Q&A: Saintseneca On Quantum Physics, Pop Structures, & Their Great New LP Such Things
The Zac Little who answers the door is the same Zac Little from Saintseneca’s band photos — his wiry frame clad in black head-to-toe from boots to vest to collar, his red facial hair gone full Civil War general. Or maybe Civil War-era blacksmith is more appropriate given that when I enter Little’s half-double just north of Ohio State University, he’s situated at a work bench soldering some of the handmade jewelry he sells under the name Hero King Embellishments. A bear’s head is mounted on the wall; London Calling is streaming off a laptop. Little offers me some cold-brew coffee, and we sit down on his couch in the next room to discuss Such Things, Saintseneca’s heady and hearty new album. Carl G. Liungman’s Dictionary Of Symbols rests across from us on the coffee table.
Little is the only remaining member of Saintseneca from eight years ago, back when he and two friends from Ohio’s Appalachian southeast enrolled at Ohio State, recruited a violist, and immediately made their presence felt in Columbus. Back in those days the folk-punk group’s percussion largely consisted of foot stomps and pounding on a plastic trash can, and they performed mostly in basements, living rooms, and other informal locations. (I saw them play under a bridge by the Olentangy River once; it was rad.) The band’s situation has changed a lot since then: complete lineup turnover, countless DIY tours, and, as of last year’s sophomore LP Dark Arc, a record deal with storied punk label Epitaph’s adventurous ANTI- subsidiary.
On top of all that metamorphosis, two members of Saintseneca’s latest incarnation front rising rock bands of their own, Maryn Jones (All Dogs) and Steve Ciolek (the Sidekicks), which makes logistics increasingly tricky. But Saintseneca managed to churn out Such Things little more than a year after Dark Arc, and they’ll head out on tour to promote it this October — in rock clubs, with drummer Matt O’Conke (also of Tin Armor) now a full-fledged member.
O’Conke’s presence is definitely felt on “River,” the second Such Things track to be revealed. It’s driven by relentless pounding, a snaky guitar line, and Saintseneca’s signature howling harmonies. Such humongous music is a vessel for even bigger ideas, as you’ll see when you read my conversation with Little below.
STEREOGUM: The track we’re premiering, “River,” interpolates the old hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” How does that fit into the song’s subject matter?
ZAC LITTLE: I write deliberately ambiguously. I try to keep things a little cryptic because usually I’m not trying to express something in a direct, didactic sense where it’s like “This is the point. This is the message,” and kind of hitting people over the head with that. I feel like what I’m trying to conjure is something that’s more complicated or nuanced. So a lot of people do ask, “What’s this song mean?” or “What’s this song about?” And in some ways, the song is a reflection of that, of trying to express contradictions. But “River” in particular, there’s a lot of imagery throughout the record that is kind of focused around water, the water cycle. The record in many ways is about consciousness and the physics — the physical nature of consciousness and the various manifestations of that. That’s kind of the broad sense, and then I delve into the various corners of whatever that is. Because consciousness — that’s memory, perception, experience, philosophy, all that stuff. But anyway, “River” kind of ties into this notion of the water cycle. I guess I was thinking about this notion of a sort of cosmic ocean. A big influence on this record was reading this physics philosophy book — it’s kind of hippy-dippy — from the ’70s, called The Tao Of Physics.
STEREOGUM: How did the book come across your radar?
LITTLE: There was this New York Times article that came out right when the Higgs boson particle was discovered, and they were profiling some of the scientists that worked on that project. One of the anecdotes in particular was this guy who played in bands and stuff like that and just did okay in rock bands, and then he read this book, The Tao Of Physics, and I guess it just kind of blew his mind and he decided to go into physics. And then later on he’s working at CERN and he’s part of the team that discovers the Higgs particle. So then I was just like, “I gotta check out that book.” Cause I was already interested in contemporary physics, quantum physics, that kind of stuff — not necessarily classical physics. So I checked out the book, and it’s in some ways attempting to create this — I would call it a reconciliation between a lot of Eastern philosophies and religions or spiritual practices, and drawing parallels between those and discoveries in contemporary physics in the ’70s. A lot has happened since then, but it was a really interesting thing. So one of the notions that is put forth from that is this idea of a whole cosmos ocean that just consists of fluctuations of energy. So I was inspired by that and was inspired by this metaphor of the water cycle and the way an individual gives way to this broader, all-encompassing connectedness. Other songs like “Estuary” kind of tie into that. There are other moments in the record that all relate to that.
STEREOGUM: Your songwriting has always had a metaphysical component, but it seems like this project is really zeroing in on that.
LITTLE: Yeah, I think that’s true. To me it’s like the physics of metaphysics. Does that make sense? Because I feel like those realms of spirituality, existence, that’s just like a facet of consciousness. Whether or not you believe in that or not, even if you were to just relegate that to the realm of human mythology, even human mythology is a facet of consciousness, whether it’s its own little self-contained made-up system or whether it is a reflection of a more fundamental reality.
STEREOGUM: Did writing songs about this stuff develop your own worldview at all? Did you come out the other side thinking any differently about things?
LITTLE: I don’t know that writing the songs themselves did, but I would say that I did a fair amount of lay person’s research when I was making this record, and I would say that did, and that informed how I wrote. I’m certainly not going to put myself out there as some authority on contemporary physics or something like that, but it’s definitely something that fascinates me. I feel like that field of consciousness, that intersection of physics and neuroscience, that’s kind of right on the cutting edge of where science is right now, and it’s really exciting to just see what people are coming up with. And as you learn about that, it certainly could alter your worldview. I would hope that gleaning new information does.
STEREOGUM: Is that what draws you to these topics, the desire to have the newest possible information?
LITTLE: I think it’s being on some quest for truth. And to some extent that’s one place to look. And I think along with that, maybe that’s why it’s interesting to me that people try to reconcile those two worlds, that of the metaphysical spiritual realm and the scientific realm — reconcile, or to try and understand one in terms of the other rather than just compartmentalizing them.
STEREOGUM: There are also very personal components to these songs, like on “How Many Blankets Are In,” you sing about this intense experience of hearing “Tonight, Tonight” on the radio. That’s as far from the theoretical as you can get. Is that how you ground these big ideas?
LITTLE: Totally. Yeah, I think that’s exactly what that stuff is. And I would say that most of the songs have some element of that. You know, it’s not just like going on about “here are physics ideas,” but it’s an attempt to understand it and to relate it in terms of your own personal experience.
STEREOGUM: On the musical side of things, when the first song came out, you told NPR Such Things was a more pop-oriented album than the last one. The music does feel slightly brighter than Dark Arc in terms of arrangements, chord progressions, and tempos — is that what you mean?
LITTLE: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. That’s what people have said when they’ve heard it, but I don’t know that I have the perspective on it to say one way or the other. I just think I was kind of pushing myself to write songs that build on the pop structure scaffolding. Because a lot of times on Dark Arc or things in the past, I think the songs are kind of poppy — to me they are, at least — but maybe they have this linear, kind of meandering thing where there’s a lot of pivots, and all of the sudden it jumps into another part. And for this record, I was just like, “I’m going to try to write a song that just grooves all the way through,” which was a project for me. I really had to push myself to write a song that just grooved. I would want to throw in some wild turn. And I think there’s still a lot of that in there, but even when it does happen, I still wanted it to be pushing forward. And I think just using that pop form, those conventions, was an exercise for me to try to write songs like that.
STEREOGUM: You guys have a full-time drummer now in Matt O’Conke. I imagine that’s helpful in terms of writing songs that groove.
LITTLE: I think it’s fair to say that that could be part of it too because even when we were doing Dark Arc, I was actually scared that we were adding actual drums to those songs. I was like, “Whoa.” It probably seems absurd, and I’m not embarrassed, but I can acknowledge the absurdity that still more than half of the length of this eight-year project, we’ve had, like, plastic trashcan as our drums more than actual drums. And then we switched to a bunch of different [percussion] stuff. It was always, like, a weird thing. I liked that. But then it was just like, “Okay, now we’ve got a drummer, and I’m writing songs with a drummer and kind of like a rock band.” And maybe that did. I think that’s fair that there was some push from that to be like, “Yeah, let’s just write some songs like this that we can just rock through.”
STEREOGUM: And “Lazarus” has almost a reggae or funk groove that definitely qualifies as pushing into new sounds for Saintseneca.
LITTLE: Totally. I think it was fun. It was an intentional choice to try to write like that.
STEREOGUM: You write all the lyrics, but you aren’t the only one who sings on these songs. How do you decide what’s going to come from you and what’s going to come from Maryn and so on?
LITTLE: I wrote the songs, sat down with Matt and worked out drum parts, recorded those to a click, and then basically did these elaborate demos where I recorded these full arrangements just myself, with bass and weird textures and sounds, like fully fleshed, realized demos. And then I shared those with everyone, just to start with something. Because it didn’t feel like when we were working on this that we were going to sit down and jam. So I was like, I’m just going to write all the stuff, and then that’s on the table. It’s not something I was putting out there like, “Okay, this is what I played, so you all need to meticulously recreate what I did on these demos.” I think there were a lot of ideas that I liked and other people liked, and so we went with those, but that was just more as a basis to then say, “Okay, let’s open these up again. How would you approach these parts, and how would you change these parts?” And so “Sleeper Hold,” which is one that Maryn sings what I would call the lead on — at least the verses — that was a song where I demoed it, and everybody else liked it, but I was just like, “Man, it’s just not doing it for me.” I didn’t think that it was interesting enough, and I didn’t like hearing myself sing it. I was like, “Maybe we should cut this song.” Because I had recorded a bunch more songs that aren’t on the record. And Maryn was like, “That’s one of my favorite ones.” So I was just like, “Well, sure. You sing it! I think that would sound cool.” So I feel like that’s the kind of thing that happens. It works tin a similar way on the other songs, too, where it’s like, “It might be more interesting to mix this in a way that prioritizes her voice.” She’s a really good singer, so it’s great to have that in the mix of things. And then that was another thing, too, when I did those demos. One part that I intentionally didn’t flesh out was the vocal harmonies. I did do some of that stuff and had some backing vocals and things like that. But I kind of left that as a void in the demos because Steve and Maryn are so good, and I feel like usually if there’s one thing they have ideas for, it’s vocal melodies — not melody, but harmony and vocal arrangements. So I wanted to leave the room for them to have free reign for that sort of thing. It was something where I was like, I think it would be cool to kind of strategically pull back and let other people be there.
STEREOGUM: Obviously Steve and Maryn both have bands that have been really taking off lately. What kind of impact has that had on Saintseneca? I can imagine it presenting some logistical difficulties, but I can imagine it having some advantages, too.
LITTLE: I’m excited for them, and I hope that their projects just get more and more successful and become more and more popular. I think it’s great. Music stuff is just hard, and opportunities are scarce, and so I think that when they do come, you’ve got to go with it. And I would never want to hold somebody back. Does that create logistical challenges? Totally. But this band, at this point, a big part of its DNA is a level of flexibility and change. So whatever. We do tours, we do shows where Steve or Maryn or anybody maybe can’t be there, and that’s just part of the excitement. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s something where you can approach it and try to do something crazy and interesting. That’s how I try to keep myself sane. But yeah, I would imagine that it will probably just become increasingly difficult, but we do our best. Everybody’s in, and everybody wants to make it work, so we’ll just kind of see what happens. I think it’s great. I want to see everybody do the most that they can.
STEREOGUM: You’re selling a handmade jewelry item in your online shop. Is that part of the way Saintseneca maintains the personal, DIY touch despite a record deal, media attention, and all that?
LITTLE: I think that’s fair. And the other thing is, I’ve always played music, but I’ve always done visual art. I studied art. I went to school for sculpture, and I felt really frustrated by the time I was finished with that because I felt like all the work was really esoteric and academic. The band was going the whole time I was in school, but that was a real pivotal moment, like, “I want to make work that is populist. I want to make work that is accessible for people to engage with and relate to.” So I think that I’ve channeled all of my visual art sensibilities — to me, the coolest outlet for that is doing the record covers or something like that. And the jewelry stuff, the metal working and all that, that comes right out of sculpture, too. It’s where I learned to do it. When I was in school I would make these giant sculptures and then throw them in the trash because they were big and you can’t do anything with it. But then I started working on a small scale, and then you stick it in your pocket and walk home. But then the other cool part about that, and I think in some ways I could draw the parallel to music, is that making these miniature sculptures that people can have and live with and use to express themselves, to me, that’s the coolest thing. And I think that making records functions in a similar way, where it’s something people have, and they live with, it kind of inhabits their world. So I’m always looking for ways that those two worlds can connect.
10/7: Club Cafe, Pittsburgh
10/8: Black Cat, DC
10/9: Mercury Lounge, NYC
10/10: Johnny Brendas, Philly
10/11: Daryl’s House, Pawling NY
10/13: The Haunt, Ithaca NY
10/14: 9th Ward @ Babeville, Buffalo NY
10/15: The Garrison, Toronto ON
10/16: Blind Pig, Ann Arbor
10/17: Empty Bottle, Chicago
10/18: Cactus Club, Milwaukee
10/20: 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis
10/21: Reverb, Omaha
10/22 Bloomington, IN @ The Bishop
10/23 Cincinnati, OH @ Northside Tavern
10/24 Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop