For more than two years, Benjamin Verdoes and Nate Quiroga have been formulating their band Iska Dhaaf—workmanlike in their preparation, committed to a strict regimen of rehearsal and development. Until recently, they weren't ready; they've been in no rush to let the melodic, '60s-tinted, psychic baroque rock out if its cage. Iska Dhaaf sees Verdoes and Quiroga in roles they've never been in before. Quiroga (aka Buffalo Madonna from Mad Rad) learned guitar, bass, and keys; his opal singing voice is now a candelabra centerpiece. Verdoes (singing-songwriting frontman of Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band) learned to play drums and keys simultaneously while singing and triggering foot pedals, also completing a master's degree in teaching English along the way. This past December and April, the duo recorded at K Records' Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia with Ephriam Nagler. In June, they went to New York for mastering with UE Nastasi at Sterling Sound. This August, they'll put out a 7-inch on upstart Brick Lane Records (out now in digital form), and have releases scheduled for fall and winter.
I met the two at their Chophouse rehearsal space to hear the live set. Verdoes—flanked by drums, a Farfisa organ, a Korg, a mixer, and a Roland Octopad—clicks off a four-count into "All the Kids," and Iska Dhaaf fire into the song. The duo is syncopated and tight. Quiroga's eyes are closed: He's fully given to playing, singing, and being the song. He puts down his bass, picks up a guitar, and screams, "Where are we going?" And with that, "Two Ones" begins. The transition is seamless; sound never stops. Verdoes drums and, with a stick tucked under his right arm, switches fingers from reverbed Korg to the Farfisa, picking up the bass line. They're both singing, housed in harmonies as if their heads are detached from their bodies. You wonder who's playing what. If they weren't ready before, Iska Dhaaf are ready now.
After the set, we found a spot to talk. The sound of hammering at a nearby construction sight could be heard. Planes took off from Sea-Tac over our heads. The word "Ignatius" was visible on a wall crawling with ivy behind them. A slight omnidirectional breeze blew.
Y'all have been patient and dedicated with your approach. You probably could've started playing shows a year ago. Why the wait? Q: Well, technically, I didn't know how to play any instruments. So I had to learn how to play, and that took a while. It's still taking a while. Then we had to figure out how we were going to play with just two people, because originally we thought there was going to be a third person. We wrote music for three people. Then we booked a show before we were finished with the songs, and out of necessity, had to figure out how to do it with just the two of us. We couldn't figure out who the third person was. Then we found out that there wasn't a third person [laughs]. Benjamin had to get tricky and learn how to play keys and drums and do vocals with me at the same time. The songs are pretty busy, they're not just chords, so it's taken a long time to pull off. We didn't want to present anything that wasn't exceptional. We also wanted to record and have the recordings to where we wanted them before playing out. Because when you start playing out, everything gets convoluted, other people get inside of the music—it becomes something of theirs, which is great, but we wanted to make sure we had the music where we wanted it first.
How many days a week do you all rehearse? Q: Every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Usually one that's four hours long. Or, if we go twice, a total of six hours.
If the listener closes their eyes, Iska Dhaaf are a four-piece. V: This isn't a minimalist project at all. People view a lot of two-pieces as minimalist things, but that was never our intention. We're not sacrificing sound or tones; we want it to have all the sounds that we hear in our heads, that's important.
On top of the physicality involved in making your music, there are your vocal harmonies and lyrics. You're both songwriters. Talk about the lyrical side of Iska Dhaaf. In "Happiness," you sing, "Drain you of your memory"—it doesn't seem so happy. Q: It's reaching for happiness. Happiness is just around the corner. [Speaks the lyrics] Taste it, I want to taste it 'til I'm wasted/'Til I fall on my face, 'til I fall in my place/Emptiness is all that fulfills me/I want to drain me of each memory/Learn to love myself/Learn to leave my cells/I'm happy, you're happy/History, history is all we look forward to/Erase it, we will erase it, we will erase the slavery and the hatred/To control the past is to control your future at last... So, it's about trying to obtain happiness in this world. It's hard, sometimes, to be truly happy, because there are so many terrible things going on all the time. And I'm trying to drain myself of memories I have of things that I'm not too happy about and start over. To be fulfilled, and not distracted. You can look around, on Capitol Hill, and see people getting fucked up and seeming happy, laughing and cackling, but they're almost more deranged—trying to obtain some sort of joy, looking so twisted and forced. I'm happy you're happy with yourself, but I'm not happy with it myself.
Ben's a guitar player, and a teacher. How much teaching went on as Nate was learning the guitar? V: I'd show him little things here and there. He asks questions, but he's self-taught. And obsessive. He has this natural, crazy capacity for melody. I trust it. He'll roam around learning until he has something. When I was finishing my degree, I didn't have that much extra time. We'd rehearse for a couple hours, and then I'd have to leave. I'd make him a loop, come back hours later, and he'd still be there playing to it. Also, sometimes I'll write something with the guitar and bring that in, or during practice I'll grab a guitar and go, "Why don't you try this?" It becomes this amalgamation. Half the time, I can't remember who wrote what part of the song.
Q: Crosspicking technique was something Ben helped me with. I'd be like, "So, this crosspicking thing, was this really fucking hard to learn? 'Cause I'm wanting to punch something right now." [Laughs] And our writing process is selfless, it's never like, "I wanna play my idea for this song."
You're both heavy readers. How does that affect your sound? V: One of our songs was influenced by a book called A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah—about these child soldiers. And What Is the What by Dave Eggers. I also grew up reading apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The book of Revelation? Man, the Bible is full of end-of-the-world shit, with seven-headed metaphorical monsters and stuff. For Iska Dhaaf, we'll collide ideas. I'll say, "Nate, that idea you're working on sounds like the book of Isaiah, or this T. S. Eliot poem." And we'll dig into them together. Nate doesn't believe in punctuation [laughs]. He knows how to use periods, though.
Q: Ben's better at grammar than me. We have a similar morning ritual where we have to read and ingest some words. I keep a notepad of words I don't know, and thoughts. Writers and authors I'm reading influence me a lot. Faulkner, Rumi, Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Speaking of Revelation, people had visions back in the day, like St. John, and they were revered and written as scripture. Who's having visions these days? V: A character in our song "Everybody Knows" is having a vision. It's an allegory.
Q: It's a soldier's last night before he gets shipped off to war, so he's taking advantage of everything he possibly can. The chorus is, Everybody knows you gotta get it in before you go. He hears a voice in his head. Or he hears it in the air. It's telling him to speak up and describe what he's seeing. It's going to be this shining light that's going to obliterate everything, or open up everything. In one part, we took directly from Revelation, where the world is splitting, and spitting itself up like a drunkard, and is about to fall from the sky. We took from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men"—The world won't go out with a bang-bang, but with a sigh. In our song "Happiness," the line To control the past is to control the future is from Orwell's 1984. I'm happy, you're happy was inspired by Lars von Trier's movie Melancholia. We'll take ideas and modify and layer them together.
What happens to the character the night before he ships off to war? Q: It's the allegory of man literally fucking the world. Ravaging it. Partaking in everything, doing everything you possibly can before you go, before you die. Or before the world dies. So it's this race to ingest and attain the most pleasure. Until you're fucking yourself while you're fucking the world.
V: It's also the idea of our system fucking other systems—We're on top, so we're going to take it. As far as the literary side of what we do, I'll see the thesis of things—a melodic thesis, and a lyrical thesis. I'll cut and move things around, the way I wrote papers for my degree. Nate got used to me going, "Stop! Okay, move that part here, play this there, and that thing there."
How do the words get from your head to the songs? V: Nate has this explosive quality. He'll rupture—we'll be practicing, and he'll just spew a bunch of ideas. Or he'll have a moment where he comes up with something, and he'll bring it to you, like a cat drags a dead bird in, like, "Look what I found," and doesn't really know what to do with it. From that point, we'll build it, and I'll act as an editor. Then there's another group of songs we're working on, where we'll go to our respective workstations to research and write, and then bring ideas in. With one song, "Everybody Knows," we wrote it back and forth together line for line. For others, I'll write the bridge, and he writes the verses. I also like to write parts of songs and bury them out back in the yard, let them age. I'll know what it's about, but won't be ready to write it. It's good to be patient sometimes.
Q: Ben's really good at interpreting my thoughts and seeing what I'm trying to say. He's good at letting songs fill themselves in. He'll have a landscape of ideas, like a painting, and take the time necessary to let it develop—he sees the bigger picture and can zoom out and say, "I think it would be better if you directed it this way." Sometimes, when I'm not thinking about it, the words will also write themselves. I won't necessarily know in the moment if I've got anything. We record everything to our phones. I'll listen back later to see if anything's there, and let that dictate the song—the ideas that were just off the top of my head.
Ben, coming from Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, what's different about Iska Dhaaf? V: Everything is different. I didn't anticipate any of this happening. Everything about this project works, though—it's very difficult, but it works. It's this combination of ethics, ideas, and collaboration.
You've both put yourselves into a musical situation where you're doing things you'd never done before. Nate was gravitating toward guitar. How was it decided that Ben would be the drummer? V: Initially, I played drums just to hear what they sounded like in a song. I wasn't planning on playing drums at all. Everything kind of developed out of necessity, and things kept evolving. We were getting together every day, writing and experimenting, unaware. We were open to whatever—not forcing anything. We were looping things and playing parts of songs, then we wanted to hear how it sounded if I played drums and keys together. Nate was like, "Yes! That's it!" And then there I was, like, "Well, goddamnit. I have to do this now." [Laughs]
Q: I really like the way it sounds—I'm glad we went with it because the parts he's writing now have their own style, based on the struggle to do it. His bass and drums are so entangled, and unique unto him.
Nate, coming from Mad Rad, do you miss rapping? Will there be an Iska Dhaaf version of "Crack da Blunt"? Q: I don't particularly miss rapping. No plans for "Crack da Blunt," but we do actually want to make something later where I'm rapping in five or seven. We want to experiment with different signatures and be experimental. I don't want to think of it as rapping, I just want to communicate in a different form. I want to play with cadences, and play with how to land your meaning. [The bell at the Chapel of St. Ignatius rings in the distance.] At the moment, I'm in love with what's happening, so I'm not missing anything. I'm so engaged in the now, and the future.
How did y'all decide on Iska Dhaaf as your name? V: Picking a band name is always a struggle. I've been learning Somali, and the kids I was working with every day began teaching me words. It's a beautiful language. A phrase Somalis use is "iska dhaaf," which means "let it roll off, let it fall." Or, "don't think about it, let it go." There are many interpretations. With the band, when we were beginning, there were frustrating moments when we were super overwhelmed with learning instruments and figuring out how to fit it all in. You can hear us on our recordings going, "Fuck! Shit! Fuck!" I'd say, "Iska dhaaf—let it roll off." Then it became this thing we'd say to each other. Our mantra. It sums up our approach of not forcing it. We can do whatever we want because it's more about writing, and making the best things that we can. We're not stressed about whether it's going to be this or that.
Q: It's a reminder for ourselves, to not worry about it so much, to let it go, let it happen.
What's coming up after Block Party, besides your releases? Q: We'll be playing and curating a series of gallery and warehouse shows with acts that we really like. We feel supported and connected to the hiphop community in Seattle. I think fantastic, prolific things are happening there. I'm excited to do things with people that I love and respect, and to bring some diversity to shows that aren't necessarily in a music venue or bar. I'm inspired by countercultures and subcultures where all our different forms can thrive.
V: It's exactly what a publicist told me years ago not to do. We just want to connect with people who care, and do shit that's meaningful.