In a live setting Zach Saginaw – aka Shigeto – shines as a one-man operation, taking to the stage with Ableton Live, an AKAI MPD and a live drum kit – behind which he looks truly at-home. It’s a far cry from his history in fully fledged live bands such as “School of Seven Bells”, yet as a solo artist his performances are intense. Human sweat and circuit boards collide as Shigeto attacks the drums with a zen-like focus, often keeping the beat with just one hand while the other controls Ableton Live and the Akai MPD.
On his recent album “No Better Time Than Now” (released through Matthew Dear’s Ghostly International label), Shigeto deftly sculpted a sonic palette of live instrumentation, found sounds and samples into a sophisticated musical collage full of ambience & space with a human feel. In his own words, it’s “the first (album) that is truly me”.
After of his last Sydney gig in 2013, we dropped by the Astral People headquarters to interview Zach Saginaw (aka Shigeto) on his live setup, self recorded samples, advice for upcoming producers, plans for the near future and much more.
Tell us a bit about how you use Ableton Live in your live show. Are you launching clips? Playing with effects?
I have two Audio Tracks, basically serving as two decks, which have full songs in them as clips [in Session View]. I have a bunch of effects on the Master channel – Beat Repeats, Reverbs, Delays and I also use an Akai MPD controller. On the first bank of my MPD pads I have the on/off switches for the effects, and then all the sliders are assigned to various controls on the effects. I then have a couple of banks of samples – chimes, lasers, that kind of thing. I’ve found a way to use it pretty extensively with very simple methods.
Usually I’ll edit my tracks so that they finish with just drums, percussion or some ambience, so that I can bring in the next track, but it’s not like I’m triggering a bunch of stems at a time. I used to do that, and I would also incorporate a bunch of other stuff like a little synth, a delay pedal. It was cool to see the gear on stage and people like us could nerd out, but musically, I felt it wasn’t as powerful – it was weakened by the fact that I was doing so much. I feel a performance should be about the performance, and the end result is very important. It’s a human thing, there’s this magnetism towards somebody who’s exerting genuine passion or pain or physical activity. I come from a live setting – playing in bands and playing drums my comfort zone, so relying strictly on the power of the tracks is not my strength in a live setting
I can have less going on in Ableton, with everything sounding better sonically, and then wail out on the drums and still have room for improvisation. With a simplified set-up I take the performance in all of these directions and I know exactly what I’m working with. It’s kind of like jazz, having the form of the songs down but being able to do whatever I want within that form.
For Shigeto, did your drumming appear first in the productions or in your live performance?
I guess the drums came first in the production because I would sample myself playing them. When I started (producing) I was on Reason 2.0 which didn’t allow you to record audio – you could only use the samplers. So I was basically just recording myself playing the drums one hit a time – one crash, one snare, and then loading that into the samplers. I wasn’t playing beats in live, simply because I couldn’t. Back then it was very minimal, it was ghetto-fabulous.
Shigeto’s drum prowess in action:
Do you sample off records?
Pretty much never. I have sampled maybe 2 or 3 records in my time. I use samples of a lot of classic sounds which I enjoy, whether it’s something like the TR-909 or 808. I also really like this The Neptunes pack I have – it’s the one preset pack I use. It’s just these nasty, dirty kicks and shakers and that kind of thing, but all these samples I use are heavily manipulated. I use a lot of self sampled stuff – all my piano sounds and rhodes sounds and what-not are coming from real instruments. If it’s not an instrument I know how to play then it’s a friend of mine playing it, whether it’s a sax, or a flute, or something like that. Whatever it is, it’s always from a source that’s close by and human – not a record.
Thats interesting, because a lot of the type of music you make is very sample heavy. Was that a conscious decision?
From the start I wasn’t necessarily trying to make hip-hop beats. Whenever I would try and do that, I would become frustrated – then try and sample some records! I guess [I was trying to sample] the feel of it, let’s say people like Jay Dee, Prefuse 73, Dabrye – that feel they created so long ago is a huge inspiration to me, but I was never trying to make sample based hip hop stuff. I was more inspired by stuff like old stuff on Warp records, Caribou’s stuff back when he was called Manitoba, Tortoise, that whole electronic post-rock Chicago scene – The Mercury Program, that sort of stuff.
I was always so intrigued by Prefuse 73’s stuff, because you could hear the bottles and the clicks and the chains. If you record your own sounds rather than sample records, you’re going to have an original sound by default. If you’re recording this stuff it’s coming from your actual sounds – you’re going to create a palette that is yours. It’s like using colours no one has ever seen. It’s like artists who use different (unorthodox and unusual) materials to create stuff.
I might pick a palette of sounds, like maybe some drum sounds, one ambient sample of a conversation in a room, some bells, maybe one synth I like, and then I’ll make like ten tracks with all these same sounds. Sometimes two of them will be completely different tracks, but they’ll work well on an album together because they’re using the same sounds. Something like my latest album was all the same instruments – maybe it was going through different tempos and different styles, but every song had my Rhodes or my MicroMoog bass, or this particular sample of me playing with chains for like five minutes. I’ll use these sounds over over again, and it creates this cohesiveness simply through the sonic palette I’ve chosen. I used to think you have to use new sounds (in every song). Every beat I made I’d be like “Damn, I need a new snare! I need a new kick!”. Then I’d listen to all these tracks and I’d be like, “man, why is this not working?”
On that note of live Instrumentation – do you have plans to take your live show even more live? As in, adding more players on more instruments.
Definitely more players. Coming from a jazz background, I miss those magic moments with other players where your’e just like, “holy shit, what did we just do!”. I can’t get that by myself – I might be like “oh Zack, that was cool”, but it’s not the same. To be honest it’s just an issue of money. I make a good living, and I don’t have to do anything but music – but if I had a full band I might have to get a job! Hopefully late 2014 or early 2105 I’ll do the first full band tour for a new release or something. It’s just so much to book 3-5 times as many flights, hotel rooms and all that. So much goes into it. Hopefully!
Also, a lot of the songs come from myself just playing, so I suppose that’s at a kind of jam with myself. I’ll get certain elements of tracks from jams, but it’s always usually really messed with. Like I’ll take the whole recording and EQ everything out except for one part. and then use like a couple seconds of that one part. It’s a great process. Maybe taking two bars of a jam, putting some filter on it and all of a sudden it becomes the main pad of a song. I’ve been playing with other people more recently because I have the space, but I haven’t put any straight up recordings like that into a tune.
Are you self taught in the production side of things?
My brother actually showed me how to use Reason. He gave it to me and showed me the basic stuff. Overall though, I’m pretty much self taught. I just get it to sound the way i want it to sound. I’ve learned more and more throughout the years, but production and engineering is relatively recent compared to playing piano or drums – I was pretty late jumping onto the production thing. I’m still self conscious about my production abilities – every day I’m learning new shit you know. I mean it’d be great to know both – i dunno if you know Todd Osborn? He was one of the first teachers at the Red Bull (Music Academy) & he goes by the name “Sound Murder”, I was talking to him recently like “would i be able to go to learn at red bull?!?!” He was like “why?! well… you could come and do a lecture” – but I wanted to go and learn haha.
Was he a mentor?
Todd Osborn and Dabrye are my two biggest influences as musicians, producers and people in a way too . Todd lives close to Ann Arbor and Dabrye lives in Ann Arbor and Ghostly International (home to Shigeto, Matthew Dear, Dabrye, Com Truise, Tycho, Gold Panda, Mux Mool and many more) are based in Ann Arbor. I was pretty much only listening to Aphex (Twin) but i wasn’t into Detroit tech or into anything. I grew up listening to 90s hiphop but i didn’t know anything about the producers. I’d be into slum village album but never make the correlation that Dilla was making those beats – i just wasn’t familiar. The Ghostly International label and Ann Arbor in general opened me up to the whole world of production and electronic music so they’re huge influences.
What advice would you give to younger producers – what were some of your “Aha!” moments?
There’s a couple things that have stood out to me. One bit of advice I give to younger producers or people who want to do anything creative really – it’s kind of dark but it’s kind of real – is that there’s endless talent in the world, there’s music that will blow your mind and there’s always somebody who thinks they deserve something more than somebody else. So the people who get there – they’re there for two reasons., one is because they literally work harder – it’s a fact – they put the time in. The more times you do something, the better you’re going to to get at it, it’s fact.
That’s the one thing, but the other thing is luck. It’s timing, but timing is luck. You can try to strategically plan stuff, but if there was a real equation, it would implode. So my advice to people is – work really fucking hard. What are you going to do tonight? Are you going to watch a movie and get high or are you going to work on your tracks? It’s a simple choice. But also, be ok with the fact that you might never do this for a living. Always know that you’re doing it because it makes you happy and you love music. It sounds really cliche, but it’s like if you remember that it’ll be fun, but if you’re sitting there in your room spamming people telling people to listen to your album and doing everything you can to try to get heard, but forgetting about the actual music and forgetting about why you make music – then it’s gonna be a nightmare. So thats what i say – because i got lucky man, i have talent, but the right people heard me at the right time and they wanted to put me out and they worked really hard and i played 160 shows a year for 4 years in a row and now i’m where i am… and it’s still not as good as what it looks like on the internet (to the public) you know what i mean? it’s hard as hell and it’s emotionally and physically taxing and i love my job but there’s no right way to do it, just do it every day.
Also a producer friend of mine that I really look up to told me focus on your strengths and don’t pay attention to the hype. It’s like that i guess for people who do what i do. What I want to do is share my music but I also want to be a musician who is respected in 20 years. That’s my dream. To make timeless music that people will enjoy a long time from now. If you want that, you just do it for you and don’t pay attention to what ever noise is around you. There are people who want to sell out massive clubs and drink champagne – if you want that, then definitely pay attention to the hype.
Was there a moment where you stopped just drawing from influences?
To be honest i feel like i’ve just gotten there. I feel like my most recent album is the first that is truly me – i had 4 eps and two full lengths on my previous label and never once did i truly feel that it was my sound, so it took a long time for me. I think it’s a result though of having the space to use real instruments. I think when i could be in a live environment it just happened naturally. The other closest album to sounding like me is my first album – “New Crossings”. They were tracks that never in my life did i even think would ever be released, some of the first tracks i ever made and they just happened to be released so they were like the purest, because i just didn’t care – I was just making music.
Do you miss that?
Yeah, but I feel like i’ve finally reverted that. I feel like i have a fan base that understands me, they like a certain thing about what i make and i think they’re big enough at this point that i can pretty much freely write music and they’re going to be open to hearing it and maybe even like it!
We make music for us, we make it for other people, but as humans we want validation and I feel at this point in my career i have it (validation). I have it where i can see it – I can say here’s a free a track and all of a sudden Fact, Fader and XLR8R will post it. That’s validation. It’s like you’ve thrown a stone into the internet water and it’s rippling, you’re making it move. I don’t have 100,000 people on twitter, but i have 14,000 and thats enough to make it move. You spend so much time stressing about people think, maybe not because you care but because you want to succeed. You want the amount of people you’re sharing with to increase, so you can have an easier time doing what you’re doing. It’s been enough time that i’ve stopped thinking about it and it’s like “oh these people are there for me and they are interested in the music”. Some are friends, fans, peers, but theres enough people there that I have this force that I can be like “ok lets make some shit”, where as before it was just being worried.
I’m already writing the next album, (which will) probably go into even more of a live thing. I’m working on a couple of side projects which are much more techno and house oriented. I made a lot of house and techno starting out before Shigeto. I’m thinking about putting together a mixtape, an actual cassette, maybe even a series of cassettes of all those jams that we were speaking of earlier. That’s what i’m working on.
I’m also working on my first movie soundtracks – i’m scoring a doco coming out called “Street Fighting Man”, which is basically showing the everyday life and struggle of the inner city. It’s set in Detroit and it follows three black males from three generations for a year or so. No script, just pretty heavy real footage. It’s great to be doing more ambient cinematic stuff.
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