Peninsular Place

The Magazine

October 28, 2012

Fusing the Past and Present, Shigeto’s Journey into the World of Electronic Music

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Written by: Paul Kitti
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Wind whistling through tall grass. Stacking, shuffling, breaking and building – like faint echoes from a carpenter’s shop. Natural percussion and electronically-born melodies sneaking into open air through a crack in a studio window. Collected sounds from a day spent in a dozen different places, meshing with the developing dream soundtrack of a dozing-off mind.

Shigeto’s music is a product of heritage – of growing up on jazz in Ann Arbor and visiting Japan to connect with his roots, of making peace with the feeling of displacement. It’s a little closer to the sunlight than most of what you’ll hear in the electronic music landscape – like scrapbook music, with sounds bearing distinct memories assembled into a sort of musical narrative.

Before he was known as Shigeto, Zachary Saginaw was a drummer. He became acquainted with a pair of sticks around the same time most kids start learning to use a pencil, and he drew from a mix of influences to develop an impressively versatile style. “I grew up listening to all kinds of hip-hop and jazz and Motown,” says Saginaw, digging up memories over the phone during an afternoon in Detroit. “I played in rock and hip-hop bands, but took jazz most seriously. Jazz is the closest to my heart.”

Right out of high school, Saginaw left Ann Arbor to pursue music in New York. He enrolled in the New School for Jazz in Manhattan, but the experience was disenchanting. As a self-taught musician, Saginaw had wild, natural skill but no ink and paper reference point. In other words, he realized there was a textbook side to music that he’d be forced to adapt to.

“It crushed me,” he sighs. “Jazz was something about freedom and expression, and having that be in a school environment where there was definite right and definite wrong and all this other shit, it was unappealing.” After about three semesters, Saginaw dropped out. His distaste for school coupled with an uncertainty about his future in music put him in a temporary limbo.

“You’re not gonna be a Coltrane or a Miles Davis,” he points out, avoiding coming across as cynical. “Unless you’re really pushing the boundaries and trying new stuff and writing your own arrangements and possibly incorporating electronics, you’re just playing the same shit. It’s like one percentage of people are actually gonna contribute to the progression of the art. It was my dream to be a jazz drummer, and going to school and being in New York made me realize it wasn’t the path I wanted.”

Maybe he wasn’t a part of the one-percent destined to progress the art of jazz, but he was about to take his first steps on the path to progressing the art of electronic music. Not long after arriving at this crossroads, he received a phone call from a friend in London. “Just randomly, he offered for me to come visit and work there. So I thought, yeah, why not?”

He found himself in Europe for the first time, “maturing, selling, and exporting artisan British cheese.” It was hardly the professional calling he’d dreamed of, but it was a fresh starting point and presented a scene where he could continue his own style of drumming on the side. Unfortunately, the whole selling cheese business began to make his musical abilities turn sour.

His job often involved heavy lifting (“12 – 40 kilos of cheese”) and that, in addition to aggressive, wrist-mangling drumming, left him with debilitating tendinitis in his forearms. Facing six drum-less months of recovery, he received a copy of the music-production program Reason 2.0 from his visiting brother as was a way to stay involved with music and keep the creative streak going. Saginaw ran with it.

“All my friends growing up were rappers or jazz musicians or beat makers or whatever, so it was this thing that was around me all the time but I had never taken part in it,” says Saginaw. “As soon as I started, I loved it.”

As a natural musician, Saginaw’s approach to electronic production involves incorporating more of a human element than what typically runs through this type of music. He uses a collection of natural instruments and brings his music closer to earth by recording live takes of track segments all the way through instead of looping them. And, since he’s been able to pick up the drum sticks again, there’s an added rhythmic beauty to his songs that sounds refreshing alongside the stale programmed beats that rattle clubs.

He’s now a part of the Ghostly International family, which speaks to the innovative nature of both his sound and persona. The Ann Arbor-based label values artists who have a complete vision of who they are and what they want their music to represent. For Saginaw, it comes back to family.

“My music is highly linked to my family experiences,” he explains. Check “Lineage,” his second full-length release: the cover art features a picture of his great-grandfather’s house in Hiroshima, and on the back cover there’s a picture of his grandfather at an internment camp in the 1940s. The music continually brushes against this mix of displacement and nostalgia, “sad, with a rising hope underneath it all,” rooted in Saginaw’s deep concern for his heritage and his own personal journey into something new. The spiritual connection is, as he explains, most affecting when he returns to Japan:

“That’s where I can feel it. I feel it’s a part of me, but I’m not a part of it. But it’s in my spiritual DNA. I get very overwhelming vibes when I’m there, good and bad. The bad is due to the disconnection. Meaning I’m a part of this, but I’m not accepted fully. And then the good vibe is that I can feel that I’m a part of this and this is a part of me.”

One amazing feature of music is that it’s born from the experiences of its creator, but it lends itself to the experiences of everyone it comes into contact with. This breed of electronic music is especially adaptable, as it has very few words and inspires feelings and emotions that are universal. In the end, Saginaw says, “I like the listener to kind of decide what it means to them. I want people to hear it and create the story and have that music for whenever they want to be there.”

Shigeto will be performing at the Blind Pig on November 21. It’s an 18 and up show. Tickets are $10 and doors open at 9:30 p.m.



About the Author

Paul Kitti
Paul Kitti
Paul is another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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