If you listen to the last two studio albums by the Columbus, Ohio quintet Saintseneca, 2014’s Dark Arc and 2015’s Such Things, you’d have a hard time believing they started out as a bluegrass outfit. The instrumentation on Dark Arc is occasionally acoustic, but whether the guitars are plugged in or not, the production is massive, and the arrangements are layered almost to the point of orchestration. Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and primary songwriter Zac Little, the band’s founder and main songwriter, piles all kinds of stuff into the mix to create a wall of sound, from simple floor percussion over top of the drums to balalaika, mandolin, and dulcimer lines.
On Such Things, Little added hefty electric guitars to the recipe, taking the sweeping folk rock of Dark Arc and turning it into pulsing, anthemic rock with a choir’s worth of vocals; it’s as if Good Old War, The Decemberists, and the Secret Machines decided to get together and bang out a few tunes as one big ensemble. The songs aren’t overstuffed, per se, and there’s plenty of room for the melodies to shine, but Little says that after Such Things, he wanted to start stripping his sound down.
“I’d been thinking, ‘When this part comes in, it’s got to be really huge,'” he says. “And then I’d keep adding stuff and it washed everything all out. I decided that I could listen to what was happening in the song and try to be attentive to what that is and respond to that. I wanted to try to let things breathe more and let there be air and resonance and room and a sense of place in the recordings.”
That process began with the three singles that Saintseneca released in 2017: “Book of the Dead on Sale,” “Moon Barks At The Dog,” and “The Wandering Star.” On these songs, there are still mostly acoustic instruments weaving around one another and layered vocal harmonies, but only one or two guitars or voices instead of an army. The effect is liberating; on “The Wandering Star,” when the spidery guitar lines give way to a cavernous beat, the dynamics are more clearly defined, and the song is propulsive rather than weighted down.
“I wanted to focus on how I can make a recording the most compelling with the fewest elements possible,” Little says. “In the past I was trying to form a really lush, dense soundscape at times, through fitting as many things as I could in there, and now I’m doing the opposite. To some extent that’s what was going on with those tracks, and that’s what they share with the new record.”
Both the style and the sound of that new record draw from a wide range of influences, as befits a songwriter who specifically tries to mix seemingly incongruous genres.
“I’ve been trying to bring together things that seem like they have no connection whatsoever, other than that they are inspiring and compelling,” he says. “You could make a song that’s inspired by the Blade Runner soundtrack and the Violent Femmes at the same time. What is the intersection of those sonic worlds? That’s what I’ve been thinking about with the new songs, but I think that idea has been continuous over the arc of the band.”
While moving toward that as-yet-untitled new album, out this summer, Little and his bandmates (Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador, and Matthew O’Conke) took a song-by-song approach, rather than focusing on an overall production aesthetic as they had done in the past. “I think it’s relative to the song or what you’re trying to do in that particular moment,” he says. “I don’t necessarily have an all-encompassing, pervasive rule. We basically set up and tried to get a good sound and just played through the songs live. And a lot of decisions about tones and the arrangements were made ahead of time rather than adding stuff and adding stuff. It was closer to, ‘How do we craft an arrangement as a band, and present that in a natural, live-feeling way?’ And that’s something that can morph or take different forms.”
The whole motivation behind this back-to-basics approach was that, when looking back over his band’s prolific catalog (three albums, two EPs, and four singles since 2011), Little found that his favorite moments were the subtlest ones. “In some ways I felt like some of the recordings I had been the most excited about in the past,” he says, “things where I thought, ‘Man, I feel like that turned out strong,’ were written when I wasn’t trying to force the song to adhere to a specific preconceived notion that I had.”
As for the band’s constant stream of releases, Little says songwriting is such a vital part of his makeup that he can’t really stop.
“I write all the time,” he says. “It’s part of my life. Writing music for me is a therapeutic, cathartic exercise. And so just by doing that all the time you get all these fragments and ditties and riffs, and with a little elbow grease those can be manifested into songs. I don’t finish songs all the time, but I’m always mining for the raw material, I guess.”