San Fermin: A Symphony Out of a Solo Act

With Ellis Ludwig-Leone at the helm, San Fermin melds classical music with rock ’n’ roll to create lush, manic and irresistible chamber pop soundscapes. The Brooklyn-based band came together around Ludwig-Leone’s vision, constructed during a nine-week retreat in Banff, Canada, where the Yale graduate developed the concept and aesthetic of the band’s music.

“I hadn’t really written songs before. I had done composition stuff, but I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be,” Ludwig-Leone reflects. “I had this idea that you needed to be totally secluded and in your own mindspace to do what you wanted to do.”

When he came back to New York with a composition for a debut album in hand, Ludwig-Leone got to work pulling together a band to record the effort. Childhood friend Allen Tate was the obvious choice for the album’s male voice, but the female voice, just as essential in Ludwig-Leone’s composition, was more difficult to nail down.

Ludwig-Leone’s recruited guitarist Tyler McDiarmid knew Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of budding indie pop band Lucius, so Ludwig-Leone approached them. “I actually cold-called them,” Ludwig-Leone says, and the duo agreed to be a part of the project. (Their contribution shines brightest on the soaring, ecstatic “Sonsick.”)

Ultimately, 22 musicians – from trombonists to drummers to upright bassists – lent their talents to San Fermin’s debut, which arrived in September 2013 on Downtown Records.

Touring required that the band be whittled down to eight members, and the Lucius girls were out of the equation due to their band’s schedule. Rae Cassidy stepped in on female vocals, but ended up quitting the band to pursue a solo career in April 2014. Ludwig-Leone says there is bound to be “changeover” in a band with so many members. But he also notes, “We think of it now as a real band in the sense that everyone is invested and involved.”

The band’s onstage chemistry, honed over two years of nonstop touring, is proof. Ludwig-Leone talks of the band’s eight members finding “their moment” during their rowdy live shows, which direct the audience toward what’s happening onstage.

As for behind-the-scenes, Ludwig-Leone says he’s “really happy” with how the group interacts. He paints a clearer picture, saying, “I run the rehearsal and talk with people about the parts if I have comments. John [Brandon] and Tyler tour-manage, so they’re in charge of that stuff. Everyone finds a place where they’re in charge. On the music part, it’s super cool because now that all the musicians know the aesthetic of the band, they can add things that are almost always great.”

Ludwig-Leone returned to seclusion to write San Fermin’s sophomore record, “Jackrabbit.” This time, he stayed in New Hampshire, and only for three weeks. But when he got back to New York, he realized – with the help of the band, his manager and his mentor, composer Nico Muhly – his new work was missing something, “an upbeat heart of the record.”

Around the time of his return, Charlene Kaye joined San Fermin’s roster on female vocals. Ludwig-Leone went to work on the last three or four songs on the record (which he says are his favorites) with her in mind, saying that it’s important for a song to “fit” the person singing it.

The album’s title track “is totally high energy,” Ludwig-Leone says, which is no surprise given that the song was recorded with the eight-member live band. With Kaye’s ethereal vocals at the forefront, the song is a proper sequel to the band’s biggest hit to date, “Sonsick.” The rest of the second album, though, continues the dialogue and questioning that Ludwig-Leone started in the first, but with “three-dimensional characters.” He explains, “There aren’t any answers, it just keeps spinning out of control.”

San Fermin plays the Barns at Wolf Trap on Jan. 30. “Jackrabbit” arrives in stores April 21.

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