Brooklyn octuplet (of sorts) San Fermin return to London next week for a headline show at Village Underground, which coincides with the release of their fantastic new single, Methuselah, on Monday. It’s a gorgeous ballad written by the band’s leading man, 24-year-old composer and songwriter, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, and is a good representation of the song’s not-to-be-missed 2013 parent album, San Fermin.
Ludwig-Leone graduated from Yale University a couple of years ago, having studied music composition, and then travelled to the Canadian Rocky Mountains to spend two months at a secluded composers’ retreat. The San Fermin album, written at that retreat, is — according to Ludwig-Leone — built as a dialogue between an earnest, unhappy man, and a cynical, elusive woman. The vocals on the record are shared by several singers in order to reflect this.
We spoke to Ludwig-Leone ahead of next week’s gig to find out more about the group, their stellar debut and plans for the next album.
First things first, Ellis — talk us through the name San Fermin, please.
The name is taken from the running of the bulls festival. The festival is this weird mixture of the sacred and profane, where people intentionally put themselves in danger for seemingly no reason. There are a lot of ideas to work with there.
You live in Brooklyn but whereabouts did you grow up?
In a small town called Berkley, in Massachusetts.
What was it like?
Both of my parents are artists and they have a barn there that they’ve converted to studios. There was a stream of artists and writers coming through there and since my parents were professors, a lot of their students would be around too. But I was usually busy playing basketball, which was my favourite thing.
The album was written on an escapade in the Rocky Mountains…
Yes, I was in Banff, Alberta. I had a small studio on the side of a mountain, which was where I would write every day from about 9am until 7pm. It was a pretty lonely experience, which I think is good for writing.
How did you go about getting signed after graduating from Yale?
After I came back from Banff, I spent a while recording the album bit by bit in my bedroom. Once it was finally done I put out the first song, Sonsick, on the internet. It made the rounds of some blogs and so we figured we would try and put on a show to support it. We did the show at Pianos in NYC and pretty much right after that we were signed by Downtown.
Were you friends with your bandmates before you started work on the album?
Allen and I have been close friends since we were about 15, when we met at a summer workshop at Berklee College of Music. In fact, he’s really the only person I knew would be on the record when I wrote it. Jess and Holly aren’t actually in the band, nor were most of the people who recorded on the album. I wasn’t planning to make it a “band” really, I just wanted to make a record. But once we were signed, I rearranged it for touring. Now we’re an eight-piece group, but there were originally 22 people on the record.
Can you explain how you decided who was going to sing on which song on the album?
I planned the record out on the flight to Canada. I made a sheet that served as the backbone for the album, splitting it into male and female songs and interludes. I was looking for a kind of dialogue between the two lead singers, so that whenever one of them said something the other would argue against it. I knew the male singer would be a little more earnest, almost to the point of melodramatic, and that the female would be a bit more cynical. That friction generated the arc of the album.
Back in October a lot of your equipment was stolen in Portland. What exactly happened and have you managed to replace everything since?
We left our gear in the trailer for a few hours overnight in a hotel parking lot. When we woke up, the entire trailer was gone. There were blowtorch marks, so I think the thieves burnt it off and hooked it up to another van and drove off. It was really brutal, all of our stuff was in there. But we’ve done our best to bounce back.
Do you have a favourite track to play live?
One of our new songs, Parasites, has this epic violin solo and a really fun sax jam at the end. But from the record, probably The Count, which we retooled for the live show, or Sonsick, which is just pure energy.
The album has had phenomenal critical acclaim so far — what, to you, has been the best thing said about it?
My favourite is after the shows, when fans tell you what the record means to them. Sometimes it’s been with them through some hard times in their lives… that always astounds me. It’s wild to think that this thing that was very personal and specific to me has a real emotional impact on other people. Hearing that, that’s really why you make music.
OK and, conversely, has there been any piece of criticism which upset you?
The only criticism that can get grating is when the writers have a story written in their head before they even do the interview. There was one guy who was so fixated on the Ludwig van Beethoven / Ludwig-Leone connection that every question was aimed at making me sound like a pretentious composer boy genius. I really didn’t like that one.
Did you get to see and do much in London while you were here last year?
They kept us pretty busy! We did three sessions with the BBC, a bunch of interviews and a show at the Lexington, so we weren’t able to do much sight-seeing. This time through will be crazy as well, I think we’re only in London for one day for the show and to do some press. That’s the difficult thing about touring — you go to all these cool places but you’re not really able to see anything there! I’d like to go out in Shoreditch a little bit, where we’re staying. I hear that area has some great bars and restaurants.
You recently wrote your first ballet score. Tell us a bit about that.
It was great! It was very different than doing anything with San Fermin because, when you’re writing a ballet, you’re constantly thinking about how the music will serve the dance. You don’t want to do too much, or it will step on the choreographer’s toes. We actually already premiered the piece, it happened at the Joyce Theatre in New York last August. The choreographer and I are working on two new ballets now, which will premiere in the fall.
Finally, have you started putting down ideas for your next record, yet?
Yes, I’ve written the whole thing already. We are going to record it next month in New York and hopefully finish it this summer. I can’t wait!