Brooklyn based collective, San Fermin, are the indie rock band taking the world by storm. Led by composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the band dropped their third album, Belong, last week. Shifting the songwriting subject matter to a more personal perspective, the album is a move away from previous records San Fermin and Jackrabbit. Focussing on Ellis’ anxiety about letting his bandmates down, the album is Ellis’ confrontation of some of his insecurities. Speaking on it, he said, “I don’t think writing actually fixes anything, but it helps you name the problem, figure out how to live with it, and sometimes that’s enough.” Beautifully voiced by lead vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, the album shows the evolution and creativity of the band, and is an exciting glimpse into their world.
With tour dates set for this Spring, we sat down with Ellis and Charlene to find out all about the new album.
How did you all meet?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Allen (singer) and I met when we were 15, at a songwriting workshop at Berklee School of Music. I met Stephen (sax) and John (trumpet) in college, and then the rest of the guys I met in New York, when I was looking for musicians to start the band. Tyler (guitar) was actually Allen’s guitar teacher at NYU!
Charlene Kaye: I was sitting in a diner on Bowery with some friends in winter 2013. I had just gone through a rough breakup and was feeling pretty existentially stuck with music and with life in general. Then I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and found an email from a mutual friend asking if I had any interest in being a part of this project. I was skeptical at first because at that point I had only spearheaded my own band, never been strictly a singer for someone else’s group – but when I listened to the music, I loved how grandiose and unique it was and wanted to know more. It reminded me of lots of music I grew up loving – it had this unabashed maximalism of Rufus Wainwright, or Sufjan Stevens with more acrobatic vocal arrangements. So I agreed to meet with Allen and Ellis thinking I had nothing to lose, we hit it off, and the rest is history.
Do you and the bandmates have similar music tastes?
E: It varies, for sure, but I think there’s a lot of music we have in common. That list grows as we tour, since we all listen to the bands that go on tour with us.
C: Ellis and I both love Sufjan, Mike and I both love Jon Brion, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, and Allen and I have had a handful of hotel room jam sessions to Weezer and Incubus. However, I’m probably the only one in the band who nurtures a deep love for sticky 90s boy band/girl group pop and R&B. When I bump it in the tour van, in Ellis’s words, “It can be either great or…grating.” Whatever, I’ll carry that torch if no one else will!!!!
Who would you say are your main musical influences?
E: It’s always changing. Right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Paul Simon.
What is your creative process? What do each of you bring to the band?
E: I write and arrange the songs. So I bring sheet music to rehearsal, which is the starting point for the live show. Then people kind of adapt the parts to make them their own. The process with the singers is a little bit more involved, because we demo the songs pretty extensively. So there’s a bit of back and forth about vocal melody and lyrics, and even song structure, that happens during that process.
C: I love proggy, aggressive music like Battles as well as flamboyant front-people like Freddie Mercury and Beyoncé, and I think it’s super cool that this band has both the former (largely in Stephen Chen, our saxophonist who in one song does these nonstop 16th note triplets for like 3 minutes straight, in a staggering display of will and circular breathing) and the latter, in Allen and myself. As a singer, I try to bring a lot of energy and memorability to the performance (read: stage diving whenever I can). Offstage, what do I bring? I avoid all middle seats in the van like the plague, I encourage Ellis to wash his cloth keyboard case whenever he can before it gets too dirty to comfortably touch, and I remind John (our trumpet player and tour manager) to schedule food stops so we don’t starve to death.
“This [album] is intoxicating, kind of fragrant. I wanted to write music you could smell.”
Can you tell us about your new album, Belong?
E: It’s an album of 13 songs. It’s maybe a bit more pop than our previous records, but it’s also more personal from a songwriting perspective. I wanted to write 13 really solid songs, with no interludes or larger “concept.” So I think it ended up being more introspective than my previous work.
What was the inspiration behind the album?
E: After touring pretty heavily for the past few years, we finally took a break, and I spent a month alone in my apartment writing these songs. When you’re on tour, you lose track of the narrative of your life a little bit, so this was a chance to reflect on my deeper emotional state. There are some songs about anxiety and loneliness, but there are also a some songs with a warmer and maybe more optimistic tone than the last record. I think I was feeling a bit more adjusted and stable than I was when I was writing Jackrabbit.
If you had to chose a favourite track, what would it be and why?
E: I really like “Open”. Writing that song felt like a discovery, somehow. It has all these rich textures that are kind of seductive, which serve the lyrics well. It felt like a natural evolution of the San Fermin sound.
How does the album differ from your previous records?
E: The first album was lush, but in an acoustic, orchestral kind of way. The second album was darker, more muscular and aggressive. This one is intoxicating, kind of fragrant. I wanted to write music you could smell.
What else do you have lined up for 2017?
E: We have a big tour planned for the spring— first a loop of North America and then a few dates in Europe. Then we have festivals most every weekend in the summer. Beyond that I’m not sure!