Shigeto, on making the 20′ in front of him a better place / @ The Midway 3/18


Zach Saginaw, known by his middle name/moniker Shigeto, let me know right away that he had just returned, “about 20 hours ago”, from playing shows in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and that yesterday was both his birthday and the night of his ongoing residency (with friends) at Motor City Wine bar in Detroit. But over the course of nearly an hour’s conversation, he proved that even sleep deprived and jet lagged, he is an artist devoted to improvisation, experimentation, and growth.

Saginaw is in town on Saturday night as the featured performer at a multi-media, immersive, technological (and likely quite long) experimental performance –  Luminary: Art, Music, Tech – at the Midway. The night will bring together nearly two dozen artists in what Future Fires and The Midway are calling the first in an ongoing series of collaborations aimed at exploring “the visionary work of creators and musicians from around the world using emerging technologies: immersive audio, drones, VR, projection mapping, and more.” It’s an apt setting for Saginaw, whose musical life is rooted in collaborative improvisation via his start as a jazz drummer. 

Those who know Shigeto’s music know it is born out of a vast lineage of influences – jazz, hip-hop, electronic, folk. Every song weaves organic instrumentation – eg drum kit, shakers, hand drums, a bell tree, a mbira – with futuristic sounds from synthesizers, drum machines, and samples of familiar video game bleeps or clinking glasses or drum sticks falling to the floor (for example), that are filtered, played backwards, repeated, echoed. The result is a rich and polyrhythmic exploration of sound and emotion, a sonic map of a moment that somehow stills feels spacious and ambient.

As Saginaw sees it, the different sounds create a palette, and this is how a song begins for him. “I rarely have an idea for a track and then just make it and execute it,” he says. “A lot of these tracks come from improvisations, or searching for texture or sounds that I like together.” He clarifies that though improvisations are the beginning, the idea is refined by production time.

So how does he keep the sense of spaciousness?  Is he, like contemporary minimalists, counting the silent spaces? After a pause, he tells me, “Yeah it’s very the opposite of counting. I just decide what I like. I wish there was a more complex answer, but the space is just something I like. I’m aware of it. I just like it.” We share a moment in appreciation for the different roles of the artist (to make the art) and the listener (to dive in and search inside the music for meaning, truth, beauty). “It’s cool to see what other people search for and find and see,” he says. 

Saginaw released his first EP New Crossings in 2008, two years before his debut with the Ghostly International label where he’s since released several EPs, two full length albums and a host of remixes and collaborations. (Based out of his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ghostly is also the home of Matthew Dear, Tycho, Phantogram and Fort Romeau among others.) I ask him about the release, which to my ears signified both an indication that our essential Self (musical in this case) never changes – we just get better at knowing and expressing that Self – and that Saginaw is an artist in constant growth. His response is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We all have this idea that everything we do is gonna determine, every choice is gonna determine the rest of our lives, that every release has to be perfect. And we have a hard time finishing pieces, and being like ‘this is done.’ It just stays on your computer, stays in your studio, you don’t sell it, don’t share it. The best way to grow is to share it. To let it become real. It’s never gonna be the best it can be. You’re always gonna be finding new ways of expressing yourself. But each time that you
actually release something you’re letting go of that. It’s like making that piece actually exist. And then you move on. You change.” ~ Shigeto

On that note he laughs when mentioning his next release – a much-anticipated follow up to 2013’s No Better Time Than Now due out some time this fall. “People will hear this next record and be like ‘What the fuck? This is so different from No Better Time Than Now.’ I don’t know what people will think. It’s my first full length in, by that time, 4 years so I think naturally it should be different. In whatever way it is different, it’s four years later so it should be different.” He laughs. “Who knows what happens in four years.”

What has happened in the past few months alone has impacted Saginaw. Based in Detroit, a city both at the vanguard of capitalism’s demise and increasingly under siege by gentrification, Saginaw and his brother, artist Ben Saginaw, are building a studio/gallery/label in the city-within-a-city of Hamtramck, the first Muslim-majority city in America. 

Outside the front door of their corner space Muslim children play at a playground, and the pair’s favorite lunch spot bears the name of one of the Muslim-majority countries currently banned by our executive branch. This hits close to home for Saginaw, whose maternal grandparents were interred by the US Government during WWII. “These are other people that happen to be from those (banned) countries. It’s the same thing that happened to my grandparents. They had nothing to do, nothing to do at all with what happened during WWII, but yet they were all put in prison because they were Japanese.”

Sharing space in the overall quite diverse community is a chance, Saginaw shares, “to try to live with equality, try to form some form of solidarity in the community with all these people and everyone. It’s an important time to just not be a dick.”

And this — solidarity — is key to what Saginaw sees as his work in these times. “We need solidarity more than ever. We need to be unified. And in a lot of ways, electronic music, music in general, creates that solidarity. But even more, dance music,” he tells me. Referencing the early days of techno in Detroit (where it was born in the 1980s as the city was ravaged by crime and arson), Saginaw recalls how artists didn’t get lost in the craze to be famous; They made music and they got the music on the dance floor as soon as possible. “These guys were making tracks in their studio at home and then pressing up a white label of it so they could go DJ…That was how they did it. It wasn’t about anything but the music … the power of music and the power of having a voice.”

“Basically the way I’ve been changed (by the last few months) is that I just want to get back to putting music out into circulation to create positivity and create inspiration and making the 20′ in front of me a better place. No matter what we’re doing right now, we can’t control the big picture, but we can control what’s right in front of us, you know?”

Saginaw/Shigeto only performs in San Francisco once or twice a year, so if you’re lucky enough to be within 20′ or 20 miles of The Midway on Saturday, you’d be right to get yourself to this show. More information and tickets are here