Zac Little, leader of the Columbus, Ohio, post-punk folk outfit Saintseneca, is a tad evasive about trying to define his creative process, as well as his band’s sound, and he even keeps the band’s overall direction close to his chest, perhaps because he doesn’t want to ruin or jinx the magic. Also, the words and music are sufficient statements in themselves, and he’ll just leave the descriptors to the fans and the critics.
The band’s evolution from a mainly acoustic act into a full-fledged rock band due to the material from their latest album, “Such Things,” Saintseneca’s third full-length CD, is the product of Little getting out of his “comfort zone” to begin with, he says.
“It (the new album) exists in the same continuum of everything else I’ve made, but I do think it’s better,” he says prior to his band’s show in Seattle. “Certainly there was a decision I made to push myself outside of what I’ve done before. This time there’s more of a groove. This came as a result of a challenge to myself.”
Saintseneca, after eight years of rotating players and a lot of touring in the U.S. and Europe, is known for diverse instrumentation such as balalaika, mandolin, dulcimer, Turkish Baglama, and floor percussion, as well as impertinent uses of synthesizers and electric guitars to offer edgy Wilco-like dissonance (“I like them,” says Little). The band’s previous record “Dark Arc” offers a wall-of-sound technique for dense, rich musical textures, as well as a brilliant harmonic palette. Many of the songs contain numerous pieces or sections and the fusing of multiple instruments to the quirky purposes of Little’s meandering songwriting style to produce a progressive goth-folk feel. At it’s best, it all sounds like it’s all coming from some place of distant antiquity. Little agreed that he likes his music to sound classically old.
The more recent recording, “Such Things,” pushes the envelope into more electrified alternativeland, with a lot more heavy bass, ringing guitars and bigger drums, without losing the twisted nursery rhyme quality of the melodies thick with lyrics about life, death and whatever kind of quantum science has been running through Little’s head lately. Recently he was quoted as saying “Physics and studies of consciousness are big influences around the new record.” He describes Saintseneca’s most recent effort as “a way of extending the spectrum of the sounds I can get.”
The source of what Saintseneca is starts with Little growing up on a beef cattle farm in a sparsely populated Appalachian community in southeastern Ohio. He was among a small cadre of friends who shared the love of bands such as Sonic Youth and Velvet Underground and the Beatles like it was a closely guarded secret in the boonies. Then, when he went to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, he found himself invigorated by his surroundings: a huge college crowd with numerous venues for all kinds of music, and people who will pay to listen. “Moving to Columbus was the first time I had access to a music show, with a real audience, in a real city,” he says. This was a liberating idea for Little, who pursued a talent for collecting and playing odd instruments, or, reconstructing his own. He says he got heavily into the “DIY punk house show scene” and it was in those social engagements that he found the many future participants of his recording efforts, musicians who became the “nebulous” founders of Saintseneca. Now he has a core of players including Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador, Maryn Jones, and Matt O’Conke.
The first song on “Such Things,” the title track, has an old-time piano intro and then breaks out into a rave-up that might make one think of Oasis, as Little declares:
I defy the stars above to bash our milky heads in
Throw themselves against the wind
then pick apart the heavens
In fact, Little says others have commented on some of his English-style phrasing, as if his love for the Beatles were shining through. But he says he doesn’t do it consciously.
“I never want to attempt an affect on a particular vowel sound,” he says. “What I do I don’t really think about.”
The following song on the album “Sleeper Hold” really kicks into gear with a bright harmonic chorus that might make you think of the jubilation of the early Beatles singles, but that’s about as far as all of the Beatlemania goes. Little can sound like a cranky Violent Femmes-style busker in “How Many Blankets Are in the World,” singing:
Everyone everywhere all the time
Waiting on a soft messiah
Everyone everywhere all the time
Waiting on a simple sigh of relief
Or he can purr his way softly through a song on one of the standout tracks from the previous album “Dark Ark,” where on “Only the Young Die Good,” he rolls his voice like a immigrant Welsh miner in the backwoods of Ohio singing songs of the old country. As both a maximalist or a minimalist, depending on the tune, there is an energized unpredictability in the variety of Little’s vocal approaches, and a taste for the “Donny Darko”-esque absurd, to boot.
So is it goth-folk? Acoustic angelism? Chamber rock for the hipster set? Just what sort of muse is Zac Little?
“For me, I’m not necessarily considering or thinking too much about what I’m inspired to do,” he says, “That makes it more honest for me. I don’t want to place that kind of burden on myself.”