Though PJ Sauerteig (CC ’15) just graduated a few weeks ago, he has already produced an impressive discography. Under the name Slow Dakota, Sauerteig has released three EPs, and has a fourth one ready to record. A signee of Fort Wayne based Massif Records— Sauerteig himself is a Fort Wayne native– Slow Dakota releases all of its music on its band camp, where you can also find the entirety for their discography to date.
This conversation took place on the afternoon of April 29th, in the common room of Sauerteig’s Woodbridge suite. Slow Dakota had played two shows in the weekend prior to our talk, which lasted for about an hour.
So you guys had two shows recently, one at ADP, and one at Postcrypt Coffee House. Do you enjoy playing live shows are do you envision Slow Dakota as more of a recording oriented project?
Yeah that’s a good question. I think we certainly don’t play live and tour like other bands that I know. There are some people who think that’s the only way to do it—I used to work at French Kiss records, and the record head there, Syd Butler, used to say that the only way to do it is to constantly play and tour. It’s tough. It’s tricky to organize a group of like five people when everyone is so busy and doing their own thing. It can be a headache and it can be discouraging. I like the way we do it now. We play occasionally, which is fun. When we do it though it feels special. If we were doing it every weekend I think it would be a drain on everyone involved, especially considering we’re full time students. But there are people, like Jack and Eliza—they’re like a hugely up and coming band, the girl’s a sophomore at Columbia—and they just play all the time. And they have the endurance to do that, but I don’t know if I do. So I put a little more emphasis on what’s recorded, and what’s put out there.
There’s a lot of diversity in the project’s instrumentation. Do you feel like you have to make a lot of changes to your songs before you play them live?
Yeah, that’s one of the fun things to me. We recently had a show where I was playing ukulele, and we had a guitar player, a trumpet player, and a trombone player, and it was so much fun to sit down and say, “Ok, so how do we take this song and make it fit into these instruments? How can we not even include piano, which is, like, the fundamental instrument to all of the recordings? How are we not going to have a female vocalist? You know, that’s going to mean the guitarist will be singing in falsetto, and the trumpet may play a piano part.” I think that any good song should be able to be played by any arrangement of instruments. If it’s a good song you should be able to play it with five banjos. It should survive any transposition into new instruments. I like doing that.
I imagine that must still be pretty difficult to do. What are some other difficulties you face when playing live?
Finding the right space is really difficult. We were super happy to play at ADP, for instance. I love playing there. But it was an art show and people were milling about, and we decided we were going to play an acoustic set with no mics, which was stupid. I was like, “yeah we don’t need mics” as if a ukulele is going to carry through an entire story of a house with a hundred people walking through it. Sound is always tricky because once you mic vocals then you need to mic instruments, and then things get lost. Postcrypt was perhaps better, more fun, because it was just really quiet and had a really great natural acoustics. You could hear every instrument, and it was beautiful. So yeah for live shows it can be hard to find the right vibe, but when you find it, it’s so rewarding.
So, “Slow Dakota.” Why that name?
It’s a silly name. When I was a sophomore it was the first time I ever sank into real, clinical depression—not like, “I’m an angsty teenager,” but medical shit. Dealing with stress and expectations, I would have this fantasy where I would think about dropping out and going to work as a store clerk in like North Dakota. I would just drop off the face of the earth and no one would expect anything from me. No one would know where I came from, and no one would impose any narrative onto me or tell me what I had to be or what I had to do. It was an escapist fantasy, and that’s where it [the name] came from.
How did the project get started? What was the impetus?
I was playing in a band freshman year called Jeffers Win. It was great and I loved it. Those guys were amazing and I had such a good time doing it. But then I went on a volunteering trip in India in my freshman summer, and it just kind of collapsed and fell apart. I came home earlier than expected, and had a whole summer where I was just like, “What am I gonna do?” I felt really guilty about the whole experience. It felt like a huge failure, and I tried to salvage it in some way by trying to write songs about it. I wanted to provide some kind of coherence or artistic merit to it. So I did that and the songs I was writing—keep in mind I was still in Jeffers Win at the time—they didn’t feel like Jeffers Win songs. Of course, they weren’t “better” necessarily. They just weren’t Jeffers Win songs. So I recorded them. Then I got back to school and I was playing in Jeffers Win and that was just a drain on me. So I bowed out of that band and from then on it’s just been Slow Dakota.
And how did you record that first album?
Back in Fort Wayne I had a couple of mics, and—well, sometimes in studios you’ll have like ten mics on the drums and overhead and in the room—I didn’t have that. But the equipment I did have was really good. So recording drums I would do literally a drum at a time. I would take a mic and do just the snare part. Then I would take a tom tom and do just the tom tom part. Because you only have three mics. I had to learn how to play drums and things like that for the album as well. But there were some instruments I couldn’t learn– for instance, trumpet, and female vocals.
Old friends would come in and play, and for things like trumpet, I actually got our high school’s pep band teacher. I didn’t know him super well but he was this super nice guy and he was really great. But again I didn’t know him very well so I just called him up one day and was like, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me from a few years ago, but do you want to come to my house and play trumpet?” And he said sure. And it was just a matter of bringing people together to play. When you’re here in New York everybody plays. There are a thousand people you can call. But when you’re at home and you need a trombone player it comes down to things like, “well Aunt Suzy’s cousin’s mom knows somebody.” But it’s fun to have strangers come to your house and play music with you. It’s kind of beautiful.
So when did you first become interested in music? When you look at the instruments included in the project it’s a pretty diverse group. How did you come to pick up all of those instruments?
My parents both grew up taking piano lessons and so my sister and I also took piano lessons from a young age. My sister took it until we were twelve at which point she stopped liking it. I was trained classically in piano until I was like eighteen, and then I got here and I realized that everyone around me played like a hundred instruments, or so it seemed. And I was just like, “how are you all so talented?” I felt so inferior. So I bought a ukulele and learned that pretty quickly because it’s an easy instrument and also a lot of fun to play. Singing is tough. I’ve never been really comfortable or satisfied with my singing voice, but when you’re writing the music and the lyrics it is just natural for you to sing it. So I found myself singing and I’ve grown more comfortable with my voice. The same goes for other things. I didn’t know how to play drums but I just didn’t have anyone to call, so I just tried to learn well enough to pretend. I love Baroque instrumentation. That’s something you’ve probably noticed. That era, the sounds are just so rich. That’s why we tried to, especially on the last EP, steer towards that with things like flugelhorn and harpsichord and things like that. Because that to me—I understand why it might seem like a gimmick—I find that era so moving and beautiful.
You and I first met as board members on The Review, so I knew you primarily as a poet. My freshman year we published one of your poems in The Review and we didn’t publish “Fort Wayne,” so Quarto picked it up, because they were smarter than us that year.
No I remember because I didn’t like the poem that much at first. And then in final cut you just chimed in with a little note about it, and suddenly the whole room turned around on it and was like, “oh it’s great!”
Because it was about a wedding?
Yeah. We somehow still didn’t vote it into the magazine.
So yeah they picked it up. But I guess the real question here is: do you think of yourself more as a poet or as a musician? What made you drift more towards music as time went on?
Yeah that’s a great question. I think the reason I joined the creative writing department and started taking workshops in earnest was because I was interested in music. I was interested in writing lyrics, and I saw the creative writing stuff as something to help me write better lyrics. I get really bummed sometimes because I feel like a lot of people feel like lyrics don’t have to do anything. If you entered good lyrics or cool lyrics from the “indie genre,” into even an intermediate workshop, it would be mediocre at best. Or people would say it’s not that good or that your craft is nonexistent. People take the fact that they’re lyrics to mean that they don’t have to be thoughtful or coherent, and I was really pushing against that. I was like, “no, you can write beautiful music and pair it with beautiful lyrics, with poetry.” There’s nothing better in the world than that. It was for me trying to learn to write the best lyrics possible, that would transcend whatever you might just write down on looseleaf before you go into a recording studio.
I like writing poetry a lot. Writing lyrics is difficult because everything has to fit so perfectly, whereas a poem can be anything you want it to be. I’ll probably continue to write poetry, especially with the campus literary scene being what it is, which is a real gift, just to be around other talented writers. So yeah I definitely like both, but lyrics are my real focus.
So how do you imagine the relationship between your lyrics and your music then?
I see the music as a platform or a stage for the lyrics to go out and do their thing. That’s the most important part to me. I think that comes from the way I listen to music. Not to say that one way is better or worse, but for instance, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” you know, it’s annoying because the way trends work people are like “awww, it’s so cute. You’re getting into indie music. I remember 2009. I remember high school and getting into that album.” And it’s just like, no, this is an endearingly brilliant album and I will continue to talk about it. But for that alubm the music is great, but what is so amazing is the lyrics. It’s hard to separate the music from the lyrics, but for me it’s predominantly the lyrics. So that way of thinking about music is the way I think about my own music. Do I spend more time on the music or the lyrics? I don’t know. Probably about equal amounts of time.
That’s interesting. It’s definitely rare to see that kind of division of focus.
Yeah and it bums me out. And there are great lyricists out there—Peter Silverman of Antlers. “Hospice,” their first album, which was written mostly in prose, is a brilliant, brilliant concept album. It’s so rich with metaphor and motif and texture. There are really amazing lyricists, but there are also people who don’t care as much. Which is fine.
So what does your songwriting process usually look like? Which usually comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
A lot of times I will take a bridge that I’m working on, or a chord progression, and I”ll take that and another chord progression I’ve written and I’ll try to put them together. Then I’ll try to see what a melody would sound like. SO you’re taking that empty space where a melody would go and you’re trying to figure out syllabically where the words would come in. Then you’re writing, and you have the framework of, “two syllables here, three here, this needs to rhyme here.” Once that framework is constructed, you can go in and write the actual lyrics.
So as someone who studies literature and poetry, do you find that literature influences your lyrics a lot? If so, who do you feel are your biggest literary influences as a lyricist?
Totally. At first I think I was interested in and influenced by other musicians and lyricists. But over time I’ve come to incorporate more references to literature into the music. IN the Junior EP, there are really obvious references to the Book of Jonah, and the infanticide trope found in “Medea” and Beloved. I think the turning point was Burstner and the Baby, in the second album, which I structured like the Book of Job, a conversation with a set of rebuttals. It relied a lot of Kafka and “The Trial.” I think Kafka is a lasting influence on me. It’s interesting though. Not all writers make their way into the music. I love Whitman, but he doesn’t show up in the music. I think Kafka is probably the biggest one for me.
Yeah I’m just imagining a song that is a catalog of adjectives for three minutes.
Exactly. Elbows and brains and handsome men. Sometimes I forget because it’s so obvious but the Bible, also, is the literary foundation of anything I write. It can seem like a kind of musty thing to do, because it’s so obvious, but to me, in college, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it. I’ve studied it as a religious text, and in college as a literary text. It’s just the greatest thing ever written in the world. Nothing can hold a candle to it. I don’t feel bad continuously going back to it because it’s inexhaustible as a source of inspiration and as a source for stories.
So how about some of your musical influences? You mentioned before that you’re interested in Baroque instrumentation. In general, what musical influences show up most frequently in your music?
Regina Spektor is amazing to me. What she can do with just her and a piano and no other instruments is incredible. And she’s such a great lyricist. Neutral Milk Hotel, especially lyrically. The Microphones. I’m not very good at lo-fi stuff, but anything I have comes from them. Fleet Foxes, especially in some of the harmonies you hear. And classical music. I took classical music forever and so it becomes engrained in your mind. There are a lot of things in ¾ time. Things that are kind of waltzy. Like on the new album the first track is just a waltz with no lyrics. So that’s important to me. I used to worry about people listening to this and saying, “this is pretty pretentious.” But then I started listening to prog rock, and that is some of the most pretentious music you can find, but it’s just gleeful, and joyful that who cares about all their weird references to Greek tragedy and all their weird time changes. They’re just fucking doing it.
Do you want to talk a little bit more about the new EP?
For sure! So, the first album, “Our Indian Boy,” you meet this character who has gone on a failed volunteer trip. In the second you meet this woman Burstner, who has this allegorical pregnancy. Then in the Junior EP, those two people meet in the belly of a whale, and you find out that Burstner killed her baby. In the new EP, a third character enters the belly of the whale. He’s a compound ghost kind of thing. There are different aspects to what he is. But he comes in, and the three of them end up talking, and that’s the accumulation of the EP. And it’s about a lot of what my other lyrics have been about: guilt, responsibility, how you deal with those and how you deal with failure, how you measure guilt. And what interests me is the idea of quantifying sorrow, saying, “My experience is sadder than yours,” or, “My life has been harder than yours. Don’t even talk to me because you don’t understand how hard things have been for me.” I want to explore the way people use their sorrow as a commodity, and stratify people based upon sorrow. That’s what the first two characters are doing, and then the third comes in and says to them that, you know, this isn’t the way to understand sorrow. Sorrow is universal, and that’s the only truth there is about it. You can’t quantify it and you can’t use it against other people. So that’s what it’s about. It’s more of a philosophical argument that happens.
As you said, the biblical elements are pretty explicit there with the belly of the whale. Why was that an important setting for you?
I think when I wrote it at the time I was just like, “this is kind of cool.” The more I’ve thought about it the more it makes sense though. I don’t know if it’s common or if it’s anachronistic, but there are things that I’ll write, and I won’t remember my thought process at the time, but I’ll go back and read it and say, “oh this makes sense.”
The whale is a framework of guilt. If you go and look at the story of Jonah and the Whale, he has a responsibility that he shirks, and God says, “You’ve done something wrong and now you’re gonna spend some time in this stomach.” It’s about the darkness that consumes you as a result of your failed responsibilities. It’s about guilt and duties that you’ve shirked. Burstner has a responsibility to her baby that she shirks by killing it, so she ends up there. Slow Dakota goes to help the children in India and he shirks that responsibility. They’re really not that different from Jonah. You could even say that the man who enters the belly of the whale is Jonah, that it’s like a precursor to the Biblical story. But yeah it’s really about the abyss that you feel like you’re in when you’ve failed to meet your responsibilities. That’s what it is.
What are your plans for the music post-graduation?
So I’m working on the new EP right now. I’m gonna be working on some farms this summer—
Are you WOOFing [World Organization of Organic Farming]?
Yeah! So I’ll be in Germany doing that. I might record it when I get home. Either way I want to give it a good college try (which is funny because I won’t be in college anymore). I want to go to a studio and really do it correctly and then maybe try to release it on one of the labels out there. Indiana strangely has a lot of really good record labels. You’d never guess, because it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s got a good batch. It would be cool then to tour a little bit in the Midwest if that’s a possibility. So yeah that’s the plan. I just have to record. It’s only three songs though. The first one was nine, second was seven, Junior EP had five, now this will have three. Then there will be a final one with one song.
Do you think the project will end with that EP?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
Well I guess you don’t have to.
So I don’t know too much about the music scene on campus. It’s not something I’m tapped into. But how have you felt about it during your time here? Do you feel like there’s a coherent, conspicuous music scene at Columbia, and if not, why not?
As a senior about to graduate, I feel like a dinosaur. I’m sure there are a lot of great and up and coming bands that I just haven’t heard of. All of the musicians and bands I know on campus are like the nicest and sweetest people ever. Everyone seems really eager to help everyone out. You get to know people. It’s that small of a community. There are a lot of people who play instruments, but a lot fewer who want to play in a band. I was talking to my friends the other day and they’re recording something. They got Cam Johnson to drum, and Cam Johnson’s the fucking truth. He used to play guitar for us in Jeffers Win. It’s just like, it’s all love in that regard. People bounce around projects and help each other out. For these last two shows the guitarist who played with us just released his own album, and so we’ll play some of his songs and give out some of his CD’s because why not? There’s no competitive edge, I don’t think. The competitive edge is that we live in New York. If we all went to Princeton and we were all campus bands, then we’d be vying to be the campus band, much like Morningsiders were when they were here. But because we live in New York there is no ceiling. You can’t be top campus band because that doesn’t mean anything. You’ll talk to someone and they’ll just say, “yeah well we played Webster Hall this weekend.” It’s great. Your competitive enough with the city at large that there’s no need to be competitive with each other.
Do you feel like the school provides enough spaces for campus music projects to take off?
No, certainly not. It’s very limited, who they give access to. It comes down to who you know that can let you in and steal a couple of music stands. Do you know a guy who has access? It comes down to having access to some of the few practice rooms. We were recording here the other night and it had just passed quiet hours, so our neighbors were banging on the walls. You can’t record like that, obviously, so we had to stop. It can feel like you have to scrap a lot to make things happen here. A lot of it is by the skin of your teeth. Knowing someone who can get you into a decent room. It bums me out.
Before we actually sat down for this interview we were talking a little bit about how difficult it is for new bands to generate buzz. You have this really disappointing relationship between power and taste, which, as you were saying, makes it really hard for bands to get noticed if they’re unsigned.
Yeah absolutely. And it’s crushing. It’s confusing. Having worked at a few labels, and having written for this “Brooklyn” music blog, both of which were extremely disillusioning experiences, you realize that there’s no overriding justice. It’s not a system in which you’ll get noticed just because your music is good. It’s just not true. It’s about what’s financially solvent, what’s going to buzz. And you look at some of the blogs and you’re just like, “Aren’t you sick of posting, like, B- fodder that no one is going to remember, that is completely unsubstantial?” But they don’t’ get tired of it. So you get to that point where you’re like, “well I can play games with you if that’s what you want.” But it is very disappointing, and it’s very scary.
That “quote un-quote Brooklyn music blog” thing is going to be terrible when it comes to transcribing this interview. Now I’m going to have to decide whether I put the quotes, say quote-unquote, or do both. I’ll probably just do that actually.
That’s the power move.
That way there will be no ambiguity.
No we don’t want ambiguity.
Though then again someone might read too much into that and say, “wait, quote-unquote, quote Brooklyn music blog end quote?!?”
Maybe they negate each other.
Exactly. So now we have to do it. Just to see what people write in the comments section. So do you find that getting attention from blogs mostly comes from reaching out to them directly, or do you feel like there are actually people out there looking for things?
Most of the time, you’re the one who has to send our your music all over and hope that people like it. That’s the name of the game, self-promotion. It’s just something you have to get used to. It feels weird, competing with a gajillion other people who want the same thing you do. But there’s no room for passivity. You can’t just sit there and say, “oh they’re definitely gonna stumble onto my bandcamp.” They’re not gonna find it. It’s all legwork. If you can learn to have fun with it’s less excruciating, but it’s weird and it’s annoying.
That’s a cheery note to end on.
The word “excruciating.”
Thank you for sitting down with me.
No thank you.
I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s all transcribed. I’ll have some time tonight so I’ll probably get it done then.
I did not get it done by then. The Columbia Review would like to thank PJ Sauerteig for allowing us to sit down with him and talk about his project. We encourage all of our readers to check out the Slow Dakota band camp page, and to like the project on Facebook.
P.J. Sauerteig is a native of Fort Wayne Indiana. He graduated in 2015 with a major in creative writing and a concentration in psychology. He spends his time traveling across the plains of midwest, trying to extinguish the last remaining herds of the once great American Buffalo. He is also a former member of The Columbia Review’s editorial board.
A.J. Stoughton is one of the editors-in-chief of The Columbia Review. He is a rising senior majoring in English and American Studies. He thinks it’s neat that both the interviewer and interviewee refer to themselves by their own initials.