Flipping the Script w/ Musician Nathan Quiroga

During his time in Seattle, Nathan Quiroga has made some noise, left some marks, hung a gold record on his wall, and changed his life top to bottom in order to hit the ambitious goals he set for himself.

As he prepares to make another drastic change, uprooting his life (and his current band, a melodic, meditative, ’60s psychedelia-tinged power duo called Iska Dhaaf) in order to take a leap of faith in New York City, we caught up with the songwriter / stage-climber / rapper / author / multi-instrumentalist for a Q&A in his Seattle apartment—which had already begun to fill up with moving boxes.

Keep reading for some wise words about hard work, being yourself, and the dedication it takes to follow your instincts (whether it makes practical sense to do so or not).

[Sweater by Maison Kitsuné]

MEN’S SHOP DAILY: How would you describe your current band, Iska Dhaaf?
NATHAN QUIROGA: “I’ll describe it by how the music is created. I typically play electric guitar or the Farfisa organ, and Benjamin [Verdoes, Quiroga’s bandmate] plays drums with one hand, plays keys with the other hand and is singing harmonies. On the first record [Even the Sun Will Burn, released in March], I primarily take the lead vocals, but since then, it’s starting to blend to where there’s almost no lead and you can’t even tell who’s who—it starts to swim together. I’d describe the sound as desperate, driving and purging.”

Your previous band, Mad Rad, was a lot different. Can you describe it a bit, and what sparked you to make a change?
“Mad Rad was very much an electronic/hip-hop/punk/new wave kind of thing. It was debaucherous and very youthful, in a sense. It was very much a young-20s, going super hard, ‘every day is your last day’ kind of mentality, that there’s no such thing as wrong—that you just kind of live however the f— you want to. So that’s what that project was about: just not caring. I was mostly rapping, but I started to teach myself how to sing on that record. Primarily, I was a lyricist and would sit down and work with the producer—but we didn’t really know how to do anything. We didn’t know how to play very well. For Iska Dhaaf, I had to learn how to play all the instruments, and that’s why it took a little longer to write that record—I had to figure out not only how to write, but also how to play the way I wanted to hear it, to satisfy my taste. So I was practicing really hard for incessant hours; I was playing like eight hours a day or longer for a few years, and I had to change my lifestyle, too. Whereas Mad Rad was really debaucherous and going really hard, I had to incubate and kind of take really good care of myself. I would go running, do yoga to improve my breath support, and just completely switched my life so that I could create more.”

[Left: artwork in the background by Quiroga’s talented girlfriend, Mandilla.]

Did you play any instruments before starting Iska Dhaaf?
“No. I’d been working on learning Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over the Sea’ because it has very basic chords, and I wanted to teach myself how to sing over it, so I spent some time on that—and that’s basically where I was when I met Benjamin. He wanted to start writing with me, and I wanted to learn how to play instruments, and he’s a fantastic musician and plays so many different instruments, it’s amazing. He wanted to learn from my writing style, which was pretty unfiltered and unabashedly true, almost to a self-incriminating standpoint—whereas he had all of this stuff going on in his life, but he couldn’t talk about it, so he wanted to figure out how he could. I wanted to learn how to express myself through these different instruments. So we started meeting up to play, and we just didn’t stop. We started playing every day. There was no ‘Hey, when’s rehearsal scheduled?’ We didn’t even have to call each other; we just started showing up at the same place. Sometimes, he’d even leave—he was getting his master’s at the time and would have to go do school stuff—but he would loop something in the loop station, and I would stay in the basement and write to that loop. He’d come back later, and I’d still be playing to it.”

[T-shirt by Dolce&Gabbana]

What caused you to want to shift from hip-hop to this new style of music?
“I’ve been listening to all kinds of different music for a long time. I was really drawn to songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, Elliot Smith—these poets who were expressing themselves, and I was really inspired by the fact that they were doing it with just their words and a guitar. It was very stripped down and vulnerable, and the more that I started to get confident in my lyrics, the more I didn’t want to hide behind extreme production. As I was teaching myself how to sing through instruments, just by matching the notes, I started to go, ‘Wow, I feel really comfortable holding these instruments and developing these compositions and melodies and words over time, rather than being in the studio and having to write a verse really quick.’ That’s what really developed my songwriting and style and, you know, changed everything. Now I’m going to explore the production stuff again with all of this knowledge, and try to marry the worlds. Primarily, it was just taste, like my tastes were changing—what I wanted to do, and what I thought was important.”

What’s the story behind your band name, Iska Dhaaf?
“It means ‘let it go’ or ‘leave it alone’ or ‘don’t worry about it’ in Somali. Benjamin is a school teacher, and he’s been teaching Somali students. They taught him Somali while he was teaching them English, so that’s how it began. Benjamin’s wife, Ifra, who is also Somali—he met her in the school district, and she’s been teaching him as well—she taught him ‘iska dhaaf,’ and he taught it to me. It was this phrase that we would use as a little mantra when we were struggling immensely, when we were learning the instruments and creating this. We’d have to constantly say to ourselves, ‘Iska dhaaf, don’t worry about it, let it go,’ so many times during the past two years. It’s so hard, because he’s playing drums with one hand, playing keys with the left, and singing harmonies—and they’re complicated parts, too. In his last project, he was a guitar player. He played drums before, too, but this was a whole new thing, so we were both learning together. We still say it quite a bit.”

How did you first start playing music?
“Back in school, I studied theater—playwriting, directing and acting. I was in the Original Works program at Cornish [College of the Arts, in Seattle]. I moved here to go to school for theater. I was just really in love with language and ideas. I wanted to communicate them in any way possible, and I was finding that through these plays and through the community. It’s fun to work with a bunch of different artists for a really intense amount of time. I thought I could do something positive for the world and communicate some of these thoughts that these playwrights were having. And then I wanted to start writing my own. As I started doing that, I decided that I’d also do that with music, which I started doing as a release. I started thinking about those [verses] as monologues that were scored to music, so it was like I could write my own short plays, and they would communicate in a different way.”

You mentioned some singer-songwriters that inspire Iska Dhaaf. What were some of the artists that inspired your previous hip-hop work?
“Oh, what inspired the Mad Rad stuff? Well, I grew up listening to hip-hop and rap records—that’s what raised me. That was the first thing that really hit me. All Eyez on Me, 2Pac and Biggie and Nas and all of those amazing poets, essentially. And then I liked Wu Tang and all those guys, and I got into more underground stuff like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock and Sage Francis…I went all over the map. The greatest thing about it was that, to me, they were just modern-day poets, just taking pictures of reality, and it was really non-pretentious and really great. So that’s what drew me in, and then, as I started to get more drawn into words, I didn’t really care what form they were in, so long as they were honest—so I got really into Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes. He was the first guy that brought me into sort of singer-songwriters, because his s— was so raw. I was just like, ‘Man, how can you say that?’ You know? And it was vulnerable, and it was showing what most people would call weakness, but it was empowering, and that was what really started to engage me. And so I got into Elliot Smith, and like I said Leonard Cohen, and all these really great songwriters, because I wanted to be able to feel comfortable feeling however I felt. I didn’t want to have to put on anything. But with Mad Rad, I also got really into Jim Morrison and Nick Cave and Iggy Pop…”

[Quiroga—under his Mad Rad stage name Buffalo Madonna—earned a gold record for his work on the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song “Thin Line.”]

“Yeah, my performance style drew a lot from those guys—because, with theater, everything was planned out. You blocked it, for the most part. So with music, I got really excited about performance, because I could do whatever I wanted. And so, for 45 minutes, it was my goal to do that. Any impulse that I had, I was like, ‘Try it.’ No judgment. Nothing’s bad. There’s no such thing as good or bad. First thought—do it. From there, I would be like, ‘OK, now try to surprise yourself.’ You’ve done that last performance; try to do something different. And so each performance, it was like ‘OK, there’s no such thing as a stage. The scaffolding is a stage, that ladder, that person’s shoulders.'”

How important is what a musician wears on stage?
“I think the only thing that matters is that it’s something you want to wear, and that it’s something you feel comfortable in, and that it’s not trying to impress anybody. I think people can really see through, and be like, ‘Oh, that person’s trying to impress me, or trying to sell me something.’ People don’t want to see that. They want to see you doing what you want to do. It can be whatever, it can be any style, so long as it looks authentic and comfortable.”

What are some of the challenges of attempting to work full-time as a musician?
“I think music has always been really hard, and you can never gauge it—why somebody makes a ton of money and their video goes viral, or why somebody puts a ton of money into a video, and it’s a masterpiece, but no one sees it. So it’s kind of fair game, and really beautiful in that sense, but as far as making money off of it, it’s really hard. A lot of people don’t see music as something that they should pay money for, and so they don’t. They’ll pay money for a Snickers bar, but they feel really strange buying a song. It’s something that’s not been ingrained in our psyches, especially since streaming music has been so easy—which is great because a lot of artists can get exposed, you can listen to their stuff, you can check it out. But as far as becoming lucrative enough to live off of, it’s really difficult, and you really have to uproot your entire life and work. You have to put in the actual work to travel, and you have to work on not only creating the work, the art, but it’s like you have to manage your business with social networking—everyday you’re on the street, engaging with people. It’s like a full-time job. There’s never a clock-in or a clock-out, you’re always on. You have to hit every aspect of it, and you can never slow down, because music is all about momentum. If you have a dry spell or you lose any of that momentum, it’s extremely hard to get out of it.”

Do you ever think about giving up music?
“All reason points to me not doing this, as far as me having to pay off my student loans and other extreme debt that I’m in. But it’s just what I have to do. So if you have it like that, then you have no other choice. Even knowing that there’s no promise of financial gain, you still do it, because you become rich in the other experiences that you gain and the people that you meet. The world opens up to you because you’re giving something to it, and so it gives back. Whether it be purely experiential, through friendships, or whether it becomes, ‘Hey, let me buy you a drink’—all that stuff starts to add up, and life becomes really great, and you start to feel connected and supported. I feel like I’m really a part of this city [Seattle], like deeply. That’s a really comforting feeling, to feel like you’re a part of a family that’s thriving.”

[Sweater by Kenzo—available at selected stores]

What else will you miss, when you move from Seattle to New York?
“I think I’m going to miss the silence, actually. To be in a city and to have it be kind of quiet, but I can choose to go into the madness if I need to. I think I’m going to be in pure madness out there, and it’s going to be a little more difficult to find solace. That’s a big thing, to be able to escape the city so easily here, to just go out and be in a mountain range or beautiful lake in like 20 minutes, 30 minutes. I’m gonna miss that. [But I’m excited to take something] tangible and thriving into New York, as opposed to looking to that city to give me something. It’s like, ‘No, I’m bringing something to offer.’ It’s a different feeling that I’m ready to attack that city with.”

Besides relocating to NYC, what’s in the future for Iska Dhaaf?
“We’re working on the second and third records right now, which I think we’re going to release as a double LP. Both of those records are distinctly different in style, so it’ll be really fun to see how it pans out. The first half, or I guess you could call it our second record, is very much like a concept album. It’s about death and science and spirituality—it’s like this really beautiful, weird record. It’s very snaky and chanty and sounds like mystic music, in a sense. We’re gonna go travel and stay somewhere to record that one, like either in the desert or the woods or something. The other half is almost like life to its fullest—like revolt music. It’s like a wake up, really charging. I play bass; extremely driving parts, and it just goes super hard, non-stop.”

A double-LP on your sophomore effort is pretty ambitious.
“They just started to kind of come. We have so much work created. We write so much, so we’re like, ‘Let’s just do two records. Screw it!’ Let’s do it and let’s keep writing more. There’s no shortage.”

—  —  —

If you’re in Seattle, wish Nathan and Iska Dhaaf farewell for now on Saturday night, September 6 at Caffé Vita. More details here.

If you’re in NYC, watch out for them coming your way soon. And if you’re anywhere else, follow Iska Dhaaf on Facebook and check out their debut album.

[Photos by Brooklyn Benjestorf.]

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