In Minneapolis as elsewhere, 2020 was a rough ride. Even as we faced the COVID-19 pandemic that raged everywhere, Minneapolis was shaken by the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath. On top of that, survivors stepped forward to call out our music scene’s many past and present wrongs: misogyny, sexual assault, unequal and unsafe spaces, and racism.
In addition to these shared struggles, everyone seemed to be fighting their own personal battle, and Zach Bagaason was going through it like the rest of us. You may know him as Medium Zach, one half of the duo Big Quarters along with his brother Brandon (a.k.a. Brandon Allday). After Zach and his wife divorced, he turned his studio, Woodgrain, into his main living quarters, while continuing to manage his own mental and physical health and wellness after a 2011 epilepsy diagnosis.
Amid all that, in what he calls “a process of letting go, getting lost, and finding a new way back,” Zach created Bad By Myself. Released this past August, the 35-minute solo album was largely completed as the historical events around him cascaded to a crescendo. But before we get to that, let’s rewind.
“Back for a second debut…” When Medium Zach uttered the opening line to Big Quarters’ “Lou Diamond” in 2005, it was a triumphant announcement to the world that the duo existed. The brothers established a deep discography after that, and over the years Zach’s production and engineering only deepened. Handling recording duties may have been Zach’s way to conserve costs at first, but it led to him deepening his skills.
And while most of us used Snapchat to showcase shenanigans and goofy antics, Zach found it to be the perfect platform to launch #Beatstory. In this series, he captured the process of creating a beat from scratch, whether his source materials were old records, found objects that soundtracked daily life, or bands he knew. In about three years, he made over 115 episodes.
By the time Zach launched #Beatstory in 2016, he’d founded Woodgrain and settled into domestic life with his wife and their son, Theo. Additionally, Zach was mentoring up-and-coming artists, mixing, producing, and engineering recordings by I Self Devine, Lady Midnight, 26 Bats!, and more. So yes, Medium Zach had kept busy in the ten years since Big Quarters released their last album, Party Like a Young Commie. But one unachieved idea still lurked in the back of Zach’s mind: creating a solo work.
“I wasn’t thinking about making a record at the time, I was just thinking about sticking to a practice. That’s what was keeping me sharp and engaged with my craft,” Zach says. “Additionally, I knew I was taking a pretty big chance in being vulnerable, and cutting myself open for people to see, for people to see what I’ve kind of been through, sharing a decade of myself that I wasn’t really able to easily share.”
On Bad by Myself, Zach creates melodies from unorthodox elements, applying #Beatstory’s methods and practices to polished, finished recordings. Everyday sounds like a whisk whirring on “Pancake” or the closing of a dishwasher door on “Domesticated Type Beat” are brought into the mix, as are snippets of music from Heiruspecs (“Twenty Years”), Crunchy Kids (“BLAOW”), and 26 Bats! (“Can’t Make You”).
Zach’s quest for new sounds was a way of avoiding the rut many producers fall into. “I had a method of grabbing sound clips, which took me 15-20 minutes to grab all the clips that I needed. I had it down to a science that I knew that I had to have eight to twelve sound clips to get all the sounds necessary to design a beat,” he recalls. “When I make this stuff, I’m thinking about the video and the beat simultaneously. And that’s what I was doing prior to making the album. It taught me a lot, because within that first year, with each beat, I’m thinking about ‘How do I make a better beat?’”
The process didn’t end there. “Then, after performing a number of shows with these beats, these songs now took on a new form from what they were, because I would do all these live effects, and live improvisation of keys and stuff,” Zach says. “ I was just like, ‘OK, well, I want to incorporate all that stuff into the record, to make it more interesting.’”
While most of the vocals used on Bad by Myself are chopped and filtered through Zach’s sampling methods, Open Mike Eagle gets a guest verse on “Hold the Parade,” the album’s centerpiece. The song collects samples from Mike’s First Avenue show: from audience chants of “one more song” to the glugs from a bottle of Maker’s Mark, the entire evening is captured here. When Eagle’s vocals take center stage, Bad by Myself reaches its apex.
Another prominent voice on the album is that of Zach’s son, Theo. He helps open up the album on “Pancake,” and when he says, “Look at this,” on “Scabbed Over,” he helps put things in perspective as the album comes to a close. That final track also enlists Lady Midnight to help bring about its healing conclusion—a favor returned, as Zach helped record, mix, and master Lady Midnight’s Death Before Mourning, an album about loss and healing.
For this track, Zach recorded the sound of sage burning and the lighting of copal, a tree resin burned for spiritual cleansing and used as a ritual offering to the gods in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies.
“I felt it was important because it’s upbeat, it’s a pretty different sound for me, and I wanted it to symbolize some of the growth, processing I’ve done, and my being able to move forward positively with my life.”
It’s a fitting conclusion to a soundtrack of healing in real time, and of recognizing and reflecting on the experiences that shape you.