deep diiv: zachary cole smith talks sky ferreira, saint laurent and his sophomore album
Three years after DIIV’s debut record defined a new sound, its frontman is re-writing his own rules.
DIIV's first album, Oshin, was released three years ago now, it's reverb-soaked sound and sunny shreds defined a certain moment in the American indie scene; bands like DIIV, The Garden, and Sunflower Bean all mixed punk-authenticity with psychedelic retro-gazing, washed out sounds, all were mined for inspiration by Hedi Slimane, all impossibly cool, impossibly beautiful, making incredible music.
The intervening years have seen lead singer Zachary Cole Smith become famous for more than his music though; he's dating Sky Ferriera, and after a saga of scrapped recording sessions and struggles overcoming substance abuse -- will finally be release his new album, Is The Are, in the coming months. "Making this record was a long, kind of insane process," he explains, "I was just been continually writing, non-stop, through everything."
The first track to be released, Dopamine, sounds like something that could have appeared amongst Oshin's hazier cuts: a dance between punched-up dream-pop bass lines and a truly beautiful guitar overlay. Smith knows melody is DIIV's strong suit: "I don't really know how to write songs with chords. For me, it's always been about experimenting with the interplay between two guitars -- having a couple different melodies layered on top of each other and seeing how they interact," he says. "That's really the pull of every DIIV song. That's what keeps DIIV listenable."
Because such strong sounds defined Oshin, Smith's lyrics often became lost in his own sonic sea. This time, he needs us to hear them. "A lot of people responded to Dopamine like 'Oh it's a sunny, reverby, beachy track' and I'm like 'No, not really. It's not sunny or happy at all,'" he explains. "It's meant to describe or mirror a manic state." All pretence of happiness dissolve with lines like I'm fixing now to mix the white with the brown, and, heartbreakingly I got so high I finally felt like myself.
"I think a lot of my backstory -- the mythology or narrative around the band -- has been pretty well covered," Smith says, and it's true. He's spoken with brave candour about his heroin addiction -- one that got himself and girlfriend Sky Ferreira arrested after police searched his unregistered pick-up truck on the way to the band's Basilica Soundscape set in 2013, and one he's since overcome. Last year, DIIV was dragged back through the mud when sexist and racist comments made by its bassist, Devin Ruben Perez, surfaced on 4chan.
"It's a record about all that stuff, but I'm not a story teller. I can only write about myself and my own experiences," Smith says. "I didn't want to glamorise anything; it's more of a cautionary tale. I want to explain to people where I'm coming from -- what happened. It's about being able to be heard. The lyrics on this record are really important to me."
But Smith's lyrics aren't only important to him. This vocal clarity was in part motivated by the girl who's been by his side through it all. "Sky listens to music so differently than I do," he says. "She's very lyric-based listener, so it was important to put extra focus on this record's lyrics." This isn't the only time we speak about the singer, who's presently at work on her own full-length follow up. Smith tells me that Ferreira was who introduced him to one of the creative collaborators he most respects: Hedi Slimane.
"I had just met Sky and I really wanted to learn more about what she did, what the modelling side of her life is like," Smith says, speaking of the days when Slimane enlisted Ferreira as one of Saint Laurent's first faces. The French designer has since snapped numerous portraits of the pair for the house, including a few for the autumn/winter 13 campaign, in which they starred alongside Cara Delevingne. "Hedi has always really inspired me. He was the first person in a long time to draw such a direct connection between fashion and rock and roll. It's a connection as old as time, but he really modernised it," Smith enthuses. "He continues to work with people that have been with him for a while, and it just shows a loyalty -- a commitment to his art. I have a lot of respect for what he does, how hard he works, and how inspired he is."
It's a fitting sentiment, as another Saint Laurent stalwart -- current campaign star Julia Cumming -- will open for DIIV's upcoming tour as one third of psych rock outfit Sunflower Bean. "Obviously they're a different band in a lot of ways, but just as DIIV really attacked New York a couple years back, they're doing the same," he says of the band's aggressive show schedule, and I tell him I agree. Last year, they were slamming through three CMJ sets a day, a purely punk energy familiar to Smith. "It's a tried and true way to get people behind your music, and you improve live so much. The more you play, the better you get."
Although they embarked on a small club tour last summer to experiment with the new material, DIIV are just getting back into the swing of an ambitious live schedule. Presently, the band is powering through some west coast dates before returning to New York's Webster Hall in November. Smith first treated his hometown crowd to Is The Are in March, at a show that -- despite being staged at 2am on a wintery Tuesday -- sold out. "Dopamine, to me, was the closest thing to anything we've ever previously released, but the record is full of diversity. I'm really, really excited to see how people respond to some of the darker ones, some of the heavier ones, some of the poppier ones. I wanted to keep the band fresh and mix it up on this record," he says. "I couldn't be happier with it."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Zachary Chick