There are a lot of bands based out of Brooklyn. There are a lot of bands releasing a third full-length album, a lot of bands who have been featured in The New York Times, and a lot of bands who made the trek down to this year’s SXSW in Austin,Texas.
But there aren’t a lot of bands who fit all of those qualifications, with great finesse, composed of an eight-piece core and led by a Brooklyn-based Yale graduate with a degree in music composition. That Yale grad, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, is the founder of San Fermin, who release their new album, Belong, today.
Belong is the outfit’s third album, and the second with a mostly-consistent lineup, including singers Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye, the latter joining the band for the recording of their second album, 2015’s Jackrabbit. Belong is their most succinct work yet, and makes a point of being as accessible as any release they’ve put out—where past songs had long intros, a natural move from the classically-trained Leone, Belong goes for songs that standalone on their own, but still fit together to tell a bigger story. And lucky for them, their aim succeeds tremendously: Belong paints a big, beautiful picture, and yet still has songs you’ll find yourself humming hours after listening.
In the time since the band was last together, Kaye and Tate (along with fellow band members Claire Wellin, Michael Hanf, and Stephen Chen) all put out solo projects, before coming together to record and tour for Belong. “I think it’s very important that everyone has their own full artistic lives,” Leone says. “My goal for this band is definitely something like Broken Social Scene.”
San Fermin will play one of the first shows at the new 1800-capacity Williamsburg venue Brooklyn Steel on May 13, in what will be their biggest NYC show ever. I had the chance to have coffee in Prospect Heights with the trio of Leone, Kaye, and Tate last month, not long after their return from SXSW, which they’ve all endured the ups and downs of at least twice. Despite lasting fatigue from the week in Austin, we talked about the new album, the band’s progression, and some encounters with greatness.
Brooklyn Magazine: I’ve really liked the new album so far.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Oh, good!
BK: I noticed it’s shorter. Is that a conscious thing you chose to do?
ELL: I think so. Really, I made a decision really early that there was going to be no interludes. I felt like what I wanted to make was an album of solidly-built songs that you can listen to just by themselves and have a really good experience. Whereas on the first record, I was thinking about songs that were part of this larger architecture. I wrote over an hour of music—I think four songs got cut. It was a different process than usual.
BK: How was that different from the last two albums?
ELL: In some ways it was easier, because this was actually the first time that the band has had hundreds of shows under its belt before we recorded. Because even the second record, when I wrote it, I wrote a lot of it before we started touring. So the second record felt very transitional in terms of how we would record it. This one, I felt really confident that I know what these guys do. On the other hand, there’s a sense of, oh, this is our third record—you really want it to be great. I think a band’s third record is an important keystone to the rest of their career. There’s a little bit of that looming over it.
BK: Was there more of a consistency feeling, with having Charlene, and most of the lineup together, for a second straight album?
Charlene Kaye: I think so. I think it’s a natural progression from Jackrabbit.
BK: Did you feel more cohesive as a band?
Allen Tate: I think the touring around Jackrabbit was some of the most formative touring that we did, because we started doing bigger headline shows, and we also did, like, 30 shows opening for Alt-J. Those opportunities on a bigger stage, especially the Alt-J shows, playing for people who weren’t our fans. Maybe a really dedicated San Fermin fan loves this song, but you can go out there for someone on their first time listening, and maybe that doesn’t work right away in the way that we’ve been experiencing it. I think a lot of the songs on the new record ended up being more immediate, or more accessible, because of those experiences of playing for people who are not our fans, which I think was really good for our band’s growth.
BK: Is there a different mindset when you’re out there playing for fans who aren’t necessarily there to see you?
AT: Yeah, I kind of like it. Sometimes playing for your own crowd is really nice, and people singing along all the words, you can’t trade that. We played a show in Latvia, and people knew the words to the songs, which is mind-blowing. But in another way… Alt-J’s fans are a lot of times, like, the kind of girls you’d be afraid of in high school. [ALL LAUGH]. They’re like, cool-looking, they’re young, and they’re not impressed, because you’re not who they came to see. So, turning a crowd like that feels really good. You have to walk out with a bit of a chip on your shoulder, and be like you don’t know it yet, but you’re going to like this. I think every time you’re able to do that feels really satisfying and reaffirms what we’re doing as a band.
CK: Also, they’re so familiar with Alt-J’s music, and they expect to see a band that is a four-piece, or, like a mellow performance… and then you see us, and it’s like, an eight-piece, and you freak out. “What is this?” This is a really strange fit, but I really liked you guys, and I’m going to follow you guys now.
BK: In writing and putting this album together, who were some of the influences you guys had?
ELL: One that was a big one for me was that I was listening to a lot of Grimes. I was actually listening a lot to Kate Bush. Kate Bush was a huge one on this record. There’s been a shift for me in writing the songs for Char, particularly, the female voice, that on the first record, the female voice was always a man’s idea of a woman, where it’s a response, often, to things Allen was saying. I think a big focus for me on this record, and I think it’s happened naturally, just having Char in the band and working with her a lot, was fully realizing that voice as it’s own thing, it’s own person, and there’s no one better to listen to for that kind of music than Kate Bush. I think it’s such a specific songwriting voice, and so fully realized and feminine.
BK: What about you guys?
AT: I guess the one I was most struck by listening to this year was a lot of the Frank Ocean stuff. Mainly, because like everyone else, I was waiting so long for that record to come, and when it came, it was much weirder, and more out there. There wasn’t anything like “Thinkin’ Bout You.” There wasn’t a single pop song, just deeper stuff that changed into a whole different song halfway through, and some of them felt like weird Stevie Wonder deep cuts.
ELL: With Char’s record, I was a little less involved, because you did produce it mostly yourself, but it’s interesting to see where a singer decides she wants to sing. What the range actually is, and I think the range for you on this record actually moved down a little bit.
CK: I think my inclination is not to write stuff that’s super high for myself. So, that’s what was really interesting when I first joined San Fermin—I was like, I don’t sing this kind of stuff. It was scary, because it didn’t feel like my real house at all. But, yeah. Maybe as time has gone by, it’s influenced my writing more. I do want to take risks like that, and I think it is interesting… there are less insane moments on this record. [ALL LAUGH] Like Parasites [LAUGHS AGAIN].
ELL: That was sort of the show stopper thing too, right? On the first one it was like, we’ve got the guy with the lowest voice in the world and the voices that are the highest [ALL LAUGH] and then there’s brass…
CK: Come one, come all!
AT: It’s like a circus. [ALL LAUGH]
ELL: Exactly. Just, like, not really what I wanted it to be.
BK: What was your favorite story about making Belong?
ELL: We did have a funny moment in the studio with “No Promises,” which was that we were running out of time, A$AP Ferg was coming in. Do you remember this? [ALL LAUGH] A$AP Ferg was coming in. I had written “No Promises” and “Perfume” later, and so we were recording those, and it’s a lot of vocal lines for Char. It’s a ton of stuff. A$AP Ferg was about to get there, and we were getting kicked out, and we changed the verse lyrics.
CK: Oh, yeah! Right.
ELL: It was the last thing we did. It was, like, 30 seconds before we had to leave.
CK: I totally forgot about that.
ELL: That was some, like…
AT: Just bugging.
ELL: That was some stressful, reality show shit, where it was just like, You have five minutes to write a song. [ALL LAUGH]
CK: But at the same time, I was like.. “This mic sounds amazing! What is it?” And then somebody was like, “Oh, I think that’s the mic that Beyoncé used on Lemonade.”
BK: Oh my god.
AT: Just tell me that.
CK: I’ll channel that energy, sure.
AT: It is decided. It is the mic.
BK: Did you ever find out if it was actually her mic?
CK: Well, it came from the studio that she recorded it in, so, let’s just say it was.
ELL: We’re saying it’s the mic.
AT: I used that mic too, you know.
ELL: It’s like that moment in Space Jam where they drink the special juice, and it’s just water.
BK: I read a story in The FADER a few months back about The Internet, and how they come together as a band by working, in their off time, on separate, solo projects. Do you guys relate?
CK: Someone said to us recently, “You guys are like Wu-Tang on the low.” [ALL LAUGH] I love that. I hope that we’re either like that, or like a Broken Social Scene kind of collective, where we all do our own thing, but this is something that really connects us at the end of the day.
AT: Yeah. I think going through the recording process, and putting out a record, playing some solo shows, it was a really different experience. That, and also the band was off for six or seven months, so being at SXSW, and being back on stage with all of your friends is just so nice, and because we’re such a big group, and because of the particular people in the group, we have a lot of fun on stage. We mess around and try to make each other laugh, so I think being back with the group felt really energizing.
We just got a new violinist, Claire Wellin, and she seemed a little nervous. I realized after the show that if you’re not used to it, after most shows that we play, no matter where they are—SXSW underneath a porch with bad sound, and all this kind of stuff—we have a lot of fun, but also everyone’s listening really closely, and everyone’s paying attention to the details no matter what.
ELL: I mean, I’m literally staring at all seven of you while we play.
AT: Right. Exactly—watchful eye. But if you’re not used to that it can be an intense environment. But at the same time, it’s something that I’m so used to now that I feel like it benefits my own music and then we all have developed this keen ear for getting the best out of each other.
Check out San Fermin at Brooklyn Steel on May 13. Their new album, Belong, is out today on Downtown Records.
This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity
Photos by Danny Renshaw