Saintseneca branches out on Dark Arc

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From the April 17, 2014 edition

Saintseneca’s Anti Records debut, Dark Arc, opens amid a bloodbath, and only gets gorier from there.

Over the course of the album’s 14 tracks, singer/songwriter Zac Little writes of ribs cracking, split lips and lingering scars from deep lacerations. “Time will tear our bodies off,” he sings on “Falling Off,” a folk-rock number that swings comfortably between urgent percussive passages and quieter sections where Little appears to be delivering his words from within the confessional, and throughout it sounds as though he’s doing his damnedest to speed up the process.

While the frontman is no stranger to bloodshed — he grew up on a farm in Noble County, where he hunted, fished and, on rare occasion, was present when animals were slaughtered — he doesn’t have a fascination with carnage. Far from it, in fact.

“I can’t take that stuff,” said Little, 25, over coffee in a late February interview. “I’m really squeamish. Like, super squeamish.”

Even so, when Little, whose impressive mustache and button-up wool coat gave him the appearance of a Civil War general on leave, started writing the songs that would become Dark Arc, he found himself drawn toward the different ways in which death reveals itself in our lives, from the microscopic (“Falling Off” is rooted in apoptosis, or programmed cell death) to the galaxy-encompassing.

“I consider [the album] a meditation on doom, so when I think of Dark Arc I think of something coming into being and then its inevitable demise,” he said. “Each cell in the human body has its own being and life cycle, and that arc of life is also played out in the existence of a planet or a galaxy.”

Or, as it were, in the life cycle of a band.

In the summer of 2011, Saintseneca, which has existed in some form or another since 2008, started shedding members, leaving Little as the sole figure carrying the musical banner for the group. There was never any doubt the band would continue, however, and after receiving blessings from the departing players (“They all wanted to see it live on and continue to evolve,” he said), Little started laying new material to tape with producer Glenn Davis of Way Yes in the winter of 2011.

Most of these early sessions took place in the attic of Davis’ home in the Davis Estates neighborhood, where the pair, working with a rotating cast of musicians, started fleshing out Little’s acoustic demos, determined to push the tracks beyond the stomp-and-clap folk of past efforts.

“At first, Zac knew he wanted to do something different, but he didn’t know what,” said Davis, seated in a Downtown art gallery in early April. “I pushed him at the time. I was like, ‘This is the perfect opportunity to do whatever you want. You don’t even have to worry about how [the songs are] going to be performed live, because at this point you don’t even know who’s going to be in your band.”

Like “Game of Thrones’” Daenerys Targaryen slowly amassing an army during her tortoise-like crawl through the desert, Little gradually filled out Saintseneca’s roster during the 10 months he and Davis spent assembling the first version of Dark Arc, a lineup that currently includes Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador and Matt O’Conke.

What proved more difficult was letting go of old habits. Early in its life cycle, Saintseneca developed a quieter, acoustic-based approach partially out of necessity (practices were held in a small apartment where noise had to be kept to a minimum) and partially due to the positive response it received in the wake of its first concert, which took place at the student union at Marietta College in 2008. The musicians arrived at the venue intending to plug in their gear and mike all the instruments, but abandoned these plans when confronted with the college’s mediocre PA system, which Little described as “trash.” Furthermore, the band’s drummer at the time didn’t show for the gig.

“We were like, ‘We could just play acoustic,’” Little said. “So we played unplugged and just said, ‘We’ll stomp out these [drum] parts,’ and it went so well that it affected the trajectory of the band for a long time.”

“There was a point where we started Dark Arc where Zac was coming in with the old Saintseneca hat on and he wanted to do the banging-on-a-trashcan-with-a-drumstick kind of thing,” Davis said. “I really encouraged him at every step, like, ‘We don’t need to bang on trashcans at this point. Let’s get some real drums.’”

Little, who has long had a fascination with acoustic instruments — he’s amassed a sizable collection of rare stringed instruments over the years, some of which have hard-to-spell names reminiscent of delectable Greek desserts (the balalaika) — also surprised himself by writing a number of songs on a partially melted electric bass he salvaged from a 2009 apartment fire, including album tracks “Happy Alone,” “Only the Young Die Good” and lead single “Uppercutter,” a dreamy tune bathed in swooning guy-gal vocals, sharp snare shots that snap like bones and the incessant thrum of Little’s mangled bass.

“I didn’t know how the bass fit [in Saintseneca] since it was an electric instrument, which has never been in any of our stuff,” Little said. “It was confusing.”

Rather than recoiling, he chose to dive right in, allowing the music to grow and mutate in unexpected ways. Indeed, when Little sings, “What is this thing that I’ve wrought?” on “Daendors,” it sounds as though he’s reflecting on the more expansive soundscapes the band crafted over the course of that year.

In October 2012, following more than 10 months of off-and-on experimentation, Little and Co. put the final touches on Dark Arc. Or so they thought, anyway. When Anti Records, a highly respected label that’s home to the likes of Tom Waits and Mavis Staples, expressed an interest in releasing the album, the tender arrived with the option to rework the material with a name producer: Mike Mogis, a Nebraska-based musician and engineer best known for his work on albums by Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley.

“The record [Anti] sent me is Dark Arc, but it was the home version,” Mogis said by telephone in early March. “For the most part it was recorded really well, but it seems like the songs could pop a little harder. It was just about pushing the material … along even further. Listening back to the first version, the reaction I had was that you could hear where the song wanted to go, but it didn’t always quite get there.”

Initially, Little was resistant to revisit a record he already viewed as complete, saying, “I was like, ‘But it’s done. I put 10 months into this, and I can’t even tell you how many hours’” — a mindset Mogis related to completely.

“If I was [Zac], I’m sure I would have said, ‘Really? You want us to redo this?’” he said. “But after he had time to reflect on it he saw it as a benefit instead of a total inconvenience.

“After you finish a record, and I’m this way as well, you hear so many new ideas for songs, but very rarely do you get the opportunity to indulge yourself in exploring them.”

So in April 2013, Little and his bandmates decamped to Mogis’ studio in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a month-long recording binge. While most would have approached these sessions with a degree of apprehension — Dark Arc 1.0 was recorded with absolute freedom and the band now had the added pressures and expectations that come with being part of the major label machine — Little said he felt completely unencumbered by the process.

“It was total freedom, and I didn’t feel any pressure at all,” he said. “For me, one of my biggest ambitions in making art is to be fully immersed in the process and not feel any restrictions, so this was a dream come true.”

The album that emerged from the process still bears a resemblance to the earliest recorded version, and both Mogis and Little referred to it as a hybrid in their respective interviews.

“There was a lot of character in those home recordings we all liked and did not want to part with, myself included,” Mogis said. “There’s a good third of the record that’s from their demos.”

It’s somewhat fitting the final record would exist as an amalgam of the two sessions, considering a large part of its creation stemmed from a desire to bridge the band’s acoustic-folk roots with its more recent experimental leanings — qualities Little rightly hopes will separate Saintseneca from the glut of stomp-and-clap folkies (The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, etc.) that have surfaced in recent years.

“I’m not going to talk trash, but those [types of] bands just don’t resonate with me,” he said, his body language suggesting a person who’s just been told he or she has less than a month to live. “People are always going to choose an obvious, easy and maybe less accurate reference point, so I get it, and I know why people say it.”

Of course, even these comparisons should fade further into the background as the band’s music continues to evolve in unpredictable ways, moving lockstep with its restless frontman. But no matter how expansive Saintseneca’s sound becomes on future efforts, don’t expect the band to completely abandon its hushed side.

“When you’re quiet, and you make yourself vulnerable in that way where an audience could totally overpower you, it creates a more compelling space to be able to share those songs,” Little said. “It always feels special when everyone makes the decision to be there and to be present and to engage.”