San Fermin Builds Towers of Song at Velvet Jones

Composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone Talks Writing for Eight Members

Swathed in stately strings, proclaiming brass, and bursts of peppy vocables, the music played by the eight-piece, Brooklyn-based baroque indie-rock pop ensemble San Fermin is not exactly understated. Quite the opposite: Emotions here are huge and thunderous, conveying pain and poignancy with the triumphant big-indie majesty of an Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens, balanced with the kind of courtly classical instrument flourishes that built up many 1960s pop music hits.

It’s a kind of curious thing, then, that founder and composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the main writer behind emotions these big, isn’t exactly belting them out; in the recordings, he utters not a word. Rather, as composer, Ludwig-Leone crafts them and then steps back to aid in their transmission. Approaching his rock compositions with the mind and training of a classical composer, Ludwig-Leone meticulously arranges and writes out songs for San Fermin with parts in mind, with multiple singers to take on the job, depending on the necessary timbre. “The specificity of the voice is everything. I work very closely with [singers Allen Tate, Charlene Kaye, and Rebekah Durham] and try a bunch of things out on their voice,” he said in a recent phone interview.

More a keyboardist than a singer, Ludwig-Leone writes for his band as one would a musical with a cast of various strengths. He operates as a bandleader in a democratizing fashion that allows everyone to stand out. “I realized pretty early on I don’t sing, so I bring a different kind of viewpoint to arrangements — the instruments are just as important as the voices,” he said, distancing his band from those wherein the singer’s ego, rather than his or her tone, is tantamount. “I try to treat them all kind of equally in our live show, and on the records, everything is featured and has its moment.”

The band’s most recent album, Jackrabbit, saw the project leap from a one-man act to an eight-piece extravaganza. Ludwig-Leone expanded his roster to realize works of greater magnitude, and those on this latest record formulate sonic worlds. Ludwig-Leone said the Jackrabbit material drew from his own childhood days spent exploring the woods. “A lot of my most formative early memories happened with me basically knee-deep in mud,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older, my life has gotten more urban, and I’ve gotten further and further away from that, so it has started to crop up a bit more in my writing as a point of inspiration.”

Composing songs without lead singer duties has given Ludwig-Leone a big-picture understanding of his band, and he speaks of songwriting in terms of its many moving, contributing parts configuring a colorful whole. The band, he said, feels like family at this point. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s so great musically, from the perspective of a songwriter and an arranger, to think of all these different players as a variable, textured palette,” he said. “To hear it come alive is one of the big reasons we’ve continued to grow — our live show is so much fun.”

With eight members, the serving size of fun is quite big, and getting bigger. Opening for giant acts such as alt-J has widened San Fermin’s exposure, although Ludwig-Leone says things have gotten relatively relaxed since all of last year’s attention, with the band winding down the support tour for their most recent work. With Santa Barbara being among their last U.S. dates scheduled, though, it’ll be more a wind-up than a wind-down as the band bursts forth in its big, bold way.


San Fermin plays with Ivan & Alyosha at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Friday, May 27, at 9:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 895-8676 or visit


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