Artist Interview: John Wheeler talks to Slow Dakota on music making as a law student

An interivew with PJ Sauerteig aka “Slow Dakota”

So, first of all, how do you find the time to create music while attending law school full time? What sort of sacrifices do you have to make, if any?

A few close friends pulled me aside before law school and warned me that I would lose the time and inspiration to make music – the spark would be snuffed out. I, too, worried that this would happen. Much to my surprise, it didn’t happen.

I’ve come to learn that an intense, stressful environment (like law school) may crush a hobby, but it can’t crush an obsessive compulsion. The more I learn about my own relationship to making music, the more I realize that I need it way more than it needs me. It is a constant itch that I can’t stop scratching. It’s my deepest coping mechanism – a way of processing, feeling, creating – simultaneous escape and hope, and if I didn’t have access to it, I imagine I would gradually dissolve, and my “self” would splinter.

Thus, I think one “finds” time for hobbies, for visiting old friends, for reading, for learning a new language. But one makes time for absolute essentials. Even under a pile of homework, I still feel music’s itch in the back of my head. I’ve not met anyone, or anything, able to pry it loose. It’s non-negotiable, a dependency. For better or worse!

It seems like having a social life is hard enough as it is in school. Is music as much a social activity as it is a personal creative endeavor?

(A great question) I think it’s both. Every album, or song, starts off with a long process of letting an idea or a melody germinate in the back of my head. Over time, it takes shape, and becomes solid enough that I can attach lyrics to a fully-formed melody, bring in other instruments, and feel out if it needs other vocalists, horn players, etc. This first stage is very personal / private, and takes place over a lot of middle-of-the nights.

Then the social part comes: bringing demos to Sahil Ansari (my longtime collaborator / producer / mixer / multi-instrumentalist), and then bringing in friends to flesh out the recordings – trumpets, cello, vocalists, etc. I love this part – thinking out loud, who do we know who plays upright bass? Bringing these people in – tangential acquaintances, old friends, old professors – is my favorite social part of making a record. A big recording session in someone’s living room is the purest bonding experience. And once the music comes out, it’s amazing to get notes and messages from people who’ve connected with it. I respond to every note, because they really do mean so much to me.

Is music something you turn to in times of great stress?

Oh, 100%. Making music brings emotional catharsis, hope, a shot at redemption. It allows both a) a distraction from feelings of stress and your isolation – and b) more importantly it allows you to take control over your pain. It turns the tables. And in that way, art as “refuge” is fundamentally about control, and power. In the outside world, you may feel powerless to deal with whatever is making you sad, or stressed, or alone. But in the writing process, you’re in control – and you get to frame the music, the lyrics, the narratives exactly how you want them to be, on your terms. With the pen in your hand, you become like God – if only for a few moments.

Since you have found some success as a musician, is it ever tempting to just leave school and pursue music full time?

I would be lying if I said no. I do let myself hope for the day when I get that phone call: “Quit your job: we have a way for you to live comfortably, and all you have to do is turn in an album every year or so.” But I doubt that day will ever come. And a part of me is glad that day will likely never come: because once you enter on the path of a touring, big-time musician, it’s hard to get off that ride. If you decide in ten years that you want to do something else entirely, you may not have that many options! Fame, I imagine, is fun until you get trapped in a pigeon-hole.

Do you have any other outlets that you are equally committed to?

Two other outlets, actually! Near the end of college, I had fallen so in love with food and restaurants, that I decided I wanted to be a professional chef. My dad in his infinite wisdom encouraged me to put that dream to the test – go cook in a high-octane New York restaurant and see if you like it. So my last semester of college, I would sneak off on Fridays to sort of “intern” in this fancy kitchen – I was free labor, and in exchanged I learned a ton. Dad was right – a cook’s life is terribly hard. (You see, now, where the lyrics from “Jebediah Iowa” come from!). These days, I still cook a lot – for friends and family – and do my best to keep up with new cookbooks and chefs I admire.

The second outlet I’ve enjoyed lately is visual art. Full disclaimer: I am not good at it. But after The Ascension came out, I started painting watercolor illustrations of the different songs, and selling the paintings to help recoup album’s financial losses. Depicting the characters visually became a way of connecting with the characters in a totally new way – with my eyes instead of my ears. I was a doodler as a kid in school, and still today, drawing is a favorite way to relax.

Has music ever become too much of a distraction, to the point where your grades have suffered?

It would be a much bigger distraction if I went on tour, or played live shows. But I haven’t played live shows in years, and don’t plan to in the future. All the rehearsal and transportation and setup and teardown involved in gigging is an enormous time suck – and I think that would make law school very difficult. But Slow Dakota as a recording project is more flexible – record when you have time, tweak recordings from the comfort of your room, and write when you’ve got a free hour or two. If my grades aren’t great, it’s less likely the music’s fault, and more likely because the other students here are insanely bright. I’m humbled week in, and week out.

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