NMF Artist Preview: Saintseneca

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The first time I saw Columbus, Ohio's Saintseneca, I didn’t know what to expect.

The band had set up two large stomp-boxes on each side of the stage, two members on each box, with the drummer in the middle behind them. I had only heard parts of their debut album Last, and really didn't know what would come next.

What I heard was a collection of catchy folk songs filled with smart pop sensibilities, performed with the energy of a punk band. Then as quickly as they began, the show ended.

That was six months ago at Athens' Central Venue. Since then, the press around this band has only escalated. After signing with Anti- Records in 2013 (label mates include Tom Waits, Wilco and Neko Case), the group released their sophomore album, Dark Arc, this past April. They were also spotlighted at this year's SXSW music festival, playing multiple showcases throughout the weekend.

At the heart of the band is main singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and sole original member Zac Little, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Little grew up in Noble County, Ohio, before moving to Columbus to attend Ohio State University, where Saintseneca formed.

I had the opportunity to talk to Zac over the phone last week about SXSW, the new album and his influences.

Evan Sites: You guys were a huge breakout act at SXSW this year. What is it like to play in Austin during that week and how did you respond to the warm reception you received?

Zac Little: I felt very fortunate to have all those shows set up, and it was an exciting opportunity, but man, SXSW is pretty chaotic. It was a stressful week, even though I was excited to be down there.

ES: I was down there this year, and it is very busy. There’s this sense that anything could happen, and there’s just so much going on. Did you guys ever have back-to-back shows or did you always have time to move from venue to venue?

ZL: We didn’t have anything that was too out of control. I think there was maybe one day where we finished a show and then immediately had to rush over to set up for another. That sort of thing can really take it out of you, but you know, it’s cool.

ES: One thing that I really like about the new album is that it has a White Album vibe: I never knew what was coming next, style-wise or instrument-wise. Was there ever a time when you tried a style or instrument and it just didn’t work in the context of Saintseneca?

ZL: No, not really. The White Album is actually one of my favorite records, ever. I’ve always admired bands that can maintain the core of who they are, but move through periods of different sounds and textures. I don’t want to ever be afraid to try things out. I’m also not afraid to let things go, too.

ES: Recently, in another interview, you said you didn’t care about sticking to a rigid form of a song live, as long as the song maintained its "spirit." Obviously you would need 10 to 12 more limbs to recreate the album live. So how do you know what instruments and parts make up the "spirit" of a song when translating it to the live show?

ZL: There’s no real set rules; it’s more about what the song needs, and it changes from song-to-song. It's an intuitive process that forces us to try a lot of different things out–switching it around, feeling through it and trying to see what works. And yeah, a lot of times we’ll come up with something that sounds pretty different than what works with the record, although sometimes it’s pretty literal.

ES: You do a lot of your own artwork. When do you start seeing the visuals for a single or album? Do they come as the songs are written, or do you look at everything as a whole afterward, then start working on them?

ZL: Probably a little bit of both. When I find something that inspires me, like some imagery or a thought, I’ll try and file that away. Sometimes it’s really clear when those two things correspond. Then sometimes I’ll go back to an idea and say, yeah, this is something I’d want to pursue. A lot of times with visuals, it isn’t unlike figuring out how to play a song live: an intuitive thing and also a lot of trial and error. I’ll usually go through several drafts before I reach a realized version. There’s also artwork where I’ll decide it would work better for something else.

ES: You grew in the Appalachian region of Ohio, and obviously that area has effected your songwriting and style a lot. Do you think it has also influenced your artwork as well?

ZL: Like anything else, when you’re in something, it’s hard to step out and look at what’s effecting you. I think any experience you have, especially when you’re growing up, can have a pretty fundamental role in your world view and subconscious. So, yeah, I would think it does.

ES: The first album (2011’s Last) was more of a documentation of your live show at that point. After that, some people left the group and the lineup changed. For the second album, you had more time to experiment. Was there anything else that influenced your vision for the second album?

ZL: I feel like I’ll draw inspiration from all around me. That could consist of a newspaper article or sometimes it's reading something about the solar system, or biology or someone’s biography. I just go through and collect a lot of things. It’s hard to pinpoint one single thing.

ES: You came up through the diverse Columbus music scene. Was there something in that scene that helped you develop as an artist? For instance, a band or a venue that helped you rise from the DIY shows you used to play to the venues you play now?

ZL: Yeah, I would say there were. I don’t see playing the DIY venues or house shows or whatever as a stepping stone to playing a bar, or a venue. I think that playing those shows are probably as vital, if not more, than playing the bar and club scene. The music scene here, in all of its manifestations–whether it’s a house show, or a show at a club–remain an important part of music for us. To answer your question, there were specific bands that helped us. There’s a punk band in town called Delay, and they’re not only a phenomenal band, but they’re inspiring people. They’re the cornerstone of the punk scene in Columbus. Ryan Eilbeck plays in that band and writes the songs with his brother Austin. He took Saintseneca on our first tour and was really welcoming when we first moved up here. Them taking us on tour and inviting us to play shows was really big for me.

ES: I witnessed a solo performance of "We Are All Beads On The Same String" back in November. It’s probably my favorite Saintseneca song. Could you walk me through how you write a song like that? What was your mindset and why did you choose bass as your only accompaniment?

ZL: That was unique–the last song I wrote for the record, when we were already in the process of recording. The song isn’t about this, but sometimes there are certain moments that can inspire something. I was at the Monster House (Columbus punk house) for a few years. I had this vision, for lack of a better word: a visceral feeling of a red chord that passed through all the people that were in the room and tied everyone together. There’s something truly unique about having a collective experience that music can offer. It can kind of bring people to a collective consciousness, to be kind of abstract and metaphysical about it. But I think that moment where I had that weird vision experience was something that inspired that song.

I guess as far as writing and recording, it was something I was very excited about. We were recording with Glen (Davis, of Columbus band Way Yes) and we had already tracked a lot of stuff that day. He was really tired at this point, but I coerced him into letting me record it. I had maybe done a take on the electric bass or something and I had some ideas of how I wanted to fill it out. I played it on the acoustic bass, which I like, but in a lot of ways it's traditionally a carny instrument. I kinda did one take with it and it just stuck that way. It just felt right. It served as an optimistic counterweight to a lot of the other material and an appropriate ending to punctuate the record.

Saintseneca's summer tour kicks off this weekend with the Nelsonville Music Festival. The band will perform three times on Saturday May 31: The Main Stage (1:30pm), The No-Fi Cabin (4:45pm) and The Gladden House at 6:30 p.m.

For more information on the band, visit www.saintseneca.com or follow them on Twitter.