We’re off-the-hook excited about the upcoming new release from our old favourites San Fermin. So, we got our very own Nikki Gandy on the blower with the lovely Ellis Ludwig Leone: the man behind the magic, who may be wearing buttless chaps but is definitely not wearing a powder wig…
Hiya, Ellis. Where are you and what are you wearing?
I’m in Brooklyn New York, in my recording studio, and I’m currently wearing an entire outfit of clothes that were given to me for free last weekend at SXSW.
I meant to ask what are you up to. But we have all the scene setting we need… We’re big fans of your first two records and hugely excited about this release. Tell us a little bit about Belong and how the album ties in with the journey of San Fermin so far.
Belong is just songs. I got rid of the interludes on this record and I think it marks the first time that I really just focused on songwriting, and writing an album of songs rather than a longer, more mature journey like the first record was. I think the songs are a little more personal too; it’s the first time I’ve written a collection of songs after doing tonnes of shows on tour, so it’s feels like a natural next step for us.
Just songs, you say. Any individual songs that you feel really epitomise San Fermin? Any faves?
The favourites change, but I think there are a couple of songs that epitomise what this record is about and what the band does well. One of those is Bride. It’s imagining this woman on her wedding day who has a sort of panic attack and outer body experience, which is basically how I feel all the time. I think it rides that line of excitement and ecstatic energy but also anxiety and fear – I think that’s something that as a band we do a lot.
Oceanica is really emblematic from a musical standpoint, form-wise it’s kinda strange, and there’s some crazy saxophone and vocals all over the place, and I think that is an accurate explanation of what this band is all about.
We really like Bones – it’s got a li’l R&B to it, it’s a li’l bit different…
Yeah, all of these songs were starting to have a little bit more of an R&B edge to them in places, so I guess I just thought “fuck it I’m just gonna write a full on R&B song here”. Next it’ll be 8 Mile Part Two.
We have a complete headache trying to categorise your music when writing reviews – it’s tough – but how would you like your music to be described?
Urgh, it’s a really tough question, but I can tell you the ways in which I do not like it being described. I very much dislike it when people call it “baroque pop” or “chamber pop”, which just makes me think of powder wigs. I just say it’s an indie rock band and mention the fact that there’s big arrangements and lots of instruments, but indie rock band is fine for me. Keep it simple.
You work with some incredible musicians on your live shows. How does your band influence the way you write?
That’s a good question. They definitely do. It would be silly for me to not let them influence the writing. One of the greatest tricks of this band is being able to write music that is fun for eight people to play and perform over and over and over again while we’re touring really heavily. Also I can’t sing, or play guitar, so I need to bring something to the table that fits the people who are performing it. So for example if I’m writing a song for [vocalists] Allan or Charlene I’m really aware of their strengths and limitations and trying to push those, and I honestly do the same for the instrumentalists; I try to keep challenging them a little bit. Showcasing them but not being showy, y’know?
“I very much dislike it when people call it “baroque pop” or “chamber pop”, which just makes me think of powder wigs”
You’ve mentioned about how writing for female voice has contributed to your understanding of the opposite sex – could you maybe share an example of how?
Well, let’s see! On the first record I think I was guilty of writing for a man’s idea of a woman rather than a woman. I think maybe there’s a little bit of “mad pixie dreamgirl” that sort of comes through, which is hopefully not too blatant!
I feel now that the female vocal was perhaps written in response to the male vocal as opposed to its own standalone voice. I’m definitely more comfortable now, and I hope that the words in something like Bride come from a place of understanding more than projecting. I think you really need that, because Charlene isn’t going to sing anything that’s not real.
One of my big fears is writing something that feels false; the slightly strange setup of this band means I’m effectively putting words in the mouths of these singers and there’s nothing worse than doing that if it’s fake.
So on the topic of touring we can imagine there’s a pretty eclectic playlist while you’re on the road – what’s the best and worst you guys end up rocking out to on the bus?
There’s actually been a funny development recently – we were given a bunch of noise cancelling headphones (from BOSE, booooom, namedrop), so in the last few weeks I’ve noticed that the tour bus has gone from people arguing over what to play to just nobody talking to each other at all, in their noise cancelling headphones.
The music really changes though – Char favours a bit of 90s pop sometimes, which can be great or grating! It really varies because a couple of us have backgrounds in classical music and will listen to that, a lot of times we’ll listen to people we’re touring with or people we’ve seen and met on the road. We toured recently with Sam Amidon and really enjoyed listening to his stuff, so I think it’s a nice opportunity to keep up with what’s happening. Having seven other people listening to new stuff is really useful for me to keep up as well!
I’ve been going back in time a lot lately – I’ve been listening to Hounds of Love by Kate Bush which is obviously not a new record. But it’s one that’s been on repeat for me recently.
Any plans to tour? What’s coming up and when can we see this crazy sax playing?
We start a tour on 10th April – a big loop of North America starting in Toronto and finishing with a really exciting show in New York. Then we fly to Europe and do Village Underground in London, and then Paris, Berlin, and some festivals too.
So you must have a fairly diverse fan base – tell us a bit about the relationship you feel with your fans. Feel free to tell us we’re awesome.
The relationship with the fans has definitely been a surprising element of the project for me. When I set out to start the band and write the first record I really didn’t think too much about it at all… because I obviously didn’t know what it was like to have fans at first. It’s interesting because a lot of us feel really good going along to the merch table to meet fans after the shows. I think it’s grounding to see that what you’re doing actually affects people. It certainly helps you in those times when you’re like “oh my God, the world is going to shit and I’m not doing anything about it”, but then also realising that the music we’re making really is important for people. So definitely, the relationship with our fans is a hugely rewarding part of what we do, for sure.
So then on the topic of staying grounded, if you could say anything to yourself at any past point in your life, what might that be?
Oh God! That’s a biiiig question! I think I would have maybe gone back to myself in the months leading up to Jackrabbit and saying to myself “look, don’t worry about it, it’s gonna go well, it’ll be fine”. I think I had something of a dark period at that time because I was feeling sort of jerked around by touring so much and the general bedraggled fear of putting out a second record. I’d just tell myself it’s all fine, which is something I’m trying to tell myself right now too!
Do you think knowing it’s all going to be ok made you more comfortable to just create an album of songs this time – writing for the songs instead of the story?
Yeah, I think I feel good because the most difficult transition is from the first to the second record, where you’re going from writing what is almost a theatre project to trying to write for a band playing Lollapalooza. That was a weird transition! It was certainly a big learning curve too.
At this point I feel like I’ve been doing it for a while and know more of what’s coming – I love the band and I love the people we tour with and I think, ok, I can see this as a profession and I’m doing it. Once more into the breech!
So your relationship with music now it’s a profession, has it changed?
Definitely. In some ways it’s more rewarding because I’ve been very lucky, and because the band has done so well I’ve gotten a lot of other opportunities to write things like ballets and theatre projects. So because of San Fermin I’ve been able to diversify my writing and explore a lot of things I’m really excited about. In those ways my relationship with music has really grown in a positive way.
One negative thing has probably been how hard it is to just listen to and enjoy music without thinking of stupid things, like the business side of it all. Sometimes I catch myself listening to a new song that someone puts out and thinking “I wonder if this is going to happen for them on Spotify/what kind of rooms can they fill?” Those aren’t thoughts I like and definitely not a welcome addition to my life, so I’m trying to get rid of it as much as possible!
Final big questions now. What’s your favourite Beyonce song?
School In Life.
Belong is out on 7th April on Downtown Records.