When we visited Texas last month for Austin City Limits, we met up with San Fermin. And now, we’re excited to collaborate with San Fermin this holiday season on a holiday inspired playlist, which you can hear in stores from 11.21-12.1 and on Spotify. Want to see San Fermin play live in New York City? Enter our AEO x San Fermin Sweepstakes! Check out the Official Rules to win a pair of tickets for their December 17, 18 or 19 show.
We loved talking with San Fermin so much that we extended the conversation later with Ellis Ludwig-Leone, keyboardist and founding member of the band. We talked about everything from the inspiration behind their newest song, “No Devil,” to the band’s most embarrassing moment on tour. Check out our interview with Ellis below.
Ellis on the keys during a show.
AEO: You’re embarking on your next European Tour soon, but by the time this publishes you’ll have finished it. What are you most looking forward to during that tour?
Ellis: It’s our fifth or sixth European tour, so we kind of know what to expect when we get there. One of the things that’s so great about going to Europe is that there’s a sense of history there. Every venue you play is historic in some way. Every city you go to, you’ve heard about. That’s a thrill. It’s a real cultural experience. In particular, I always love when we play France. France is my favorite country to play outside of the U.S. We always get really good crowds there & the food is great.
AEO: So France is your favorite international country, but what is your favorite U.S. city to play?
Ellis: It’s hard to compete with New York because that’s where we’re from. We’ve played some really memorable shows there. I guess if I had to choose somewhere outside of New York… I really like playing San Francisco. That’s been a great place for us. I love being in the city.
AEO: We met you & the band at Austin City Limits this year. How was your time in Austin?
Ellis: Austin is definitely one of my favorite cities to play, although it’s actually funny because we’ve now been to Austin five times, and every single time, it’s been for a festival. We’ve never done a headline show there. This time we were touring with Alt-J, so we played ACL Fest, and that night we played a show with them at Austin Music Hall, which was one of the last show’s they’ll ever have at that venue. It actually might have been my favorite show we’ve ever played.
AEO: You mentioned you love playing in NYC a lot, so we’re wondering what makes a show there more memorable for you?
Ellis: One thing that makes NYC different is that our friends & family are there, so it really is a different energy when you there are people who you love and care about are going to be there. Because we started here, we’ve played here more than other places. We have more of a track record here. We’ve done some really cool shows. We’ve played with St.Vincent at Prospect Park, which was awesome because I live across from Prospect Park.
AEO: Is there a certain place or festival you dream of performing?
Ellis: I’d love to play Primavera Sound in Spain. That festival is sort of known as one of the most fun places to play. In terms of a headline show but Barclay’s Center or Madison Square Garden would be a real thrill. Maybe someday!
AEO: You’ve toured with and played with other big names like the Arctic Monkeys. What are some things you take away from playing with or opening for other bands?
Ellis: When I started the band, I wasn’t even thinking about it being a touring band. I really just wanted to make a record. It’s been a cool and unexpected thing that now that we tour all the time, we get to see all these bands up close and play with them. I found my musical influences have really opened up. I know contemporary music a lot better than when I started the band. After playing with Alt-J, I basically have all of their music memorized. Stuff sort of seeps in here and there, when you pick up a nice harmonic motion or an interesting live thing that they’ll do. You pick those things up along the way, and that’s what makes you a complete and professional band.
AEO: Considering now that you’re an eight-piece, touring band, it’s interesting that you only wanted to make an album when you first started. How did you get to where you are now as an ensemble?
Ellis: When I wrote the first record, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a touring band, I basically just wrote for whatever I wanted. I’d have, like, all these horns and strings. My background is in writing instrumental music. I studied classical music in college, so I knew how to do that stuff. Our label said I had to figure out how to make this thing work on the road. From there, I whittled it down from twenty-two musicians to eight, which is still a huge band, but it’s the minimal number of instruments you can bring and still make this music sound big and lush. That process was when it turned from a solo project to a real band.
AEO: Is there anyone you’d love to perform or collaborate with in the future?
Ellis: If we’re talking pipe dreams, I’d love to play with Paul Simon. He’s always been someone I’ve looked up to. It would be cool not only from a personal standpoint but also an historical standpoint. I’d be playing with someone who’s really done so much for music.
AEO: Were you friends with the other band members before this?
Ellis: Allen, who sings lead guy vocals, and I have been really close since we were fifteen. We met at a summer songwriting/music camp at Berklee College of Music, actually. The brass players I knew from college, and everyone else I recruited when I got to New York.
AEO: When you’re creating music now, do you write as a whole band or are you still mainly doing the writing?
Ellis: I still do all the writing because it’s sort of how we started. There’s a little more room in the live show for people taking liberties. Everyone kind of knows the structure of the band, and it kind of eliminates that drama where everyone has a song.
AEO: Do you know you want to feature a specific instrument or does that happen organically for you?
Ellis: At this point I know the musical personalities of all these people. Often we’ll be learning and practicing a new song, and I’ll just be like, “Hey Steve (who’s the sax player), I’m thinking of extending this part a little bit, could you do something like a low growl?” and then it develops into a groove. That’s how the second half of our song Parasites was born.
AEO: Could you speak to how you feel San Fermin is different from other bands?
Ellis: One thing that really makes us stand out is that I write the parts but I don’t sing. That’s kind of weird in the indie world. People are used to staring at the singer thinking they wrote the songs. Because I write the songs and stand off to the side by the keyboard, audiences are little more interested in watching the whole thing. It’s a little more equal that way.
AEO: Speaking of forming the band, how did you come up with the name San Fermin?
Ellis: It’s actually the name of the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona. I like the image of running from something, it resonates with me, especially when you’re running from something that you put yourself in the way of. You’re running from something just because you want to.
AEO: What inspired you to be a musician?
Ellis: When I was in high school, I had a string of very unsuccessful bands – a metal band, a cover band. I played classical piano on the side but I didn’t tell any of my friends because I thought it was kind of nerdy. When I got to college I tried to put that stuff together. I started writing arrangements for my bands and use my skills as a musician with my desire to write songs. That’s when I thought I could do this as a real job.
AEO: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into music?
Ellis: Treat music like it is your job, not something you do after whatever it is you do to make money. When I was in school, I would write music before I would do my homework. Think of it as your profession even before you’re making money doing that, because otherwise it can take a backseat to whatever else you’re doing, and suddenly you’ll have missed your shot.
AEO: Are you starting to work on your next album now as you’re touring?
Ellis: I’m actually waiting on purpose. I’ll probably start writing in the spring. In the meantime, I’ve been writing other music like orchestra pieces and ballets. When I come back to the band, I’ll have a fresh slate.
AEO: The band recently released “No Devil.” Tell us more about the inspiration behind the song.
Ellis: That’s the one song I’ve written since the last album came out. We were on the road, and that song sort of has a road feeling to it. Whenever I’m gone on tour, I find that I start feeling guilty about being away from home. It’s about thinking I’m running from some demon but it’s alright, it’s okay to be doing what I’m doing.
AEO: Do you have a funny or embarrassing moment on tour?
Ellis: I hold this moment very dear to my heart. We were playing in Paris, and we walked on stage and our trumpet player John had a habit of raising his arms as we walked on stage. He was one of the first guys on stage as we walked out, immediately tripped on a monitor and went sprawling across the stage. He landed on all the guitar equipment. It was truly horrendous. We couldn’t start the show for at least a minute because we were all laughing.
AEO: How would you describe your on-stage presence?
Ellis: If you’ve only hear the recordings, the live show is surprisingly active. It’s a really energetic show. The brass players are jumping around and going out into the audience. It’s engaging and complicated because there’s always something going on. I try to stay to the side and let the live show be a moment for everyone else in the band. I like to think of myself as Larry from School of Rock. The shy keyboardist. That’s me.
AEO: Can you describe the band’s everyday #AEOSTYLE?
Ellis: It’s definitely evolved. When we first started the only word you could give it is “scattered.” Everyone came into it with their own look. At this point, we generally wear dark colors, a lot of black. Some navy and dark greens. The girls tend to be more adventurous. Charlene wears a lot of jumpsuits. Rebekah has some really cool leather dresses. Allen has a lot of very small patterned t-shirts and denim overshirts. I generally wear a black denim jacket, a black t-shirt and black skinny jeans. When you’re on the road it helps to have layers.
Don’t forget to check out San Fermin’s Holiday Playlist online & listen for their picks in stores! Let us know your favorite San Fermin song in the comments below.