Rare Candy met with the man behind Slow Dakota, the baroque-pop outlet of P.J. Sauerteig. Drawing on his midwestern roots as well as his experiences in New York City, Slow Dakota’s music manages to feel ageless and meditative while simultaneously ricocheting with references that crisscross eras and genres. Read on for commentary on Slow Dakota’s EP Rumspringa, a new album-in-the-works, the Bible, and the fundamental themes that connect all humanity.
RC: Your latest release was the EP Rumspringa, which has been described as a “poetic, disco-ball orgy.” Where did the concept for that album come from?
SD: I work with a guy I met at Columbia who produces and mixes all the stuff that I do. We were looking at a song I’d put together called “The Lilac Bush.” We saw that sound as a blueprint for Rumspringa. Instead of going more of a folk-acoustic direction, instead of seeing if there was anything left in that well, we went for a heavily electronic keyboard-synth sound but with more garnishes that add this amateurish element. It’s all kind of a joke, a little bit of a comic interlude. It’s tongue in cheek; it’s about an Amish rite of passage, but using synths and heavily electronic music.
RC: That sort of contrast is what always drew me to your music. I was from a very quiet town that I always wanted to escape, but when I got to New York I found this constant frenzy.
SD: The longer I live in New York, the more midwestern I become. When I left Indiana, I was so ready to get to the big city, to do big things. The more I live here, the more I miss and understand my home. I’m grateful for my time here but I think about leaving every day. I’m moving back to the Midwest after law school. I think Rumspringa vacillates between leaving home because I felt like an alien there, and coming here and feeling more like an alien than ever. Maybe it’s not where I am—maybe it’s just me, a feeling deep down. On the album, there are songs like “Little Sadie Wayne Schwartz,” a brutal take on the midwest. There is a certain amount of bleakness in the middle of nowhere that makes you want to leave. With this album I tried to do justice to my home, to present it in a realistic way, not a wistful way. Maybe that’s growing up.
RC: Do you notice a progression from your earlier work in terms of that?
SD: Rumspringa doesn’t try to be a concept album. I still love concept albums, but this one was very much—let’s write a couple fun, goofy songs that have no sort of rigorous intellectualism about them. They’re just fun to listen to, hopefully.
RC: How did you get started with music?
SD: I started a band at Columbia called Jeffer’s Win when I was a freshman, and loved it. I did that for about a year. It was the first band I’d ever been in. Then I went to India, and had a kind of failed trip there, and wanted to write about it and process it, and I found the way I was writing about it felt like a different project. That became the first Slow Dakota album, which came out in 2012. A couple of years later I started a record label to release the music, because no other record label would release it. I started putting out music by myself and with my friends. Law school takes up some time, but not to the point where I’ve had to give up any of the music stuff; they’ve never become mutually exclusive.
RC: What was starting a record label like?
SD: I interned for two record labels while I was at Columbia. One was Frenchkiss —a few years after they’d put out Hospice by the Antlers. I also worked at one called Brassland in Brooklyn. I still have no idea what I’m doing, but it was a matter of necessity. If you slap a record label on something it often seems more impressive. If I was self-releasing music, blogs would never open my email, but if you’re on a record label—even if it’s your own—people give your work way more credibility. Plus it would be impossible for me to work with a record label who was like, “we’re gonna put this out but we’re cutting songs 3 and 9 and changing the cover.” It’s nice to have complete control over your work.
RC: Have you done any touring or performing?
SD: I’ve performed a couple times in New York, and played an album release show in Indiana, but I’m really not good at playing live. A theory I heard recently is basically that there are three skills: playing live, recording, and writing—and most people only have two. If I have two, at all, the one that I don’t have is certainly playing live. I’m not good at it. I get nervous and I get mad at myself when I’m not perfect; I’m way too in my own head. I also don’t know how to translate these songs to live settings. It’s a nightmare to orchestrate. I tried to perform “The Lilac Bush” live and it didn’t go well; there are so many instruments and harmonies.
RC: A lot of your music feels quietly reflective—not immediate or frenzied. It feels like it has an element of peacefulness. Would you say that’s reflective of your creative mindset?
SD: That would probably be a function more of the recording process, where you have complete control. You can do something a million times if you don’t like it. There’s a peace about it. You can play a drum part thirty times if you want.
RC: Which came first—poetry or music?
SD: As a kid I was trained in classical piano. Classical piano live is all about perfection. I still have that ingrained perfectionism, which I think scarred me in regards to playing live. In high school I started writing songs in my basement. I was writing poetry, too, and I studied creative writing at Columbia—not because I wanted to be a poet, but because I wanted to write better lyrics. I’ve always felt that people don’t give lyrics nearly the attention they deserve. Then there are people like Joanna Newsom, who write unbelievable lyrics, and people aren’t prepared to approach them, because they’ve been taught to feel like lyrics are a kind of afterthought.
SD: A lot of your work has religious and mythological elements. Does religion influence a lot of your writing, and is that for any reason?
RC: Well, I took a class called Literary Approaches to the Bible at Columbia, and it was basically like—however you view the Bible from a faith or religious perspective, forget about that. We’re going to read the Bible as you would read Moby Dick, or Leaves of Grass, or any other book. When you take off the prohibitive gloss of something being a holy work, all of a sudden you realize that the writing is unbelievable and its narratives and stories can be so moving. The narratives and poetry in that book affect me more than any other. I think they’re breathtaking and very special. That’s where a lot of our narratives today come from—they’re inescapable. Those really ancient texts are the foundations of other texts, and you can trace the lineage of so many works back to them. It’s like a family tree, but for literature.
The Book of Job is my favorite, probably of all. I think about it all the time, and the album I’m writing now has a lot to do with it. Alfred Lord Tennyson said it was the greatest work of poetry ever written in any language. It’s an amazing meditation on justice. [Sauerteig here vigorously summarizes Job and further explains its themes; but later requests that I redact his “wheezebag discussion for the sake of Rare Candy’s readership”].
RC: Where are you in the process of making your new album?
SD: So early. It has to do with a tornado that hit a year or two ago. It was really eerie—it was a tornado that hit north of Indiana in Amish country, and it completely destroyed a a young couple’s family farm. The amazing thing about it was that right afterwards, in the rain, dozens and dozens of Amish buggies started showing up. The women started constructing tents and cooking food, and the men brought lumber and started to rebuild this guy’s house from the foundation up. They were there working in for a week straight. And after they had completely rebuilt this couple’s barns and house, they all got in their buggies and they just left. There was no money exchanged. It was pure altruism. I think that altruism is just as scary to us as tragedy, because we don’t understand it. That story doesn’t make sense.
RC: There’s definitely something biblical about that story. And it’s something I’ve been wondering about, too—why is so hard for all of us to understand basic compassion?
SD: We want them to have a secret motive—we can’t believe they’re just this good. A lot of people want the Christian god to be a just God. But you can’t be merciful and just at the same time; it’s a paradox. Mercy is giving someone something they don’t deserve; justice is giving someone something they do deserve. We do not understand mercy; it’s not logical. That’s why the idea of Christ’s coming is completely perplexing—it’s like, “why would you do that?”
RC: A lot of your songs seem to be written in alternate perspectives. Do you prefer to write in voices other than your own? Are they extensions of yourself or do you like inhabiting these other characters?
SD: I think it’s interesting to take kernels of your own life and pop them out, disjoint them a bit, and see where that takes you. A lot of it is metaphorical. With Bürstner and the Baby—you have a fetus talking, and an eight-year-old who’s kind of pregnant. I have never been a pregnant eight year old. I have been a fetus, but my memory of that time is not great. But writing in different perspectives allows you to work in allegory. It lets you ask, “what do I have in common with this pregnant eight-year-old, with this baby?” Maybe it was that I felt like there were certain responsibilities that have been forced on me that I was unwilling to accept. I love using other perspectives because, simply, it forces me to look at things from different angles.
Plus I’m really interested in fairytale and myth. You’ll have completely normal, banal events, someone going about their day, and then all of a sudden an angel comes down. And it’s perfectly normal.
I’m interested in blurring those two worlds. A lot of this comes from my interest in the Bible, which basically tells stories about normal people put into amazing circumstances.
RC: There are a lot of featured speakers on The Ascension of Slow Dakota. How did you come to have people like Margaret Vandenberg and Joe Fasano featured on the album?
SD: I was in a postmodern literature class at Columbia with Margaret Vandenburg. I still haven’t recovered; I’m still reeling from her interpretations. A lot of the ideas that she presented in that class infiltrated and became central to that album.
And Joseph Fasano was a mentor for me for my poetry. I remember—I was in a seminar of his, and I wrote the Whitman finale poem for his class. I literally wrote it on a plane to Spain and fixed it up later for the class. I remember I read it in workshop and the whole class went silent. I was so nervous because nobody said anything afterwards. And then he looked at me from across the room and said, if you ever stop writing poetry I will come and find you and slap you in the face. The last song, “Jebediah Iowa”, off of Rumspringa, was also a poem written for Joe Fasano’s class—we had to write a metered poetry thing, and I was working in a kitchen at the time downtown, trying to be a chef—it didn’t work out.
The last person is Philip Kitcher— I was in a class with him, and Kitcher would read us segments of Ulysses and I would just die, and I was like, I have to have this man read this stuff. Philip did it in like one take; Joseph did too, in about one take, on an iPhone, in a basement in Columbia.
RC: What’s your songwriting process?
SD: I could never master the F chord on guitar. Luckily my dad plays a bit; he plays on Rumspringa. He plays on “Jebediah Iowa”, which is funny because it’s a conversation between a father and son in that song, and now it’s a musical conversation. The music process is—typically there’s a melody, and then I’ll sing along to the melody and I’ll have some filler lyrics, and then I’ll go back and add the actual words.
RC: Do you have a favorite album out of all of yours, or one that stands out in your mind?
SD: This would always happen to me, especially in poetry workshops. Some weeks I would come with poetry and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, and I’d read it and people would be like, “oh, that’s interesting”. And another week, I’d scramble and write something in a couple of minutes and I’d read it and people would be like, “this is really special”—and I’d be like, “You’re wrong! You got it mixed up.” That happens to me at every corner, always. Once I sent four poems to a poetry journal. I thought the first three were dynamite—the fourth was an afterthought. And they emailed me back and they’d accepted the last of the poems, and later they nominated it for a Pushcart prize. It was called “King David’s Butterfly,” and it was about a miscarriage—again, not something I’ve experienced, but…that happens to me all the time and I hate it.
Bürstner and the Baby is my baby. I unabashedly love it and think it’s so rich and so interesting and I’m so proud of those lyrics. And that album has gotten the least attention out of every piece of music I’ve ever released. It almost makes me think in the future that if I want an album to succeed I need to think it’s bad. Of course, by the time you release a song you’ve heard it so many times that by the time it comes out into the world, you’ve lost touch with it entirely. It’s like when you look yourself in the mirror. You’ve seen yourself so many times that you almost can’t see yourself anymore. It’s like—what I see is so different from what everyone else sees.
RC: Is there a difference in how you perceive things when you read versus when you listen to them?
SD: Since I was a kid I’ve had a very hard time reading at a normal pace. I’m a slow reader to the point of where it’s OCD or anxiety. In college I started audiobooking, because it was faster than reading a book myself, and soon anytime I was reading anything I would listen to it instead of reading it. Imbibing poetry and literature became an almost entirely oral thing for me.
The Ascension is very much a product of that mindset. It blurred the line between something you should be reading, singing, hearing, and seeing. Page numbers and paragraphs cease to exist when you listen—the story becomes just sound. And it’s cool to think that people originally listened to works like The Iliad—for a long time, literature was like music.
RC: A friend once said to me—we always think that light was the first thing God made, when he said “let there be light”, but actually the first thing that ever existed was the sound of those words.
SD: Genesis is an illustration of the principle that language creates the world. God in the beginning isn’t building things with his hands—the world is created as an exercise of language. That’s the Greek principle of logos, which is so beautiful. I think also that was the name of a ship in The Matrix movies, Logos.
I think it all comes down to these universal themes. Slow Dakota has been a vehicle for my growing up, for my coming to understand things. The Ascension, for me, was me working through my parents’ divorce. I’m a big fan of art that doesn’t mention what it’s actually about. Like, some people say that “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem that in no way mentions slavery, is all about slavery—or Margaret Vandenberg, one of my professors at Columbia, will tell you that Heart of Darkness is about the vagina. Beneath these grandiose flairs, a lot of the work is me coping with very normal shit. Our Indian Boy was me being like, huh, white savior complex… went to India and didn’t go well… It was guilt. Bürstner was guilt, and religious stuff. The Ascension is just, to an extent, my parents are getting divorced—it’s showing that through a prism of so many different things. Creating this music has given me an opportunity to wrestle with myself and my problems in a way I feel like has been really constructive, more constructive than self-medicating with whatever.
RC: We go on these crazy fanciful journeys, but it all comes down to these human things.
SD: It’s all connected. People criticize works like The Waste Land, saying I’m not going to go read the entire Western canon to understand this, but it’s really about a nervous breakdown, about very basic, human things. And if a handful of people have been touched in their own wrestling, then that’s all that matters. That’s triumph, that’s redemption.
Check out Slow Dakota’s website here .
Stream his music on Spotify here .
Purchase Rumspringa and Slow Dakota’s discography here .