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.
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.