Saintseneca // Interview

saintseneca

Cast very much in the mould of Conor Oberst and Zach Condon – songwriters with their own distinctive take on the American songbook, infusing it with all manner of other elements along the way – Zac Little has, for the past half a decade or so, been treading his own path via the Saintseneca medium. Gradually building up from the early offerings of Last, via last year’s Dark Arc, he’s arrived at his most fully formed on the recently-released Such Things. Anthemic and accessible, it’s sound belies the complex lyrical themes which centre around ruminations on the human consciousness – as witnessed the on the storming recent single ‘River’ and it’s opening lines of “I’m not dead, just a head lighter”. With the band gearing up to play a series of London shows this month (“I’ve actually never been.” admits Little “This will be our first time anywhere in Europe too. I am excited as it’s a new experience for me and I’m looking forward to seeing that part of the world”) there seems no better time to discuss the new record, incorporating new ideas into his songwriting, and making sense of a record which seems to exist within a series of dualities.

Three albums in as you are now, how do you feel you’ve developed as a songwriter over time, and how do you feel what you’ve learned over making Last and Dark Arc have manifested themselves on the new record?

Our first full length was pretty much a live record – those songs were written in a really collaborative way. When we sat down to make it it was really a case of just trying to capture what we’d been doing live up to that point, albeit with a bit of embellishment. After that the band kind of fell apart so going into making Dark Arc it was about building up recordings. Up to that point I’d felt almost a kind of duty towards some form of documentation of what we were doing live, so it was quite freeing to go about making a record without thinking about the way that the songs were performed. That was an exciting process and I’ve always been a fan of using the studio as an instrument in itself. I would say with this record in regard to songwriting found itself somewhere in between, and I wanted it to have a vibe of a band playing the songs – because that’s what it was – but also to again use the studio as an instrument in itself. I felt I put more consideration into the layering and composition of it to give it the sound I wanted

You’ve spoken about wanting to explore and incorporate the pop motif on this record. Was there a defining moment where you first considered this or was it a gradual desire to explore that particular element of songwriting?

I think that part of that came from having fun playing the songs from Dark Arc. When you look at a song like ‘Happy Alone’ there’s a certain groove to it and it’s something I felt that the people I worked on the record with were pushing me to do. I’ve always written songs in a more linear manner, moving from passage to passage and I felt it would be more of a challenge to write songs which did groove. It was definitely an intention – as I was writing this record I’d revert back to my old ways of ‘let’s put this part in here’, and I still think there are some twists and turns and surprises but it’s within the context of using that pop structure as scaffolding to build the songs.

The overall feel of the record is far more anthemic then your earlier work – was that a conscious/predetermined decision? Was it challenge fleshing out your ideas to where they are on record?

It’s funny, I can see how it comes across like that and several other people have said that too, but I was trying to make the record smaller. I wanted the songs to be a little more direct and tighter without cavernous reverb. But in doing that I think it made the songs more impactful in some way and that’s why I think when people hear it they interpret it as this great anthemic sound. But it’s funny as it’s coming from a place where I’m trying to make the songs tighter and more focussed.

The record seems to feature several dualities – filtered through 60s psychedelia but also very much in the mould of classic American songwriting. Accessible while also possessing great songwriting depth and complex themes. At once reflective and muscular. Were these all conscious songwriting elements that you wanted to explore, and how difficult was it to get the different elements to come together?

I think a lot of those things were conscious decisions. That whole 60s psychedlia vibe is definitely an overall texture for the recordings but that was one of those things I was explaining to the producer as we went into the studio. I wanted to use it as a motif or aesthetic for the songs but not turn it into a series of throwback songs. I don’t want to write something that sounds like I’m trying to recapitulate something from another time. I want to write songs in a contemporary moment but also be inspired by things from the past. So what I tried to do was take that and then channel it through that filter of 60s psychedelic pop.

That duality seems applicable to your processes too – you’ve spoken about working on your own and laying the foundations for songs before taking them to the rest of the band. Both singular and collaborative, do you feel it’s a strategy which works best for you?

I wanted that to be at the heart of what I was trying to do. I feel very invested in a lot of ways and it’s an extension of who I am. This is something which is coming out of my own sensibilities and personality, and with this project it involves other people even though the lineup consistently changes and it’s different from tour to tour and from record to record. I think the process of letting people in and letting them have their own voice means the music gets extended beyond the boundaries it might have met had I been working on my own. That collaboration is exciting because to me it hits a point – I feel that it’s definitely an intention within the whole project.

Given the record explores the human consciousness in its lyrical themes, was there an overall mood or message you wanted to capture within it, and how successfully do you feel you have?

What you were describing is the very core of the record. It explores the human consciousness and specifically how it manifests itself – or maybe doesn’t – as a physical thing. Where do those two realms meet? At what point do thoughts and consciousness become alienated from the physical world that we inhabit every day? I was interested in where that intersection might be and where the two blend or intersect. As well as whether we give thought or consciousness the same gravity and weight that we do to the physical world that we move through. A lot of that is quite esoteric, I suppose, but I was trying to relate it to what it means to exist and to actually live that. It’s not like reading a physics book and writing about a passage in that, it’s about learning about those things and trying to make sense of the idea of living and existing. I mean, I don’t step back and ask myself if this record was successful in conveying those things, but I think I said what I wanted to say. A lot of that stuff is difficult to articulate, I suppose, and I think I tried to convey it in a way that was layered and nuanced as an extension of what it’s like to wrap your head around that. So if the record was oblique from a lyrical content then I’d consider that a success – especially when delivered via something that was quite poppy, in a musical sense.

When you went into the studio did you have any preconceptions as to what the finished record should sound like and if so in hindsight do you feel you’ve met them?

Yeah, I wanted the record to sound like it was recorded in the sixties or something, but not in the arrangements of the songs themselves. I wanted it to sound like we’d gone back in time and were able to record with the same aesthetic. I was trying to reference a bunch of bands from that time – Fairport Convention, The Beatles, Bowie, Credence Clearwater Revival – but thinking about the aesthetics of their recordings and that sensibility. At the same trying not to let that dictate the way in which the songs were written, because to me it’s not that interesting to try and write a song in the style of another band like The Beatles simply because it’s already been done. Though I do appreciate the sounds. In terms of whether I view it as a success, I hope it sounds big. It’s not a hi-fi record by any means but I’d like to think it has some power behind it.

You’ve said that “I won’t write a song that I don’t think isn’t the best thing I’ve done. When I finish it I have to feel like it’s the best thing I’ve made. And if I don’t feel that way, it’s like, why bother?” Between that quote and the latest record you seem to be in an incredibly ambitious mindset – is that a true reflection of your persona and do you feel you’ve managed to capture that on record?

I worked as hard as I could have on this record, and I put everything into it. I left the recording process thinking that there wasn’t anything more I could have done, or written, or put into this record. Is it perfect? Probably not. But I’m left thinking that I’ve done everything I could do so I just have to move on.

If there’s one thing you hope people take away from the album above all else, be it a sensation or message, what would you hope it was?

I hope it provokes some kind of thought or introspection, but also makes people rock out too.

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Buy: Saintseneca – Such Things

Live: London Fields – November 22nd