Concert preview: Solitude fuels San Fermin’s sprawling, cinematic debut

By Columbus Alive
From the February 13, 2014 edition

San Fermin’s self-titled debut is a sprawling, cinematic effort that traverses a wide musical terrain, swinging from massive orchestral passages to choral interludes to jazz-spiked horn freak-outs. It’s a diversity that reflects the eclectic musical upbringing of songwriter/composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, 24, who grew up in a home with Doors-loving artist parents, spent years studying classical piano and majored in composition at Yale University.

“I was trying out a lot of different styles because I wanted to see what stuck and what really felt like me,” Ludwig-Leone said from his home in New York in an early February interview. “I have an academic background, but I grew up playing in rock bands and living in a house where, even though my parents were painters, it wasn’t one of those things where it was always Schubert or Mozart [playing on the family stereo]. Once I got out of school … these things started to fall into a balance that felt more natural.”

While the music on San Fermin is undoubtedly diverse, it never feels forced, flowing freely from moments of baroque beauty reminiscent of fellow Brooklyn denizens The National (singer Allen Tate is a vocal dead-ringer for Matt Berninger) to more explosive orchestral passages that suggest the kitchen sink extravagance of Sufjan Stevens.

Ludwig-Leone, who grew up in Berkley, Massachusetts, and started playing piano at the age of 8, composed a bulk of the band’s debut during a two-month artist’s retreat he spent at a cabin tucked away high in the mountains of Banff, Canada. The musician said he was first drawn to the remote area because of time spent there while growing up, and he recalled being captivated by foreign-looking creatures like elk and bighorn sheep as a 10-year-old. Furthermore, the wilderness setting afforded him something greatly lacking in New York: Silence.

“There’s a lot of distraction here, and it’s hard to get perspective on what you’re doing,” he said. “It helped put me in the right frame of mind to write.”

Recording sessions, however, were far from a solitary pursuit, and Ludwig-Leone said he utilized 22 musicians to help bring his vision to life — a collective that’s been pared down to eight musicians (including Columbus native and trumpeter John Brandon) for this current tour.

“I have a tendency to overwrite and to overstate things and over-orchestrate things,” he said. “So one of the most important parts of this process has been going through and stripping everything out. But in some ways it sounds even more powerful live.”

Photo courtesy of San Fermin