Since the beginning, it’s been all about the drums. As a child, Shigeto fell in love with the percussion instrument and dedicated himself to it. After making himself a staple of the Michigan music scene, Shigeto a.k.a. Zach Saginaw, left his Midwestern home to study jazz at prestigious schools in New York and London. It was during this time that he developed a second obsession: production. The result is hard to define. While his ambient, jazzy melodies and soft beats make them perfect for a relaxing night in, his drum-infused live shows transform those beats into music for dancing your ass off.
After his recent show in Busan, Shigeto spoke with Haps music editor Seth Fellenz about his music, his roots, and his journey from a kid who loved the drums to a producer who can’t leave them behind.
Haps: At the show tonight, you would be spinning beats and getting into it, but when you started drumming, my attention was drawn straight to that – the beats became the background to the drumming. Is that something you intend or do you think it’s a byproduct of the live atmosphere?
Shigeto: It’s definitely intentional. Drums were my first instrument and where I’m most comfortable and where I feel I can say the most, so for a live performance I feel it’s more important to entertain and give a live performance. My albums are more cerebral, but I feel in a live setting you should give the audience something to watch, so the drums are the best way to do that.
Shigeto: I had been producing for fun and when I realized that I’d have to start performing live, I knew immediately that the drums would be part of the live performance. It was just kind of like, Oh I need to make a live show? Well it’s gonna have drums, because it’s my comfort zone. Before it was harder because I was like, How am I gonna add this to what I’ve written? but then throughout the years I started writing the music intentionally to have the drums, so it’s become a lot moreâ¦ what’s the word? Integrated.
Haps: So the tracks came before the beats?
Shigeto: They used to. But the new album was written more for both. I don’t play the slower songs in the live setting because they don’t engage people as much, you know? I did a set in Tokyo a couple days ago for a live streaming thing that was just laptop, so that I could play a lot more chilled out ambient stuff and just enjoy being on the computer. But when I’m doing the live set, I want to keep the energy high. It’s better to make people dance or even just… when somebody sees somebody up there sweating, they’re more engaged, you know? They feel like they should be watching. If I’m just up there playing tunes people wanna talk, people wanna get a drink, have a chat, but if I’m up there like banging shit, they just wanna watch.
Tonight I didn’t really say anything on the mic because, one, my mic wasn’t on, but I used to just not say anything. But I realized when you say something, people listen, and people are engaged immediately. So I realized once I have those drums and once I say something, it just makes people pay attention more, rather than just somebody up there with a laptop.
Haps: So you mentioned a show in Tokyo, and looking at your tour dates, you’ve been spending a lot of time in Japan lately. Shigeto being your great-grandfather’s name, your heritage plays a big role in your music and in your life. What does it mean to you to play in Japan?
Shigeto: Oh it means a lot. This tour was my first time ever playing there. I’ve been to Japan to visit distant family, I’ve played in Japan with School of Seven Bells, but I had never gone to play my own music, so it was a pretty big deal. I, in a way, have a strong disconnection to the Japanese because I don’t speak Japanese. I’m fully American. I mean, to be American is to be a mix of many things, so I, in a way, use my middle name to connect with my culture without being connected, you know? Kind of a way to pay homage to it without being really a part of it, to let Japan know, or let my grandmother know or let my ancestors know that it means a lot to me and that I wanna be a part of it. I’ve always questioned my Japanese connection, and so to go over there to see the crowds and see the fans and have these Japanese producers come up to me and be like, Oh, you inspired me, is quite emotional. It’s more than just playing somewhere.
Haps: I noticed that. Listening to your music at home, I might put it on while I’m cooking, but this was a totally different thing. I’ve heard that you’ve been the drummer in some bands, as well.
Shigeto: Yeah, I’ve been playing drums in bands pretty much my whole life – mainly jazz – but I used to play with another group called School of Seven Bells. I toured with them for a little over a year and they were kind of my transition from being a musician on the side to a full time job. And then, by the time I left that group, my own music got going and I just continued with the Shigeto stuff.
Haps: I assume when you play with a band, you’d be in the traditional position of a drummer, behind the guitar and singer, whoever is in front, versus being front and center when it’s Shigeto. How is that a different experience?
Shigeto: It’s different because I’m by myself. I’m not used to being in the spotlight. I mean, I’m getting used to it obviously, but I’ve always been somebody who likes to be in the background, who likes to kind of just blend in and not have to deal with all the stuff that you have to deal with as a front man. So the whole Shigeto project was a new thing for me to be responsible for everything, whether the show goes well or goes bad. I used to not have to care about it. It was like, Oh well, this is your thing and I’m just holding it down, you know? It’s a whole different experience having everything on you.
Photos: Reisa Michelle and Anthony Cianna