San Fermin Interview, September 2014

At September’s Boston Calling Music Festival, we sat down with Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the composer behind San Fermin. After graduating Yale in 2011, Ellis spent 2 months in a near-wilderness artist’s retreat which straddled the Canadian border. There, he fully composed his debut album, San Fermin.

You played a new song for us today – Parasites. Can you tell me about its genesis?

Let’s see. The idea was to write a hoedown about a weird relationship. That was the whole concept.

It reminded me a bit of that Ed Sharpe song, “Home,” with its playful rhythm and folky influence.

Yeah! I wanted it to be disarmingly fun and kind of easy, but then when you listen to it, it’s kind of a weird thing they’re doing, what they’re singing about.

Yeah, and it’s totally different than your first album. Have you found that working with the band has changed the way you write?

I’ve changed it now that I know who I’m writing for. I tailor the parts to the musicians. Sometimes they suggest ideas. Our sax player, Steve, he always has suggestions. The solo section, he wrote out the idea and helped me make it his own. It’s all written out and thoroughly composed, but if you have great musicians, you have to use them; you have to tap that resource.

Aaron Dessner of The National curated this festival. I was wondering if, like him, have you considered composing music outside of San Fermin?

Yes, and you know his brother Bryce does a lot of classical stuff. But when I had just graduated from college, he did a project with Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens that I helped out a bit with. That band is just an interesting group of people; they’ve all done so many different things. I write a lot of classical music outside of this: a bunch of ballets that are being put on this fall, some orchestral pieces next spring. It’s a nice outlet for the other musical ideas I have.

Also like The National, you have a very mature sound. Have people ever been surprised at the discrepancy between your sound and your youth?

Yeah, let me think about that. Even though the music is complicated, there’s still a lot of youthful themes in it; getting older and not wanting to. Things that people can relate to even though they’re young. One of the things I try to keep in mind as I write is that I want to make music that people can relate to across age groups. So I hope that we don’t we end up sounding too old.

No no, you don’t. There’s a good lunatic energy to your music. In a way it reminds me of Tune-Yards.

Oh, I love them!

Yeah, and your name comes from the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

And there’s that lunatic energy there too.

But there’s kind of a Hemingway influence there too. Would you say there’s a literary influence to your album?

Yeah. Because our situation is so weird – I don’t really know many bands out there where the guy who writes the music doesn’t sing it, and so I had to re-imagine how I was writing songs. I had to think more like an author, where you’re writing for characters. There doesn’t have to be a plot necessarily, but you need to feel like you at once embody these people but also they’re their own people.

As well as literary influences, location is seems to be a variable in how the album came together. Now that you’ve been touring and been to so many new places, how do you find that has affected you?

Well certainly touring has influenced me. Suddenly it’s like, “now you don’t have a home.” You go from a person who had a routine to someone who’s always in a car, every day a different city. I’ve noticed that my writing’s gotten a lot more reflective of that; this feeling of uprootedness, kinda loneliness. But on the opposite end you’re playing for people every night and you get this feedback, so you can see what works too.

The album, its origins are pretty intimate. You spent, what, two months in the wilderness writing it? But now you’re playing it in a public space. To what extent does the context in which your music is performed change the experience your music provides?

That’s a good question. I think [about that] a lot. We tailor our set to fit that. We just played a pretty short set of the biggest “hitters.” But we were just out in Ketchum, Idaho, playing with The Head and the Heart and we played all the slow songs, and it felt right. We were out in nature, and it was beautiful. I think you just have to read the crowd and read where you are. But these songs have taken on a new life live.

Can we talk about the Yale music scene and how that influenced you as a composer?

Well, it’s interesting. I was in rock bands in high school and was ready to do that when I got to Yale, and there isn’t much of a scene there. It’s funny now; there are a few bands of my year who are doing pretty well but no, there was no scene for that. There was a cappella, which I was so not about. And then there was classical music. So I said, “I guess I’ll do classical music.” So I started my own ensemble with the idea of doing classical music without it being as stuffy. That was massively important; it was definitely the dry-run for this. But there really was not a whole lot of rock-and-roll happening and really you had to get out. A lack of a scene certainly drove me into classical music. It’s really informed what I do.

In our last issue, we had a feature on student composers at Tufts. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians and composers who feel left out of the music scene at their universities?

I would say – and this might be standard advice – “write the music you want to write, not the music teachers want you to write.” That said, listen with open ears. In school, I had differences with my teachers often, but I find myself now drawing on the things they asked me to do a lot more than I thought I would. Don’t write for them but don’t tune them out either.

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