Not much has remained constant in the short-but-colorful history of Ohio-based band Saintseneca — except founder, frontman and multi-instrumentalist Zac Little. Since forming in 2007, the American folk quintet has undergone major transformations.
“The original band started with some childhood friends of mine,” says Little. “We played in a rock band in high school. When we moved up to Columbus — we went to college here — it shifted. I lived in this little apartment and had all of these acoustic instruments. I started playing things like the mandolin and the dulcimer. That became the cornerstone of early Saintseneca.”
One could compare Little’s association with Saintseneca much like Sam Beam’s with Iron & Wine. It’s not so much that he’s just the front man or bandleader — he is Saintseneca. It’s his stage name and umbrella for every musical project he works on or musician he collaborates with. Without Little, there wouldn’t be a band.
Today, the lineup comprises Little, Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador, Maryn Jones and Matt O’Konke. The quintet’s latest effort, Dark Arc, was released in April on ANTI- Records, produced, engineered and mixed by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, Tilly and the Wall).
“We basically spent 10 months here in Columbus recording with my friend Glen Davis and built up the record pretty methodically,” Little says of the initial recording process. “Once we established the connection with the label, they introduced the idea of working with Mike.”
Little was familiar with Mogis’ work and, after talking to him about the project, felt it was a good fit. “He was on the same page in terms of wanting to push the recording,” says Little. “The final record became a hybrid of those two sessions — the first 10 months and then the one month straight we spent with Mike in Omaha.”
The result is a 14-song amalgamation of foot-stomping acoustic tracks and hipster sing- alongs. Many of Saintseneca’s members are multi-instrumentalists specializing in unplugged contraptions like the balalaika, mandolin, bowed banjo and the ukulele, which they fuse with contemporary elements like synthesizers, electric guitars and DIY punk lyrics.
Little grew up “on a couple different farms” in southeast Ohio. “In some ways, my connection to the outside world was just this little radio I had,” he explains. “I remember listening to top ’90s alternative stations and being interested in bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and things like that.”
That taste of ’90s-era alt rock pushed Little to explore his emerging musical side. “It was around then my interest in music started becoming a thing. But it wasn’t ’til years later, when I started playing guitar and other instruments, that I had a conduit or a channel to express that.”
Self-taught (unless you count a choir class he took in high school or the VHS tape he watched on how to play guitar and learn power chords), Little found a broader and more influential musical pool when he relocated to Columbus for college. He was also introduced to the DIY punk scene from attending a large number of house parties.
So through more line-up changes than one can keep track of and switching genres from rock to punk to folk, why didn’t Little just change the name of Saintseneca and start a new project altogether?
“Well, I guess there’s a number of reasons for that,” says Little. “For one, a lot of it happened pretty gradually — one person here, one person there. And as it happened, other people came in and were invested in doing stuff with us. For the most part, it wasn’t this thing where it all fell apart at once.”
He continues, “But another aspect of that is I feel like all of the work I’m involved in is a continuum, so it doesn’t make sense to me to just sever that and be like, ‘Oh, these are songs that are off-limits.’ I have never been one to compartmentalize my work.”
Today, Little is frontman, principal songwriter and lead vocalist for Saintseneca — a band that’s labeled as acoustic folk. But who knows how long this current state of the band will last? And who really cares? It’s not as much about the members as it is about Little’s ability to put together a group of musicians who create beautiful, thought-provoking music together.