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Interview: Ellis Ludwig-Leone (San Fermin)

10 March 2024

Photo by Alex S K Brown

In a surprising departure from their usual layered sound, San Fermin’s fifth studio album, Arms, strips things back for a more intimate and direct experience. This isn’t to say the band has abandoned their signature chamber pop aesthetic entirely. Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the band’s mastermind, shares that the new songs still translate beautifully to a live setting, retaining a theatrical quality that could be effortlessly adapted for a full-blown musical. Arms marks a turning point for the Brooklyn octet, with Ludwig-Leone citing the breakdown of a long-term relationship and the anxieties of the pandemic as inspiration for his deeply personal lyrics. The songwriter joined me on Zoom to delve into the creative process behind Arms, the band’s evolution over the past decade, and the powerful sense of community that continues to fuel their music.

This isn’t the first time you’ve released something but I’m wondering if the release day is still as exciting as it’s always been?

ELLIS: It’s more of a relief than anything. We did a little free listening party with some people, and I had to do that insane thing of sitting in a room while people listened to our songs. That went pretty well, and people seemed to really enjoy it. That was more nerve wracking than release day. It’s out there. I have a lot less control so I’m letting it go.

Now that you’ve got your own label, are you responsible for the distribution of your own vinyl?

ELLIS: We work with a distributor called The Orchard; they have a really big operation so we’re able to plug into their back end on that. What we’ll hear from them is, “Hey, these are the stores that are taking it. They want you to stop in and do a performance when you’re in Seattle or whatever.” That’s nice because often the record stores that take albums like ours are more independent record stores that have a history to them and a really devoted fan base. It’s really fun to pop in on an afternoon before a show and see your record on the shelves and do a little acoustic set kind of thing.

I recognize some of the artists on the Better Company label – Wye Oak and Wild Pink. What does running a record label look like in 2024?

ELLIS: It’s interesting. It’s been a fascinating journey. It started in 2019 when we signed a major label deal with Sony. As part of that deal, because Sony owns The Orchard, which is our distributor, they set up this side thing. They were like, “If you have music that you’re working on or that you’re interested in, that you want to bring in, you can have this little subsidiary label that happens through The Orchard.”

That ended up being the most important part of that record deal because we’re longer with Sony, but we have this connection with The Orchard and they’re an amazing team of people. There’s very little churn, which I feel in the music business is insane. Usually there’s so many people switching in and out of jobs.

We have this nice relationship there. We have a couple employees here at the studio who do the day-to-day of the label and make sure that it works. The way I think about it is we were signed to two major labels and an indie label that was kind of a large indie. We had good experiences, but there was a lack of communication. I remember when our album came out on Interscope, the day it came out, I realized I didn’t know a single person who was working on it at Interscope. I didn’t know any of the names of anyone. So I really wanted this label to be able to provide the artists with the knowledge of what we’re doing. “Here’s the math. This is the game. Here’s why we’re making these decisions. And if you don’t like it, that’s totally fine, there’s lots of other options available.” That’s the way we try to run it. It’s about the community of it.

Allen [Tate] and I work with a lot of these artists on the art side, so we can’t afford to have people mad at us. And we have a studio where we record. It’s almost like the Brill Building of the ‘50s and ‘60s where people will make their records here and then we put it out through the label. We’re able to provide value to our artists in that way as well.

I’m learning a lot about it and it’s not a great business. Music in general is not a great business when Spotify is basically free so it has to be a volume game. It makes artists feel devalued because you’re just one little tiny thing so if you can have some community and an actual voice on the other end of the phone and a connection to the people who are there and a space that does a lot, that means a lot. I think the people that we sign, we really stand by and we love all their music. We’ve got a lot of really great stuff coming down the pike.

San Fermin has been putting out music and touring for a decade. Does it feel like those 10 years have just flown by or do you feel like you’ve lived every single day of those 10 years?

ELLIS: It’s been great. It’s interesting because three of those years were during the pandemic so we’ve really had seven super intense years of non-stop touring and being on consecutive record cycles. That was super fun, it’s amazing to go on tour. It feels like this extended adolescence and you get to see the world and you have all these amazing experiences. Then the pandemic hit and that put a pause on our touring.

All the band members, especially me and Allen, who’s one of our singers and one of my best friends, used the pandemic to expand out. We started our record label, and we started our studio, and I wrote an opera. There’s a lot of different things that happened during that time. It felt like we were still charging forward with our lives, but the band kind of sat there for a couple of years while people weren’t touring. To pick it back up, it feels like wheeling a car out of a garage again, which is really exciting because this album feels like a step forward. It’s a different thing than we normally do so it feels artistically satisfying. And it’s also nice to think about performing after a couple of years.

The accompanying press release describes this as a more “raw and direct sound.” That made me think it would sound lo-fi and maybe just be acoustic guitars and home recordings. But, at least in the way I’m thinking of it, it’s not a raw album, it sounds fully produced with a full complement of instruments. Why were those terms used to describe the album?

ELLIS: For people who are familiar with our previous work, our past albums often get described, correctly or not, as orchestral, very arrangement-forward, very lush. This record is totally built out with a band and there’s some arrangements but that represents a stripping back, for sure.

I think there’s a few things that were really different about the process this time. I wrote the lyrics first for all the songs. Allen, who is not only the singer, but also the producer, challenged me. This is the first album of ours that he’s produced. He challenged me to write all the songs on the piano. He said, “If you can play the song at the piano and sing it, and it works, then we can talk about building it out.” That’s different than in the past when a song might be built around a saxophone riff or around a string texture that I’ve created.

With this album, it created this urgency with the lyrics where the structure of the songs is dictated by the story I’m telling. That works with the experience that I went through, which was a universal and very personal experience of going through a couple of heartbreaks which was a pretty raw experience, certainly when I was writing it. I didn’t feel like it needed to be dressed up in the same way as some of our previous stuff.

Was part of the exercise of writing on a piano to help you determine if these songs could be played in a stripped-down fashion?

ELLIS: Yeah, and this is the first time that we’ve really done that. It’s really nice because when we do an on-radio session or an in-store thing, it works. During the pandemic, Allen and I taught a Zoom class on songwriting to some of our fans. That was really fascinating because I realized I have all these thoughts about songwriting, all these rules that I follow and internalized structures that I’d never really put words to because they always just kind of existed while I wrote in my subconscious. The craft of songwriting, for me, is thinking about things structurally and thinking about things like “where do you place that lyric that really twists the knife?” This is a real craft record on that kind of scale.

Do you hear songs in your head before they’re written and recorded or do you purposefully have to sit down and say, “I need to write a song that conveys a certain emotion”?

ELLIS: I’ve always been jealous of people who have synesthesia. I’ve heard an interview with Kristin Hersh where she was talking about it, and it sounds trippy and awesome. For me, I can hear songs before I write them, but usually it will be snippets of melodies and lyrics.

When I was writing this record, I was in a pretty raw and disheveled creative place. I would be walking to the studio, which takes me 20 minutes, and thinking about the song that I wanted to write that day. I would scribble ideas down on my Notes app and then come into the studio with some seed of a song that felt like enough to go with. Moving helps me, like walking and thinking.

Does the rhythm of walking inspire the rhythm of the music you write?

ELLIS: Totally. That’s probably why I write so many mid-tempo songs.

You are talking about the ending of a romantic relationship but you’ve had some band members come and go. Do you view those as personal relationships and, while maybe not as tough as a romantic breakup, difficult to deal with when they end?

ELLIS: A band is a weird time capsule. Allen and I met when we were 15, maybe he had just turned 16. That’s a long time. Even with the rest of my band, a couple of them I met when I was in college so they were in their late teens or early 20s. And then some of them you pick up as you go.

There’s this weird thing when suddenly you look back and 10 years have passed since the first record and where we all are in our lives is very different. There’s something beautiful about that. There’s something really nice with there being this continuous connection between all these people over the years. We have a holiday party and people bring their plus ones. That’s been going on for 10 years. There’s a melancholy to that too. You really feel the passage of time in that way. Sometimes people leave the band because touring is an intense lifestyle. Sometimes people just move away. A band is a living, breathing thing and it has to be adaptable or it’s not going to last long.

I’m assuming your band members watched your relationship crumble in real time.

ELLIS: Yeah, Allen in particular. Being my best friend, he saw all of that from close up and brought real stability during an unstable time, but also some levity. He’s a very funny guy and he knows when he really needs to be there for you, but he also knows when he can poke fun at you a little bit. It was nice and helpful to have him make fun of me a little during that period of time too, being like, “Here comes Chaos Ellis into the studio.” It brought a little perspective where I think everyone can get a little in their own narrative during moments where their life is changing and things are difficult. It’s also a really funny, weird time. You go back to your place and half of your stuff is missing. There’s nowhere to sit. There’s spending nights on various people’s couches.

I didn’t want this album to be just about sadness, it’s actually not just about that. I wanted the whole experience. I wanted sadness. I wanted anger. I wanted humor. I wanted the uncanny chaos of the whole thing and to see it from different angles. I don’t sing. Allen and Claire [Wellin] sing. The songs have always had multiple perspectives where there’s two viewpoints. It worked really nice for this album because it gave a wider range of the experience.

Are there two viewpoints within the same song, sort of a he-said, she-said thing that goes back and forth?

ELLIS: That’s been a feature of my writing since the first record which I wrote for Allen to sing. Then I realized I wanted someone to push up against that, because I felt like Allen’s character – or whoever it was that I was writing for – felt a little bit full of himself and melodramatic. I wanted to undercut that with some citrus, something more acidic. It’s always been part of the band and generally that role fell to the female singer to be a little bit more undercutting.

This album is a little different in that writing for Allen and Claire, I intentionally wrote all the songs without deciding who would sing them which has never been the case. There are songs on this record where it’s a little less, he said/she said, and a little more of a 360-degree view of a breakup. It’s been divvied up between the two voices in these different ways, depending on musical choices.

Usually when there is a male vocalist and female vocalist in the same band, they tend to sing songs together. In San Fermin, there is typically one voice on a song, the two trade off from song to song. It makes it a very interesting album to listen to. The three that really stick out to me are “Arms,” “Useful Lives,” and “Weird Environment.”

ELLIS: It’s fun to write for these multiple voices, because Allen has this amazing low, rich voice. His range is insane. He can go all the way down to past where a bass is supposed to go and then he can go pretty high up there like on “Arms”. He’s up there in this falsetto which is really satisfying because when we first started making music together, he could sing about four notes. Now he’s got this whole thing at his disposal.

It’s nice sometimes then to have a voice like Claire’s where she has this soaring, floating voice. The options at my fingertips as a songwriter are pretty wild. It’s really fun to explore those different ranges and to see how that affects how you hear the song because I have versions of all the songs with both of them singing them.

The songs sound familiar but I can’t put my finger on who San Fermin reminds me of which is nice. It’s not blatantly in your face the way, say, Greta Van Fleet instantly brings to mind Led Zeppelin.

ELLIS: I spent a lot of time talking with Allen and thinking about what makes a song sound classic or timeless. That’s obviously a very lofty goal. We were talking about how if you walk by someone playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in the subway, it still works, even if they can’t really sing it, it just works because the songwriting is there. That kind of familiarity in the sound comes from Allen and Clarie having a number of years to hone their sounds and to aim at a couple different influences. It also comes from trying to write songs that feel familiar and that feel like you kind of know where it’s going to go before it gets there, so it’s a marriage of songwriting and performance.

Are the lyrics a mix of fact and fiction?

ELLIS: I’m morphing out of that from album to album and project to project. The album before this record was called The Cormorant and it was about this ghost death bird that talked to you in your dreams. It was sort of conceptual and it has a lot more imagination. There was stuff from my life, but it was really mixed up in this speculative fiction world.

This album is the most autobiographical thing I’ve done. I like to be able to change because I think if you tie yourself to one thing, that gets a little bit boring. I think because the band is built in this way where I write lyrics that other singers are going to want to sing, there’s already this outside-looking-in thing built into it. I enjoy that and welcome it.

And how does that work? Do you write all the lyrics to all the songs and then say, “Okay, take these home and read them?” or do you share as you’re in the process of writing and ask for feedback as you go?

ELLIS: Allen’s always the first listener and he’s always the first editor. But, because he was producing this one, he got a little more involved in the songwriting. I would write the song. I’d show it to him. He’d have some thoughts. Sometimes he would change some words, he’d move things around, but it sort of worked like I was generating the lyrics and he was editing. He was a co-songwriter on the songs on this album even though they were coming from my life. In the past, it’s been a little bit more separated, but this one I really welcomed it and it was really nice to have someone that you trust so much come into your process and help take this big chaotic thing and make it lean and muscular and to the point. It’s nine songs and only 33 minutes. It’s very short. That felt good.

As you keep mentioning Allen and as you’re the person behind the scenes writing the music and the lyrics, I can’t help but think of Alan Parsons. His name was on the Alan Parsons Project album covers and, as a kid, I just assumed he was the singer. It was only years later that I discovered that he was not the singer. How often do people think you’re the singer in San Fermin?

ELLIS: A lot. I think it has to do with being in the indiesphere, whatever world we occupy. It’s rare for songs to be written by someone that’s not singing them. There’s sort of an awkward aspect to it. If you sign up for a Phoebe Bridgers or an Andy Schauf song, you know that’s them talking to you. That’s not the case for us but in pop music, that’s also not the case. Often there are songwriters or a team or total other person who’s writing for someone like Britney Spears. I think that’s a pretty common way to do things in other genres. And, certainly in classical music, where I also have a career that’s the only way it works. The opera that I wrote, I’m writing for nine opera singers and none of them are writing the lyrics so it feels very natural to me.

I think that the line that we have to walk is basically how do I write from a place that feels very personal, but that also is the Venn diagram of my experience and Allen’s experience or Claire’s experience? That feels like a real exercise in empathy.

What type of emotions do you think people will feel when listening to the new album?

ELLIS: For this album, so far, the response we’ve gotten is that people are feeling good, people are feeling bad, people are allowing themselves to drive and cry while listening to it. It’s relatable.

Very few people have never gone through a breakup or had some sort of heartbreak.

ELLIS: Right. When I was going through it, I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that everyone goes through this.” It had been a really long relationship and I hadn’t experienced that for a long time. And, after the breakup, I would be walking down the street, looking around, and thinking, “Is that person going through something?” That compassion, that experience of something, is so universal. And it feels so cataclysmic but it’s really common and it made me feel more connected to people. It brought back the idea of community for me. Because I don’t sing, my music has always been about bringing people in. It’s a shared experience. I bring in the singers. I bring in the band members. It’s all about connecting and bringing people into my own world or else I feel isolated.

While the record itself was about dissolution and something falling apart, the process of making the album felt like coming together and it felt like a real vote for community and for being there for each other.

If you strip away the notion of touring and playing in a different city every night, when I listen to San Fermin, I feel like you should set up shop in a theater and we should be coming to you and there should be a full-on performance complete with stage theatrics. That feels like the best way for your music to be presented.

ELLIS: When I first started writing songs, people kept saying that and I was offended. I was like, “I’m not writing theater. This is my life.” And now I’ve totally come around to that and, in fact, a big part of my career is doing that. I had this opera happen a couple months ago. I have a musical workshop happening next week. It’s actually very fun to be working in these other fields where they embrace that. I think there is a kind of depth of feeling that you get from a longer produced thing, where you’re sitting there and an hour-and-a-half into the play, some little musical motif comes back from something at the beginning of the play and it just hits you in a different way. It just knocks all your walls down. I really love when that happens.

Certainly some of our records work better that way. A couple of years ago, I had a college kid from Skidmore, or maybe Vassar, reach out to me and he said, “We wrote a musical using your songs. Do you want to come see it?” I went up and they put me right in the front row next to the writer’s mom, which was very sweet. She was great. The show was our whole first record but turned into a musical. And it was really, really, really fun.

I admired the courage to do that. Once you’ve written the song, and it’s out in the world, it’s not yours anymore. It’s for everyone. However people want to come to it is valid.

”You Owe Me” ends the record. Is that like a final stamp, the final chapter, the closing of the book on your past relationship?

ELLIS: Yeah, that one felt the most like a diary entry. The lyrics are just a little more specific. They’re not even necessarily all true. Actually, some of those are just made-up stories, but they felt real. I wanted to end the record on this feeling of closure, but it’s not happy trails to both. There’s still some anger. There’s the line “Our time was never money, but you owe me.” After this big thing that is very meaningful and very important to both parties, at the end of it, there’s just this unpaid invoice.*

The video for “Weird Environment” was done with AI, something you had previously expressed concern and anxiousness about.

ELLIS: The backstory of that is it was our fourth single on the album, and we needed a video. I had just gotten into this big argument with my friend, Matt [Slotkin], who works as a consultant at an AI place. He’s really one of my only friends who’s not in the arts at this point. He did not understand why I was so freaked out about AI. He was like, “This is great. Now everyone can make a record.” I went home and I thought about it for a while. There’s so much I don’t know about it. When you’d see the Harry Potter Balenciaga video, you’re like, “I don’t know what this is. How did they make this? Did they just type ‘Harry Potter Balenciaga’” into an AI machine? I don’t know.

So I wanted to learn a little more about it. I called Matt and was like, “Let’s make a video together.” The whole thing is about the various uncanny versions of yourself that happen after a breakup where you don’t feel really like yourself. I thought this could work really well with AI because it feels like you can make these uncanny grotesque versions of me. And then as soon as I saw them, I was like, “We have to explode that guy because I hate him.”

Making the video alleviated some of my stress because it never felt like the AI was an author at all. It felt much more like it was a wonky tool, to be honest. But that said, when we put it out, there was a lot of backlash because people in the graphic design world and the art world were like, “I don’t want to see that. At best, it’s ugly. At worst, it’s replacing human jobs.” My whole family are artists. It’s scary. And it’s not exciting, artistically, in a lot of ways. But I thought it was like a really worthwhile experiment. I think the video came out pretty well.

How long did it take to render that video? Was it a lengthy process?

ELLIS: It was a couple weeks. And it took a lot of man hours. I’d say it took us probably 60 or 70 hours to make that. It brought up a lot of conversations with people who I was close with. It brought up some anger, brought up some questions, and I was thankful to have all those conversations. I do feel like I know more about it going forward. And I think it’s up to us to figure out how to navigate a world where that’s part of it, but to do it in a way that remembers why we make art in the first place, which is to communicate with other people.