The day started out with the kind of morning sun that was much more awake than you. Not in a bad way, just one you had to catch up to. Our photographer, Oleg and I met musician Benjamin Verdoes at his front steps under a little gentle pre-noon shade with coffee, french press and book nearby. He was sitting barefoot with his familiar kind smile and slightly weighted head tilt from a mind that has only a “completely off” or “completely on” function. With heavy morning voice he gave me a quick rundown of his upcoming crammed schedule while we toured the house and formed our ideas for the shoot.
In January, Benjamin released his first solo album, Evil Eye on Brick Lane Records. “This Sunday we’re shooting the video for So Bari and that’s really really exciting,” he says with a big grin and groggy eyes. He’s happy to be working with Tristan again. Benjamin is also in the band Iska Dhaaf with the extraordinary Nate Quiroga. He also teaches high school kids how to use Abelton in a class called Beats! Committee at Nova. From some angles one might wonder how he does it.
The songs on Evil Eye have been with Ben throughout the last 3 years mostly as a way for him to process incredibly difficult experiences. It was never planned to release a solo record and took a little gentle nudging from his loved ones (thanks guys). At the age of 24 Benjamin took legal guardianship of his 9 year old brother, Marshall. In 2008 Benjamin fronted Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band with Matthew Dammer, Jared Price, 12 year old Marshall, & wife Tracy. Signed to Dead Oceans in the fall of 2008, they toured nationally and internationally. By the time Benjamin hit 30 he would go through a divorce and lose their mother to illness. Today he has a son/brother who is of legal age, and this fall he and Ifrah embark on a relocation to New York City. He also identifies as being a chronic over-thinker, “I’m constantly burdened by my awareness of things. I can’t turn it off.” His communion and literacy with his process is inspiring. Evil Eye is an intimately beautiful record that can be applied medicinally to the spirit.
He leads us into the kitchen and makes a remark about how performing songs from Evil Eye felt weird at times because these were the songs he had been singing to Ifrah for the last 3 years, in this kitchen, just for her. The rest of the day would meander in this lovely wandering without being lost sort of way. He really is acutely aware of his feelings and thoughts, and his feelings behind his thoughts, and the subsequent weight and internal architecture in relation to how he expresses himself or his ideas, in a totally casual but incredibly-detailed-hard-working-humble way, with good hair.
When Ben was a kid his mom dubbed him the social and outgoing one and his older brother was the musical one, but around age 13 the desire to play was fully seeded and eventually manifested into a drum kit.
“As a teen, I became really obsessed with the drums because it was a personal thing I could work on. I played sports too and I was pretty good, but I wasn’t ultimately fulfilled and it wasn’t something I could work on all the time. I slowly started writing my own music but as a kid it was my older brother’s thing and I didn’t want to step on his territory. After I moved out, I started experimenting with it more.”
I ask him how being a teacher affects his approach.
“Because I teach, I approach things like a student. I’m really inspired by people like Leonard Cohen who is a working poet and constantly working and developing these really beautiful timeless stories. Or artists in the community like Damien Jurado who are always giving this sense of I’m going to keep developing this voice, this narrative. Rock and Roll music can be kind of vapid sometimes, you know? When you’re young, you have this kind of moment and then you’re done.”
I ask him if his approach is different when he’s writing for Iska Dhaaf or something more personal like Evil Eye.
“It’s all personal. Almost everything you write has to reflect something you’ve taken in. But I don’t know if I was always aware of that. When I was younger and writing songs for MSHVB, it was projected narrative. They were mainly short stories that I had written for Marshall, for the purpose of teaching him drums that later became the songs on the first album. So the song Going on A Hunt, at the time just felt like a story about going on adventure, but now as an adult, I see it differently. Sure it was a hypothetical situation, but it was deeply personal because at the time I was raising a kid and I was married, and it was me expressing these abstract desires, but put in a format that Marshall could relate to and understand. Creating characters can give you some distance especially on the surface but then when you get to know them better, it’s kind of like in a dream where everyone in your dream is really you.”
He frequently references being an introvert. “It was my older brother who recently told me I was an introvert. People often are surprised by that. They think I’m really outgoing, and I do love people but I’m actually deeply deeply introverted and deeply crave solitude. It’s one of the reasons I run. I don’t even particularly like running. But I get to be alone. I am never alone. When I’m running, I have to stop everything else and notice my breathing. And I need that. I make time to be around people because I love people and I want to grow but it takes a huge toll on me. I know people that love being with people all the time, like Marshall, he insatiably feeds off it.”
I add “while doing the Cat Daddy,” which makes him laugh.
“Exactly. Almost everyone knows Marshall, he came to visit me yesterday at school and everybody started coming out of the classroom just to be near him. There’s just something about him.”
Oleg softly asks Benjamin to stand up straight for him.
“I get discouraged sometimes and want to tell a more effective narrative or be more clear with my writing. I think that when you approach it like a craft where you know, if you make chairs, perhaps you can always get better at making chairs, make it more sturdy, better curves and whatever, so for me there’s always like this adjustment of where do you place this turn, where do you arc your voice, and it becomes more infused with the way you think and eventually it becomes something you don’t even notice is happening so you can focus on the other, and the relationship gets deeper.”
Benjamin’s father passed away from a heroin overdose when he was 2. For the past 5 years he’s been working on an album about his father. “People really liked him. You know, aside from the problems, people really liked being around him,” he said with a version of envy in his voice. “It’s been really difficult but really great too.”
Ben strikes me as the kind of artist who isn’t particularly fond of the business side of art but also manages to not appear burdened by it either. I wonder how his relationships have changed in music as he has grown.
“Nate is my best friend. I talk to him everyday. Kirt is someone I genuinely consider a true friend. Those two relationships alone have made a huge difference for me but it’s things like that. I’m more careful with who I surround myself with.” His musical community and camaraderie is lusciously diverse and reciprocally effusive. “I love collaborating with people. I’m having so much fun learning how to make beats right now, and you know I’d love to work with someone as talented as Tay Sean or something one day.” I mention how much I love the recently released Perfect Mistake with Silver Jackson and he laughs a little, “I was just talking to him today trying to recall which parts I played on that. I knew that was my falsetto but was that me on the drums and did I play that one guitar part?” He drifts for a second smiling. ”And there is such a great story to go along with that song too. That was a great time. Nick is such a wonderful person and arts advocate. I really admire what he does.”
Collaboration is one thing but even just existing in a creative community comes with it’s own bag to wrap your head around.
“I think when you’re younger and you’re in a community and you’re sharing it, and your consciousness is involved and you’re involving other people in your dialogue by being a part of a community…”
He drifts a little as we move to another gateway.
“And because I grew up playing sports, there is a piece of me that’s competitive and when you’re younger you want some sort of validation. But one thing that’s been really cool as I have gotten older is I love people embracing what I do, but I realized my narrative is my narrative, and it exists with or without the validation. So now, I wake up in the morning and I want to work on this thing that helps me understand this bizarre experience.”
You know when I feel like I have it more together than I feel right now? When I think about where I was (insert any number here) years into the past. We often don’t feel like we have it figured out in the moment and just as often those times we do feel that certainty play back later as top notch irony. So trust yourself and your process, and let it go!
Of course it’s not that easy. Simple maybe, easy no. And Benjamin would be the first person to say he doesn’t have your answers and he’s not making art to guide you in any way. He’s making art as a way to connect with and understand himself and he believes in sharing his stories as a valuable part of the collective human experience. “These days I kind of view songwriting kind of like in sociology terms, I can’t turn it off. This tribal sense of what you do for your community and documenting your life and your people is a thing that might be part of our dna, to share the experience and for me, I want this to be something where the narrative is actually valuable.”
Iska Dhaaf plays tomorrow at Sasquatch! and next Friday as part of KEXP’s Hood to Hood Ballard Day Celebration at Hilliard’s Brewery. With forcibly restrained enthusiasm, I invite you to go see Benjamin and Iska Dhaaf live before they head east. – Anna Mroczkowski, photos by Oleg Zharsky