Shigeto, aka Zack Saginaw, made his latest album of sparkling, nostalgic electronic music, No Better Time Than Now, in the empty, skeletal remains of Detroit. He knows a thing or two about astrology, has cheated death on a propeller plane (likening it to a K-hole), taken plenty of psychedelics, and watched the World Trade Centers fall. Somewhere along the line he kind of conquered fear.
All of these experiences, and the places he's traveled, have impacted the textures, melodies and rhythms of No Better Time Than Now. As Shigeto says, the album's title is to be taken literally. It is a mantra that informed its creation. The record seems to be, at bottom, an act of defiance, but also a celebration of music and life itself. It bleeds through in the gentle, emotive tracks such "Olivia" and "Miss U," as well as the more frenetically-constructed title track, with its buzzing, warped synths.
I caught up with Saginaw while he was in Europe taking a break from his tour. We talked about all of the above and more, including his special cosmic birthday.
THUMP: You're over in Europe right now. What are you up to?
Shigeto: I'm on tour, but I have three days off and I decided to come and hang out in Berlin. It's really nice to not have to play and just hang.
Berlin is quite the mecca for electronic music, but are you trying to avoid music while there?
Yeah, pretty much, especially since I get so little sleep on the road. I figured doing the Berlin thing and staying up until noon wouldn't be the best thing for my mind and body at this point. It's good to actually see the shops, meet some people, and eat some food.
Do you dig into the hidden corridors of a city like Berlin by strolling aimlessly?
I would say so. When I have the time, I definitely like to do that. I tend to like visiting places where you can do that more easily. There are cities that I feel work really well for that, but with other cities it's hard to be that aimless. It's like the difference between walking around in New York City and walking around in Los Angeles. You need to know something about LA, or you need a car, or something. In New York, it's endless possibilities from the moment you walk out the door.
Los Angeles has very interesting dimensions for the aimless stroller, but you do have to plan in advance what geographical space you want to explore.
Yeah, you need some sort of place to start. In New York, you don't.
The opening track's title, "First Saturn Return," implies something almost science fictional, but the song itself has this rather sexy electric piano. Did you realize there was this interplay between the interstellar and the erotic?
Well, kind of. I wrote the track, and as I was listening to it, I felt that it had this epic-ness that was a powerful feeling of change, or a feeling of overcoming something, or of welcoming something back. Like in a movie, change was this climactic point. As to the science fiction or even astrological aspect of the song, I just turned thirty this year. In astrology you have these experiences that are called Saturn Returns. You have your first Saturn Return from the time you're twenty-eight to when you're thirty, and then your second Saturn Return from fifty-eight to sixty. When you're born Saturn is at a specific place around the Earth, and it takes about thirty years for it to come back to this place. And it's supposed to represent the first major change in your life cycle.
This last year was really intense for me, and I felt that I was kind of going through these changes. And then when I wrote this track, I was like, "Whoa, this is giving me this weird, epic, overcoming vibe." Then I decided to make it the intro track, and that, along with the title, made complete sense for me. Ultimately, it ended up representing the album as a whole.
How did you learn about Saturn Returns?
My mom told me about it because she had just turned sixty. She said, "You know, I'm going through this thing... dah, dah, dah, dah, dah... second Saturn Return. You're going through your first." And I said, "Whoa, what's that?" And then everything came together.
Are there other esoteric influences operating within the album, or was that a bit of an anomaly?
Hmmm.... it's kind of an anomaly. But, the album's whole "no better time than now" mantra came about (not to get too personal) after a very long relationship ended during the making of the album. My life was very different quite suddenly. I had started working as Shigeto as an artist after I had been with this person, so I always had a certain life until that very moment. I had started the album before it ended, but I was slacking. Then I think I finished the album two weeks after we broke up. It was like, "There's no better time than now—do this!" So every track, in a way, is hinting at that last year of my life. But, I don't think it's too esoteric. I'm pretty real in terms of how I use Shigeto as an alias. My last album, Lineage, had pictures of my great grandfather, Shigeto, in a Japanese internment camp on it. I'm much more comfortable being me than anything else.
That internment camp story is an interesting bit of family history.
Yeah, my entire Japanese side of my family was in internment camps during World War II. So, my last full-length was kind of a dedication in a way to my grandmother, just to say that it affected me and this is my way of showing I know and I care. The artwork was heavy, but the tracks weren't deep like that. In addition to the picture of my great grandfather in the camp, there was a picture of our house in Hiroshima in 1916.
Switching gears to electronic music in general. With electronic music being a fashion as of late, it has to be hard cutting through the noise. Being on Ghostly International must help, but are you conscious while writing and recording that you have to make something that forces people to take notice?
Being on Ghostly definitely helps. Part of the reason I moved back to Detroit from New York was that I could isolate myself from noise and hype it seems. Unless, of course, you're looking for it. Unless you're on Pitchfork every day, reading everyone's Twitter, and letting it drive you crazy. You're very isolated, and I think that it really helped me create the most honest music I've made so far. The result is something that is so far away from what is in. And I was worried about that at first, but the longer I think about and the more people I respect who I talk to about it, they say, "Great. Who cares?"
As cliché as it sounds, if you're one of those people who are lucky enough to have a good label behind you, or some sort of in to be heard, and then you really just ignore everything, that's the easiest way. Otherwise you're just going to drive yourself crazy trying to think about what is going to cut through. There is no right equation, so you might as well just do what you like to do, and do it to the best of your ability. Ignoring everything is really the key, at least for me.
On a return visit to the Midwest, where I'm originally from, I definitely realized it was nice not to be subjected to the hype machine.
Yeah, the energy around you is different. Detroit is so empty. These cities give you more freedom than you are aware of at time time. It's more pure because you're so alone. And, also, the scene in Detroit is quite different. I'm one of the only people doing what I do in Detroit. It's mainly rock bands, hip-hop, and techno. At first I felt really weird about it. Will I be accepted by these local heros of mine? But, it was really great to be alone, and have this massive studio that was just so far away from everything else.
Did Detroit's atmosphere, its emptiness, have an effect on the album?
Yeah, there's this particular space in Rivertown, which is right by the water amidst all these warehouses, and you can see Windsor, Canada across the water—things just started coming to me. I started recording and putting down stuff, and it all made sense. I definitely think it was directly linked to my environment. I wouldn't have made this music if I wasn't in this space. I might have even made an album that was super, super clubby. It might have been a Shigeto trap bangers album. [Laughs] Nothing against trap—the rhythm in that genre is absolutely, undeniably infectious.
The track "Olivia" has this rather sweet touch to it. What was the goal with the track?
I guess I had these couple sounds that I really liked. I usually start by picking sounds, whether it's playing a chord progression or just picking random textures I have in my sound banks. Then I kind of form a palette and start painting with it. When I got the idea, it had this super nostalgic but, as you said, very sweet energy to it. It's this sad-but-everything-is-going-to-be-okay vibe, which I kind of feel a lot of my music sounds like. I don't know what I was going for with it, but I liked the quality it had. I added the bassline last, which solidified the nostalgic quality.
With a title like "Olivia," a lot of people could think it's about a woman. And then there are these other tracks that hint at love and loss and things like that. But, Olivia is actually the name of the street I grew up on as a kid. So, in a way it was a fun and clever way of me writing a nostalgic track about home, but giving it that name so that people would always wonder, "Who is Olivia?"
A year and a half ago you had a near-death experience on a plane. I don't want you to rehash the details, but the way you describe it sounds pretty psychedelic. That is, the experience was simultaneously euphoric and panic-inducing. It sounds like the ego death in the psychedelic experience. Did it feel that way at all?
Oh, man, it was unlike any feeling I've ever had. I've taken a fair amount of Acid and Mushrooms, and whatever, so I guess in a way it was similar, although I never thought of it that way. But it was one of those things where literally everything around me became silent. It was like in a war movie where all of a sudden you can't hear anything and everything is in slow-motion. It all came back when I realized I wasn't going to die. But, there were ten seconds where I was positive I was going to die. I thought, "Okay, this is probably going to hurt," and then I realized we were coasting without any propellers, and it was like in a movie where there is that noise that sucks you back into reality. It was like a K-hole, actually. [Laughs]
Did those ten seconds change your way of thinking?
They definitely did. I try as hard as I can to never again ride in a propeller plane. [Laughs] But, what are the chances of it ever happening again?
I've had a fine, easy life, but I've been around a couple of really weird things. I watched the World Trade Center buildings fall from my window, and that was really wild. The London terrorist attacks of 2006 happened on the train line I took to work. And then there was this plane experience. So I now think, "Fuck it, we're going to die," so we might as well not live fearing these day-to-day possibilities. I guess that is how it affected me. I used to be really afraid of stuff. It's not that I'm not afraid now, but I just realized that you can't do anything about this stuff. I used to be like, "No, I don't want to go there 'cause this might happen. No, I don't want to do that 'cause this might happen." Now, it's just like, fuck it or whatever. I might as well be happy right now and not be afraid of something that might never happen.
So, in a way the music becomes a way of negating that fearful line of thinking. The fact that you're creating music means you're celebrating life and music instead of fearing death.
Yeah, for sure. You said it better than me. [Laughs] But, I guess that's what you do.