THERE must be a certain amount of expectation on a kid who shares his name with Beethoven and Sergio Leone – and in some way Ellis Ludwig-Leone couldn’t have been anything other than a composer.
“My parents had me and it was like there’s nothing else this kid can do,” Ellis tells me. “My dad’s last name is Ludwig and mum’s name is Leone and it just happened to come together in this one big pretentious name.”
At 24, New Yorker Ellis has grown into his highbrow surname – a composer and Yale classical music graduate with avant-garde leanings and a thirst for Stockhausen. But he’s also found a calling outside academic compositions and grand concert halls with San Fermin, his orchestral chamber pop project that’s becoming a lot more than a lowbrow bit on the side. San Fermin is named after the annual Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona in Spain, and Ellis says of the inspiration: “I like the idea that all these young people put themselves is a super dramatic position for no real reason. I thought it was an interesting parallel with music.”
After graduating, Ludwig-Leone decamped to a composers’ retreat in rural Canada and wrote San Fermin’s debut album in six weeks – an incredibly short time considering it would take 23 musicians to capture his vision on record.
The result was one of 2013’s most beguiling records – lushly arranged compositions such as Sonsick, Rennaisance! And Torero, tied together in the narrative arc of a couple’s relationship. It’s grand and cinematic in scope, touching on life’s Big Questions and themes of “youth, nostalgia, anxiety and unrequited love”.“It was brewing for a while and when it came down to it I just wanted to write it very quickly,” he says. “I felt like I needed to put myself through the ringer a little bit and try to write as fast as I could. It might be a little misleading… I wrote them very quickly but the record took about six months to record.”
Ellis says: “Before I started writing I had a general idea of the layout of the record. I wanted a male and female singer with some interludes.” He settled on Allen Tate for the male character and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from the electro-pop band Lucius, as the two females “came very much as a package”. He adds: “On the record the female role was less well-defined than the male role, it was a little bit harder to pin down. Having the two singers really added to that. It gave the female quality an aloofness, it’s less personal.”
Tate’s baritone recalls Matt Berninger of the National or Nick Cave at his most grandiose, while the twin female role evokes the Dirty Projectors’ broken pop. The string and brass arrangements veer between lush beauty and unnerving dissonance, like Scott Walker’s Scott 1-4 album series from the early 70s. Ellis says: “Those are all big influences for sure. Another one is Sufjan stevens, who was a huge inspiration. The Illinoise album, when I heard it in high School I remember thinking, ‘My goodness, that’s what a record is for’. You start at the beginning and you go on this long dramatic journey.”
San Fermin’s live set-up has been streamlined to eight members for the band on tour, which hits Whelan’s later this month. Allen Tate is part of the live show, with vocalist Rae Cassidy replacing the two Lucius singers. Ellis has transformed the pieces, and says: “I had to re-orchestrate the whole thing. It’s much more like a rock show. . Our live show is energetic but it also tries to keep that grandness on the record. It’s an interesting challenge to take these big lushly arranged songs and turn them into something that makes sense in that venue. Only four of the original players on the record are in the band now… the players have added their own twist on their parts.”
Ellis says Dublin has played a small part in the rise of San Fermin, as they got an early leg-up from Villagers last year. This energy and spontaneity has fed into writing the new record, which should be out next spring, and he says of his band members: “They have a lot to bring. You constantly have to walk that line — telling people what you want but also asking what do you want and how can we get to the place where it feels more personal to you.”
“We were really lucky, our third, fourth and fifth shows ever and we got to play with them and it was super fun,” Ellis says. “We played in New York, DC and Boston and we saw them again when we were at Iceland Airwaves and we love all those guys, we think Conor is amazing. One of the biggest breakthroughs of this band was being able to play with them so we’ll be forever indebted to them.”
He also says the Dublin crowd shouldn’t get too caught up in chin-stroking over the album concept at the gig, and get involved, saying: “I hope the crowd will see it as a conversation that these two people are having but also a conversation that the listener can have with themselves.”
Originally published in The Star