Zachary Cole Smith, the enigmatic frontman and artistic leader of New York rock band DIIV, wishes he could take it all back. At the time of the release of his band’s sophomore album, Is the Is Are, in February, Smith felt obligated to describe the album’s context. That context, of course, centered around his drug addiction and rehab, his 2013 arrest for heroin possession with girlfriend Sky Ferreira.
“I think, like, it was basically misguided,” says the 31-year-old, who goes by his middle name, Cole. “I felt like if I talked about it, it would give a clear narrative to people, but it didn’t. I feel like I started talking to journalists like they were therapists and they kind of took advantage of me.”
I tell Smith I’m not qualified. My job is to pass along his story, not to interpret.
“Exactly. Nobody is, and they kind of went running with and took advantage of it. I felt like I ended up on the shitty end of it. I feel like I got the worst of it. Obviously, the record is what it is, but I would probably be a little bit more oblique about the narrative. Not to let people in so much. Because, ultimately, it like turned on me a little bit.”
It’s a sunny day at Golden Gate Park, the last of Outside Lands and the first time the sun has come out. I’m meeting with all of DIIV around a little table. They’re all there. Smith, guitarist Andrew Bailey, keyboardist Colin Caulfield, bassist Devin Ruben Perez and drummer Ben Newman. The open-air tent we’re in has distractions. From the masses right outside, to media-fans who want a photo with Smith, to the crossword Smith walks in with, which takes up his first five minutes, before he realizes that our interview is in-progress.
“Some dude asked me for a picture and I was not paying attention,” he says.
Ten minutes later, Bailey spots a man at a laptop, working in an audio editing program. “This guy’s making beats over here. That’s super tight.”
44-across: A term to overcome pregnant pause.
But the goal Smith will not be distracted from is changing his band’s narrative. He’s tired of “the drugs stuff” distracting from the music itself. He wants to refocus. In the next few weeks the band will converge at a Los Angeles practice space to work on album No. 3, as well as a secret project they will not yet divulge. Hopefully that new music will change the story.
“I just wanted to make the record clear to people so they could know what’s going on,” Smith says. “But it was misguided and naïve. If I could do it again, I would probably just shut my mouth.”
Let’s focus on the music. Bailey says he never doubted DIIV would make a second album, a follow-up to critically acclaimed Oshin in 2012. But Smith’s answer is different. After his drug arrest and rehab, he reportedly struggled to come up with new material.
“Did I doubt [Is the Is Are] would happen? I did, yeah. Definitely,” he says, after pondering the question and the implications of its double-negatives. “It’s a lot of work and there’s a chance it might not have happened. I mean, it was so much effort and so long in the making. At a certain point, you maybe felt like it just won’t come together, you know?
“If any of these guys had just said, ‘You know what, fuck this. I don’t feel like doing this,’ it [would have] fallen apart. I would have got a job at McDonald’s.”
In between the two albums, Smith also spent some time modeling and directing videos. He wasn’t researching a possible future career, he says. In fact, he hasn’t thought past the next year or so. He does not think about his career at all. Simply, Smith wanted to learn about the work Ferreria was doing, to empathize with her and to spend more time with her.
“I don’t have have an end game when thinking about making [music],” he says. “If there’s an opportunity to do something creative then I’ll try my hand at it. In terms of a career after the band, I’ll probably be a teacher, go back to college or something. I have no fucking clue. Music is for young people. Sometimes I feel weird being a musician. I’ll always want to make music, but I don’t have goals.”
Once the songs finally began to crystalize, Smith focused on taking them in the direction of Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising. DIIV’s signature sound, shimmering, layered guitars, reverb, and Cole’s always under-the-current voice, remained mostly the same. The final product was 63 minutes long. Some of the songs, like “Bent (Roi’s Song),” needed no explanation. “Buried deep in a heroin sleep/ Fixing now to mix the white and brown,” Smith sings.
The album recalls The Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure and a less-happy M83. But it’s the comparisons to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana that keep following Smith and the band. Smith and Caulfield became friends as teens over a shared love of Nirvana. At that time, the two were obsessed. “That was all we listened to,” Smith said.
Caulfield, Smith and the other band members bought the archetypal rock and roll tale as children. Caulfield now sees what happened to Cobain for the sad tale it actually was. Comparisons between Cobain and Smith have increased since his very public arrest. He does not want to be seen as troubled, or a stereotype.
“People will discount you and say, ‘Your life is a cliché,” and you’re like, ‘It’s my life,’” he says. “I’m just trying to live my life a day at a time. It’s not a big art show for people. It’s not, like, a performance. It’s not like something I do to like have people think a certain way. It’s just I’m living my life. I’m a person.”
I begin to understand just what Smith means when he said no future is defined for the band. How it can come to an end when one or more of the members see fit. But they’re not calling it quits; not then and not right now.
When they come together to write the next album, they will do so as a team for the first time. Nothing is set in stone but Smith says “we’ll see what happens.” True to his style, Smith already has 25 new song ideas and 30 “viable” old songs that can be reworked. He and Caulfield described the project as an experiment. On the previous album, the band helped Smith fully form his original ideas in the studio.
“Making Is the Is Are was kind of like a baby step into this whole process of writing together,” Caulfield says. “That was kind of like easing our way into it. It should be somewhat seamless this time.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.