Connecting Between Two Coasts with Iska Dhaaf

Iska Dhaaf's Nathan Quiroga - Pyragraph
Nate in the vocal booth. Photo courtesy of Iska Dhaaf.

Guest Blogger Sam Miller is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and founder of Jenny Invert Records. 

I rented a room in Benjamin Verdoes’ house when I first moved to Seattle almost a decade ago. He and Nate Quiroga had just started playing music together and I would often eavesdrop from atop the stairs leading into the basement, absorbing their creative cacophony, which would soon become Iska Dhaaf. Over the next few years, they went on to generate a commanding presence in the Seattle music scene, culminating with the release of their first full-length album Even the Sun Will Burn—before mysteriously moving to NYC and disappearing into the anthill of humanity.

As it turns out, I also happened to move to Brooklyn around the same time and when we reconnected in 2017, Nate, Ben and I ended up recording some demos at my apartment for their new album. This project was put on the infinite back burner. Then, two years later, after I had moved to California (with a lot of time on my hands), I unearthed the recordings and felt inspired to finish them, initiating a remote collaboration with the band — who by then were living on separate coasts. With no specific intention of ever formally releasing anything, we wound up making an EP, which captures the band at their very best.

I went on to form a record label for the primary purpose of releasing projects like this that otherwise may never see the light of day. Thus, Iska Dhaaf’s new EP Up will be coming out October 1 on Jenny Invert Records. Their first single “Frida Kahlo” was released in July and another track “Crying in Your Sleep” came out August 28.

I caught up with Nate and Ben via email to discuss the current state of their band and the upcoming releases. 

Sam: First question most people have about you guys is, “What does Iska Dhaaf mean?” On your pages someone can read that Iska Dhaaf (taken from Somali) translates roughly to “let it go.” Why a Somali phrase?

Nate: Benjamin’s wife is Somali. He had been learning the language for a while and took to the phrase. When the band was trying to think of a name she suggested Iska Dhaaf.

Your upcoming EP, Up, will be your first album in over four years—and within this time, the music industry has evolved a lot. How is it navigating this slightly new landscape?

Benjamin: It’s pretty interesting, especially with the pandemic. We toured a lot on our first two albums and this is the first time releasing music that we haven’t played live (with the exception of “Frida Kahlo”). The hope is always that people connect with the music and spread it around.

This time constraint ended up helping us not overthink things.

Your upcoming album is quite a departure from your earlier works. Describe the change of direction.

Benjamin: We moved to New York in 2013, and then spent a few months in Europe in 2015. The relocation and traveling combined with our natural desire to grow as producers pushed us to explore new things.

Much of this EP is made/edited together from demo recordings. How was this process different from on previous albums where you started with demos then re-recorded formally in the studio?

Benjamin: There was a really special energy in our demo sessions that felt important to keep and channel into the EP. We found ourselves unable to improve on the early version with studio time, so we went back to the original versions that we made in a hot sweaty brownstone in Brooklyn.

Nate: Ben had to move back to the west coast kind of suddenly. So we were forced to lock down these ideas that had been floating around for some time in only a week’s time. During the sessions, everything flowed so smoothly. Sam, your work in recording the sessions ended up being a key component as well. You added a ton of great ideas. We all fed off each other, and this time constraint ended up helping us not overthink things.

Iska Dhaaf's Benjamin Verdoes and Nathan Quiroga - Pyragraph
Benjamin Verdoes (L) and Nate Quiroga (R). Photo courtesy of Iska Dhaaf.

Did the pandemic/lockdown have an effect on this release?

Benjamin: We’re not able to tour or spend time together because of the pandemic so there is a lot to learn.

Do you miss playing shows?

Benjamin: Definitely.

This upcoming album features Benjamin as main vocalist on several songs. I believe this is a first for Iska Dhaaf. Why the change?

Benjamin: I sing on a few songs on each album, but it always made sense for Nate to do most of the singing. The main reason for that was because I was playing bass and drums at the same time live. For the new EP we just went with what felt right.

I think writing about dark things is healthy.

Many people don’t know that Nate is a Grammy award-winning rapper (from his work on Macklemore’s 2012 album, The Heist) and before starting Iska Dhaaf, he didn’t play an instrument. Ben, did you teach him how to play guitar?

Benjamin: I showed Nate a few things, but he mainly taught himself. He’s a madman when he wants to figure something out. Nowadays he’s taught himself how to be an incredible DJ, and is real nice with vinyl, too.

Nate: Ben helped me immensely. Watching how he played the guitar was very different than how I saw it. I think he made me a lot more well-rounded. I would have to learn some of his parts that he wrote too and that really pushed me. But mostly, he gave me the opportunity to learn. He had patience. We would be playing in his basement back in Seattle, and at the time he was working on getting his Master’s degree in teaching, so he’d have to leave and write a paper, and in the meantime, I’d be trying to play over the same looped bassline for hours till he came back. His belief and patience in me is something I’ll always be grateful for.

Nate Quiroga (L) and Benjamin Verdoes (R). Photo courtesy of Iska Dhaaf.

You guys are currently living on different coasts, Brooklyn and Seattle. How do you collaborate remotely? What is your songwriting process like? Who comes up with the lyrics and musical ideas and how are these ideas developed?

Benjamin: It has been a challenge to collaborate remotely so far, but we’ve managed to utilize our time together when I’m in Brooklyn or Nate is in Seattle. Hopefully we’ll start sending more files back and forth soon. We generally write everything together, often in the same room. Sometimes one of us will bring in a song idea and then the other acts as an editor.

Your music often touches on some dark concepts. Do you relate any themes to current world affairs?

Benjamin: I think writing about dark things is healthy. It helps us express the reality of the world and the bizarre nature of existing. Our first album had themes about drone warfare and disconnection. The second album was largely about the human condition of always longing and struggling to feel content and satisfied. The new EP is more about communication and wanting to be close to others, even though we often fall short. There is sadness in the EP, but overall I think it has a feeling of redemption at its core.

Iska Dhaaf’s latest single “Crying In Your Sleep” is streaming everywhere and available for download at Bandcamp.

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