As half of the dream-pop duo Desert Liminal and a few other music and non-music related projects, one wonders how Sarah Q has the time to write songs, record, and play shows seemingly every other week, in addition to her studies as a PhD student of microbiology studying bacteria. Throughout our interview at Big Shoulders cafe on a frigid January evening, she repeatedly used one word to describe her relationship to music and what keeps her going: obsession.
That obsession started young. Growing up, Sarah’s dad would play John Prine on his Martin acoustic guitar for hours and hours. “He played ‘Paradise’ by John Prine all the time but I didn’t realize someone else wrote the song. I thought my dad wrote that song. I think it’s the prettiest, saddest song in the world.” As a teenager, the next obsession was hardcore and post-hardcore, particularly bands like Converge and Thursday. She would drive from her home town of Ottawa, Illinois with friends to the Fireside Bowl or the old Bottom Lounge on Belmont, and go as far away as Indiana and Ohio for shows. While she learned to play piano at a young age and played clarinet in the school band, she had never made the jump to writing and playing her own music.
“I love making music. I am not quite sure why I never did it when I was younger because I obsessively consumed music and could play. But I love playing with other people, being a part of the community, and I continuously get inspired to keep making more songs.”
Sarah moved to Chicago in 2005 to study at the University of Chicago and eventually fell in love with the music scene here. “I love so many Chicago bands. I can’t list them all.” One artist in particular is Emily Kempf, who Sarah plays with in the band Heavy Dreams. “She’s probably the biggest creative influence in my current life just because she’s so enthusiastic and productive and always creating things,” Sarah said of Emily. “She’s a tattoo artist, draws and paints and writes these simple, extremely catchy, really fun songs to play. I learned so much about songwriting just being around her while she wrote for Heavy Dreams. I don’t think that [Desert Liminal] would be a band without me having collaborated with her before.”
Sarah then started to make music of what would become Desert Liminal around November 2016, armed with a Casiotone CT-310 and various effects pedals. “I was just sort of messing around writing simple songs over a drum machine on my looper pedal.” Simple, but deceptively simple. This way of songwriting led to Desert Liminal’s three song EP, Catalina, Still, recorded on a rainy Saturday in spring, the perfect backdrop to listen to. “I would sample Casiotone beats that I would then put through my pedals to make them distorted then sample those on a looper and play over those.”
Rob Logan joined the project in August of last year. “My friend Gabe Wallace who has a project called Relevant Hairstyles who I really love invited me to open for him at the Hideout. I felt like for some reason I should have a bigger stage presence and wanted to try out a drummer. Rob has been drumming since he was really young and learned all the songs in a couple practices. We have really similar tastes and it worked out for him to play parts under my songs and now we’re totally a band and into it together.”
I asked Sarah where the name for the project came from. “I read a lot of Jean Baudrilliard and I was reading America and he does a lot of really beautiful, sad and cerebral descriptions of the desert in that book. ‘Liminal’ means threshold state and can refer to physical states or social-spiritual states and a lot of the songs are about looking back at more delicate or sadder states I’ve been in in my life. A lot of the songs are retrospective, so it fits.”
Desert Liminal released Static Thick, their first LP, last October and already have most of the second one written, just itching to be recorded, most likely with Brian Sulpizio (of Health&Beauty) again. Although at first listen, one wouldn’t suspect the wide range of Sarah’s influences. The first track off Desert Liminal’s debut LP Static Thick references Prine, trading the setting of gritty small town industrialization for complex feelings at a Pilsen DIY show.
As both Rob and Sarah work full-time, planning a tour is difficult but on the agenda for the Summer. They recently made a music video with Alex Babbitt for “Heavy Heads” which we have the premiere of right here:
In addition to Desert Liminal and Heavy Dreams, keep an eye out for another music project with Ed Riv called Pantyhose. The two of them also run Casual Agony, an evening of stand-up for people who have never done it before at Café Mustache in Logan Square. “The idea came when Mustache opened the bar and we were celebrating the opening. The owners are old friends of mine, we were like ‘We’re all funny, we should do stand-up’, but we were just kidding. Everybody [we] asked to do stand-up recoiled immediately and it makes people feel gross and frightened. We just made the first one based on that idea and it’s so fun, it’s just the time of my life.” As a previous participant, I confirm that the title of the event is not misleading. “It’s amazing how people really are in agony beforehand,” Sarah added.
While the event is purposefully under-publicized, it regularly reaches capacity and attracted at least one comedic legend. “Bobcat Goldthwait showed up and did a set. He thought we were funny! He thought that Brad [Rohloff] dressing up as a chili pepper was really funny.”
Sarah is also an editor for the Austin-based fields magazine, an independent arts and culture journal released twice a year. “It’s still self-produced but distributed by Barnes and Noble now so it’s in most major cities. It started with a Kickstarter four years ago. They’re so beautiful every time they come out. It’s really gotten me into doing arts journalism which I never intended to do.”
With all of these various projects going on, Sarah still remains dedicated to one other obsession. “Science, just like music, is really endless. It’s full of interesting problems and places to grow.” While one doesn’t necessarily influence the other, they are both necessary for Sarah. “I think the dichotomy people draw between scientifically minded people and the artistic and creative people is false. Both require a lot of time alone, a lot of creativity and focus, but different kinds of creativity. I need to do both to be happy.”