Dreams pervade the subconscious mind of Zac Little. But Little, the singer-songwriter behind Saintseneca, doesn’t have dreams most would consider normal. In these phantasms he can taste and smell. Inspirations for songs appear as ephemeral phenomena, and wrangling them into reality has become one of Little’s greatest skills as a musician.
“I’ve always had pretty intense dreams, but with this record, those dreams had more literal manifestations,” Little said. “I’ve heard melodies and songs in dreams, but to have them articulated in the way that they are on Dark Arc has always been a challenge.”
On April Fool’s Day, the public will bear witness to Little’s dreams unfolding in the songs of their major label debut for Anti Records (home to Tom Waits and Neko Case). From the murky piano lines of the rousing “Uppercutter” to the contemplative finale “We Are All Beads On the Same String,” Dark Arc is the type of album old fans and newbies alike can climb inside of. They can wallow in the intimate dark beauty and revel in the moments of pop bliss, memorizing every word and note if only for their own comfort and youthful preservation.
Saintseneca began modestly during the summer of 2007 in the hills of Appalachian Ohio. The group took on greater resonance when Little moved to Columbus for art school and started playing house shows – in those early days the band was infamous for playing acoustic only performances under bridges and in natural settings. That iteration of Saintseneca went on to record and release the band’s heralded debut, 2011’s Last, which quickly caught on well beyond the insular Columbus folk scene. Still, Little had bigger plans for what he wanted Saintseneca to become and when he and his cohorts parted ways, Little found players who existed in what he calls a “mutual orbit,” to organically form the Saintseneca of today. With help from the stunning vocals of Maryn Jones, guitarist Steve Ciolek, drummer Matt O’Conke, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Meador, Dark Arc is truly a communal effort, with over 13 musicians contributing to the final mix.
Before Anti came knocking, Little had considered Dark Arc pretty much done – a sophomore album mapped and recorded with Way Yes’ Glenn Davis in a Columbus attic for 10 fruitful months. Anti was willing to release the album as is, but also offered the prospect that the band could take what was recorded into a bigger studio with limitless possibilities. At that point another dream became reality when Saintseneca were afforded the luxury to “finish” Dark Arc for a month in Omaha with famed producer Mike Mogis (known for his work with Bright Eyes, Cursive, and Rilo Kiley). Being a huge fan of Mogis’ aesthetics, Little found a perfect synthesis between what had already been recorded and what could become of the record in the hands of Mogis.
“He respected what we had already done,” says Little of the experience. “The final product is more a hybrid than anything else. Some of the songs are very much of Omaha, with a little residue from Columbus. Some are almost all Glenn, with Mike pushing it full spectrum.”
Where Last was a sepia snapshot of intimacy and simpler times, Dark Arc is in widescreen and cinematic. It’s tethered to those earthy roots, but calls to the heightened atmospherics of Radiohead or the surreal psychedelic pop of Neutral Milk Hotel. Perhaps another result of deep dreams, Little’s lyrics on the album read like metaphysical journal entries, exploring the blurred lines between flesh and spirit, light and dark, joy and sadness.
“It’s a meditation on doom, but finding a certain level of joy in doom, and a certain level of transcendence,” said Little. “Whether that be in a romance, in the cells of the human body, or a human life, or humanity, or the universe – each of those little things are a microcosm of something bigger. There’s a certain life and arc to those things. And those things mimic those larger concentric circles.”
The meaningful “arc” of the title is a highly ambitious conceit, but after hearing the record in full, Little backs up that vision with a feast for the ears. On all accounts, Saintseneca is still a folk band, though certainly not in the traditional sense. There are tried-and-true flourishes of banjo, pedal steel, and mandolin in the forefront, while along the fringes the exotic strum of a Turkish baglama or a balalaika increase the otherworldly sensibility of the album. Those alien tones lend a sonic topography that covers more than hills, hollers, and mountains.
“I have a weird obsession with stringed instruments, so anytime I see something new that I’ve never heard before I want to try it,” said Little of the band’s predominantly acoustic sound. “I’ve never thought of the appropriate way to write a song using mandolin. The instruments will tell you that to a certain extent, but I think more in textures and how those instruments will lend a particular texture to a song that I’m writing.”
Yes. Though the record isn’t even released yet, Little’s writing and planning another two albums. He’s always thinking of what comes next. Songs incorporating a “psychedelic brass band” and taking his experiments further crept into our conversation, but for now the cycle for Dark Arc begins and Little wants the release of the album to be as strategic and meticulous as its magnificent creation. For the immediate future, it looks as though Little and Saintseneca won’t have much to lose sleep over.
Saintseneca will celebrate the release of Dark Arc with a show at the Wexner Center for the Arts on April 19th. Visit www.saintseneca.com for more information.