When I meet Zac Little, de facto leader of Saintseneca, at the appropriately themed (for Portland, Oregon, at least) Doug Fir Lounge, his dress is uniform and antiquated: black shirt, black vest, black pants, black boots. The wardrobe hints of a time his orange, greased, pseudo-crew cut hair and brighter orange mustache, hanging abundantly over both lips, confirms. The style ostensibly fits the type of folk music the Columbus, Ohio outfit aspires to, but it suits him.
To call Saintseneca a band is a bit of a misnomer. Veterans of the DIY circuit, their members vary and switch, come and go, but never completely disappear. Over they years they've picked up All Dogs' Maryn Jones and the Sidekicks' Steve Ciolek (both fellow Columbus musicians). Their sound has grown, and with it their popularity. They've taken their once exclusively basement/living room show to bigger stages, and now find themselves on the road supporting their latest full length for Anti-, Dark Arc.
Punknews' Matthew Bentel sat down with Little after a particularly humorous sound check to talk about the group's new approach, the differences between DIY and club shows, and not giving a fuck (especially about bands like this and this).
The transformation from your previous full length, Last to Dark Arc is substantial. What single factor contributed to the change?
It‚??s hard to isolate a single factor, but one of the biggest things was the way the lineup shifted. When we went into making Last, part of the motivation for making that record, and specifically making it the way we did in terms of creating something that was basically a documentation of our live performances, was because I could see on the horizon that the band was going to change and certain people were probably not going to continue playing. I think the idea was to create something that was a memento or a documentation of that. To the extent that, in terms of the live set up right now, I‚??m the only original member left. Steve [Jacobs] and Luke [Smith] did record some stuff on Dark Arc , but it was a process of bringing in a lot of people around me. Because that happened, it really opened up the recording process. It wasn‚??t this thing where we had live songs and we wanted to document them, it was something that was really open and it was left to the imagination to figure out how we want to manifest the songs.
Prior to Dark Arc your songs sounded very minimalist with additional instrumentation to fill out the sound. Along with a considerable increase in percussion, the use of synthetic sounds and lush vocal harmonies function to tie all the parts together into one robust piece.
Yeah, I think that was kind of part of the way that it opened it up. The way I was writing had shifted, and one of the things that happened that really shaped the record was I started writing songs on bass. All of a sudden I had to reconcile the writing I was really excited about with the style of playing we were doing before. When that happened it was kind of like, there was never an electric instrument before, so I didn‚??t really know what to do with this, or how to unite those two worlds. I think the biggest part, though, was to let go and not be afraid to try stuff and do new things. It ended up being a lot more creatively fulfilling to pursue it in that way, to kind of record from your imagination rather than playing a song live. It‚??s still a balance between the two: maintaining a certain spirit of writing while not necessarily feeling like you have to adhere in a dogmatic way to "this is what we do, this is who we are."
When you were writing these songs, did you consider how you could play them live?
I really just stopped thinking about playing live because the live band was gone at that point. We were still playing shows and touring, but the whole genesis of the band in terms of live arrangements was gone. Rather than being sad about that, or afraid, it was seeing the opportunity in that and letting it be something liberating.
Would Saintseneca have continued on the trajectory had certain members not left?
No, I don‚??t think so, even if it were the same line up. It‚??s hard to say. It seems impossible to me that would be the case. I think the writing would have evolved.
I feel Dark Arc is calculated: it is something you wanted to do.
I would say that is a part of it. I also really enjoy recording. I feel like the moments on Last I was most excited about were times when we ventured away from what we do live, when we pushed it further. Like we want to have these vocal harmonies that we can‚??t do, or we‚??re going to dub in twice as many vocals. Those sorts of moments were the most exciting, so I think I embraced that. Dark Arc came from a desire; rather than feel inhibited, like I have to do this or that, I could do whatever I want.
I did place certain constraints on myself because I wanted it to be a catalyst to respond to creatively. Something that would prompt a creative response; deliberately do things that are non-traditional in terms of set up or instrumentation because I think you‚??ll end up with something more interesting than just electric guitar or just piano. It‚??s more interesting if you take that and use it in a way that feels novel.
How was the recording process?
Originally we were going to do live arrangements, but because the band was so nebulous at that point it didn‚??t make sense to approach it that way. I demoed a bunch of songs, just recorded the elemental version of each song, so whether that was me and the bass, or me at the balhama, or me and the guitar, that sort of elemental core version of the record existed. Then it was how do we use this as a jumping off point.
In many ways, it was about finding the song through that process. So we would try things. I would try it on a different instrument, or electric rather than acoustic, things like that. I might have this very elemental version, and have this melody in my head that I want to play on guitar and have it swoop over the song. It could be something that really altered the trajectory of a song, or sometimes it wouldn‚??t work and we‚??d start over.
How important is it to recreate the new songs live?
I don‚??t think it‚??s important to adhere to any type of rigid version of the song live. What‚??s more important is transmitting the spirit of the song. Personally, I find that pretty exciting, like when I see a band and they take a stripped down voice and guitar song and make it this epic thing with two drummers, or vice versa: take something that is really huge and make it intimate. As long as the essence of the song is communicated, or presented, that‚??s more important to me.
That‚??s interesting. Where before you would write songs to play live and document it after the fact, now it is the reverse. But, it‚??s easier than ever to recreate a lot of complicated or difficult sounds live.
Of course. The process of reinterpreting sounds or textures or choosing the sounds you want to reinterpret is fun. I think it‚??s really exciting. That is something I enjoy doing.
You recorded the music for Dark Arc in an attic over the course of nine months, and then worked with Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M. Ward) at a proper studio in Nebraska. How did you get connected with him?
After we had finished recording with Glenn Davis, we presented that record to Anti-. They heard it and really liked it. They said, "We love it how it is, and will put it out, or you can push it further." I feel it‚??s pretty seldom ‚Äď especially in art ‚Äď you‚??ll make something, feel that it‚??s done, have time to sit on it, and then reflect: if I could go back in time, what would I change? We got an opportunity to do that, except to a whole other degree. We got to take these recordings we made and place them in the context of a really beautiful studio. I‚??ve always admired Mike‚??s work. Had it been some other producer I wasn‚??t a fan of, I may have been more reluctant, but they suggested him, and that was like, "whoa, his work‚??s phenomenal." It was really exciting to do that.
Do you feel like you needed someone like Mike on board to help push the evolving sound, or was it really the opportunity to reexamine it?
I think it was more [reexamining]. I felt like the first version was fully realized. But it was something that was an exciting opportunity. We had put so much hard work in making the record, month after month of tracking. I felt like in working with him, it would serve that work better, and would result in something that was an even stronger presentation of that work. Mike wasn‚??t saying, "I want to take the record you made and totally take it apart." When we spoke, it was something that he found compelling, and respected the work we did, and was excited to see what we could do. That was something that was affirming to me. It was fun.
I‚??ve read that early in your career while you were playing the DIY circuit, creating a fuller sound was your way of matching the hardcore and punk bands you were playing with. Was there pressure to keep up?
I think one of the things was, especially when we were touring, we were just acoustic. We‚??re an acoustic band and we‚??re playing acoustic instruments, so how do we channel the energy out of these instruments?
It felt good. I like playing with punk bands. I like playing with hardcore bands. I think generally the people worth having as company are excited by that diversity. That is what I‚??ve found to be the experience: people find it exciting, and I do, too, because I don‚??t‚?? want to just play folky acoustic stuff, I want to play with a hardcore band sometimes.
Do you feel you‚??ve achieved a bigger sound now?
Yeah. I think it‚??s a perpetual becoming in that what I don‚??t want is for it to be this static thing because in time that becomes stale. This is what we are, and you kind of become trapped by that. For me, it‚??s always evolving and always shifting and I‚??m always rethinking it and always responding to it. If anything, I think sometimes when things go well, the context you‚??re able to present your stuff changes, so you respond to that. I would probably set up or present things a little different at a house show compared to a club. So those things are considerations. But I like that. I like that challenge and I like the flexibility. I like that we can go on tour as a two-piece or as a 10-piece.
How has the transition from playing basements night after night to more traditional venues been?
We still play house shows. I‚??ll always love playing house shows. But it is certainly fewer. It‚??s nice to have a place where some basic things are covered. I love houses, but part of what makes playing houses and DIY spots special can also be what make it frustrating, which is similar for the club shows, too. When the stars align, you roll into the house, the people are nice, you establish a connection, the show was promoted, the locals are cool, everything is set up, you perform and there‚??s just something special in all of that. But because of that same sort of gamble, sometimes you roll up and there‚??s no PA, or no one comes, or a dog shit all over the ground, or something, and you just go, "really?" So you end up asking yourself, "how did we end up playing the house with all the dog shit that nobody even knows about?" When you‚??re playing clubs you get other things, like sound checks, which helps us present things in a way that‚??s more consistent. But things that make a house show special are the same for a club, like having cool bands or establishing a real connection with people.
Though religion isn‚??t central in your lyrics, you often make religious references, if not casually than directly, but more as a literary technique. Is there a latent spiritual character to your writing?
Yeah, I think that would be fair to say. I would say the spirituality aspect, the process and the struggle, that introspection is a big part of the writing. It‚??s more out of the metaphysical realm and the introspective than as a device. I think for me it is often deliberately ambiguous. If anything, I don‚??t know that I‚??m ever trying to express one thing, but that‚??s how it manifests in the songs.
There‚??s a lot of gloom and despair on the new record. Yet, a resiliency is present; most notably on the title track when you sing, "we will not be won over." What was your headspace while writing the record?
I think it just came natural. I feel like it was a number of things. I‚??m having a hard time isolating‚?¶ It wasn‚??t just a moment, but like a cloud, a culmination of things. There‚??s always a connection or common thread to the subsequent songs. I feel Dark Arc was affected from writing Last. Those aren‚??t two completely discreet things. It‚??s a little more fluid than that, and continues to be so now. That is certainly part of my consciousness now. Maybe at the time‚?¶ There were all kinds of things going on, I‚??m not going to make it any certain thing.
Who are you speaking to on "We Are All Beads On The Same String?" I have three different interpretations of that song ‚Äď you are speaking to yourself, to a higher being or to someone in your life.
That was a song I wrote later on in the process. That may actually have been the last song I wrote for the record. I think it being the last song I wrote adds to it, giving it that dual meaning. The chorus ["don‚??t let me down"] occupies multiple meanings, and deliberately so. It‚??s a demand, but it‚??s also a statement.
A lot of the record was about finding this joy in doom thing, but that song feels the most optimistic to me. That‚??s when I knew I had a record in hand. When I finished that song, it was the counterweight. I liked the idea of ending the record with something like that - this optimistic take. It‚??s inspired by a lot of things and addresses a lot of things. It‚??s funny. I haven‚??t talked about this that specifically, but the title of the song and the moment - I don‚??t think it‚??s just about this, I wouldn‚??t reduce it like that. But with most things, there‚??s a moment of epiphany, and that moment of epiphany is the culmination of years of experiences that you‚??ve had. But all of a sudden you find that thing. The title, that line was something I had found. Actually at a house show. It was in the basement of the Monster House, and it just had this vibe, and I don‚??t know but it was something I felt in a very visceral way, this connection with people. I could almost feel it. I could almost see it. There was this moment. I don‚??t even remember what show it was. But I felt these connections with other people, and that being as something that transcends the individual
The cover art for Dark Arc , Last and the EP feature four-legged animals oriented left. All are reminiscent of heraldry. Is there any specific thought behind that?
That‚??s interesting. I think interpretation is a creative act in itself. I hadn‚??t thought of that, but maybe it was subconsciously inspired by stuff like that. I do like using animal imagery. But with visual works, similar to making music, its fairly intuitive. The artwork for Dark Arc did have ideas behind it. It‚??s an interpretive depiction of the four horseman of the apocalypse, which is symbolic or otherwise of harbingers of end times. It talks about these mysterious and strange texts, these four horsemen, so I was using that as inspiration. The imagery for each one corresponds with the text. But then I wanted to take those ideas and depict them as chess pieces so it communicates that these are harbingers of the apocalypse, see how you can manipulate or procure it.
I know you use microphones from Ear Trumpet Labs. Was one on stage during your sound check?
Yeah, yeah. We‚??ve used varying numbers. Those microphones, I love. Beautiful microphones. He does very beautiful work. [Philip Graham]‚??s from Portland.
Yeah, are you thinking of visiting while in town?
That would be sweet. I didn‚??t even think of it at all. We‚??re here for such a short time. Vincent [Bancheri of Mama Bird Recordings], who put out Last, knew him and got us in touch. I‚??ve corresponded with him and he‚??s hooked us up. We use as many as four of his microphones. But with our set up right now we‚??re only using one. We‚??re pretty adaptable. Sometimes we‚??ll set up a little more acoustically depending on the room and the space. Right now it‚??s more of the rock band version so we‚??re using fewer of the condensers.
Saintseneca‚??s growth comes at a time when folk music, specifically folk rock, is experiencing a revival period. Do you think that makes you more palatable?
I don‚??t even think about it. That‚??s probably the best answer I could give you. I feel if I were considering that kind of stuff I would be going down the wrong path. It‚??s more about doing something with a sense of conviction that you believe in. Whether that involves synthesizers or dulcimers, I think it transcends either one.
Does it bother you at all?
No. I don‚??t think anyone has ever suggested we were writing the music we make because some other band is doing it. What I do find irritating is when people will lump us in with that. I don‚??t think it‚??s very thoughtful. I understand people know bands relative to other things they know, but I feel its lazy to just drop it in there because I certainly don‚??t see it that way. That‚??s also one of the exciting things about Dark Arc . I feel people that hear it will think, "ohhh, okay." But the biggest thing is I can‚??t even begin to trouble myself with that stuff. I think once the record is out people will maybe understand how we relate, or don‚??t, to that movement. I get that Last, Gray Flag, our self-titled EP and all our stuff is a little more folky, but even the songwriting is different. I think sometimes people are hard-wired; you play acoustic instruments so you‚??re like this. I think Dark Arc will help people see us a little differently. But also, I don‚??t really care.