Brooklyn-based San Fermin, now an eight-piece touring enterprise, did not start that way. In December of 2012, the initially makeshift project performed a single concert—from sheet music—and signed a record deal. Their self-titled debut was subsequently released worldwide in the fall of 2013 via Downtown Records. Following rave reviews, the band was thrust into the spotlight, performing sold out shows and festivals across the world and opening for the likes of the National, St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, and The Head and the Heart.
"Suddenly, we were not in a vacuum. We were in the thick of it, which was thrilling but also terrifying," bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone says. "There were all these new possibilities and gray areas. It was a shock to the system—out in the world, barely at home, constantly in a state of semi-crisis."
Many of the songs on Jackrabbit, San Fermin's second album, existed only on Ludwig-Leone's laptop for the better part of a year, as he toured and turned the band into an ensemble operation. When at last he revisited them, he knew that they had to be reborn. "The first record was written in a very pre-composed way, recorded when I didn't think this would be a band. So I went from being this isolated composer guy to sitting in the back of a crowded van with seven other band members playing shows in rock clubs every night," he says. "When I got back, I ripped these holes in the middle of the existing songs and added some new ones. I rethought everything I had been writing."
Recorded piecemeal in many sessions under Ludwig-Leone's watchful eye, Jackrabbit bears the scars of experience admirably. If San Fermin could seem prepared and guarded to the point of being polite, Jackrabbit lines that record's complicated compositional maneuvers and grandiose pop eruptions with necessary aggression. It is urgent and in your face, like a band sweating and singing in a cramped venue. It is emotionally complicated, too, like a group of strangers who have suddenly had their lives interrupted and linked by unexpected circumstances.
Fittingly, Jackrabbit is filled with moments in which each member of the band is prominently featured: John Brandon (trumpet), Stephen Chen (saxophone), Rebekah Durham (violin/vocals), Michael Hanf (drums), Charlene Kaye (lead vocals), Tyler McDiarmid (guitar), and Allen Tate (lead vocals). The two discrete characters born by the debut album have been replaced by multiple personalities, treading new and difficult terrain.
This evolution is at the heart of Jackrabbit, a powerful record where moments beautiful, brutal and a bit of both produce songs that don't know how to let you out of their clutches or console you with easy answers. At once lived-in and sophisticated, Jackrabbit feels a lot like real life—charmed, challenging, and wonderfully compulsory.
San Fermin is an American baroque pop band, started by Brooklyn-based composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone. They released their self-titled debut album on Downtown Records on September 17, 2013. Their sophomore album Jackrabbit was released on April 21, 2015.
San Fermin took shape after Ludwig-Leone's graduation from Yale University, where he studied composition. While still in college, he assisted composer Nico Muhly, known for his work with Antony and the Johnsons, Sufjan Stevens, and Grizzly Bear, on several film scores and operas. Despite being in several bands in high school and even some during college, Ludwig-Leone did not decide to focus on making pop music until the end of his college career: "I put on a concert with some new pieces I had written for female singers, and then we ended the night with some pop tunes from the band, for which I made these totally over-the-top arrangements. It was then I realized that I could bring these things together."
After his graduation from Yale, Ludwig-Leone retreated to Canada's secluded Banff Centre, where he wrote what would eventually become San Fermin. The album was recorded shortly after. It features performances by 22 musicians, including vocals from Ludwig-Leone's longtime collaborator Allen Tate, as well as Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius. While Tate is a member of the touring ensemble, Wolfe and Laessig are not, with Rae Cassidy performing the female parts in the band's live performances instead. Cassidy's interpretations of the songs have been praised by numerous critics, including Paul Krugman of The New York Times. The New Yorker recognized the musicianship of the entire eight-piece live ensemble, noting their ability to "deliver epic and emotion-laden rock, with glorious and operatic vocals, electronic break beats, horns, strings, and other flourishes." In April 2014, Cassidy left the band to focus on her solo career and was replaced by Charlene Kaye.
The band released their self-titled debut on September 17, 2013 via Downtown Records to positive reviews. NPR called the record "one of the year's most surprising, ambitious, evocative and moving records," praising Ludwig-Leone for his ability to write a collection of songs "as easy to love as they are to admire." Pitchfork also gave the album a positive review, declaring the album's lead single "Sonsick", which was released December 2012, "deliriously infectious." The album reached #18 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers album chart.
On December 7, 2014, the band teased their new single "Parasites" via Instagram. The next day, NPR premiered the track and announced the release of the band's second album. Jackrabbit was released on April 21, 2015 via Downtown Records and debuted at #8 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, was met by critical praise from NPR, Rolling Stone and more. San Fermin made their national television debut on CBS This Morning on May 2, 2015 and made their late night debut on Last Call With Carson Daly on June 2, 2015.