A decade on, Zac Little is set to release his most personal album yet
Several years ago, Saintseneca frontman Zac Little was living at the Monster House, a South Campus rental property whose brown, nondescript exterior belied its importance to the arts community. While serving as the locus of the Columbus DIY scene, Monster House hosted hundreds of local and touring acts for basement punk shows.
Little lived in a room that cost him $160 month, and when he wasn't on the road with his band or going to sculpture classes at Ohio State, you could often find him sitting on the Monster House porch, hunched over pieces of metal with torch in hand making jewelry.
As a housemate, Little was the guy people could count on to tidy up. “He would vacuum those carpets all the time, even though it was basically like a dirt carpet,” said Steve Ciolek, who also lived at the Monster House and later joined Saintseneca.
“He was trying to maintain some order in pure chaos,” said Maryn Jones, another future bandmate who described herself as “the ghost that haunted Monster House.” “I used to go into his room and say, ‘You have the coolest room I've ever seen in my life.' I would try to figure out why it was so cool, and I realized it was because everything had a place. Every single thing.”
Little applies that same fastidiousness to his songwriting, carefully crafting dense, hyper-literate folk-rock tunes that still manage to pack an emotional wallop. “He works on songs for years. At the Monster House, when he lived downstairs and I'd be falling asleep on the couch, I'd listen to him play the same songs every day for months and months,” Jones said. “He knows exactly where each note, each tone, each moment should go. It's like weaving a blanket. You can tell he's thought about every tiny thing.”
After countless DIY tours and with the word-of-mouth popularity of Saintseneca's debut album, 2011's Last, more fans began to latch onto those painstakingly birthed songs. In 2013, the band signed with Anti-, a respected label that has released music from the likes of Tom Waits, Neko Case, Mavis Staples and Japandroids. Saintseneca's third album for Anti-, Pillar of Na, is out Friday, Aug. 31 — the same day the band will play a release show at the Wexner Center.
Pillar of Na is yet another artistic leap forward for Saintseneca and Little, who wrote some of the band's most concise, catchy songs to date (see single “Ladder to the Sun”) and also its most sprawling tune (the nearly nine-minute title track, which touches on everything from the concept of infinity to requesting “I Will Always Love You” on the radio). And for Little, a private person who has maintained an air of mystery around himself, it's his most vulnerable, revealing release yet.
Making Pillar of Na required more from Little than he has ever given to his art. It's not even the first record he submitted to the label after 2015's Such Things. “I turned in a collection of songs and was like, ‘All right, here it is. Let's go record!' I was used to that being a perfunctory matter,” he said. “And instead it was, ‘I don't think this is your best work.'”
The critique contributed to an already-brewing crisis of confidence. He found himself wondering if he was putting his life's work into something that no one may even care about. A core question nagged at him: What am I doing with my life?
It's impossible not to notice the beard first. It renders his lips invisible and hangs low enough to mask his entire neck with coarse tendrils of orange that range from burnt to fluorescent, depending on where the sun hits. It's flowing and leonine, not unkempt. Wavy hair of a similar striking color drops below his shoulders and frames his face.
It all gives Little, 30, an austere, antediluvian look, like he'd be more comfortable in a photograph from a Ken Burns documentary. But on a warm weekday morning in early August, Little, dressed in black jeans and a black button-down, is anything but stern. Seated on the balcony of the Victorian Village apartment he shares with his wife of one year, Leticia Wiggins, he's approachable, affable and generous in conversation.
On a barefoot tour of the multi-level space, guitars and exotic-looking stringed instruments hang on walls and sit on stands: dulcimer, bouzouki, domra, mandola, tricordia. But mostly I want to see the trash can.
It's gray-blue, about thigh high, and it's responsible for much of the percussion from a bygone era of Saintseneca. Pilfered from an OSU dorm, you can still faintly make out “housekeeping” written on the side. Little slaps it. “I kinda remember it sounding better than that,” he said. “But I'm not getting rid of it.”
In the early days of the band, Saintseneca became known as a folk-rock collective that eschewed electronic instrumentation, often huddling around one microphone or performing entirely acoustic at nontraditional venues (houses, under a bridge) and using the trash can and wooden platforms (aka “stomp boxes”) for percussion.
The whole aesthetic originated accidentally when Saintseneca's drummer didn't show up to the band's first gig at Marietta College in 2008. “All the microphones were real bad and there weren't enough. So I was just like, ‘You know what? This isn't gonna work. Let's just play acoustic and stomp on the stage.' So that's what we did,” said Little, who poached the trash can a couple of shows later. “That ended up being a defining moment in the trajectory of the band. We had that trash can when we were signing to Anti-.”
Little came to Ohio State from southeast Ohio, where he graduated from Caldwell High School in 2007. “It's the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains — close enough to get a scholarship for being a minority,” he said. “I had to go to these events for all the people who had that scholarship, and they'd be like, ‘What are you? What's your deal?'”
Growing up, Little's mother worked nights as a labor and delivery nurse in nearby Parkersburg, West Virginia, and his father was an agricultural extension agent, teaching farmers around Ohio. They lived on a research farm for a time, and then moved to a tree farm. “One year we planted 10,000 trees, just my dad and me,” he said.
Out in the country the TV barely registered three channels, so instead Little and his older sister, Aubrey, would go on adventures in the hills, looking for bear caves and shooting BB guns. In middle and high school Zac got involved with a United Methodist church.
“If there were five Sundays in a month, the fifth Sunday the youth would do a service. Usually you'd do skits and sing songs,” he said. “Eventually the youth leader asked, ‘Why don't you do a sermon?”
He did, and it went over well. “He's a really great speaker. He can draw people in, just like his music,” said Aubrey (Little) Hollinger, now a mother of three.
Little enjoyed preaching. It felt good. Eventually, he was delivering sermons to thousands of kids at youth conferences, and he never seemed nervous or intimidated. “In our faith, you ask God to be with you, and he's our words and our breath and our life,” Hollinger said. “Zac is purely a vessel at that point.”
Little's songwriting is rife with biblical allusions and spiritual imagery, from early records through Pillar of Na, on which he references Cain's murder of Abel, an Edenic angel's guarding of the garden and Christ's clearing of the temple (“Even Jesus made a whip and flipped shit on opportunists,” he sings on “Denarius”).
Little's religious beliefs aren't something he discusses much outside of his music, even with close friends, but he said his experience in the church is something he'll be trying to make sense of for the rest of his life. “The balance is trying to figure out: What do you believe just because you want to? And what do you believe because you apprehend it to be true?” he said.
Part of that reckoning for Little is acquiescing to the reality that he can't answer some questions with certainty. It's a concept he addresses on Such Things track “How Many Blankets are in the World?”
“In this world at this time — all the blankets in these people's houses, all the ones that are buried somewhere — that is a real number, and yet it is completely inaccessible,” he said. “You could come up with a pretty reasonable estimation, but you can't know. That's the essence of what faith is.”
Little's family and friends figured he'd go into the ministry, but in his teens, skateboarding opened the door to art and music. “I would skate in a barn. I made all these ramps out of old pieces of plywood and chicken baskets,” he said. “And there's a subculture. That got me into art. Eventually I bought a guitar from one of my skateboarder friends.”
Little would use his sister's alarm clock to listen to the top 20 countdown on alt-rock radio, taking meticulous notes about each song. Friends introduced him to punk-rock and then the Beatles. “The White Album has always been the one for me. It's so interesting and mysterious. It has everything,” he said. “I was obsessed.”
Soon Little was playing in a rock band with fellow high school friends Steva Jacobs and Luke Smith, who accompanied him to Ohio State. “I had all these folky instruments, and I lived in this little apartment. I didn't really have a place to practice with a loud rock band, so I just started using those instruments instead,” Little said. “Then we found Grace [Chang], who played violin. That was the connecting thread.”
Saintseneca started as a collective, with multiple members contributing songs and singing. The group began playing DIY shows, often performing alongside much louder punk bands. Through the Monster House and the punk scene Little met Steve Ciolek, who also fronts the Sidekicks, and Maryn Jones of All Dogs and Yowler.
In school, Little studied conceptual artists but ultimately became frustrated with sculpture, especially when the majority of his large-scale work ended up in a Dumpster. “I wanted to do things that were more accessible. That's what's appealing to me about music,” Little said. “I still look at things with that [art school] lens, but I don't want you to have to have an art degree. ... I try to give [songs] the rigor that you would put into a conceptual art piece or something, but make it poppy.”
Under the name Hero King, Little makes and sells jewelry with a similar mindset, seeing each piece as a miniature sculpture that's as artistic as it is practical.
Little graduated in 2011, and Saintseneca's debut, Last, came out on Portland, Oregon, label Mama Bird Recording Co. that August. It's a no-frills snapshot of how the band sounded at the time, and the artistry was a cut above other stompy folk-rock acts that coincidentally were beginning to infiltrate pop radio. But right after Last came out, band members began to lose interest or move away. Little was discouraged but by no means dismayed.
Musician friends like Ciolek and Jones began to fill in on tours. “It wasn't weird to wake up at 5 a.m. and drive until we got to the show at 9 p.m.,” Jones said, recalling a two-week jaunt in a Subaru with five people. “We also didn't have any money, so we would camp a lot. We'd get to a KOA at 2 a.m., set up a tent in the dark, all cram in, sleep for two hours, then tear down the tent, get in the car and drive. … I remember having to do my shift in the middle back seat and thinking, ‘This is one of the hardest things I've ever physically had to do in my life.'”
“I attribute [Zac's] work ethic to the way he was brought up,” Ciolek said. “He would talk about his dad waking him up and being like, ‘C'mon, get up!' I think about that when we're on tour and he's waiting on everybody else to slowly get up, and he's just ready to go.”
After the Subaru radiator blew up on tour in Vermont, Little began writing and recording songs for the next record, Dark Arc. “It was coming out of that very nebulous area of, ‘I don't even know what this is anymore,'” Little said. “It's a good place to be creatively, but existentially it can be fraught.”
According to Ciolek, it was also a troubled era at Monster House. “I can sense that turmoil on Dark Arc,” he said. “I know things that were going on in our lives at that time and the conversations we were having. It's a dark album.”
To record, Little would meet up with Glenn Davis, a recording engineer and musician in Way Yes whom Little met in the OSU sculpture program. Davis turned the attic area of his Worthington-area cape cod into a makeshift studio, complete with green shag carpet. “One day he'd come over with one person, the next week two other people,” said Davis, who pushed Little to rethink what Saintseneca could be. “I remember having conversations with him, like, ‘You gotta stop using this trash can as a drum. It looks cool, but we're making a record and it sounds like shit. Let's use real percussion instruments.'”
“Me and Maryn used to always try to get him to get rid of the trash can,” Ciolek said.
He didn't, of course, but he did take Saintseneca in new sonic directions, worrying less about how songs were going to be performed live. Electric guitars, effects pedals, bass, drums and more made their way into the 2012 sessions.
Eventually Little had an album to shop to labels, and Andy Kaulkin at Anti- loved it. He signed the band and asked if Little wanted to go to Omaha to mix and maybe re-record some parts of the record with renowned producer Mike Mogis. At first Little was hesitant, but eventually he decided to go for it, bringing along Jones, Ciolek, multi-instrumentalist Jon Meador and drummer Matthew O'Conke (aka Monkee).
The final version of Dark Arc is a hybrid of those Omaha and Columbus recording sessions, and it marked a turning point not just due to the big-name label, national distribution and critical reception, but also because of the band's willingness to emphasize folk-rock's latter hyphenated half.
The band built on that idea even more for the next album, returning to Omaha to record the maximalist Such Things, to the delight of Mogis. “Saintseneca is one of my favorite bands,” Mogis said. “It's this combination of [Little's] unique wordplay, and still having feelings in the songs and having some kind of emotional weight in the lyrics. I also just like the sound of his voice. And all the weird little instruments are right up my alley.”
“[Mogis] has become this collaborative partner for the band,” Ciolek said. “He's the only person who can hang and keep the energy up working on music as much as Zac can.”
Little sometimes refers to Such Things as “the physics record,” since many of the album's songs were influenced by his reading of a 1970s text called The Tao of Physics. Saintseneca mirrored the songs' multiple meanings with layers and layers of instrumentation, cramming as much as possible onto the record.
For Pillar of Na, he decided to take the opposite approach.
After the lukewarm label response, Little's anger and existential crisis eventually began to subside. “It was humbling, for sure. And it hurt,” he said. “But I think the record is better. It's different.”
It took a year, but a new version of the album started coming together. “‘Pillar of Na' was one of those things I'd been working on forever. I had pieces of that song for 11, 12 years,” he said.
Saintseneca again returned to Omaha to work with Mogis, who tracked the band live. (Jones, who relocated to Philadelphia, didn't come along; Caeleigh Featherstone, formerly of WV White, now records and tours with the band.) Little played guitar and sang in a small, irregularly shaped room with blue walls. “I wanted that room to be part of the record,” he said. “I wanted there to be air and a sense of place and space. The size of that room was the right emotional size.”
Pillar of Na explores the concept of the past and our relationship to it, and, more specifically, memory. “There's big, esoteric things like that, but also just being in a band for a long time, and then living in this city for 10 years,” Little said. “The place changes. The band changes. Your life changes. Houses that you lived in are something else.”
The album begins with “Circle Hymn,” an ancient-sounding tune about the cyclical nature of life that came to Little in a dream. A version of the song reappears in the middle of the record, and again at the end. “I was using the number three as a compass for the record,” he said.
A Roman numeral three marks the keystone of an arch on the album's cover art, which Little spent weeks painting, listening to autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Bruce Springsteen while making dots with a fine-tip Sharpie to create the subtle shading on a replica of the old Columbus Union Station arch, which now sits in the Arena District. In Little's painting, a glowing, suspended strawberry fills the archway.
While “Pillar of Na” is the album's epic, multipart finale, “Frostbiter” is the centerpiece. It's a pastiche of memories — first death (“When granddad died, I got his knife/I cleaned the kitchen and I didn't know why”), then near-death. In the third verse, two old friends reminisce about their band: “Swear to God we had the best singer in Ohio/They got crazy on blow so we never really made it past the first shows though.”
“I was at Music Go Round and overheard these people talking,” he said. “It's funny, but it's also pretty damn sad.”
When Little performed the song during a solo show at Ace of Cups in July, some in the crowd reacted to the humor, chuckling at the third verse. “Zac is one of the funniest people I've ever met, but on first impression I don't know if anyone would know that because he's very composed,” said Jones, who recorded vocals remotely for a few Pillar tracks. “His secret goofiness and wackiness has permeated into the music more lately.”
On the record, the song ends with a clip from an old VHS tape Little found in a trove of home movies. The “Frostbiter” video reveals a scene on the beach in Florida, where Little's family lived for brief time, with a young Zac, his sister, mom and grandma (three generations). “It's kind of a sad, happy day,” Aubrey says to their mom, who's filming.
“My grandma had come to visit, and that was the last day they were there. … It gave me chills,” Little said. “That one is really personal. I was a little bit reluctant because I feel kind of exposed. … The other footage is stuff from when we were recording Last — Steva, Luke and I in high school, then us throughout the life of the band. It's a lot to share with people.”
Out on the balcony, talk turns to the ephemeral aspect of memory and the fleeting nature of life.
“We try so hard to hang onto everything, but that's just how it goes,” Little said. “I think my existential dread has a lot more to do with life than it does death. Death seems a lot easier than trying to figure out how to be in this world. That's the hard part.”