Our Indiana Boy: A Conversation with Slow Dakota

 

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credit: Martha Scott Burton

PJ Sauerteig loves a careful listener; a very careful listener could reasonably catch the muffled shouts in the background of “June 2nd,” a track from Our Indian Boy, his first release under the Slow Dakota moniker. He is, now, some 5 years after the album’s release, amiable about his mother and sister’s conversation accidentally finding its way onto the song.  “When I look back on it now it’s a very brash record —  so amateurish and very unashamed of how very amateur and unrefined it is,” he says, noting the recording mistake. “I’m sentimental about it. I didn’t know anything.”

Our Indian Boy (2012) may be a modest effort by Sauerteig’s standards, but for a bedroom project it’s astonishingly well-realized and lush, fleshed out by Sauerteig’s one-man baroque pop band. As luck would have it, any clumsiness of his first go-round bleeds through with a rawness that complements the emotional vulnerability of the record.

Structured as a series of diary entries, the songs were written as a result of a truncated do-gooder mission: Sauerteig intended to spend the summer after his freshman year of college teaching English at an orphanage in rural India. Reality, as it is wont to do, bit, and serious illness forced his return home to Indiana after just a fraction of his intended stay. The album is tinged with the embarrassment of privilege and naivety; as well, as could be more broadly noted about his catalogue, with the basic embarrassment of being alive.  A thread of sexual anxiety, impotence, and disappointment runs through the album, a gentle reminder of the difficulty of maturation: the difficulty, in the end, of becoming and being a person.

It’s fine; one collateral of this is an almost overwhelming sensitivity to the beauty of the world at large, and what rivets about Our Indian Boy is Sauerteig’s sense of poetry, his lyrics recalling at times the tenderness of Sufjan Stevens and the evocative obscurity of Neutral Milk Hotel. The diaristic entries turn photographic, impressionistic, nostalgic, prayerful, epistemological – and tremble with, among other themes, life, death, God, time, limitations, joy, and failure. That sounds overwhelming and tedious; but, as with Neutral Milk Hotel, the granular and evasive nature of the work keep it from being utter trash.

Back in early September Slow Dakota’s press man, PJ Sauerteig, agreed to allow me to interview the artist himself, so at the appointed time I sat cross-legged, picked up the phone, and became, in addition to a longtime listener, a first-time caller. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, and to excise embarrassing personal tangents.

-Charlotte Murtishaw

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credit: PJ Sauerteig

One thing I was curious about with it being your first solo record is – well, I should say it sounds like an I-statement, you can hear all these different instruments but it sounds like it is very much coming from one person – it goes different places and some of these places are embarrassing and intense and I was wondering if it was tough to put out, especially because there’s this whole range of emotions. You’re not some weepy singer-songwriter with a guitar being like, I fell in love with this person, here are 12 songs about it in different ways.

As a preface to an answer, it’s interesting that you mention this very sappy sort of sort of archetype songwriter because it’s very strange, I’ve never had a desire or any sort of momentum towards songs about romantic love. The love that I think that’s explored here is more familial love, and it’s also a love of people, writers, grandparents, people like that.

There’s never a ‘I love you, I miss you too, don’t break up with me’ and I wonder why that is. But you asked about the range of emotions, so anyway, I never keep journals but when I was in India, I was like, I’ll try. I kept a little diary with me and I would write things down just impressions of places, my feelings, and stuff like that. You read the diary over the course of the getting sick and becoming disillusioned and there are these really weird, kind of very ugly emotions that I’m still kind of ashamed of.

Long story short, I got home and I didn’t have a job or anything to do for the rest of the summer. I remember flipping through the diary and grappling with it. Each song is taken in some form from the diary – sometimes word-by-wrd – so that’s where the structure comes from. It was interesting because I ended up working a monotonous cubicle job for the rest of the summer, and I was doing like the most boring stuff ever and had music in my headphones playing all day. The music that I listen to that summer really informed a lot of songwriting structure and style that I was playing with, a lot of the Microphones and a lot of Regina Spektor, the power of what she can do with just her and the piano. All that combined into a lot of guilt and coming to terms with not being nearly as powerful or smart or full of perseverance as I thought I was, being haunted by my memory of that place and my memory of my failures.

Oh, it’s so interesting to me that you usually don’t keep a journal. In my head, I was like oh shit, this is someone who hardcore journals. But anyway, through the album it’s so evident how very good you are with words: you’re so specific and descriptive, you do a great job of conveying a bunch of stuff on a purely lyrical level. I was wondering if there was a particular literary influence on the album.

In June 1st there’s the talk about an orchard, and that was a reference to Helplessness Blues, which I was listening to that was the summer. But in terms of literary references? I had taken some creative writing workshops at Columbia that year but I’ll have to think about it. Regina Spektor is a huge influence on that album and I would be very surprised if her lyrical style didn’t come through on that. I’m trying to think of other ones. For example, Whitman with a huge influence on The Ascension of Slow Dakota, the record that I put out last year, and that was very clear literary kind of reference for the album.

It was one of those things where I thought that I was maybe catching these little musical references, but they’re subtle enough that you’re not totally sure. But I know exactly what you’re talking about with Fleet Foxes and I was wondering whether you put those references in there to be caught or for yourself.

I love love love love artists and writers who tuck things in their work knowing full well that 99.5% of people for many reasons aren’t going to pick up on it, whether they’re not paying attention or it’s too subtle or whatever. Eliot is someone who I studied a lot in college, and he’s someone who I love for that reason. Anything he writes so densely packed with little winks and nods towards people that it’s unclear whether he’s doing it for himself or for others. That’s something that I’ve always loved and tried to replicate in all the stuff that I do, lyrically, but in another way, musically. For instance, in Our Indian Boy there are a lot of melodies that, throughout the course of the work that I’ve done since then and different albums, that blueprint of melodies has been recycled over and over and over again but in different ways, different tempos, different arrangements, and that’s really fun for me. It’s sort of a trail of bread crumbs for a careful listener. I think there has to be some reward for people who really engage with an album and listen to it over and over and over again.

Easter eggs?

Exactly! Our Indian Boy is significant I think for that reason – that those melodies are used over and over again. Spanning like five or six years, all this work that can be traced back to that album, which is fun.

And you come back to certain concepts again and again, which I know is a different thing and maybe a little less fun, but does it feel like you’re circling the same thing and you keep kind of readjusting these melodies as a way of thinking about it as a way of revisiting that and reprocessing it?

I think that could be it, in terms of reprocessing. Guilt is definitely a theme that appears over and over again, and it appears in Our Indian Boy and Burstner and the Baby. To your point, it’s very logical to have those melodies recycled in again and again, circling the same theme and same sort of obsessions over again and again. One thing I really love – and I hate how this will sound out loud – but James Joyce does this amazing thing where throughout his different work the same characters appear. What he’s doing is he’s stitching together a continuity between the different works, he’s sort of creating a universe. That’s what it feels like what I’ve been trying to do with the work.

Our Indian Boy is different; it’s in a different place with different characters from Burstner and the Baby, but by repeating those melodies again and again we are reminded that we maybe are on the same plane and that you’re living in the same dream as you were last time.

Sort of like in a musical, when a character has a theme.

Right. It also helps you trace the growth and the arc of an artist or a piece of art when you see the same melody, but in a way that shows the artist is moving towards different things or new instruments and things like that. So yeah I love doing that, it’s an idea that I have taken from other people and I really adore. Even Sufjan Stevens does that in a very interesting way – the melody at the end of one of the songs in Seven Swans ends up becoming the horn part of “Chicago”.

Before you mentioned a love of people and you feel this love and fascination in the record –you’re watching and observing and there are these characters in Our Indian Boy who I assume were based on real people from India, and I was wondering what sort of obligation you felt to them as you were writing this record and making it and thinking about that experience.

That’s very interesting. Like a moral obligation?

Maybe not a moral obligation, but maybe a moral obligation. I mean, something I think a lot about is street photography — I would feel so awkward taking photos of strangers on the street, just so awkward. And from the flipside I would feel very weird if someone I didn’t know walked up to me and took a photo of me on the street. I think about, how is that photo being used, how is that part of myself going to be recycled, is it going to be truthful. You have these snapshots of these people you knew and engaged with and to invent a totally different hypothetical, I’m assuming you wouldn’t want to make a play about some experience you had and use someone’s name and not represent who they are in an accurate manner. If that makes sense. Sort of the obligation of portrayal.

I tried to be very accurate. For instance in “June 2nd” there’s the figure Kaliani, who literally was the woman who was sort of the housekeeper running the place where I lived. She was the one who cooked every meal for me she was this tiny tiny tiny little woman and that was her name and her and her house. I didn’t want to fictionalize the entire thing, I wanted there to be real relics and remains of people and the boy’s head on the cover of the album was a picture I took while I was there of one of the boys that at the orphanage.

But at the same time as soon as I say that it feels very gross and very immensely self-serving and even in sort of imperialistic when I look at that and how I used that experience. It feels pretty gross to me, and in retrospect I’m so sentimental about the album but I’m also aware it’s very insensitive and cannibalistic. I got to chew on those people for a couple months and then spit it out as “art” and it’s dehumanizing in a way that I’m not happy about. They’re both real and inherently unreal because they’ve been filtered a million times through my own self-serving memory.

I guess from my perspective, listening to the record, I didn’t feel like it was a disrespectful to anyone, they very much felt like real people outside of your guilt and narrative and I’m not sure forgetting them and pretending you weren’t there would be any better than incorporating them. But I was sort of curious about whether or not the ethics of something like that crossed your mind while you were writing it.

No, it didn’t. I really think I was naive not only in my ability to record music but I think I was also very emotionally naïve. I really appreciate it and I’m glad it doesn’t seem disrespectful to them, but in retrospect on the whole it feels like voluntourism.  It’s like that, let me go and I’ll go take photos with all the locals and the kids in my village and make it my profile picture. I used these people as props in my play, and that was my way of creating anything usable or thinking about the experience. I was very naive culturally about that, and I feel quite ashamed about that.

I wanted to talk about genre as well, I feel like you’ve self-described through most of your records as baroque pop and I’m curious about how you approach the genre. You mentioning Regina Spektor was helpful because as I was approaching this, I was thinking, who is a contemporary, piano-based musician and all I could come up with is like Tori Amos and Billy Joel, and I hate Billy Joel but I love what you do with it and how intricate and carefully composed it all sounds.

 Unfortunately I’m tone-deaf and I don’t have a sense of rhythm and all this stuff, so I can’t really ask you interesting questions about that – it’s just not something I’m capable of. Oh and bonus question, what do you think of straight pop music? Do you listen to pop, do you like pop?

There’s some pop I really really like.  I’m trying to think. A lot of 80s pop in particular. Through a very strange series of events ZZ Top is a band I’ve seen many many times, more than almost any other band I think. “Crash,” by Dave Matthews Band, I don’t care how much you know about music, I don’t care how many vinyl records you have, if you talk shit about that song you don’t know what you’re talking about because it’s unbelievable.

My understanding of baroque pop would be basically like, pop structures with an emphasis on more orchestral or classical instruments. I agree with you, piano-centric artists are certainly not a thing, we get the occasional Vanessa Carlton and random people pop up, but probably Regina Spektor is probably enduringly the most prominent and rightly so, she’s so brilliant person who does that. And because I was listening to her so much at the time I think she factored in on the piano.

The piano I use on that record is the same piano I always use, it’s an old Baldwin piano that belonged to my grandparents. My grandma bought it and I never got to meet her, she died before I was born. But I like the sound of it and it’s the piano I learned to play on growing up, that’s how I learned music.

And baroque pop – the horn arrangements are definitely descended from the line of Beirut, Neutral Milk Hotel, those guys. And then you have songs that don’t really fit that – the last song on the record is choral, people singing with a lot of reverb and a couple chord progressions – that’s not baroque pop at all. I also have a real big interest in renaissance music and medieval music, the big washed out choral stuff, it’s very beautiful to me and I was channeling that. I don’t know if it makes sense with the rest of the record.

I’m realizing now why it makes me think of the Microphones — even the intro to the record is this warbling unidentifiable (to me) instrument that shifts between ears, and it’s very destabilizing and I was wondering what instrument that was and how you decided on that to be the beginning.

Oh yeeeeaaaaah – the beginning of the record. The first instrument you hear, I have this old keyboard at my house called an Oasis fusion, they don’t make them anymore but it’s this huge bulky thing and it has a bunch of different effects including this synth pad that’s called windmills or something like that. It’s this forlorn, wispy – you’re right, I don’t know how to describe it but it’s this really creative beautiful sound that these guys programmed. It sounds like ghosts talking in the other room and I liked that a lot.

And later in that song when you hear the stomping and the ukulele and the stuff like that – in the prelude or whatever – I was really struggling with the arrangement orchestration of that song and it sucked so one night I went up to my shower and I closed the door and I was stomping and playing the ukulele and I got this really boxed in sound.

At any point were your parents like PJ, what are you doing, can you stop stomping in the shower?

I’m curious if they knew what I was doing at the time because I was just goofing around. There were periods when they were out of the house and I was able to have nights to myself and have these recording sessions till very late at night where I was able to play a tom drum or a snare and it was very freeing. So they weren’t there for the worst of it luckily.

Charlotte Murtishaw is an American.

PJ Sauerteig runs the boutique label Massif Records, and has published poetry and criticism in various magazines. He releases dumb music as Slow Dakota, and is currently enrolled at NYU Law. Tweet him @PJ_Sauerteig.