INTERVIEW WITH ISKA DHAAF

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Nathan Quiroga was a theater major at Cornish College of the arts, when he helped form and began performing with Seattle’s infamous notorious Mad Rad. Better known as Buffalo Madonna, Nate and Mad Rad became one of the Seattle’s best hip-hop acts, known as much for their narcotic beats as their legal troubles.  Benjamin Verdoes was the founder of one of Seattle’s more recognizable bands, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, which he began as a way to teach his brother, who he adopted when he was young, the drums.  It grew to become far more than a teaching tool, releasing 2 albums, and touring nationally with bands like Bishop Allen, Dead Confederate, and Japandroids. Seemingly at the height of these two bands, Benjamin and Nate began working together, at first out of pure admiration for the others talents, but soon it became an artistic partnership.

Throughout our interview Benjamin continuously used the phrase, “things just got out of hand.” He used it while referring to teaching his brother the drums for a little project he called, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, he used it when referring to a series of coffee shop meetings between he and Nathan Quiroga.  He would use it a couple more times, all while referring to something that began innocently without grand expectations, that eventually grew to immense proportions. It was a funny way of explaining these incredible achievements.

For most people, things getting out of hand, results in broken high heels, vomit in hair, and an $80 cab fair to the middle of nowhere. If things really get out of hand you might find yourself burying a body in the middle of a freezing desert. Benjamin was using the phrase to humbly say that he wasn’t expecting things to become as much a part of his life as they have. When things got out of hand for Breaking Bad’s Walter White, he found himself in an underground laboratory cooking meth for a drug kingpin who used a chicken restaurant as a front. The incredible music of Iska Dhaaf is what happens when things get out of hand for Nate and Ben, and that’s pretty special.

Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band is special to Ben, but there were pressures attached to it as well.  Its prodigious drummer is Marshall Verdoes, Ben’s brother who he adopted when Marshall was young, and for most of the bands existence Ben’s wife Traci Eggleston was the keyboardist. It was a lot of weight to carry on his shoulders, especially when so many people were depending on him.  On the flip side Nate was running into a brick wall with his new ideas for Mad Rad. He was looking out, finding influence from all over the Pacific Northwest, which was teeming with rich and diverse music. He wanted to inject some of that diversity into his own band but it created considerable discord. Given where Nate and Ben were personally and artistically, it makes perfect sense that they would find themselves bouncing songs off each other at Capitol Hill’s Joe Bar.

Iska Dhaaf was an escape from tremendous pressure, a vessel to express new artistic ideas through, a collaboration between two artists who became best friends. If you take nothing else away from this interview, understand that Nate and Ben became best friends who spend hours, and hours, and hours working on music together. In their practice space, at coffee shops, in their living rooms, they really love spending time together, and this feeds the beast.  It spits fire and deeply personal lyrics written with intense delicacy.

The two sequestered themselves away writing music with a fervor. Nate brought his honest and beautiful songwriting to the table, which Ben would help structure and in a way, harness.  At the same time Ben would also teach Nate how to play a variety of instruments, aside from a handful of guitar chords, Nate knew very little. The two played every day, sometimes two or three times a day for two years, developing and honing a catalog of songs that it might take some bands years to cultivate.

Their first show took place at the Home Skillet Fest in Sitka in July of 2012, both Ben and Nate admit that this was probably a little too early for the band. The logistics had yet to really be worked out and a third anticipated member had yet to materialize. The way they describe it, the show sounds like a logistical disaster, it was a disaster. The drums literally fell apart, instruments short circuited, amplifiers went missing, and yet they reflect on the show fondly. It was a defining moment for the band who’s name came to define that show. Iska Dhaaf: which translates from Somali to some version of, “let it go.”

It’s post-punk, hip-hop inspired rock. The drum beats are highly addictive, less quirky than MSHVNB, but equally unexpected. The guitar is as versatile as you will almost ever hear it, playing a number of roles, each wholly satisfying and unique. Nate’s vocals are soft and melodic, with a deep emotional core, when harmonized with Ben it becomes a thing of rare beauty. The way Nate and Ben work together is truly exceptional, and you can feel it in every beat, hear it in every note.

I first met Nate while he was a freshmen theater student at Cornish College of the Arts, and I was finishing out the final semester of my senior year. Nate was a gifted actor who had an abundance of raw talent and natural instincts. I directed him first in a play written by a friend, I was so taken by his acting that I cast him in my own play. Theater school can be an aggravating place, filled with a lot of internal drama, I didn’t meet too many people who I genuinely liked, Nate was one of them. Occasionally I’ll still look back on the pictures from my play, Nate dressed as an aging SCUBA diver, slapping his way around a life sized fish tank in enormous flippers, and I think about how special Nate’s talents were.

I hadn’t seen him in seven years, the last time was a random run-in while he was holding the door to an underground restaurant in downtown Seattle. In that time span he’d become known as Buffalo Madonna, played big festivals with Mad Rad, and was associated with Macklemore. Before our interview I googled Nate, and was surprised to see his name attached to so much controversy, Mad Rad were the bad boy’s of the Seattle scene, and had built a considerable reputation for themselves, some good, but a lot of trouble.

I met Nate and Ben at Pettirosso along Pike Street on Capitol Hill, located conveniently next to their practice space, where they had just finished a rigorous session. It was strange to see someone after so long, when so much had changed and yet still see the same person. I didn’t see the trouble making hoodlum that so many articles painted him as, instead I saw Nate, the genuine sweet natured and talented kid I met seven years ago. It was with great surprise that he could recall so much from the part he portrayed in my play, when for me it was mostly a blur.

Meeting Ben was a real treat as well. I was a fan of MSHVNB, but was unfamiliar with its story. During the interview I asked him to tell me about that band and he launched into this incredible story about adopting his brother and teaching him to play drums, promising him they’d play shows when he was good enough, and then eventually touring with that band. I grinned, all the while waiting for him to tell me that he was joking, and instead tell the real story of the band. When that didn’t happen, I was thrown. It wasn’t until after the interview that I sheepishly confessed to him that I thought he was joking, and he preceded to tell me more of the story behind he, his brother, and the band.

In the weeks following our interview I read up more on Ben, and was deeply affected by his story and the trajectory of his band. I developed an unbelievable respect for Benjamin, not just as an artist but as a person as well, his story is compelling and admirable, it was a real treat to spend and hour talking with him.

It’s rare that you interview a band with a handful of live performances and a lone single available, and still have considerable buzz surrounding them. But that is exactly the case for Nate and Ben. While their past projects and associations were certainly instrumental in getting the band early attention, Iska Dhaaf is a culmination of enough talented genius to garner considerable attention on its own.

I’m very grateful to both Nate and Ben for taking the time to sit down with me. We had a lot of fun, and hit on some really wonderful moments in the interview. The highlight for me however will be the photographs we took after the interview, in particular a series I shot while standing in the bathroom at Pettirosso.

As always, what follows is a heavily edited and very brief transcription of our interview. Click here to listen to the full podcast interview, or find us in iTunes. Note that the bandcamp file is fairly low-quality, and is best served as a teaser, it’s best to download the full interview here.

Brian Snider
How did the two of you meet?

Benjamin Verdoes
One of the last Mt. St. Helens (Vietnam Band) tours, I started becoming interested in making beats. I wanted to be able to work while I was in the van, it’s such a vacuous black-hole of nothing. I was interested in Mad Rad’s beats and some things I heard in the local hip-hop scene.  I contacted Peter (Robinson- P Smoov) from Mad Rad and said, “Hey, I want to shadow you and see how you work.”  I played guitar on a song and then a few shows.  I thought the stuff Nate was writing was really cool.  So we ended up playing music together.  He’s a great song writer, and it just got out of hand.

Nathan Quiroga
We met up at a coffee shop, Joe Bar, and discussed our writing process and what we were interested in.  Benjamin was fascinated with the fact that my writing was so honest at the time, that it was self-incriminating. I would almost ruin myself and the relationships I had just to be honest.  Ben was intrigued by that and wanted to be able to talk about the things happening in his life, but he was afraid of the people it would hurt to talk about it. I think that brought us together.

Brian
Was it serious from the beginning, or just an artistic release that became serious?

Ben
It was pretty obsessive from the beginning.  Once we start working on something you just do it. We would spend these long hours writing together and that just blossomed.

Nate
I’d go over to his house, and I just wanted to learn how to play instruments, because I didn’t know how to play any at the time. I knew a few chords on the guitar, but my knowledge was pretty slim.  I was hungry to learn, that’s why I wanted to hangout with Benjamin, I wanted to glean as much as possible and be a sponge.

Brian
Can you tell me about the name of the band?

Nate
Iska Dhaaf is a Somali phrase, loosely translated it means, “to let it roll off” or “let it go.”

Ben
“Let it fall off,” “let it drop,” things like that.

Nate
Benjamin has been learning to speak Somali for the last five years, he’s a school teacher and some of his students are Somali, he’s also dating a girl from Somalia. He’s been learning the language and he can’t help but teach me.  He taught me the phrase Iska Dhaaf and early on in our process we were struggling immensely. We’d play for hours upon hours, we’d really break down and have to remind ourselves, “iska dhaaf,” and keep playing.  We kept the name as a reminder for ourselves.

Brian
You spent two years just practicing and writing songs, and not playing live very often.  Was there a temptation to rush things and get the music out there?

Ben
It’s been pretty intuitive.

Nate
We rushed it in places we could rush it. As for our first show, I think we said yes a little sooner than necessary, which forced us to get something together that was presentable. We were intending to have another person in the band, and that person never came. We were forced to use our own form where Ben is playing the drums one handed and the keys with his left. As far as releasing music and the recording process, we’ve never rushed it, because we don’t want to sacrifice the quality.

Brian
You were both in successful bands before Iska Dhaaf, what did you want differently from this band?

Ben
I’ve always wanted to be able to not carry everything on my shoulders.  This project is thoroughly collaborative, I can play different instruments, I can write half a song, in that regard it’s very free, open, and satisfying.  On the personal level, I get to hang out with my best buddy all the time. It’s a different landscape of personal connection. I don’t have to be responsible for Nate, he’s not my child and I’m not married to him. Most people never say that, but for me that’s the case.

Nate
In my previous project I had a lot of fun, and I learned a lot from it, but some of the ideas I started to bring to the table started to get met with friction. A lot of my interests began to change and I wanted to bring that into the genre I was playing. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do fully, and this is the first time I’m able to do exactly what I wanted to do.

Brian
On your bandcamp page you have these really detailed descriptions of your songs.  Most artists are very guarded about their music in that way.

Nate
Ben and I both come from a writing background, we both think of ourselves more as writers than anything. It just so happens that we write songs. We want to write to the level of our favorite poets.

Ben
There’s just a lot there, there’s a lot of time spent crafting those songs. They have a clear thesis, they’re not a bunch of things pulled out of a hat and put together. I imagine some people just want to listen, but I think it’s really interesting.

Nate
I primarily wrote the lyrics on those two songs (All the Kids & Two Ones) and Benjamin wrote the description of the songs.

Ben
It’s a cool process. I was literally in the room when he wrote some of this stuff, and spend every day with him.***

I’ve had the very good fortune of interviewing some really amazing bands over the last two years, all of whom I admire greatly, but I have a special respect for Benjamin and Nathan. These are two very sweet and genuine people. The cover of their first single, All the Kids, depicts two kids, who could very easily be Nate and Ben, wrestling, there is a playful nature in the image that hides a solid and honest emotional core. That image is the way I view Iska Dhaaf.

Visit www.iskadhaaf.com where you can download All the Kids, and soon buy it on vinyl.  Keep a look out for an EP in the Winter, and their debut full length in 2014.  In the mean time, they’ll be hosting a vinyl release show on August 23 at a gallery space at 2312 2nd Ave, in Seattle. They’ll be joined by Budo, and Radjaw will be spinning 45’s all night. Doors open at 8pm, $10.

Lastly, an exciting opportunity is coming up to take part in the bands first music video. Iska Dhaaf is looking for men, ages 18-35 to play soldiers in a Vietnam era USO(esque) video. If you’re interested in participating, send an email to everybodyknowsid@gmail.com, filming takes place August 31st.

Once again, the above excerpt is just a tiny portion of our full interview which I am truly proud of.  We covered a lot of ground and had a really in depth conversation that you don’t want to miss. You can download the full podcast audio episode by clicking here, or by visiting us in iTunes.

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