One of the most stunning musical efforts of 2013 came from the mind of composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone — a name destined for greatness if ever we've heard one – in the form of the intricately and precisely written and produced San Fermin.
In San Fermin, the self-titled debut effort by Ludwig-Leone's band San Fermin, dueling female and male vocalists (the supremely talented Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius and Allen Tate, the grimmest baritone going besides Bill Callahan) shine amongst low brass and shimmering percussion, strings and, of course, Ludwig-Leone's piano.
The album, conceptualized in Banff and recorded in New York City, is a singular achievement. But taking that massive show on the road?
"When I was writing the record, it didn't seem like it was any skin off my back to add in another trombone or another tuba. The first show we did, we did with 15 people," Ludwig-Leone says. "That was a real lesson in economy, because I'd already scaled it down some, but you realize when you're playing a show and you have all these people on stage ... it's not even feasible."
He eventually whittled his work to fit only eight band members, including Tate and touring female vocalist Rae Cassidy, a trumpet player, saxophonist, guitarist, drummer, violinist and himself. But besides working dozens of instrumental parts into under ten players, Ludwig-Leone had to adapt his sprawling, multi-movement, chamber pop record – which really must be listened to from top to bottom for full effect – for the stage.
"We tried [playing the songs live out of track list order] a couple of times and it really doesn't work," he said. "It feels like it has to start from the beginning to the end. It's funny because we play these sets, and we're a new band, so we only have one album and it's not like we're picking and choosing from a back catalogue. So we go from "Renaissance!" [track one] all the way to "Daedalus" [the final track, minus an outro] and play it right in order."
Throughout the record, which includes various instrumental interludes, the characters banter, argue and pontificate. Ludwig-Leone describes the relationship between the two characters as such:
"I felt like [Tate's] character was so grandiose and so almost melodramatic. I started having this knee-jerk reaction against him," he said. "I'd want to write these big things [but] ... someone just needed to tell him to shut up. So that's where the female character came from. And she really grew into her own person, especially in the song "Sonsick," where she talks about her own anxieties and fears about growing up and proceeding into the mundane life that adults often lead.
"So the push and pull of this album was between an idealist, someone who is looking for answers to something, and maybe he is mistakenly putting that on the female character. And then the female character is shying away from that. And then, in the interludes where you have these female voices sort of whispering and it feels much more liturgical, I think that shows a glimpse into her psyche."
And why call it San Fermin?
"The running of the bulls [at the San Fermin Festival], the idea to me is very romantic: that people are throwing themselves in danger just to do it. Just to have their heart beat a little faster."
San Fermin will open for Son Lux at Thursday's show at Joyful Noise.