Gorgeous strings, live drums and beautiful electronic loops all coexist within the idiosyncratic world of New York-based, Detroit-bred Zach Sagninaw, known by his alias Shigeto. His second release on Ghostly, Lineage, is a quasi-concept album, with gorgeous electronic elements tracing back his Japanese heritage as well as his personal progression as a musician.
Over a pint in London, we chatted with Zach about family history, near-death experiences and the shift from jazz to electronic composition.
Let’s talk about your latest release, Lineage, which melds beautiful loops to create a holistic sound. There’s a thread of nostalgia there as well — what were you thinking about when you made this album?
I was basically thinking about where I come from musically, which is a more organic background. I’ve been playing jazz my whole life, and my comfort zone is definitely behind acoustic instruments, or just instruments in general. Every day I’m learning more about production, and it’s just limitless. While writing Lineage, it was kind of a concept album where it was basically the notion of lineage — whether it be my blood, my ancestry, or my musical ancestry. The artwork is very old family photos as well. The melancholy feeling is an “it’ll be alright kind of vibe.” Long story short my mother’s side of the family is Japanese, and they experienced the camps during WWII. It’s affected me quite a bit. My whole family suppressed being Japanese after that, out of shame or fear or a million different things. So for instance, I never learned Japanese. We became very American. We were very American, but we have Japanese blood. So my music is a way for me to communicate with my grandmother and my family in a way. Musically I wanted to show where I came from as well. Playing dulcimer and all sorts of organic instruments all work to sort of break away from just sitting behind the computer. It’s combining the future with the past.
You started out playing jazz. What prompted the shift into electronic music?
It while I was living in London, I was playing local jazz gigs and working at a cheese shop. But it was proper cheese, so it involved a lot of heavy lifting, 15 to 40 kilos of cheese. So it got to a point where I developed tendonitis in both of my arms, and I couldn’t actually play drums for about six months. I was getting really depressed and I needed some sort of outlet. My brother visited from Michigan and brought me a copy of Reason 2.0 and said, you should just mess around with this. I had been super influenced by electronic music, hip hop, but I never took part in it. As soon as I got shown the basics, my world changed. Being a drummer, I used to always depend on other people to make music. The immediate satisfaction of electronic music was addictive, and I just decided from then on this was so much more fun.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making a living from music?
I’d definitely be in the food industry. Food has always been really important to me, My father is in the food industry, my partner is a chef. She wants to open up a business one day — I might do it as well, I can’t tour forever. I would love to have a venue featuring a restaurant on top with some good eats. To have both in a casual and classy setting would be dope.
When you’re writing a track, how much of it is conscious and predetermined, and how much of it happens organically?
I guess the palate, the sounds I choose, are always predetermined. It’s like picking out paint, I find the collection of sounds I like. Then I make four or five things with them, and sometimes I don’t use them at all.
How do you think your music has evolved since you first started to record?
Oh man, it’s evolved a lot. I use a program called Reason, and for many years you couldn’t record live audio. So I would use a digital recorder, my iPhone, very ghettofabulous methods to get sounds. But just in the last year, they created record on the program, and that pretty much changed everything. As soon as that came out, I just started buying all of these acoustic instruments. I would love to buy a ton of analog synths, but you can’t recreate the sound of bells or strings the way they sound miked, you know. It’s the realest it can get. I invested a lot in that and have been focusing more on composition. Being less in the screen and more present with my hands.
What kind of samples do you like to work with?
Everything. I try to record people yelling at each other on the street, funny conversations on the train, your typical found sounds. Sounds in the kitchen, field recordings, rain.
Are you working on any collaborations lately?
I have a project that I’m about to start working on with a great, talented producer based in New York. You’re going to hear about him pretty soon, his name’s Raja.
How do you work to translate what’s on the record versus live?
It’s forever-changing, to tell you the truth. Right now my live set has new and unreleased tracks, which are solely reserved for the live show. My releases are a little more heady, psychedelic and chilled-out. But with live shows, people want energy and want to rage. I have a lot more uptempo tracks, bangers, and remixes live. It always depends on the vibe, though.
What have you been listening to lately?
A lot of younger producers. I’m so interested in their sound. It seems cliche, but it seems so pure and original — they just don’t give a shit, and that’s refreshing. Dubstep, two-step vibe stuff. I love the new Clark album. When I’m on the road, I don’t listen to a lot of music though. It’s so loud, so late that all I want to do is go to bed when the night’s over. But I really can’t wait to hear the new Flying Lotus.
Do you see the advent of technology and the accessibility of making music as a challenge for musicians when anyone can make music nowadays?
I don’t see it as a challenge or great; I see it as the progression of life. It really is that simple. The world keeps on spinning, and we get new technology. The amount of mediocre and shit music has gone up exponentially, yes, but the amount of what we can do and where we can take things has shot up as well. Overall, it’s a positive mindset. I have faith. But all creativity — whether it be fine art, or graphic design, or music — the bar is going to be raised. We’re going to start creating art in ways we never thought imaginable. Interactive things, like creating sounds that we could never fathom. The good stuff is going to be mind-blowing because of the technology we have. I feel lucky being my age exactly, though. I remember when there weren’t CDs, just tapes. And I remember when CDs came out and they came out in a huge rectangular box and we thought, “oh my god we can jump up and down and the music doesn’t skip!” I remember mini-discs, then mp3. Boom. It changed everything. Facebook, Myspace, Bandcamp. You don’t need a record label anymore. Everything’s so different, but I’m glad I grew up right in the middle of it. People not much younger than me — they don’t know what the world was like without the Internet.
What’s been the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?
I was playing a show in Budapest, and I had a small plane from Budapest to Bucharest. I had a small show that night. When I got on I thought, this is the smallest plane I’ve ever been on. When I step on the floor, I can feel how hollow it is. We took off, and probably about 10,000 feet in the air the engines exploded. The cabin filled with black smoke, all the lights went off. I looked outside — it was a propeller plane — and I saw the propellers slow down, then stop at fucking 10,000 feet in the air. Everyone started screaming, the flight attendants freaked out. Everyone said we’re going to die. The plane started to go down, and at that moment I thought it was over. I had a calming, movie-like sensation where everything around me became quiet and white. It was like I was by myself. And it was like, this is it, Zach. You’re dying. You’re never going to see your girl, your dog, your brother, mother, father. It’s over. This is how you die. And it was euphoric. It was fucked up, I’ve never experienced this feeling of peace and panic at the same time. Luckily because it was such a small plane, and the pilot was very competent, we coasted and landed safely. There were reporters when we landed, as well as ambulances because people had heart attacks, strokes and shit because they were freaking out. Then I got on the next plane, got drunk and played the show that same night.
What’s next after this tour?
I’m planning on moving back to Michigan in a month after this tour. When I get back, I’ll build a proper studio and have my drums set up in the same room. I’m working on a full-length for Ghostly as well, writing new music and playing as much as possible. Plenty of remixes coming out soon as well.