Slow Dakota Enlists Columbia Professors for an ‘Unprecedented’ Album

P.J. Sauertig is Slow Dakota

P.J. Sauerteig is Slow Dakota. (Photo: Nick Vorderman)

When Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based label Masiff Records contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in hearing the new release from P.J. Sauerteig’s Slow Dakota project, I couldn’t believe their gall. Sauerteig’s The Ascension of Slow Dakota was unlike anything that had come before it, the email boasted, gathering a handful of professors from his alma mater, Columbia University, to read its voiceovers.

“To have so many generations of Columbia academics / creatives work on the same project is unprecedented – especially in the realm of underground music,” they wrote. “The irony is that most publications will skip through the album, not even recognizing the intellectual dream team that Sauerteig has assembled.”

Suffice to say, we don’t often listen to music hoping for an “intellectual dream team.”

But the intrigue eventually inspired me to dive in on a particularly long commute, and the time commitment was ultimately needed to appreciate the 19-track, hour-long album in full as a cohesive work. Dense and at times unapologetically droll, The Ascension of Slow Dakota packs itself so full of theological, literary and poetic references so as to almost laugh in the face of the three-minute hit singles and tight, 30-minute garage records. Who does this Sauerteig guy think will actually listen to this, and more importantly, who does he think he is?

That’s all part of the joke though, insofar as Ascension could be considered funny. Sauerteig told me that making this album was an acknowledgement that such an obtuse, academic excerise is ultimately self-destructive, that in making something so knotty, so dense, and at times so pretentious, ensures that no one will listen.

The album’s opening scene follows a man who has submitted a song to an angel who enters it into a contest with God, but the song is not selected. “You have given me the greatest gift of all,” he tells the angel, “a thoughtful listener, even one who rejects me.” The fable becomes Ascension‘s first mise en abyme, the story within a story that ultimately comments on the work as a whole and hence, becomes a plea to investigate, to go deeper, into Sauerteig’s world. It’s quite a world, too, where our protagonist mingles with characters from both the Old and New Testament, Walt Whitman and William Blake.

While we dismiss so much of the great, dense literature because it comes off as arrogant, self-obsessed and masturbatory, its authors often bury intimate personal struggles that they’re working through deep in the subtext, while the text becomes a puzzle for the reader to solve as they get closer to discovering the author’s most personal, deep-seeded feelings. Maybe high art’s main function is to balance out life’s lows. To that end, Sauerteig’s Ascension might best be appreciated as an investigation into how, underneath all the esoteric allusions and verbosities, this student of poetry and prose is still going through a ton of the same shit that you went through in college, too.

I didn’t hold back when I talked to Sauerteig. Such a deep well of literary knowledge is a major privilege in of itself, while his ability to not only conceive, but realize a work of such nuance and depth is another privilege still. But talking to him about literature, law and suicide, Sauerteig’s passions quickly emerged—not the passions of an arrogant, entitled collegiate snob, but of a young man who’s found tremendous comfort in the classic canons of literature, and wants very deeply to unearth the music buried in their words.

How are you? You just released the really long, dense, literary album a couple of months ago. You graduated Columbia last spring. And you’re coming back to the city to stat Law school at NYU, is that right?

I am currently driving through Pennsylvania, absolutely! I’m driving up today.

So this record is very much a creation of your academic environment, to some degree. I hear a lot of poetry in there, and I’m hoping we can unpack some of it in a few minutes, but that’s mainly what I’m interested in starting with. You shopped your poems around to journals at school, is that right, and some of the publications, then that parlayed into you making music?

The first scene from "The Ascension of Slow Dakota" is "A Contest"

The first scene from “The Ascension of Slow Dakota” is “A Contest”. Sauerteig eventually hopes to release the album’s lyrics as a book, and drew these accompanying watercolors for each track. (P.J. Sauertig)

Yeah! I showed up at Columbia and didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do, but I was drawn to creative writing. It’s interesting because a lot of the people who go into creative writing inherently want to go into poetry and want to pursue a career as a poet. In Columbia they have a great creative writing program, a lot of the kids I’ve studied with are going to do their MFA this year and do great things. I never wanted to be a poet.

You needed an outlet that was, if not socially acceptable, acceptable through the collegiate channels of what counts as a “gracious area of study,” right? You can go to a place like Oberlin and say, “I’m gonna start a baroque, pastoral indie band,” but not many other places. And there are a lot of bands that have come out of esteemed institutions, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend came out of Columbia. But you can’t just go into Columbia and claim you’re going to do that, can you? Was creative writing a covert way of doing that? 

Exactly. Covert is the best word for it. I went in and I didn’t want to be a poet, but I wanted to write better lyrics, so I said, “well, I guess I’ll approach it from this angle.” It’s almost like people who study ballet to become a better football player.

Are there a lot of those people?

Yeah! So I went in not having any interest in becoming a poet, but rather just wanting to focus on lyric writing. I would use my studies in creative writing in poetry to sort of consider what I wanted to do musically. That’s kind of how it started.

Where does this project live in the real world, though? This is very much a you thing, I mean, you have a band but a lot of your poetry and these monologues on the record, the mythologies and story arcs that you put together are very much the sum of your own personal experiences. So I guess my question is, where do you get off? Who are you to think some kid in my neighborhood in Bushwick is gonna sit down and listen to this thing that’s over an hour long?

It’s a great question [holding back a laugh], it’s a really good question. The album is extremely academic, and I don’t say that in a pretentious or self-congratulatory way, but you literally have all this highly elusive poetry, and there’s a lot of references that people may not get at first read. My interest in it is in making an academic album. A lot of great art is inherently academic and a lot of great artists are inherently academic. Any great musician you talk to, any great bandleader is an academic [because] they could teach a Ph.D.-level course on music, you know what I mean?

So this is the way of inserting yourself into the canon of the literature you love and the music you love…I mean, you talk about the two artists who have achieved perfection—one kills themselves after self-exile, and the other lives their life in anonymity. They’re the protagonist’s father and mother, and they’re skeletons. This reminds me a lot of the Continental European writers, who wrote long books that were a little bit masterbatory. Proust, Boudellaire, a newer dude like Sebald…even an American writer like Pynchon wrote academically, packed with detail. It’s in those little details that we learn the most about the writer, and in the case of Slow Dakota, maybe the most about you? The two artists are just one part here—there are some very transparent moments about depression and suicide working through things. Very common undergraduate symptom, by the way, don’t feel bad. But did you find solace in these works, in your religious background…in Whitman?

Totally. Let me go back, you asked a really great question I didn’t answer as thoughtfully as I’d like. You mentioned suicide, and it’s a theme all over the album, from “The Lilac Bush” and everywhere, it seems like the whole album hinges on suicidality. You mention the question of, “where do you get off, who is going to listen to this all the way through?” I ask myself the same question! You’re not being mean; you’re very correct. Who’s going to listen to this no-name project, sit down and listen for an hour, and who’s going to take the time to even begin to unpack the references and things like that? The answer is, that’s why the album is suicidal. It’s almost an act of…

Self-immolation.

Exactly, that’s what it is. When you make something like this, pouring a lot of thought into it with the knowledge that maybe no one is going to actually care to look into it, it is in act of suicide! It’s like shooting yourself in the foot.

One particularly harrowing interlude in "The Ascension of Slow Dakota" is "An Exile's Theory"

One particularly harrowing interlude in “The Ascension of Slow Dakota” is “An Exile’s Theory”. (P.J. Sauertig)

That’s your best argument for it being a part of that whole classic canon. There’s Thomas Bernhardt’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew or Sarte’s Nausea or Kafka’s Metamorphosis and all these other books bout people living as strange singularities, often with an illness we never quite get explained to us. I even thought of Salinger’s Franny and Zoey, insofar as there’s this extremely creative, literary-savvy young woman who gets no respect because literature much more stigmatized in those old-money circles. But I guess the question now is, how do you keep all that knowledge inside and acclimate yourself to the world of the everyman? You’re out of Columbia, you’re going to NYU, which is a little more chill of a place. Where’s your next well of knowledge? Are you going to go up in the mountains and write psychedelic folk songs?

You know, I’m interested in law. A lot of people think of law school as this corporate sell-out move, but I’m interested in law in a lot of abstract ways. Law is just the study of narrative, and all I studied in undergrad was just unpacking texts and deconstructing them. That’s literally all law school is, except instead of Tennyson, you’re doing Supreme Court cases. Even at the highest level, law is broken down into two sides, two narratives. Which one is presented more compellingly? That’s it.

Well now you’re talking about Dostoevsky, law of man versus law of god.

Exactly! So law is very interesting, especially in the history of literature. One of my all-time favorites is Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Kafka went to law school, he studied law, like a lot of writers in Continental Europe. A lot of people make the assumption that it’s a hindrance to creativity. “Why are you doing this? You’re never going to pick up a pen again!” But Kafka’s legal education was completely vital to everything that he wrote afterword.

You mean an ethical code and maybe a moral compass that defines the philosophical underpinnings of his work?

Exactly. Kafka pursued the surreal logic of the law to its highest extent, where it collapsed in The Trial, it’s just amazing! I don’t think it’s a hindrance to creativity at all, it just redirects.

That’s a place to put all your very ambitious influences and your love of reference and myth, maybe into a more plaintive language. This record is very verbose, and that verbosity becomes a device in of itself, but that’s what the angel is saying in the beginning, right? I value a deep listener. Granted, they’re translations, but a lot of those Continental European authors have language that’s very simple in a lot of ways, Kafka particularly. That’s sort of surreal in its own way.

Yeah, and Kafka’s language is the language of procedure, you know? At times its almost as if you’re reading a textbook, which is so funny. It’s another avenue. After this album it’ll be nice to redirect energy somewhere else and see where that takes me. I don’t feel like sitting down and writing another album right now.

And before you mentioned some of the authors who put a lot of thought into something, knowing that people aren’t really going to sit down and take the time to unpack it. Is that an act of suicide? I think my favorite example of that is William Blake, who’s all over the album.

You have an imaginary lunch with him, if memory serves?

Yeah! At Buvette down in the West Village, wonderful restaurant if you haven’t been there, it’s really great. That’s where the imaginary lunch takes place. So Blake was the best example to that. He was so funny because during his life, he was writing things that beg the same question you asked me—“where do you get off?” During his life people thought he was nuts, or they didn’t pay attention to him. He died very poor having sold almost none of his work. He was a complete failure, and no one understood what he was trying to do.

You set yourself on that track by studying the liberal arts.

In a masterbatory illustration from "The Ascension of Slow Dakota", our Protagonist does much more than simply have lunch with Blake.

In a masturbatory illustration from “The Ascension of Slow Dakota”, our protagonist confesses to be held together by a string of pills. (P.J. Sauertig)

[Laughs] Exactly. And the funny thing with Blake, why he was such an influence on the album, is that he was hugely mystic, as you know and so he was dead set on the fact that, even on earth where no one took the time to read his stuff and no one took the time to notice what he was doing, his work was widely celebrated and read in heaven. By the angels. He thought of himself as a literary celebrity in heaven, which was so funny because you don’t know—did that nurse his wounds a little bit or did he just believe that?

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was really influential on the album. It’s very short, and you read it the first time and think, “Where do you get off? What is this?!” The more you read it the more it teaches you to read itself, and it starts to make more sense. There’s this great moment in it that’s sort of a huge influence on the album, where Blake says, “the other night I sat down to dinner with Isaiah and Elijah, and we were talking.”

Ahh, so you’re channeling that a degree removed, like the painting in the painting?

Exactly! And what’s so brilliant about what he’s doing is, throughout Blake and all this stuff we have this idea of being in conversation with the cannon, as a metaphor for alluding to them or using their stuff. But Blake literalizes it. And it’s funny, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but what he’s doing is really inventive. I owe a lot to him.

I guess the best you could hope for is that these metaphors won’t be lost on a more casual listener. You say in that opening that all you want is a thoughtful listener, and I oblige you because I write about music for a living. I have the time to spend with this stuff. But we see people on the train every day and we can surmise that their playlist is often Top 40. I know you’re a capable songwriter because a lot of these musical moments are tight and self-contained, they’re great. But how would you explain this to an idiot, how would you explain this to [Dostoevsky’s idiot] Prince Myshkin? How would you explain this without any allusions or references to your own narrative or the narrative that your characters take?

You’re saying, strip away all the academics and explain what it’s about?

Yeah, just the journey, without the names and the allusions.

At it’s simplest, I think the album tries to find a middle ground between poetry and music. At its very core I think it’s a simple concept. Poetry is kept in another pot and music is kept in another pot, and we have this weird stigma about mixing them together. But this album tries to find, “can you sing literature?” That’s the question at the most basic level.

What’s the dude’s name, the esteemed professor who you worked with? I know there are a few on there.

Yeah, the old British guy, Phillip Kitcher.

He’s the hokiest, most droll part, but it’s almost tongue-in-cheek, too. Is his accent that legitimately droll?

To be honest with you, I think he was hamming it up a bit, but he really does have this old world, incredibly exquisite British lecture voice. I was in a class of his, a Joyce class. We spent half the semester on Ulysses, and he would read sections of Ulysses in that voice. It was just like, “My God, I have to have this!” I lusted after that voice.

You’re intentionally pushing back against our communal attention spans with this, I think. It’s very valuable but the more you peruse it the more you have to be ready for the people who will challenge your association with the privileged gentry, even if you work outside of it. You’re a very lucky guy, you have a good education, and your well of knowledge is deeper than a lot of people ever have access to. The challenge then becomes, how do I make that a gift and not let it gestate for 60 years for people hear it?

Yeah, totally. I really appreciate that.