Musician Zac Little talks about the Ohio band's latest dreamy folk rock effort.
Singer and musician Zac Little is the driving force behind the Columbus, Ohio-based folk rock band Saintseneca as its founder and main songwriter -- but his work doesn't stop there. In addition to the music, Little is also responsible for the band's visuals, especially for the album covers. And on the side, Little also designs and handcrafts metal jewelry, a skill that goes back to when he was studying sculpture in school, that he sells on Saintseneca's website. For him, both music and fine art are interconnected, serving as an outlet for his creativity.
"I felt kind of frustrated by the time I was done with school," he tells PopMatters," because I felt like the work that I was making was kind of super academic and esoteric, and maybe it was only speaking to people in the art world or people who had the privilege of studying art. But there was something exciting to me about playing pop music and how that could be something that people could connect to and relate to on a broad level."
Since emerging in 2007, Saintseneca has evolved from a folkie, bluegrass-sounding collective to an ambitious folk rock band. Of the band's original lineup, only Little remains; the current configuration of Saintseneca includes him, Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador, and Matthew O'Conke. Just a year after releasing its second full-length album, Dark Arc, the band returns with a new album, Such Things, and will be touring America and Europe through December.
Of Saintseneca's relatively quick turnaround with new music, Little says he tries to write songs all the time: the new material developed during the recording of Dark Arc. "So by the time we had that one done," he says, "I had most of these songs written. But I kept adding more and ended up writing probably about 30 or so songs and demoed those out before we pinned down the track listing. I think that we just wanted to be able to follow up Dark Arc pretty quickly. Personally when bands release albums I'd always like to have some time to spend with it, to live with that record before they put out another thing. But I feel a year and a half or so is enough."
Going into the studio for the new album, Little had the idea of making Such Things as a rock record that captures the feeling of a band playing. "I think that was especially different between Last, our first record, and Dark Arc was that Last was a live record of what was at the time was a folkie bluegrass band. And Dark Arc came to be what it was because that lineup dissolved. So it wasn't a lineup, it was this sort of nebulous group of people that would come in and out. I think we ended up having maybe 13-14 different people record on Dark Arc, and it wasn't with any reference to a live band or sound.
"So for this one, I was trying to find some middle ground between the two where it can have some moments where the vibe feels like a band within a room or space presenting the song, but maybe augmenting that with interesting, expansive sonic textures, but then all of a sudden with some string instrument or strange synthesized texture changing that."
Adding to the eclectic, almost free-form nature of the music are Little's lyrics, which border on the stream of consciousness. According to him, they're a reflection of his personal interest in science.
"I was listening to lectures and reading books and reading philosophical texts that all kinds of relate to that," he says, "that's the cutting edge of science right now, is that the intersection of neuroscience and physics. People are trying to make sense of this weird thing that we refer to as consciousness is. I tried to ground all that or relate all that to personal experiences, so it's not just like this preachy or didactic thing that's so esoteric, but it's kind of related to my own life or the lives of others."
A few of the tracks on Such Things hearken back to the group's earlier bluegrass-influenced sound, such as "How Many Blankets Are In" and "The All Full On". But aside those, along with a few brief interludes, Such Things is an approachable dynamic-sounding record, as indicated on the catchy "Sleeper Hold".
"A lot of times I'll write songs that I consider sort of linear or something with a little pivot," he says, "the song would move in a certain way and then I'd like to turn it on its head. So part of the reason why that song took so long to write is that I kept trying to do weird things with it and it never worked, I think the song just wanted to be a straightforward pop song. My band mates liked it and I was like 'Uh, I don't know, maybe we should cut this one.' Maryn in particular really liked it, she liked the melody. Before I was singing the songs, and I thought, 'Well, maybe one if the things to make this more interesting was if she sung it.'"
A distinguishable track from the record is "River" for its anthemic rock/stomping beat and exuberance during two-thirds of it, then it kind of catches you off guard with that brief folkie bit almost towards the end. "I thought it would be fun to write a song like that," Little says. "We did Dark Arcand that was very much something that was created in the recording process. I wrote all those songs and I could play them by myself live. But then after we crafted these soundscapes in the studio, there was a process of figuring out how to reinterpret them in the live context. And I think learning how to play those songs live informed the way that I wrote for Such Things. I was like, 'Wouldn't it be cool to write a bust out pop jam: big guitars, fuzzy bass, a punk beat just like driving all the way through.' So that's how that song came to be."
Such Things is a certainly marked contrast to the early sound of Saintseneca, which was founded by Little and his friends almost ten years ago in Columbus in the days when they were playing in rock bands during high school. Part of the reason why Little formed the band was to have a platform where he could play various traditional instruments like a dulcimer or mandolin in a rock setting.
"So we played with that lineup for about four years," he recalls, "and eventually people just sort of moved on. But through the involvement of the music scene here in Columbus, and that all the people who have been playing in the band throughout the years afterward, we've had various switches...we'll switch it up from time to time. They're people who I saw their bands, listened to their songs and really respected them, and was excited about what they were doing. So when the time was right, I was like, 'Hey do you want to play this show or to tour?' Eventually, things just kind of stick. So I guess it sort of came full circle, somewhat like a rock band."
With all the instrumentation and elaborate production going on in Saintseneca's studio work, it's different dynamic when it comes to the band playing onstage. "I'm always inspired when I see bands who can take their recordings," says Little, "or maybe take a song that you're really familiar with on a record and then radically turn that on its head. If someone takes the quiet, meditative moment on an album, and then live makes that this huge anthem, that's one of the exciting things about performing and sharing songs in a live context. So I feel we'll do both: sometimes we'll take a huge song and make it small, and sometimes we'll take a song that feels intimate and make that a rocker."
As the band readies to perform in Europe for the first time later in the fall, Little says he's still appreciative of playing music after all this time as Saintseneca is closely approaching a full-decade as a working outfit. "One of the things that kept me sane," says Little, "or kept me wanting to do it for so long is that I try at least to appreciate it on all levels. Even when we're going out and playing a small show at a rock club, and there've been times when it's only a handful of people there, I still think that it's a special thing to just have the opportunity to be able to connect and share with other people. I just like being in it and immersed in it all the time."