Ellis Ludwig-Leone ’11 is the mastermind behind San Fermin, a four-year-old, eight-person band that has been lauded by Rolling Stone, Billboard and the New York Times. It is indie rock taken to the next level—it plays the soundtrack of the discontented youth, and its sound embodies both the emotional depth of a ballad and the power of an orchestra. Ludwig-Leone graduated from Yale with a degree in classical composition before moving to Canada and turning his sights to indie rock. In the midst of touring and preparing for San Fermin’s Dec. 3 show in Hamden, he chatted with Weekend about songwriting, inspiration and the road.
Q: How would you describe your band to someone who hasn’t listened to your music?
A: It’s basically an indie rock band with a brass station and strings with a big sound. The record is more sort of composed, and the live show has a whole different type of energy.
So tell me a bit about your time at Yale and how it influenced the creation of San Fermin.
A: The idea for this band was born at Yale. I had a series of bands while I was an undergrad, but I also had a classical ensemble. The critical moment for me was when I put on a concert at Calhoun Cabaret. I had my band come up, and I’d made some of these over-the-top arrangements — had flute and strings and all this shit — and it didn’t really work, but I saw that it could. In a way, [San Fermin] had its start in Calhoun Cabaret, I suppose.
Q: I have seen your band described often as Baroque Pop. Was that your stylistic goal? Or how you would describe your style?
A: Basically my thought about all that is that I just wanted to write music that is an honest representation of me as a person and me as a musician. So however it gets written about — they’ve called it indie rock, baroque pop, whatever — it’s not so much about how it is categorized. For me, it’s about finding a musical language that is well-rounded and honest. I grew up listening to Paul Simon and Radiohead and studied classical composition. I trusted that all those things would mix themselves in my subconscious and that I could write what I want and have it come out okay.
Q: Would you say there were any major influences during that time that pushed you to compose in this genre?
A: Right before I went to college, Sufjan Steven’s “Illinois” record [was released]. It was really one of the first times that I heard folk rock [or] indie rock on that grand, orchestral level. Then, being at Yale, taking Music 211 and some upper-level theory classes that got down to how you put music together. I was eating a ton of musical vegetables. … As a junior [at Yale], I started working for Nico Muhly. I worked for him on a project-by-project basis. Sometimes it was a music score, sometimes it was a ballet … Any time he was working on anything big enough, I was working on it. I think it really made me agile; I could jump from style to style.
Q: Can you tell me about your time in Canada? I’ve heard it described as a pretty Thoreau-esque venture, reminiscent of Justin Vernon’s jaunt in Wisconsin. Is that really how it was?
A: Well, right when I graduated, I applied to an artist residency in Alberta and I got in. And that was so important for me. I didn’t know where my own music would go. I was there for two months and I got really lonely and depressed. I was in this cabin in these mountains, with this really beautiful landscape, and when I came back I had written almost all of the first album.
Q: Would you say that this loneliness came to characterize your first album?
A: In a situation like that, where there is no one to distract you … your emotions expand to take up all that extra space. It’s like saying something big but being unsure of what you’re saying. It helps me to get away from people when I write, because that emotional space opens up a lot.
Q: Do you think that the uncertainty of what you were saying in the first album led to a more solid statement in your more recent album, “Jackrabbit”?
A: I think the second album feels very transitional to me. In the first album, everything the guy says [concerns] very grandiose ideas about life, and everything the girl says is like, “Dude, stop being so melodramatic.” That girl [then] became a little actual person I was travelling around with. I think [the voices in the song both] became more like real people, but more scattered. So Allen [Tate, San Fermin’s lead male vocalist] will go from hopeful to creepy to sad. Which is kind of how I feel about my life; I have been on the road for half of the past two years. It changes everything — how you see home and relationships. Trying to [reconcile] all this, while not straying too far from how I want the band to sound … it was more of a mixed up effort.
Q: What has it been like transitioning from being an individual composer to fronting an eight-piece band?
A: In starting a band what you’re really doing is — not to get sentimental about it — it’s starting a family of musicians. You go on tour with them for months at a time, and it’s been a really cool transition for me. I feel like they all sort of get it now, it’s a rewarding process to see musicians get it. … We had a rehearsal earlier today, and it’s cool to see and hear your music played at such a level. I can get kind of lazy, I can write things out in shorthand, and they just kind of know what I’m going for.
Q: Do you have a set direction for the band’s future? A new album coming up or more touring?
A: Right now, I’m talking to Allen a little bit. He’s working on new songs that I am producing. We are about to go on this new tour that is taking us through New Haven next week. I am intentionally taking time to not write. I think I know what I want to say in this next record, but I want to give it more time to grow. We just came off a solid year of touring and we are going to have another solid eight or nine months of it now. So there’s no looking back.
Q: I’d like to know some of your all-time favorites. What’s your favorite memory from tour?
A: The tour we did with alt-J was definitely very memorable. The last day of the tour was in Seattle — I had just gotten sick and I was throwing up all day. I remember getting on stage in Seattle in front of eight or nine thousand people and thinking, “Oh my god, you’d better keep it together or you’re going to be barfing in front of these people.” Haha, not really a favorite memory … but a memory. [We and alt-J] felt like a really great musical pair.
Q: Favorite venue?
A: Probably the best, Austin City Music Hall. [We were] one of the last shows there before they tore it down.
Q: First album you ever bought?
A: Embarrassingly, I think it might be “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65. I think I was in Paris with my family, and I was probably eight or nine. Not a cool one to start on, but it’s a classic.
Q: All-time favorite record?
A: Hmm … that a tough one. Right now, maybe “Graceland” by Paul Simon. It’s one of those records you can always go back to and take something else out of.
Q: What would you describe as the soundtrack to your time at Yale?
A: Probably “High Violet” by The National. But also, my friend ran this party called Modern Love, and there was a lot of LCD Soundsystem. Oh, and I remember “Party in the USA” was on all the time, at every party.
Q: That still hasn’t stopped.
A: Hey man, could be worse, could be worse.
Q: Favorite part about playing live?
A: [We have] a song called “Parasites.” It jumps along all over the place, but it jams really hard, and it ends with this really grand thing, and we usually get a really cool response from the crowd.
Q: Favorite songs from the album?
A: [I don’t really have favorites.] Maybe “Emily,” from the second album.
Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing music?
A: Just treat it like the most important thing. If you want to do this as your job and as your life, then treat it that way. There’s a tendency for people who want to do the arts to do what’s gotta be done, and then do the arts. But I would do the opposite. I would play some music and then go do my homework. Treat it like it’s really what you want to be doing.