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.
It is impossible for me to write impartially about DIIV. I have listened to some fragment of the four piece's lone album, Oshin, every single day since its release in 2012. On more than one occasion, I have been blasting its sunnier shredders when crossing paths with the band's waify frontman, Zachary Cole Smith, in the Brooklyn neighborhood we share. It's where Smith refined DIIV's reverb-soaked sound, often by playing two shows a night at the now-shuttered DIY warehouses that spangled the Williamsburg waterfront.
Though the same 15 songs have soundtracked my last three years, Smith has been steadily writing more of them -- hundreds of them. 18 will appear on DIIV's sophomore record, Is the Are, which -- after a saga of scrapped recording sessions and struggles overcoming substance abuse -- will finally be released in the coming months. "Making this record was a long, kind of insane process because I was just continually writing, non-stop, through everything," Smith tells me when we speak.
Of these 18 tracks, only one has been released, Dopamine. On first listen, it sounds like something that could have appeared amongst Oshin's hazier cuts: a dance between punched-up dream-pop bass lines that plunges head first into 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 pretenses 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 [in the press,]" Smith says, and it's true. He's spoken with brave candor about his heroin addiction -- one that got himself and girlfriend Sky Ferreira arrested after police searched his unregistered pickup 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 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 glamorize 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 modeling 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 fall/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 modernized 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