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Shigeto: Grandma's Words and Chili Paste

img  Tobias Fischer

The latter episode, related in H.H. Stuckenschmidt's Schönberg-biography, is probably supposed to be funny. But for Zach Saginaw, it is a bitter part of his family's history. His grandmother, her former life scattered and lost, became part of a generation which had to start all over from scratch again and fight their way back into society. Even though their hard work and discipline would eventually pay off, the old wounds still haven't healed. When, in the 1980s, in reaction to a plethora of lawsuits filed by the American Citizens League, the survivors were awarded compensation payments, this symbolic gesture proved to be too little too late and failed to console the victims with the pain inflicted upon them. Zach can still remember how angry his grandmother was when the parties agreed on letting the past rest in return for „a little check from uncle Sam". And even though he didn't have to personally live through the atrocity of „having your life ripped away from you“, he can still feel its effects on his own personality today: „I was born with a sense of swimming up stream in my soul“, he reflects, „I always think things are going to be harder than they are. Maybe it's what drives me at the same time.“

Finding his spot

It has certainly driven him to devise one of the most recognisable and unique styles in contemporary Electronica. With his grandma's memories still echoing in his mind, his recent „Semi-Circle EP“, a stumbling and stuttering,  funky and fulminant journey through jazz-inflected harmonies and broken hiphop beats, takes her biography as its point of departure for a riveting and dramatic sonic journey. Even though tracks were not strictly written at the same time and actually chosen for their diversity rather than their similarities, the underlying conceptual angle awards them a strong sense of coherence and interrelatedness. Which may also be down to the fact that, instead of merely relating his grandmother's story, the music is just as much about defining himself as a person and finding his own spot. Released under the Japanese moniker of Shigeto – his middle name – the music is interspersed by interview fragments, radio broadcasts from the 1967 riots and lots of thematically related samples, as though Saginaw were taking a trip back in time: „The topics are very personal. It's not as much that it was effecting me everyday but more that it's easier to tell people exactly who I am and where I come from. When I ask myself who I am, I think... Japanese American. We are definitely fully integrated into society in my opinion, that's what being American is to me. But there is always that influence in my life. My kitchen will always have shoyu, sesame oil and "to ban jan", my favorite Japanese chili paste ever! I can't function without these things.“

The full dichotomy of Saginaw's position is exemplified by his equal immersion into Japanese and American culture. Asked whether he feels his music may unconsciously carry traces of his Japanese past, he comes to a surprising conclusion: „Ha, maybe. My grandmother was a dancer and performer along with my aunt who was apparently the first Asian model in Paris and on many Broadway shows in NY during and after the war. I only found that out recently at her funeral. She did a good job at forgetting her past and throwing her Japanese life away. I didn't even know I had an aunt.“ At the same time, no music genre has been more important for him than Jazz, often regarded as possibly the most fundamentally „American“ style of all. Even though his current releases as Shigeto are easily filed away as Electronica, attentive ears will infallibly detect the true roots of a work like „Semi-Circle“, which far extend beyond a couple of laid-back seventh-chords: „Jazz finds its way into a lot of aspects of my music“, he agrees, „I've just added another member to my live performance, an amazing guitarist and good friend of mine, Bryan Noll. Having him be a part of the live show brings back that live and improvised backbone that I love so much about Jazz. it's kind of always there for me. Whether it's in the chord progression I'm writing, some sort of swing feel or just the approach on a track. I feel the "Jazz" is always going to be there. Also, I grew up studying under Vincent York, a local "musical father" to many of the young cats growing up in Ann Arbor. He taught me fundamentals and principals to live by in music that I will always use. Things like "always look good", "get paid in cash as much as possible", "show up on time" or learning to put some away for taxes etc. He showed me how to be a well rounded professional.“ Even though these influences have remained subtle on „Semi-Circle“ - the lascivious fusion-solo on „There is always hope“, the twisted harmonies on „Beginnings“ representing two more straightforward examples - their subcutaneous presence undeniably lifts the work to a new level.

From Frank to Shigeto
Saginaw could have opted for a fully-fledged career as a Jazz-Drummer. In the end, it was a combination of chronic tendonitus in both his forearms and the desire to create and compose without the help of other musicians, which inspired him to find new valves and outlets for his creativity. Frank Omura, a combination of his Grandfather's first name and his Grandmother's maiden name was his first alias, a title he created to sculpt a more relaxed, dancey and less personal approach. Frank, as Saginaw half-jokingly metaphorises, would „pop up at more local parties and usually stay between 120 and 130 bpm“. These initial steps into electronic territory were also taken more for fun and the sake of making beats rather than self expression. Even though he assures me that the project is still alive and well („Don't get me wrong“, he quips, „Frank isn't dead. Just taking a break.“), Shigeto has turned into a far more fundamental and meaningful endeavour. Even the name itself (meaning „to grow bigger“ in Japanese) has a story of its own, being given to him at his birth because of his puny weight of less than a pound. And it wouldn't take long before his voice had indeed grown into holler, which demanded to be heard.

After the „Semi-Circle EP“, in April of this year, which served as a first introduction into the themes discussed above, the free-to-download follow-up „What we held on to“ now passionately continues the journey. With its precisely-placed, dense Rhodes-clusters and complex metrics, opener „Spring Textures“ leads the way into an atmospheric labyrinth of garish sinewave-stabs, classically-coloured textures, polymetric rhythms and dreamy soundscapes. Moods are dense and cinematic, arrangements of a threedimensional intensity and yet astoundingly concise. Sounds expand in all directions, with especially the lower registers reverberating with momentous force. Even though the four shorter tracks contained on the EP are marked by a strong sense of space and heavenly hooks, they appear to be nothing but a prelude to anthemic eight-minute finale „Grandma's Words / Rise out of the Stone“. A soundscape-like intro, juxtaposing ambient textures and soft bell sounds with interwoven interview snippets leads into a powerful groove dominated by deep, resonant bass roars, massive claps and cosmically chiming sequencers. The way Saginaw combines seemingly antagonistic elements into a mesmerising current of hypnotic power, points to his unique talent for storytelling and orchestration alike. The combination of synthetic elements and an organic pulse feels entirely natural – testimony to his philosophy of creating drum tracks as though he were jamming on a real percussion set, playing things out live in his studio without quantising them afterwards.

Overcoming personal demons
It makes one all the more excited about the Shigeto full-length due very soon on Ghostly. As its title, „Full Circle“, already indicates, it is intended as a sum and summary of the project, untying the knot and closing some of the open endings. But how exactly are these two shorter releases connected to the upcoming large-scale work? „They are very much related but it is not extending  the concept“, according to Zack, „Full Circle is representing so many aspects of my life now. "Semi Circle" was darker, more about the past. The full length is about where it's going, how to keep life pure and overcome your personal demons“. Overwhelmed by his own verbosity, he laughs out: „Whoa, did I say that?“

He certainly did, but there's not a grain of pretentiousness in his words. Rather than turning into a case of navelgazing, his work as Shigeto has brought an episode, which had long been swept under the rug of history, back into public awareness. Equally important, it has brought Saginaw one step closer to coming to terms with his past: „The EP was a way for me to send my grandmother a message. She got it loud and clear even if she can't say it. Has it helped me come to terms with my past? Yes.“ It has also shown him, where his true priorities lie: „I've been raised to put family first. Whether it be your own blood or not, it's the most important thing you have as a human being on this planet.“

By Tobias Fischer

"What we held in to" is available from Ghostly and can be downloaded for free here.

Image by Danny Scales

Homepage: Shigeto
Homepage: Ghostly International Records

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