SAN FRANCISCO — Though he does not sing or play the part of ringmaster on stage, Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the mastermind behind indie rock and chamber pop band San Fermin. Ludwig-Leone is the songwriter and composer. The eight musicians who perform in San Fermin each have starring roles on stage, but he is the one who locks himself in a room to write. San Fermin’s third record, April’s Belong, was no different.
In one corner of the room, the band members dump their instruments following a tour. They will usually arrive in the middle of the night and be too tired to organize them. In the other corner is Ludwig-Leone’s work desk.
“I have a keyboard and speakers and my computer and I have three monitors,” said Ludwig-Leone, who began in music by writing compositions for symphonies and ballets. For inspiration he decorates the space with family photos as well as a framed drawing by Stephen Halker—who has conceptualized and designed each of San Fermin’s album art.
“It’s a combination of the jackrabbit and the bull from the first two records,” Ludwig-Leone said. “And he wrote, ‘Make it more quixotic,’ which is this sort of highfalutin bullshit thing I asked him at the very beginning when we worked together. I have that framed right next to where I work because it reminds me not to be too pretentious.”
RIFF caught up with Ludwig-Leone and his bandmates—vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, trumpeter John Brandon, saxophonist Stephen Chen, guitarists Tyler McDiarmid and Aki Ishiguro, drummer Michael Hanf and violinist Claire Wellin—at Outside Lands. San Fermin has a busy fall in store with a tour that stretches from Florida to Nevada, and Ludwig-Leone said it will stretch into the new year, when the Brooklyn-based band will return to the Bay Area.
Belong is a departure for San Fermin from 2015’s Jackrabbit and 2013’s self-titled debut. For starters, the first two were concept albums, telling complete stories from start to conclusion. There were interludes between songs that transitioned the scenes. On the new record, Ludwig-Leone wanted each song to stand on its own.
“Rather than writing about characters from a book or from a movie, I was thinking a little bit more personally about my own life,” he said.
It was also the first record he wrote at home in Brooklyn. The first was written while he was living in Canada and the second while he was in New Hampshire. That, too, bled into the music.
“I think because of that, it has a little bit more of that [Brooklyn] sound,” he said. “It’s a little bit less abstract and conceptual, and a little bit more, like, living in the real world. That’s what I was doing at the time.”
What didn’t change is that he wrote the record by himself. San Fermin was formed on the idea that he was the creator, and it has stayed that way. Ludwig-Leone composes each song and presents it to the others, who suggest changes in the music or the lyrics.
“I would be a stupid songwriter and composer if I didn’t listen to the band when they had ideas,” he said. “I give them songs and we work out how to play them live, but they all have ideas and they’re really great musicians themselves [with] a lot of solo projects.”
Belong is a unique collection of songs with brass, string and electronic flourishes. A trumpet, for example, is sometimes a complimentary instrument and sometimes has the lead in a song. The Tate-sung “Cairo” could double as a country tune that rests atop a bed of plucked violin strings and saxophone. Tate also sings lead on “Oceanica,” a somber, glitchy tune that spazzes out and returns to a somber pace multiple times.
Album closer “Happiness Will Ruin This Place” recalls The National both in terms of composition and lyricism. Kaye sings lead on “No Promises,” a song about the vulnerability of having other people depend on you. “I won’t promise you/ If you follow me around/ I won’t let you down,” she sings. Ludwig-Leone wrote the lyrics while suffering from anxiety attacks about the success of the band, and life.
That emotion and indecision also presents on “Bride,” a Kaye-sung chamber pop song written from the perspective of a runaway bride. Ludwig-Leone had gone to a wedding where he felt disassociated from everyone and not able to latch on to others’ happiness.
“Everyone has makeup on and looks sort of painted and excited, and it’s weird when everyone feels that way and you don’t,” he said.
Ludwig-Leone has had panic attacks since he was 10 years old.
“One of the ways that I’ve been able to make sense of being an anxious person is channeling that intensity and that sort of electricity into something that is productive,” he said. “And the band has been helpful for that.”
At Outside Lands, Tate referred to the band as a “kindergarten.” The bandleader confirms all of the musicians stay close year-round. Because they are such a large group on tour, there are many opportunities to bond with other members. The band feels like a class, and touring feels like a field trip. In Brooklyn, many of them live in the same neighborhood.
Wellin is the newest member, having joined after violinist Rebekah Durham moved to Denver. By the time San Fermin performed at this year’s South by Southwest music festival, Wellin had adjusted and begun to make some of the songs her own. Her singing prowess led to her getting more parts at shows.
Ludwig-Leone, meanwhile, is quite happy to not sing whatsoever. He said he surrounded himself with the likes of Tate, Kaye and Wellin for a reason. He writes for the voices that interest him.
“I’m writing for all the instruments and the voices are just some of those instruments,” he said.