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San Fermin brings classical music to the pop music world

Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the main composer for the indie band San Fermin.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the main composer for the indie band San Fermin.
Denny Renshaw

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The classical and pop music world are sometimes viewed as opposites, but there has been a growing amount of artists – such as the Kronos Quartet and Nico Muhly – who are blurring the lines between the two genres.

Ellis Ludwig-Leone is another of those artists. He studied classical music at Yale and has composed works for the New York City Ballet, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and for the L.A. collective, wild Up.


Ludwig-Leone is also in the indie rock band San Fermin. The group released its second album, titled “Jackrabbit,” last year and is currently touring the U.S. The Frame’s James Kim spoke with Ludwig-Leone about what inspired him to make classically-inspired pop music.


Do you remember when you first started playing music?

When I was eight, my dad took me to sign up for basketball and we were at the local library. There was a piano there and I guess a bunch of other kids were playing on it, and it was around the corner so my dad couldn't see that I was there. I sat down and started playing it and he thought it was actually somebody who knew how to play, and then he saw that it was me. He [said], "Oh, I guess we got to get this kid into lessons." At least that's the story he tells. Who knows if that's true?

Were your parents supportive of your decision to pursue music as a career?

My parents were really supportive of me doing music because they're painters, my sister's a painter, my cousin's a painter. It's a very arts-related family. So they had to tell my sister, "You know, it's OK if you're a doctor." It's like the opposite of the normal problem. 

NY Ballet

How did you end up in the classical music world?

I got into classical music in college because there was nothing else to study if you wanted to do music. It was that or you could join an a cappella group, God forbid. I mean I can't sing either. So anyway, I just threw myself into it and actually started to really like it. I did play classical piano as a kid, so it kind of clicked. 

Even though I studied classical music, it never felt like it was entirely my world. I actually came to school to study and I was actually way behind everyone else. There were kids who had been doing it since they were 10, with real composition teachers, and I was like totally not that. I was figuring it out as I went. 

What kind of music did you write after graduating from college?

When I got out of college, I was hired on a part-time basis as a musical assistant to Nico Muhly, a really incredible composer who lives in New York, and I helped him in whatever small ways I could. The cool thing about that is my own opportunities for writing instrumental music have really opened up because orchestras, choirs and ballets are interested in having a different kind of voice that maybe comes from a different place like San Fermin. 


You now are the frontman for the band San Fermin, but you don't actually sing in the band. That must be a bit unique, at least in the rock world.

It is unusual for me to be writing lyrics and to not be singing them, but I know Allen Tate's voice so well and now I know Charlene Kaye's voice so well that it's just like writing for another instrument for me. 

I've never been the frontman for any band that I've been in because I don't sing, never have. It really wasn't until this band that I went ahead and took on the songwriting responsibilities. 

Since you have a classical music background, how do you approach writing for an indie rock band?

For me, I get bored easily listening to music. Especially on this new one, "Jackrabbit," it'll be in this place for a minute or two, and then it will change totally. I like feeling like the music has infinite possibility to it, but I think you also pay a price for that, right? Because then, you can't just put it on in the background.

San Fermin is currently touring the U.S. in support of its latest album, "Jackrabbit."  

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