Never stop learning.
These are not unexpected words coming from musician Benjamin Verdoes, who considers himself just as much a student as he is a teacher. Before moving to Brooklyn in 2014, Verdoes taught at Seattle’s Nova High School, where he helped found the school’s Beats! Committee, a student-run music program that gives students the chance to learn production program, Ableton to create and experiment with electronic beats.
Outside of the classroom, Verdoes is constantly in search of the next skill to master or program to study. It shows in projects like Iska Dhaaf, a two-piece band he works on with vocalist and guitarist, Nathan Quiroga. Combining stuttering beats, tripped out electronic samples and rebellious electric guitar riffs, these multi-instrumentalists and producers form pensive musical soundscapes that linger long after the final notes die down.
We chatted with Verdoes about Iska Dhaaf’s newest release, The Wanting Creature, how students and teachers learn from each other and the drive to always accomplish the “next big thing.” Enjoy.
Why music? How did you know you wanted to pursue this as a career?
Benjamin Verdoes: Neither Nate [Quiroga, Iska Dhaaf bandmate) nor I came from musical families, meaning that we were not put in early lessons or trained by relatives. I was exposed to music through church and kids at school. I didn’t necessarily think about music as a career at first, I just was obsessed with it. I started thinking about music as a career toward the end of high school, which was when I started writing songs.
What do you do to push your craft forward?
BV: I try to always learn new things. I study different instruments, software, and techniques. I listen to a wide range of artists and learn from them. I never stop creating.
Tell us about your most recent album, The Wanting Creature, and how it differs from your past albums? How has your music evolved with your career?
BV: We took a whole different approach with The Wanting Creature. Most of our first record was recorded live. With the new record, we used Ableton and produced a lot of it ourselves. The album has a lot of electronic elements to it. We would map out the beats and edit the songs in Ableton. A song might start as a guitar song with a verse, chorus, and bridge, but end up as a verse and instrumental chorus without guitar. Or the guitar part might be chopped up and reversed. We used lots of synths and ambient sound designs. The lyrics were written mostly together and were influenced by a different set of feelings and experiences.
I love your honest take on the human desire to always reach/have/accomplish the “next best thing.” With this in mind, do you feel that it’s best for artists to always strive for that next best thing or find content in what we have created?
BV: I think desire compels us to do and create new things. It’s important to try to be content with ourselves and what we make, but it is important to always be pushing forward. We’re always changing, and art helps us process our experience. It helps us see things from a variety of angles. It helps us learn about ourselves. I get concerned when I meet people who aren’t trying to push forward, learn, and experience new things. The Wanting Creature in some sense is about accepting that we will always want more. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s talk about the educational program you created. Tell us how this idea came from ideation to fruition?
BV: When I was teaching at Nova High School, I saw my student free-styling in the hallway. They would beat-box and bang on tables, even though there were drums and guitars down the hall in the band room. I was interested in making beats and had been for a while. I asked if they’d be interested in starting a beats program and they were thrilled. We raised enough money to get Ableton and some equipment. We met every week and the beats room was open during the week for us to collaborate. When I moved to New York, my students kept it going. Now every student has a laptop and Ableton Push. It’s crazy. I keep in touch with most of my students. Several of them were at my show last week. They are so talented.
Many artists prefer to spend their free time working on music, what inspired you to take the time to create this program?
BV: I’ve always loved teaching and I very much believe in learning from my students. I partially created the program because I wanted to learn more about making beats. My students and I taught one another. They bring in a whole set of musical influences and perspectives that I get to soak up. So in that sense, I was learning a new skill set and inspiring youth to learn music. It’s a win-win.
Do you ever find that your music and work with the educational program intersect and/or influence one another? If so, how?
BV: For sure. Some of my students were interested in dance music, Dubstep and styles I hadn’t experimented with. Several of my students used different approaches to composition. It was fun to watch and learn how they made their beats and the new tricks they picked up from their friends and YouTube videos.
As an artist, is there a piece of advice that has stuck with you over the years? If so, what is it and how has it influenced where you are today?
BV: Nick Harmer from Death Cab For Cutie told me something along the lines that “The only way to not succeed is to quit.” I just decided that I would always keep going. I’ve done a good job at that, especially considering some of my life circumstances. I’ve been able to make records, tour, meet amazing people, and continue to grow as an artist and person. What more could you ask for?