Sometimes it changes. Today I made the call to play Methuselah, which is an acoustic-chiller song from the first record, instead of No Devil, which is a big anthem, just because I wanted to do it.

K: Is that the most fun part of running a band?

ELL: The most fun part is after the shows when you get to meet people who the songs resonate with. It still feels unreal to me. If I haven’t played a show for a couple of weeks, I’ll forget that there are all these people out there who care about what I do and it makes me feel really good when I get to meet them. It hasn’t worn off yet.

K: Have you ever met a fan where you’ve had that genuine experience, where they tell you about a tough time in their life that your music has helped them through?

ELL: Totally. Our fans are really loyal and intense about that. When we go on headline tours, we’ll have a bunch of people in the front of the crowd who know the lyrics to all the songs, and that’s really cool. You’re here for a deeper experience that you had with this stuff.

I feel like I’m someone who has trouble talking to strangers a lot. I have trouble connecting, and to suddenly be like… that you can connect to someone is a special thing.

K: Was there ever any stage fright?

ELL: Weirdly, even though I write all the music, I’m probably not someone who people are watching as much on stage because I’m in front of the keyboard.

There was a little bit of stage fright at the very beginning but after that it was pretty clear that A) nobody was counting on me to do anything too much and B) shows are fun. I have a lot of great musicians with me. Even if I totally stopped playing, we’d still be a great group of people.

K: Is that the best part, being around people you have great relationships with for eight months or so at a time?

ELL: It’s a strange relationship, because in a way, it’s almost like a sibling, but then weirdly, you’ll get home and maybe you won’t see them for a couple of months. You won’t call them or anything, and then you’ll get back together and you’re closer than close, because you’re literally spending all your time together.

K: Do you feel as though your band is tailored to a festival setting, or a sort of more intimate setting?

ELL: That’s changed. At the beginning of the band, I was all about intimate spaces. We then started to have some success at festivals and I thought that was really fun. My ideal shows are at a thousand cap room but they’re all there for you. That’s the best, you get a little bit of the size. I just like playing for a receptive audience. That is what I care about the most.

K: What was it like in the first show you had where you saw an audience member singing back your lyrics?

ELL: It happened pretty early on, but the first time I really remember it was at a Lollapalooza after show in 2014 where I realized that everyone in the crowd was singing along. That was awesome. I remember getting in the van after and saying, “Guys, we’re onto something.”

K: Did this reaffirm that you needed to keep going?

ELL: Yeah. Since it’s become more routine, I take it for granted sometimes. But when we perform Sonsick and everyone sings that one part, the fact that they even took five minutes out of their life to memorize it, is more than I’ve done for them, so it makes me feel special.

K: That must be a great connection you create with people, in that, you may not know them on a personal level, but you do in a way that you didn’t know about.

ELL: They’re at least familiar with some part of me and when I talk to fans, I appreciate that we can start on some common ground.

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Ones to Watch: Five Artists for our Times

Disorientation is normal; it’s never been easy to cope. But goddamn it if the levels haven’t reached that final boss level these days. These five artists don’t really talk about the Saturday Night Massacre or James Comey, but they are fantastic as reflections of feelings of dislocation.

Anselm Kiefer

Bohemia Lies by the Sea by Anselm Kiefer (1996)

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945 and raised in towns near the east bank of the Rhine; he is a child of post-war Europe, its devastation, guilt, poverty, and politics and culture of national identity crisis. To look at the scale and the depth of Kiefer’s landscape is to stare at a an unpromising and faraway horizon. The poppies throughout promise momentary escapes.

Edward Steed

On a lighter note, Edward Steed, the New Yorker cartoonist, goes to Japan in his Japan Baseball Sketchbook and finds himself a little disoriented, a little fascinated. His sometimes careless and sometimes weirdly detailed and often hilarious style carries the confusion and fun of the foreigner in a foreign land well. Perhaps it is the romantic baseball audience inside that sees in Steed’s illustrations a sense of loneliness. It’s a little like, if I were forced to make a comparison, Lost in Translation for baseball lovers. Let’s go Nippon-Ham Fighters!

Winnie t. Frick

From Winnie t. Frick’s website: “Winnie t. Frick is a comic artist & illustrator based in n.y. She is a pseudonym for another woman, or perhaps she is simply a mirror reflecting the spirit animal of blissfully giving up.” Her detailed and intriguing illustrations, portraits, and comics have been featured in Guernica and Capilano Review, among others. Go read otherpeopleproblemsIt’s quiet and reflective. Sad in an enveloping and directionless way. Angst, so to speak, that didn’t go away with the pimples.

Sara Cwynar

Sara Cwynar is a Canadian-born visual artist who seem to be concerned with the lives of objects or visual representations of objects. Her series, Three Hands, Encyclopedia Grids, and Flat Death, offer visions of objects reimagined and visual representations — of celebrities, products, etc — re-presented. Kitsch, or objects that prop up dust in time and never, seemingly, return to nature so much as become foreign interjections in them, or live again ‘re-purposed’ is, considering the amount of plastic produced and dumped and the duration it takes for it to ‘disappear,’ and our relatively recent dependence on it and relative impermanence to it, depressing. Cwynar’s works makes you stop to ruminate.

Sophie Calle

The renowned conceptual artist Sophie Calle recently finished her 25-year-long public art work called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The work consists of a marble obelisk with a slot into which visitors can slide in secrets. Calle will return periodically to the famed cemetery to exhume the secrets and to ceremonially cremate them. Symbolically free yourself from your darkest secrets and thoughts.

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B[art]er invites local artists to trade their work

Courtesy of Chantal Hassard

B[art]er calls for all local artists to gather together and exchange their works at the Northern Contemporary Gallery.

B[art]er started out as house parties. A gallery associate Chantal Hassard created B[art]er to invite her friends and classmates from University of Toronto’s art program to her house to trade their art.

“The idea of someone actually wanting my work in their space inspires me to make better work,” Hassard said. “I thought B[art]er would be a good way to inspire others in the same way.”

The owners of Northern Contemporary liked Hassard’s idea and let her host the event at their gallery.

Now everyone can participate in the event — no artistic experience required!

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

Hassard said she came up with the idea when she travelled to Israel as an exchange student at Tel Aviv University.

“While I was over there, I met some people setting up the Middle Eastern regional Burning Man event called MidBurn,” she said. “Because of their radically inclusive community model, they welcomed me whole heartedly into their homes all over the country. Before and after the event, I shared many meals with burners and really identified with their values. All my art now is a feedback loop that tries to replicate their community ethos to bring countercultural activity like pARTicipation and immediacy into the mainstream.”

Many times Hassard gathered Toronto-based artists and their friends at her house to celebrate art. They brought prints, photos, and oil paintings. However, there was no theme.

Courtesy of Chantal Hassard

While the recent B[art]er allows works of all mediums, they have to reflect Toronto.

“I feel like there’s institutional need to define our city and its fine artists. And that is a nice opportunity,” said Hassard.

For those who need inspiration, they would do well to check AGO Tributes and Tributaries or the free Form Follows Fiction exhibit at U of T.

Hassard said she already has some ideas for the next B[art]er that will also take place at the gallery in February. It might be political art or the art of one colour.

Courtesy of Chantal Hassard

All events will be accompanied by music, with snacks and drinks.

B[art]er starts at 7 p.m. on Dec. 19, at the Northern Contemporary Gallery, 1266 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

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Artsy Gifts Under $100

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

A new exhibition at Northern Contemporary Gallery features hundreds of art pieces under $100!

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

Looking for an inspirational gift for your artistic friend? Acrylic Sugar Skull, Coffin Jewelry Boxes, Drake-inspired painting, and many other interesting and affordable pieces are waiting for you at the art-show, Under 100.

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

The exhibition introduces you to talented North American artists and makes your holiday shopping entertaining in itself.

“You can get something that is really unique,” said Emily May Rose who runs the gallery. “Every kind of theme is covered because we did no theme for the show.”

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

Rose said they wanted to make it affordable for people to buy gifts for their friends and family. The artists could submit a work of any theme and medium, but it had to be priced $100 or under.

The idea worked out perfect. The gallery was full with customers on Dec. 8, the first day of the exhibition. They were scanning the walls with juicy paintings, breathtaking photos of Toronto, and funny digital illustrations.

Photo: Jordan Prentice

“People mostly chose to do reproductions of their work like prints because you can set the price a little bit lower for those,” Rose said. “You can’t really do a big painting and sell it for under a hundred dollars.”

Some of the artists decided to use shampoo jars and broken pieces of cups in their mixed-media-works.

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

An OCAD University student Kevin Pham submitted two digital illustrations and one watercolour painting that he did for school. He said the exhibition is a good opportunity for him to show some of his work and get gallery experience.

“This one is about my grandmother,” Pham pointed at his watercolour painting. “She passed away. So this is her caring for thirteen kids.”

Photo: Sveta Soloveva

Rose said her favourite artist in this show is Ann Somers who submitted six pieces.

“She has a very painterly but still graphic style,” Rose said. “She did a lot of pop-culture references like Kim Kardashian or Stranger Things TV show and little Drake pieces. Those were very cute.”

From left to right: Kevin Pham and Chantal Hassard. Photo: Jordan Prentice

The exhibition runs until Dec. 22, at the Northern Contemporary Gallery, 1266 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

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Novella’s August Art Guide

Suss by Milton Messam. Picture from jamaicaart.com
Suss by Milton Messam. Picture from jamaicaart.com

Between the lazy days of July and the first whisper of autumn in September, there’s the month of  August, where the sun sun still lingers high in the sky and students cram in as much activity as they can before returning to school.

If activities are what you’re looking for (both adults and kids alike), why not check out some art? Listed below are Novella’s picks for local art shows to check out in the month of August.

Au Courant (July 9 – August 27)
Abbozzo Gallery’s two-month rotating exhibition features paintings and sculptures from returning gallery artists such as Jennifer Walton and Karim Ghidinelli, and work from new artists Jiri Ladocha and Christina Sealey. http://abbozzogallery.com

Between Land and Sky (July 20 – August 20)
The annual summer exhibition at the Olga Korper Gallery also features a mix of veteran and junior artists, from Reinhard Reitzenstein and Barbara Steinman to Mel Davis and Meaghan Hyckie. The theme of the exhibition is space, represented literally and metaphorically through the various works. The horizon, the passing of time and flight are just some of the images that can be seen in painting and sculpture. http://www.olgakorpergallery.com

TenderPixels.CorruptedFiles (July 21 – August 27)
This exhibition at the Birch Contemporary gallery investigates the intersection of visual art and technology with heavily pixelated images and the use of GIF files. The international show features work by David Hanes, Fabienne Hess, Lorna Mills and Louise Noguchi. http://birchcontemporary.com

Milton Messam (July 21 – August 14)
To coincide with the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, Band Gallery is putting on the first Canadian exhibition of Milton Messam’s work. Messam is a Jamaican impressionist painter who has been capturing the scenery and people of Jamaica for 50 years. http://band-rand.com/site/

Loon, Twit and Nitwit (August 3 – September 3)
Charles Street Video is putting on this multimedia group show focusing on how political agendas are conveyed through the media. Charles Street Video put out an open call for submissions in mid-July, asking for short films, video projections, animations and spoofs that are both humorous and politically charged. The finished exhibition promises to be a comedic, engaging look at political media through the works of local artists. https://charlesstreetvideo.com/home.php?ismobile=0