In Conversation with Shigeto

Shigeto has been an instrumental part of not only the Detroit scene, but the American electronic scene at large for the better part of a decade. Real name Zach Shigeto Saginaw (the middle name/moniker is taken from his Japanese grandfather), he first developed his musical skills as a jazz drummer growing up in Ann Arbor before taking up the producing mantle. He’s lived in London, New York and Detroit but his sound has developed in a fascinating, untethered way, you certainly couldn’t map it to any one location or even genre.

His new album, The New Monday, marks the end of a four year hiatus, and is currently being taken on the road. He recently dropped into London to play a pair of shows, firstly at Spiritland and then at Omeara, as well as gracing both NTS and Worldwide with his presence for radio sets.

His set at Omeara was nothing short of staggering, blending old material with new and shifting between drumming, live producing and looping with remarkable enthusiasm. Before all that though, we caught up with him to find out how the new album came together, among other things.

The first track is called Detroit Part II, how has your view of the Detroit scene changed between these two albums?

I guess my view of Detroit hasn’t changed too much, but during my time there I became very aware of the do-it-yourself mentality that a lot of the artists there have. That then inspired me to start to the label and focus on things I loved and wanted to do, rather than things I thought I should be doing.

Detroit Part I was actually named outside of the music, it was originally going to be one of the Ann Arbour tracks, like on my old records. It was actually Sam Valenti from Ghostly who suggest that since I’d just moved back to Detroit, I should call it Detroit Part I, so I thought fuck it, why not.

The response to that was asking why I’d called a track that didn’t sound like Dilla or Moodymann that. So in a way, Detroit Part II was a response to that, it was my take on what I like from the sounds of Detroit. It had my friend Marcus Elliot on it, who’s a staple in the local jazz scene and it’s obviously more dance floor oriented than Part I. Really I just thought it’d be funny to come back with a song in that way, representing the actual influences rather than just naming it after Detroit.

What can you tell me about the scene in your home town, Ann Arbor? What do you find particularly appealing about it in its current state?

I’m not as plugged into it as I used to be, but it was the single most influential environment for me growing up. It’s like kids from New Jersey who go to New York on the weekends, we would see shows in Detroit, but the whole scene in Ann Arbor was quite vibrant, from hip-hop to punk to dance. I think Ann Arbor is an unsung hero of music, it definitely lives in the shadow of Detroit but so many artists have come out of it.

I was there growing up with Samiyam, Todd Osborn was based in Ypsi; Tadd Mullinix, Matthew Dear and Laurel Halo are all also in Ann Arbor, even Mayer Hawthorne was coming from Ann Arbor. There was a whole thriving scene of us under the Detroit umbrella, we were taking advantage of being so close to the city, but it definitely had its own place. I’m pretty detached from it now, to be honest, everyone I knew from Ann Arbor has moved to Detroit or New York or L.A., it’s not the same.

What first drew you into contact with ZeeLooperZ and how drew you to form ZGTO?

Living in Detroit gets you into contact with a lot of people. Skywlkr, Danny Brown’s DJ is a friend of mine, but it was my friend Charles Trees who first showed me one of ZeeLooperZ’ videos – Hit a Lick – and I remember being like “Who is this kid?” His music is crazy and he’s so animated, it’s unreal. I think after that just through the grapevine people started suggesting we should link and then I met him at a house party. It was a Detroit house party, like punk music, Bruiser Brigade people were playing, apparently the floor caved in, I don’t know, but I ran into him there. He’s hard to miss, he’s 6’7”, but he also keeps to himself. He suggested we should link, then he hit me up and came over.

At first I played him a bunch of trap style stuff that I make for fun but he didn’t like that so much. After that I played him all these weird ambient beats and he just stuck to them so I hit record. After about an hour of that we had like two tracks, so we just kept going. There was no idea, no goal, we were just hanging out, smoking and making music and eventually it just became this whole catalogue. Ghostly and Third Man thought it was weird and cool so we ran with it.

It can’t have been easy for him to map his lyrics around those kinds of beats. It was very cut and paste at first. I would let him improvise; a lot of the tracks were just free flow, and then I would take those sections, cut them up and create a composition. Zee would either approve or not, mostly approve, then he’d memorise what I’d cut up and finish it. So it was me cutting up the verses and putting them where I thought they’d fit. Like Unfold, for example, that was one of the first ones we made and the chorus on that has a call and response which is actually from two different takes. The final stages were just solid writing though.

Would you ever want to collaborate with any other rappers?

Yes and no, I work with people I really care about. I work with people that I have a relationship with, whether it’s old or new. I think Zee and I’s work fits so well because we were feeding each other emotionally, it wasn’t about making something that pops off, we filled gaps in each other’s lives that needed filling that we weren’t necessarily aware of. So if I hear there’s some rapper I don’t know who really wants to work with me, I won’t necessarily jump on that. It’s always interested me, and who knows what the future will hold?

Is there anyone in particular you’d really like to work with?

I’d really love to eventually work with Zee and Danny Brown, that would be something really special.

Have you met Danny many times?

A couple, we’ve hung out backstage at shows. We’ve never had any intimate one-on-one time, it’s always been at a show, but I just know how much Zee looks up to Danny, so I feel like getting both of them in the same space could be really special. In terms of rappers in general though, I mean, I could go real cliched and just say Kendrick, I think he’s holding the torch, whether it’s technicality or content, I really enjoy that guy’s music a lot.

You have a background in drumming and in playing jazz music, and The New Monday is more jazzy than any of your other more recent releases. Is there any particular reason why jazz has come back into your production again?

I think it was conscious, and I think it had to do with Detroit, being surrounded by so many DJs and people who are obsessed with record culture. I don’t mean house techno, just the culture that surrounds what makes a track and a track and what makes a genre a genre. Everything has always been so mixed up with me. There’s always been people saying things like “you can’t define this music” or talking about this influence or that influence, so for this record I was focusing on staying more dedicated to any given genre. If I was doing something jazz influenced, it’d be like “Oh, there’s a sax playing over some chord changes, that’s jazzy” or if I did a hip-hop track there would be rappers involved. I think it became more jazzy because of that, because of being dedicated to the idea, because I wanted someone to be soloing over the track rather than me cutting up sample.

I also think that being home made me more comfortable with being myself and putting myself into whatever given track I was working on, rather than trying to fit a mould. If you look at Detroit Part II, Ice Breaker or There’s a Vibe Tonight, I would play those tracks out, in a club, and maybe other people would too. I don’t have tracks like that on my other albums, you might find them on a chilled out Spotify playlist, but with these I was trying to pay attention to the characteristics of any given track and then put more into it.

From your point of view, what it been like watching the jazz and electronic scenes coalesce in the way they are at the moment, and the genre coming back into accepted culture again?

It’s amazing, it’s a great sign for music in general. I think that we go through phases as a culture. Not to get too philosophical, but when I lived in London, which was from 2003 until about 2007, it was kind of the beginning of it. When I lived here I worked in a cheese shop, I matured cheese, I sold cheese, made cheese…

That sounds kind of fun.

It was fun! It changed my life, but the fact of the matter is that back then the word ‘foodie’ didn’t exist, it was just like “this is proper food” rather than “I care about this”. What happened is that over the years people started gravitating towards artisan products, traditions, classic methods, classic feelings, classic emotions, like right now everyone’s up on using modular things.

Culture moves in phases, and right now we’re going back to things which are more pure and timeless, and that applies to our food, our clothes and our music, so having jazz and dance come back to the forefront you’re seeing people like Theo Parrish, Moodymann and Waajeed getting credit in this new way. I think it’s a sign that we’re gravitating towards where we come from, because we get sick of all the bullshit. Take Thundercat, he’s amazing, and there’s all these young kids going “What the fuck!? I’ve never heard this shit before?” and I’m asking “Have you never heard of Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report or Herbie Hancock?” And they hadn’t, but now they do, and it’s amazing.

I saw Herbie recently at Love Supreme playing to a crowd of twentysomething ravers, it was beautiful, I almost cried.

I did cry! I saw him playing the Detroit Jazz Festival recently. I’ve seen him multiple times, but I’d never seen him perform Sunlight or anything from Thrust or these other incredible albums that I never thought I’d get to see live, and then it happened. I Cried. Not in my life did I think I’d get to see tracks like those played live.

I think what people and Kamasi Washington and Thundercat are doing is opening the eyes of this younger crowd to where this stuff is coming from, and in the process they’re giving everyone a history lesson. Jazz is a great example of how far you can go with freedom and with technical skill, which makes it such a great genre to inspire people.

Would you ever consider drumming for a band again? Have there been any opportunities to do so?

I would consider it if the time was right, if the band was right. I miss playing with other people, one of the best shows I’ve ever done was a Shigeto set with a six piece band at the Detroit Symphony, and I’d do that all time if I could afford it, because I want to pay my friends what they deserve. I would definitely consider playing in a band though, even a rock band, I love breaking sticks, being a solo artist is a different world for me, but I get something out of playing with other people that’s impossible to reach on your own.


You played with School of Seven Bells briefly.

Yes, I did, rest in peace Benjamin Curtis. He was a good friend of mine. That was my first proper touring experience, being on the road, playing 40 shows in row, playing to anything from 100 to 10,000 people, watching late night TV, all of that. It was a very big experience.

How has the new album translated into your live shows? Does the crowd respond to it differently?

So far the crowd has responded pretty well, largely because I didn’t change my approach. People may have wondered about certain tracks and how I would play them live, like if I was going to DJ, but nope, same fucking thing. I’m still playing the drums, I’m doing what I’ve always done, just with different material. I played Don’t Trip in Amsterdam the other night, which is a long, percussive 160pm ghetto techno thing with this weird vocal loop on it, but the important part for me is the drop, and when that came it, the crowd lost it. It worked, they responded to the part I wanted them to respond to.

I’ve only had three shows to see how the material works but I think that with this four year gap, plus the Intermission EP, I gained the confidence in this small dedicated group of people who are open to seeing what I’m going to do. I didn’t want to change anything, I’m sweating my ass off, playing the drums, it’s a normal performance setting, and so far I’m happy with it.

You’ve said in the past that your music isn’t directly about any particular personal experience, but more about itself, but you also said that your mental state noticeably changed while you were making No Better Time Than Now, is that the case again with this one?

Definitely, it’s named after my weekly show in Detroit with some of my friends – Monday is the New Monday – we just play tunes all night. It was there where I first experienced solidarity with the crowd that wasn’t me being in the spotlight, it was just loving a track, putting it on and seeing everyone dancing. It was a new feeling, and in the same way the personal side of this album was about me, not a message, me just writing music that I enjoy for the first time. It wasn’t tied into some deep hidden meaning, it’s great to have that, but when you’re writing music that doesn’t need an explanation, it’s better in a way.

The New Monday is out now on Ghostly International. Order it here

Words: Callum Davies 

Featured Images: Kristin Adamczyk

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