"We've been touring forever," Zach tells me between two puffs of cigarette smoke, as we stand in front of NTS Radio in the London rain. "And we've only got forever to go."
It started as a joke last summer. It ended with me tour-managing my friend for a month around Europe during winter. Zachary Saginaw, a drummer and producer best known by his middle name Shigeto, is one of the hardest working artists I know. Last year alone, he performed over 150 dates across the globe. I'd done some tour management before, but nothing this heavy: 30 days on the road, with 21 dates across 7 countries.
Beyond helping out a friend, this was a chance to experience life on the road as an artist, and to take a closer look at the current realities of live music and modern artistry. And, as a writer, it was also a chance to find new inspiration. Or, to borrow from Hemingway, whose footsteps I encountered in the 100-year-old Osteria Madonetta on the last leg of the tour: in order to write about music, first you must live it.
From the outside looking in, touring seems like a lot of fun. You party every night, perform music you enjoy (unless you're some sort of masochist), travel, eat and drink well and you get paid for it. What's not to like? As a solo artist, the road can be a harsh mistress. You give up daily comforts, spend time going from A to B with no one to speak to and you perform every night - only to do it all over again the next day.
While my presence meant Zach no longer had to be on his own or remember everything, which gets tricky when you're bashing drums every night, I realised halfway through that it quickly starts to feel like Groundhog Day - and I'm no Bill Murray. Hotel rooms all blend into one (what was that number again?) and the accepted perception of time becomes malleable to the point where I could no longer tell what day of the week we were on, just barely what day of the tour.
Space to be yourself and days off become precious moments to regenerate, unless there's another country to get to or laundry to be done. Laundry, the glorious underbelly of touring. Turns out, living on three days worth of underwear for a month isn't as unpleasant as it sounds, though I wouldn't recommend to everyone. It's true that most of these things get proportionally worse the more substances you rely on to take the edge off - after a straight 6 days of shows during the first week, I didn't need hair of the dog as much as the whole dog's wet, hairy face licking my brain - yet the fact remains that "having fun in the club" is only a small portion of time spent touring.
As Zach put it to me a few days in, the DJs Complaining phenomenon may be funny, but it has roots in reality. Touring is an integral part of what an artist does and is rarely witnessed by anyone else, so perception is easily skewed. In an age where everyone feels entitled to have a say in everything, what seems like diva behaviour to some can actually be a serious matter for which observers have no context.
Like so many of his peers, Zach's a new breed of artist. He's a one man band who performs alone with a drum kit and a laptop. Musically, he's at the nexus of different scenes and heritages. Jazz is his grounding, his foundation, but hip hop and electronic music are his muses. As a result, his musical identity isn't easy to pin down; affording him a degree of freedom exemplified by his output, and the bookings he gets. But it also leaves him prey to people categorising him as they see fit. Depending on which city we played in, the music on offer was either electronic, dubstep, hip hop, beats, IDM, jazz - or any combination thereof. My personal favourite though remains the Italian flyer that described it as having a "certain tropical chillwave".
Ultimately, music talks and bullshit walks. As soon as Zach hits the drums, people get it and feet start moving. Like all good performers, he plays the crowd as much as his instrument.
As the days turned into weeks, and I watched Zach perform, his position as part of a new breed of jazz artists only became clearer to me. I kept coming back to an idea I've been holding onto for a while now: that so much of modern music has changed and evolved, yet the language we use to talk about it hasn't necessarily followed suit. Most people want something new, something different - be they fans, promoters or critics - yet once we have it, the first thing we tend to do is put it in awkward-fitting boxes that restrain its growing potential. The majority of promoters that booked Zach on this tour had seen him before, but the perceptions of what he was and did were as varied as the cities and cultures we visited. All these different types of constantly shifting perceptions ultimately have an effect on the artist, especially when they're trying their best to do them and be genuine.
In the first days of the tour I came across a rant by former venue manager Andy Inglis about the state of live music in the UK. In it, Inglis makes a lot of valid points about the issues affecting the industry: the lack of funding and hospitality, the attitudes and the entitlement that pervades artist riders and guest lists. As I spent the following month seeing things for myself, I kept thinking back to his rant. There's certainly weight to his criticism of the state of the UK's live circuit - in case you were wondering, Italy had the best food and soundsystems, shocker I know - but in a way, it was his remarks about entitlement and business practices that were the hardest to reconcile with what I saw and experienced.
There's little doubt that guest lists and riders are a drain on independent live music, but then again they're both regulated, so to speak, by the contracts everyone agrees to. Attitudes definitely need to be changed and entitlement is a bane: from fans thinking "Why are you not coming to my city?" is an acceptable reply to tour dates announcements, to artists having no respect for sound engineers, promoters or host venues. But changes to attitude alone won't save the industry. Not without changes to the business practices that underpin the whole system.
There is also the issue of, as Inglis put it, most small live venues being just bars with a stage. Bodies through the door have to translate to not just ticket sales but also drink sales, a situation I witnessed in Germany and Italy, where money for bookings seems most concentrated around those types of venues. This was Zach's 9th European tour in 3 years, and his biggest yet, and as a result he played a wide variety of spaces which made for fascinating contrasts.
There was the giant club in Brescia that took in 1200 people in 4 hours, as much as we'd seen in the first week, followed the next day by an intimate session with a grand piano in a jazz club in the Venetian countryside that seated 50 - and had the most surreal menu of Mexican dishes and Italian/Asian fusion. In Reims, our driver pulled up outside the 800-year-old cathedral only for us to realise that the venue was in the adjacent Palais de Tau, deep inside a 12th century chapel where the French kings were baptised. As always with these parties, while Zach's early set remained within the polite context of a live show in a historical setting, it wasn't long before Lone, who played after, turned the party into a balls-out rave.
Two days later, we were emulating a Notorious B.I.G video; sipping champagne in a thermal bath house outside Geneva, after Zach had performed on the edge of a pool to a dance floor of swimmers. As I've come to learn, good times and musical innovation aren't always found in the most obvious locations.
But perhaps the most relevant venue to the point I'm trying to make was in Nancy, a place called L'Autre Canal that's part of a national French network of spaces that receive some public funding. It's a large, modern building with a concert hall and a more intimate club-like space, as well as rehearsal and recording studios. As such, it's able to aim at a wide range of audiences while giving artists a truly professional treatment. All of which made me realise that perhaps what we need more of are unique or multidisciplinary venues -- where alcohol sales aren't the primary way of making money.
Arguably, changing that side of things is easier said than done. Especially in countries like the UK, where increasingly money talks and everything else can fuck off, but it shouldn't be ignored. If we are dealing with a new generation of musicians and performers, than we need a new generation of venues for them too.
And there are also the promoters.
The tour certainly afforded me a new perspective on the diversity of a group of people that's rarely documented and easily stereotyped. There was the young - sometimes foolish - enthusiasts doing it for the "love" in England; the mafiosi-looking Italians in Florence; the hip hop head in Leipzig who proudly told me "we want live artists to play our live shows", thus summarising one of the biggest issues I have with our collective understanding of live music today; the friendly stoner dub heads in Ferrara, who brought out a full rig for a last minute DJ set; even the older festival organiser in Paris who showed not just incredible personal warmth, but also got down with the best of them as Waajeed, Invincible and Zach performed an impromptu Dilla-inspired encore on the anniversary of the legendary producer's passing, which Zach would recount to me the next day as "nights like this are why I do this shit."
In the 30 days I spent meeting a diverse range of promoters - talking to them, watching them work - I'd say that the one common thread that binds most of them is a willingness to take a chance, and put on this new breed of performers. To create a scene around them, another node in the network, another physical extension of the increasingly digital experience of music. Building a local scene in an insanely globalised world where uniqueness is regularly sacrificed for rampaging homogeneity isn't easy to do, especially when you have a bottom line to be mindful of.
On the drive back from Ljubljana to Trieste I tried to pry some insights from our promoter Janus, an old drum n bass head who's spent years trying to build something in the Slovenian capital in the face of corruption, lack of media support and a degree of indifference. "It's the people who don't understand that progress is in giving not taking", he told me, echoing something Zach said the night before during a Q&A in a local gallery before the show: "all good things in this industry are built off relationships."
I kept a diary while on the road; recording daily observations, ideas and things said. In the whirlwind of the moment, I thought I could easily make sense of it all. A couple weeks later, as I try to write this, I've come to fully realise what Zach meant when he told me that "no one can understand what it's like to be on tour unless they go through the whole thing." What I do know is that I witnessed just how much my friend gives to people, to his audience and his fans. His professional dedication - or chops, as a surviving tool as I put it one night to myself - is impressive, and also quite humbling and inspiring. He quite literally hurts himself for his art. And that has to have a value beyond getting bodies through the door, or reinforcing a simplified understanding of music as art.
So much of our world today is about commodification, from art to culture to attitudes, that it's easy to lose track of what it can really mean to just be you. To just do you, to basically be genuine. One thing is for sure. You can't hope to figure it out or gain a better understanding if you don't put yourself in a position to experience things, and step behind the veil of entitlement we all cloak ourselves in on a daily basis.
You can follow Laurent Fintoni on Twitter here: @laurent_fintoni