Growing up in the Southern Massachusetts town of Berkley, Ellis Ludwig-Leone lived a musical double life, playing in teenage rock bands while taking classical piano lessons about 45 minutes away.
“The classical piano thing I kept pretty secret from my high school friends,” says Ludwig-Leone, 25. “It wasn’t really until I got out of high school and started studying music in a more serious way that I was able to see the connections.”
Those genres blend in his chamber-pop group San Fermin, which plays the Sinclair on May 8 and has Ludwig-Leone drawing from both his classical composition studies at Yale and his immersion in Brooklyn’s indie-rock kingdom, boosted by work as a musical assistant to Nico Muhly.
“To actually help him, you had to get good and really fast,” Ludwig-Leone says of the arranger. “The amount of projects he worked on was kind of staggering.” For the young apprentice, that included score transcriptions and help with recording sessions for Sufjan Stevens, Passion Pit and the National.
Ludwig-Leone reflects that musical fast lane in his own growth, particularly on San Fermin’s April 21 release, Jackrabbit. It’s a leap from the band’s eponymous 2013 debut, both darker and more streamlined. “If that first record was scattershot, this is much more focused,” he says from his Brooklyn home. “Once you start focusing, you can also dig a little deeper, emotionally as well.”
Indeed, while San Fermin’s debut tapped into imagery of sleeping and dreaming, Jackrabbit builds on themes of age and mortality. “There’s a twitchy desperation that can come from continuing to grow up and live your life and not have any of the answers you want to have,” Ludwig-Leone says. “I felt like the possibilities of my life were expanding in some ways and contracting in others.”
Along those lines, “Two Scenes” offers the lyric “You can’t tell if you’re floating or falling out of place, like the astronaut calls a little dot a home, like he can tell from outer space.” But while the keyboardist/composer says he’s comfortable writing lyrics, having enjoyed prose and poetry in high school, he doesn’t do any singing.
That falls to Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye, who alternate lead vocals on the new album, which features the same musicians that tour as San Fermin, rounded out by guitarist Tyler McDiarmid, violinist Rebekah Durham, drummer Michael Hanf, trumpeter John Brandon and baritone saxophonist Stephen Chen. “It was weird touring the first album because some of them weren’t even on the record,” says Ludwig-Leone, who drafted 22 musicians (including Lucius singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) for San Fermin’s debut. “Everybody’s gotten more invested.”
Because he knows all the players, Ludwig-Leone says he can “tailor the parts” he writes. And in addition to sheet music, he composes with the music production program Logic on his laptop. “I have sounds in Logic that emulate members of the band, so I’m able to map out and basically hear what’s going to happen,” he says. That includes a trombone sample to approximate Tate’s baritone voice, which conveys a solemnness that brings to mind the National’s Matt Berninger.
Ludwig-Leone—who also has scored works for the New York City Ballet and the Atlanta Symphony—met Tate at a Berklee songwriting camp when they were in their mid-teens. But if the keyboardist hadn’t written the material that became San Fermin’s debut during a six-week post-college retreat in Canada, Tate would have been off to law school, Ludwig-Leone says. Instead they became charter members of a band named after Spain’s festival for the running of the bulls.
“It feels weird that people want to put themselves in tense and dangerous situations like that,” Ludwig-Leone says. “It’s a little like what you try to do as a musician. You’re trying to push at the edges of your experience.”
If music hadn’t become his focus in high school, he says he would have pursued basketball, another interest with a parallel in San Fermin’s drama-spiked concerts. “The performance aspect of being in a band is not that different from playing sports,” says Ludwig-Leone. “It’s physical and intense and you get sweaty.”