When San Fermin performed at the fourth edition of Boston Calling in September, lead female vocalist Charlene Kaye jumped up on the speakers, lead male vocalist Allen Tate commanded the plaza’s attention with his rich baritone, and trumpeter John Brandon came out into the cheering crowd during one of his solos, capturing the moment with a GoPro affixed to his instrument.
But Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the mastermind behind the band, stayed back, directing the musicians and observing the festival from his keyboard positioned far at stage right. Without Ludwig-Leone, there would be no San Fermin. A graduate of Yale’s composition program, he single-handedly wrote the debut album while holed up at the secluded Banff Centre in Canada, before even thinking of piecing together a band for recording and touring needs.
Now, a little more than one year since the release of the debut album, the band is a full-blown, tight-knit group of eight musicians—an assembled mix of Ludwig-Leone’s longtime friends, classmates, and friends of friends. And while he remains the driving force behind the music, he prefers to remain to the side, allowing the other musicians to roam free, like a true classically trained composer.
“When we play live, I face in—I face the band—and the band faces out. It’s not that I want to be in the background so much as it just feels like that’s musically the right decision,” said Ludwig-Leone in a phone interview earlier this week. “I think that was sort of an unconscious decision at first, but really it’s because I like to make sure everything is working and watch the band. The band doesn’t need a keyboardist in the middle doing fancy stuff. It’s nice to be off on the side and let the actual band members take it from there.”
On Friday, November 14, the Boston Calling alums will return to headline The Sinclair. It’s a venue they’ve never played before—besides the festival, their experience in Boston so far consists only of two shows at Brighton Music Hall—but performing in Cambridge still serves as a sort of homecoming for Ludwig-Leone, who grew up rural Berkley, Mass.
Ludwig-Leone fondly recalls driving into Boston every week with his mother to see a show—a dance or musical performance, something “a little bit less rock ’n’ roll” than where his interests lie now—and grab dinner.
Even on Friday, although he’s eager to get to Portland, Maine, for the last show of San Fermin’s tour the following day as quickly as possible, Ludwig-Leone plans to at least get dinner with his family. They remain in Massachusetts, while he moved to Brooklyn after graduation where, incidentally, he met fellow Boston Calling alums Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, who recorded the female vocals on San Fermin’s self-titled debut album.
While the first album presents a conversation between a pair of distinct characters—a desperate, romantic male lead and a jaded female lead—the sophomore effort, which Ludwig-Leone has been penning on the road and plans to release sometime next year, will be less structured.
“Both singers take on a couple of different personalities over the course of this record, and I think that might be because that’s how I feel—I feel like I’m less settled in who I am now than I used to be and constantly questioning who I am and what I’m doing. I wanted the singers to embody that,” he said. “I think there are parts of the record where they’re similar to the people that they were on the first record, and there are parts where they’re very different.”
The band plans to perform five new songs from the upcoming record at The Sinclair. As with the first album, Ludwig-Leone retreated into isolation—this time in New Hampshire—to begin writing before fine-tuning the songs while on tour.
“We spent all this time on the road, and I felt like my perspective on things kind of changed. I took a lot of songs that I wrote in New Hampshire and ripped holes in them and shuffled them around and got a little bit violent with them. I rethought the approach,” he said. “The result is that it’s a record of songs that has some of the same kind of songwriting as the first one, but it’s a little more all over the place, a little more manic, a little more aggressive. A lot of that has to do with writing while on the road in the back of a tour bus on five hours of sleep.”
Having a distinct group of musicians to write for this time also transformed Ludwig-Leone’s songwriting experience.
“It’s like designing an outfit—if you know the person you’re designing the outfit for, you can make them look a lot better,” he said. “I still write the songs, but now that we have a really solid band, I write the parts particularly for each of the band members. When they play live, they can make adjustments. It’s still my songwriting, but it’s nice because now it feels like it’s more reflective of all the people in the band rather than just me.”
San Fermin will headline The Sinclair on Friday, November 14. Tickets are available for $15 in advance on ticketmaster.com or for $17 at the door.
Correction, November 12, 3:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that it’s been a little more than two years since the release of San Fermin’s debut album. It’s been a little more than one year since its September 2013 release. We regret the error.
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