It’s early evening at The Space in Hamden, Connecticut, and as young folk enthusiasts trickle into the tiny venue, faded rays of sunlight glint off of the unconventional assortment of shiny stringed instruments on the stage in front of me. For Saintseneca, “taking the stage” is a more meticulous maneuver than merely plugging in amps and setting up drums; with mandolins and dulcimers alongside their guitars and synthesizers, they cultivate a stage environment more reminiscent of an eclectic stringed instrument shop than an alternative folk show. Between songs, the Ohio outfit switches swiftly between instruments in their diverse arsenal of strings, the transition as seamless as the harmonies of band members Zac Little and Maryn Jones. Somehow boasting both a simple, effortless beauty and an incredible tightness, the perfect mesh of Little’s deep yodel-esque croon and Jones’ airy soprano feels like holding hands with your first love—warm and bittersweet, full of heart and spontaneity and a deep-rooted sense of comfort.
Since their start in 2007, Saintseneca’s textured and often playful folk-alt has garnered positive attention from niche DIY fans and mainstream audiences alike. The independent release of their debut self-titled EP in 2009 and sophomore “Grey Flag” EP in 2010 were followed up with 2011’s “Last”, a full-length album with Mama Bird Recording Co. And after a reconfiguring of the band’s lineup, they signed to ANTI- records and released the critically acclaimed “Dark Arc” in 2014. This national spotlight fostered a dedicated fan following, eager for the 2015 release of the group’s next album, “Such Things”—a collection of bright rolling tunes, triumphant sing-alongs, and softer ballads through which the band pushes their signature eclectic vibe to the next level.
Coming up on the release of “Such Things”, Saintseneca embarked on a small club tour of North America, wherein I was able to catch up with Zac Little about the formation of their sound, the inspiration for his poetic lyrics, and the group’s first experiences performing material from the new record.
Could you give me a brief history of the band?
The band started about eight years ago with me and some friends that I had grown up with. We moved to Colombus, Ohio, and we used to play in rock bands, but then I accumulated all of these acoustic instruments, and so we started to kind of channel that rock band vibe into the more eclectic array of instruments– mandolin, dulcimer, things like that. That iteration of the band existed for probably about four years, and then when we released our first record Last, it sort of disbanded essentially– I was the only person left. And so the process of making Dark Arc was sort of building up from that process of not really having a band, and eventually all of my current bandmates sort of moved in piece by piece as we were making that record. I feel like as we were playing that record live, it’s kind of just come full-circle to being more like a rock band again. I guess I just met all these people through playing shows in Colombus– they all play in good bands and I always admired their stuff, so eventually when the time was right, I just asked them, they joined in, and it stuck.
How has this tour been so far?
It’s been fun– we played this festival in Maine and they gave us a cabin for like four days, so that was pretty sweet. The tour is just kind of a short run, so it’s been cool so far. We have a new record coming out in the fall, and we’re playing some of the songs from that. All the stuff’s pretty fun to play.
So you’re kind of testing it out on the audiences and seeing if they like it?
I guess… well, they don’t have a choice now, they’re stuck with it! (laughs) So we’re almost testing it out on ourselves, figuring out how we wanna play the songs, but it’s been fun.
What kind of vibe do you try to cultivate at your shows, usually?
Oooh, I don’t know! I think that I just want people to feel engaged and invested, in whatever way makes sense. Sometimes it changes according to the song or the set or the context… sometimes you want something really personal and intimate, and then other times it’s fun for people to be kind of rowdy and wild, depending on the song.
And you feel like you kinda get both of those in your shows?
Hopefully! Yeah, that would be nice to keep people engaged in whatever way makes sense for the context.
You use such a variety of instruments on your recordings, do you bring them on the road?
We simplify it. There were times where we did, in the past– we used to try to bring everything, and so we’d show up with like ten weird acoustic instruments, and end up having to tune literally hundreds of strings. We will just transpose or adapt parts that, on the recording, may have used a certain instrument because it has a unique texture. But the same idea can be conjured with an electric guitar or something. So we try to simplify just so we can move through the songs and make them a little more manageable, logistically.
How do you get inspired to write on certain instruments? Do you hear a part in your head and think “this would sound cool on this instrument”, or…?
Sometimes! That happens more in the context of recording, and less in the context of writing a song. Sometimes when we’re recording a song it’s just like, “Oh, that would sound good with a sort of percussive, strum-y instrument, or maybe something that’s a little more soft and drone-y”, and then based on that intuitive read of the recording, you can consult that library of instruments and be like, “Maybe we’ll try the Thbouzouki for that, or maybe the hammer dulcimer would have that nice clinking sound”. But in terms of writing songs, it works in a different way because having that wide spectrum of instruments gives you a bigger set of tools to dig away at songs, and try to define their little parts in something, because sometimes I’ll write a little riff on bass and then finish that song on the dulcimer two years later. So all of those different implements are a way of scraping away at whatever the song is.
And it kind of makes it so that each song has it’s own little thing.
Yeah, yeah, I think so! Hopefully (laughs)
Many of your songs include more than one vocalist, you and Maryn Jones, and your voices mesh beautifully together. In a few songs, however, it’s mainly Maryn’s voice, with your voice harmonizing in the chorus. When you’re writing a song, how do you decide on the balance of voices?
That’s happened a few times. Maryn is a super talented vocalist, so she always has a lot of ideas for vocal parts that she wants to do on songs. I might bring to the table a song that I’ve written and she’ll come up with a bunch of harmonies that she wants to sing on top of it. But on other songs, like that one in particular, we had actually recorded it the opposite way, with me singing the lead on the verses and her coming in on the choruses. But as I was writing that song, I was kind of imagining a female vocal singing it, but I was just gonna sing it myself. So then after we recorded it and had it for a while, we were gonna redo it in a studio with a different producer, and I was like, “This would be a cool opportunity to switch that around”– essentially, go back to the idea from the beginning. So that’s kind of how that one worked out. And then there was a song on the new record where I sung the lead, and it just seemed like the song needed something. I had tabled the song before, thinking, “Maybe we won’t do it on this release”, but Maryn really liked it. So I thought, this would be a cool one if she sang the lead on the verses and I’ll kick in on the choruses. And that revitalized the song. So it just depends on the song– sometimes its just nice to have that variety of options, cause she’s a super good singer, so you can just be like “Maryn will sing this one instead of me”, whatever.
And your two voices go great together.
“Yeah, I feel like she’s just really good at singing with other people, so I can just kind of be myself and she always finds a way to really rock into that. So it makes it easy for me, cause she’s good.
Your lyrics are very poetic and have a lot of elaborate imagery. They often seem more like part of an olden story than drawn from life experiences. What inspires you to write?
I don’t know, exactly. Maybe just things that I read. Especially when I’m writing lyrics, I try to read some poets that I like, cause they have imagery that really resonates with me. I really like Carl Sandberg, he’s one of my favorites. Reading his books kind of puts my head in a nice space so then when I’m writing… I don’t know, whenever I’m reading books, sometimes you start to think like that author. You hear their voice in your head; they’re like narrating your life. And so maybe it happens like that with lyrics, to a certain extent, but I usually just walk around a lot and I keep walking around until I come up with words (laughs). That’s pretty much it. You gotta have something moving you. That’s what I guess I’ll look for, a lot of the times, is something to make me feel motivated and inspired.
A recurring motif in a few of your songs seems to be the mention of God and Bible-like imagery. To what extent does religion play into your music? (Use it literally or just for metaphors?)
I don’t know, I guess it’s something that I think about. I grew up with that sort of background and stuff, so I think it’s in my consciousness. I guess its just more about trying to make sense of existing and stuff.
All the imagery in the music, especially some of the more biblical stuff, is really cool as a form of expression.
Thanks! Yeah, I think that I try to make it complicated, you know what I mean? When I’m writing that kind of stuff, I feel like I want it to be oblique and kind of complicated, because I feel like that stuff is, for everybody, it doesn’t matter what you think, it’s just something that’s weird to make sense of, and to dismiss or not.
What would you say are your main goals as a musician right now?
Well, right now I really want this record to come out, and now it’s finishing, so I feel like I’m just ready for it to be out there. I tend to focus more, almost to stay sane, on the present, in terms of music stuff. Sure I have ambitions, but you just make yourself go crazy if you’re constantly going for that. Just try to appreciate… don’t take anything for granted. If I had a goal, maybe that’s it: just to appreciate each day of doing this and being able to play shows and travel around with my friends. It’s certainly an amazing thing; it’s weird, and it’s cool to be able to do.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It’d either be donuts or pizza, one or the other. Probably donuts. I’d just eat donuts. But would I be healthy, and would that sustain me?
I don’t know. I heard that pizza technically has everything on the food pyramid, so maybe that would get you going for longer.
Well I feel like if I had to choose something, it would be donuts, all the time.
Any kind in particular?
No, all of them (laughs). Just not jelly donuts.
Any final sentiments for fans?
Not really other than just we have a record coming out in the fall, so songs are forthcoming from that, so stay tuned!