In the world of chamber pop groups, Brooklyn’s San Fermin, who will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, December 5, at 8 p.m., stands as the collective result of a project that originally begin with one man in a room, with sheet music, and no band at all.
It remained a composition project that Ellis Ludwig-Leone achieved mainly in his bedroom. When it came time to make a record of the work, that scope expanded to a few studios around New York City that Ludwig-Leone paid for out of his own pocket. The band consisted of singer Allen Tate, and a group of musicians, including string players, brass players, and a drummer.
Out of that group, Tate and a few of the musicians transitioned into a live performance version with 15 players cramped onto a tiny stage one very hot New York City night.
“Everyone was sweating,” Ludwig-Leone said. “And we were all reading off of sheet music, so it definitely did not at all resemble what the band ended up becoming.”
Several of the players onstage ended up staying in the permanent line-up of the band, now an eight-piece that recently released its second album, Jackrabbit, which was released earlier in 2015.
Prior to that first performance, Ludwig-Leone had been working as an assistant to composer Nico Muhly, but Ludwig-Leone soon found that the band demanded his full attention. Downtown Records had signed them a couple days after that first show, and putting together and honing a touring version of the band became Ludwig-Leone’s top priority.
“I remember after that calling Allen and saying, hey, man, I think we got a record deal, we’ve just got to figure out how to tour this,” said Ludwig-Leone. “He’s very understated generally and he said, ‘Cool, alright.’ That was the beginning of figuring this whole thing out.”
One of the distinct features of the first album was the vocal interplay between Tate with Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius, while Jackrabbit introduces Charlene Kaye in their place. Ludwig-Leone had originally intended to compose with Tate in mind, but found that as he wrote, another voice kept popping up in his head saying things opposite whatever he wrote for Tate. He started hearing that voice as female, and that became a musical back and forth that had Wolfe and Lessig making fun of Tate’s grandiose statements, a autobiographical touch that Ludwig-Leone thinks is one of the best parts of the first album, but he found that too limiting on the second album.
“On the second record I wanted both Alan and Charlene to be more complex characters,” Ludwig-Leone said. “Instead of going back and forth, they’re going back and forth within their own dialogues.”
Another change from the first album is that the material is written for specific players, who then take the material for an adventure once the recording is done.
“When we start to talk about how to do them live, it’s a much more open dialogue than it used to be,” said Ludwig-Leone. “I recognize the live show as a shared thing and it’s something we can change and adjust. Honestly, sometimes people will change things and I’ll wish it was on the recording. I think it would be stupid to be too dictatorial about it.”
And Ludwig-Leone doesn’t forget that while his musical vision might be the central component of the group, he also functions as a band member — on stage, he plays keyboard and bass keyboard.
“It’s not a very glamorous role in the band,” he said. “It’s the least mobile, I can’t really jump around on stage. I’m often just filling text or playing bass lines, which is funny because of course there are songs that I wrote every part to.”
Ludwig-Leone feels that placement offers the band more of a a group identity and gives each member a chance to shine with their own ability and ideas. To a casual observer of either side of the band’s process, there might be moments where the center of power seem off-balance, but both dynamics — studio and live — create the perfect equanimity that adds up to a band.
“It’s definitely a funny gig because my big contribution comes before the show,” Ludwig-Leone said. “And then once the show happens, I’m a little bit more in the background.”