Spencer Ludwig Takes Life By the Horns
By Daniel Harrison · On November 15, 2013

Every great concert feels the same. The artist is so talented and so engaging that the audience feels transported, in an almost hypnotic state. If you’ve ever seen a truly great concert, you know the feeling of euphoria that comes from witnessing such raw talent. Monday night’s performance from Capital Cities and and Fitz and the Tantrums delivered that type of show.

SGP brought Capital Cities and Fitz to the Phillips Center Monday night for a free show as part of the LA-based bands’ current US tour. After a long, hectic weekend I figured it would be a nice way to end the weekend. I’d heard of both bands before and both are in my iTunes collection, so I safely assumed their shows wouldn’t get to wild. Dead wrong. Such a surprise gave the show that much more of an impact.

Capital Cities came on after the opening act, Beat Club. Immediately the crowd stood up and rushed the stage. The two lead singers of Capital Cities, Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant, have an on-stage chemistry and stage presence that gives you the feeling that they’re the coolest guys in the room. Their voices sound even better live than recorded, and they know how to work an audience. Simonian and Merchant move around the stage with ease and get everyone to follow along in admittedly cheesy dance moves, but everyone’s doing it, so it’s cool. (They did a cover of “Staying Alive” with accompanying dance moves that eerily reminded me of my Bar-Mitzvah days.) At the end of their set they put on a remix of “Safe and Sound”. Immediately after playing it they danced around the stage for ten minutes and then threw their Capital Cities letterman jackets into the crowd.

Following Capital Cities, Fitz and the Tantrums had a hard act to follow with an audience holding high expectations. While Capital Cities plays an ’80s synth pop with modern rock, Fitz and the Tantrums have a sound closer to Motown revival, making any comparison irrelevant. Lead singers Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs have mesmerizing voices, and Scaggs’s is up their with Beyonce as one of the best in pop music. Fitz and the Tantrums got everyone involved in singing along to songs, even for those hearing it for the first time, and getting into the mood. After two massive encores, they closed the night big.

Despite the two amazing bands’ performances the real star of the show was, to my surprise, Capital Cities’s resident trumpeter Spencer Ludwig. Off to stage left Ludwig played his trumpet in a way I could only describe as electrifying. He does not stop moving. Unlike most featured brass musicians, he’s not a background effect, but an integral part of Capital Cities’ sound. For every solo he took center stage and blew everyone away. Unless you’ve seen them perform live before you’d have no idea that their trumpeter would be so good. In the middle of Fitz and the Tantrums’s set, Ludwig came back on stage for an improv battle between him and Fitz’s saxophone player.

I was so captivated by Ludwig I emailed his publicist in the middle of the show requesting an interview. On Tuesday afternoon I spoke with him on the phone right before he was about to film his performance for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” His story provides a perfect example of the classic mantra: success is part hard-work and part luck.

Ludwig, 23, grew up in Los Angeles, California and attended the Oakwood School- a small private K-12 school, on scholarship. He said in fourth grade he started playing saxophone because his school strongly supported the performing arts and he was “just going with the flow.” He developed a true love for it and performed in the school’s jazz band throughout his middle school years.

In high school his orchestra director told him to switch to French horn, an instrument completely different from sax, and having the reputation of being the hardest instrument to play. Ludwig really didn’t want to make the switch, mostly because the French horn is a “background instrument.” Despite the drastic change, he did it, “to stay with my friends.” When it came time to apply to college he’d decided he wanted to pursue music, but wanted to apply not as a French horn player, but as a trumpet player. He wanted to combine his love for jazz music and his skills on brass instruments. When his advisors refused to help him apply to schools for any other instrument than the one he already played, he stole a trumpet from the school, taught himself, and sent audition CDs to “every school in the country.”

Ludwig got accepted to the only school he really had any interest in, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He ironically began teaching trumpet part-time at the school that refused to allow him to learn trumpet.

Once he started college, Ludwig began playing in a band with a few guys that graduated from Oakwood a few years before him. The band started playing every Friday night at a tiny, upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills, called Nic’s Martini Bar, where his performance style really developed. Despite having literally no room for a band to perform Nic’s had live music every week. They played hit music from every era, and every night was an “apeshit, sweaty Beverly Hills party.” Due to lack of space Ludwig started performing on top of the furniture, the bar, or on peoples’ tables. This is how he learned to make the trumpet sexy. “If I stand on top of a table, I can’t look like an idiot, I have to look cool. You can’t be awkward if you’re gonna take a trumpet solo on top of someone’s table while they’re eating.”

In the fall of 2011 he was playing with a band called Sister Rogers at a local LA music festival. The only people in the audience were Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant of Capital Cities, because they were performing right after them. Sebu approached him after the show, an encounter where he thought this “super sketchy bearded dude” was trying to mug him, but he asked him to play with Capital Cities sometime. After agreeing to the jam sesh (being his biggest piece of advice, Ludwig said, “always say yes to a gig.”), Ludwig met with them a few times. He performed with them for the first time that Halloween and had his first out-of-town gig with the band in San Francisco on New Years Eve. Since then he hasn’t been home much, touring internationally and now currently on his second US tour.

I’m still hearing people talk about “the trumpet player.” Spencer Ludwig undeniably stole the show that night with his killer performance, which was “ninety-nine percent improv.”

He also offers four pieces of advice to aspiring artists, but they are applicable to anyone with dreams:

Keep practicing and honing your craft.

Always push yourself, because there’s no reason not to.

Always say yes to a gig.

Always seek out to collaborate, even if it’s not conventional.

Although he’s performed for global audiences, Ludwig still thinks of himself as that trumpet player on top of people’s dinner tables at Nic’s, where he thought to himself, “Who cares? Do whatever you want. I’m just living it up and I really don’t know any other way to do that.”