zachary cole smith's road to redemption and recovery

DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith talks Sky Ferreira, Kurt Cobain and the cathartic experience of writing and recording sophomore album, 'Is The Is Are.'

by i-D Staff and Jeremy Abbott
17 February 2016, 1:20pm

"I don't know if I had a choice, I was put in a position where all of my secrets spilled out into the world and I had no option but to run with it," intones Zachary Cole Smith, with a sigh, on a rainy night in London. The frontman of his band, DIIV, is referring to the fallout following an incident in September 2013, which saw him arrested while with his girlfriend Sky Ferreira, in the Hudson Valley region of New York, on a number of charges including criminal possession of a controlled substance. At the time, the story made headline news in the showbiz press, who must have felt they had happened on a real life Clarence and Alabama. The truth was the reality of drug addiction, and someone who was now ready to checkout of his relationship with heroin and recover.

The episode doesn't just hang like an elephant in the room, but an entire zoo. Tired of revisiting the subject with journalists, Cole gently marks boundaries around what he would like to discuss, and this certainly isn't one of them. Removing his beanie to reveal bleached long blonde hair lazily tied up, he elaborates, "It makes it harder to move on with my life when I'm talking about the same stuff all of the time. Obviously it's an important part of understanding the record, but I don't think it's the healthiest thing to be talking about, or to be singing about every night. Talking to journalists as therapists. But, whatever…" Rather than pick at the scab, he becomes engaged in discussing the positivity recording Is The Is Are has brought to him.

Four years after DIIV's debut, Oshin, Cole has written, recorded and produced their sophomore record: a heavily confessional, and at times dark album, shot through with an ecstatically uplifting air. "This record has an honest, transparent, true quality that I don't think you can fake," Cole says. "Especially knowing the backstory. Hopefully it can help people have a new relationship to drugs and rock 'n' roll and not glamorize it. It's about pulling me out of that shitty part of my life and being ready to talk about music and positivity, rather than destruction." 

Driven by urgent krautrock rhythms, restless basslines and Cole's feverish vocal, the album threads through indie sub-genres from dreampop to shoegaze. "A lot of people used to call us a shoegaze band, but I don't think we really are," he says. It is simply a beautiful indie pop record. Cole is quick to outline that one of his goals for Is The Is Are was to furrow home a path for the continued relevance of the guitar. "I wanted to make a case for guitar music existing in 2016," he informs. "I don't think guitars mean what they used to, they're still visceral and physical but they don't represent the everyman instrument they once did, that you could pick up and start a band if you wanted to. Now that's the laptop."

The record tells two tales concurrently at the center of Cole's life, recovering from addiction and falling in love with Sky. "I was falling in love, while realizing a dream of mine to make music for a living," he tenderly reveals. "Stuff was going great, while at the same time it was totally unravelling. That's the goal of the record, coming out of all that and creating a new narrative about the band." Lyrically, the record finds a balance between the troubles Cole was facing and the positives he was desperately grabbing ahold of in order to claw his way out of the solipsistic life he had built for himself, one of these positives being Sky. "Both themes are scattered throughout, because everything was happening all at once," he reveals. "'Under The Sun' is a love song. I'm in love and I want Sky to know she's my whole life, but I have this struggle. The amount of lyrics that I've dedicated to my struggle with drugs says something about how present I was able to be for her. I thought I was very present, but maybe I wasn't... There's a metaphor throughout the songs where I talk about Sky as the sun and I'm a cloud bringing her down. She's like this shining star."

Cole writes lyrics by collaging together the phrases and notes he's scribbled into notepads into song lines. "I'm always writing notes," he confides. "I don't just sit down and write a whole song. I write scraps and assemble these into something coherent. I'm inspired by the Kurt Cobain concept of writing lyrics, and you can see it in Elliot Smith's old demos too. For me, there has to be a line that stands out as a starting point for the lyrics to center around." When pressed to pinpoint the lyrics that resonate the hardest with him, Cole offers "Bent (Roi's Song)." "The lyrics for 'Bent' are really close to me, because they feel so cathartic," he explains. "They were really hard to get through, but now I feel really close to them. One of the people the song is about is doing much better, but I worried he was gonna die any day. I had no idea what was going to happen. Now he's in recovery and everything's going good." "Dopamine" is another track that hovers deftly around the theme of love and addiction. "Dopamine is a chemical your brain releases when you're in love, and also when you're using drugs," Cole explains, "so the physical description between the two is confusing."

Cole knows he has a great deal to prove in order to eradicate past mistakes, but by recording an honest, vital double album with Is The Is Are, he hopes he will manage this. "There's still stuff people talk about when my name comes up, which I'd rather they didn't," he says. "But I think as people get to know the music better, the conversations should start moving away from that. Everyone has a public life and private struggles, so hopefully people will relate to that. Is The Is Are is a positive record and if it can help or save one person I've done something productive and that would make me happy."


Text Jeremy Abbott 
Photography Yann Faucher
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