Game changer

DIIV TAKEOVER: Zachary Cole Smith talks us through his new record Is the Is Are
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 8 February 2016
Photography Jai Odell
Fashion Taryn Bensky.
This article is part of Takeovers

To mark the release of DIIV’s second album, Is the Is Are, we’ve invited Zachary Cole Smith to take over HERO. Over the coming days, watch out for exclusive content and insights into the Brooklyn based musician’s influences, experiences and obsessions…

Zachary Cole Smith is grounded by music. From a young age it was the DIIV frontman’s sanctuary and passion, proving constant refuge amidst instability. A childhood ridden with serial school expulsions together with his parents’ separation edged a rocky upbringing, and it was later, on moving from the Connecticut suburbs to Brooklyn, that Smith would find solace in music. He began writing, ceaselessly. He’d discovered the output he ultimately craved and, having recruited guitarist and childhood friend Andrew Bailey, the acclaimed debut record Oshin was conceived and DIIV arose.

For Smith, the three years since Oshin was realised have been difficult, his ups and downs (especially the latter) have been documented in public view. However he has emerged bruised yet stronger, his skin now thicker, his resolve hardened and more determined than ever, ready to give his side of the story via new album Is the Is Are.

Whereas Oshin was the prologue to Smith’s story, Is the Is Are represents his ecstasies and struggles – with addiction, with fame, with the industry, with love. The record may only be little over an hour in length but it contains a lifetime’s worth of exhilaration and ache. It’s not so much teen angst anymore, it’s a whole different ballpark: rockstar angst. It’s his game changer, Smith’s In Utero moment.

Alex James Taylor: You’ve recently been playing a few gigs, do you notice a difference in your own performance when playing the songs from your new record, Is the Is Are , live?
Zachary Cole Smith: Well, we usually perform a song from Oshin and then a song from the new record one after the other, so it all sort of merges together. I think, especially in some of the songs, there’s a common thread that unites both sets of songs, so it as a complete set it feels very coherent and fluid. But they are both definitely very different records.

AJT: When I saw you at Field Day last summer you played a few tracks from the new record and they all went down really well, it’s not often that you see an audience get so into new songs.
ZCS: Yeah, I think that was one of our first shows playing new stuff, so it was a big test for us. We were playing five nights a week just before Oshin was finished, we were just really trying to make it in New York so were playing every night. There was a real sense of community at that time, like an actual scene growing and we were playing so much that the record basically formed from the live set. That record is basically our setlist that we play live and it had this really organic way of growing and becoming a solid thing. You can hear that in bands all the time. If you listen to Television’s Marquee Moon record, it’s perfect, everything is in its exact place and it’s all so worked over. But if you listen to the original Brian Eno demos it’s a mess, they just sound like a generic New York garage rock band because over time they played the same songs over and over and over again and perfected them. Whether it’s Television, or The Beatles in Hamburg playing the same few pop songs over and over, and learning how to really boil their process down to its core. Playing live is such an important thing.

With this record we didn’t get a chance to play any of the tracks live before heading into the studio, but I think the live band was already crystallised in what our purpose and sound is, so I just applied that to the songs and the record was able to take shape in the studio. But it was weird because we didn’t get to workshop all that stuff live with an audience, we just had to go with our gut and it’s the first time we’ve ever done that. It was a really good process for us to just go for it.

AJT: You speak about Oshin basically being your setlist, now you have double the amount of material does it take a lot of consideration figuring out the best way to merge the records live?
ZCS: Yeah, it’s funny how our new record isn’t even out yet but we play so much of it at our gigs already. I really want to play the songs live because there’s something more complete about them like that, the songs are more involved. Making a set list is always a lot of pressure but I think having two records means you can switch it up each night, I can’t wait to have five records and be able to choose from all of them.

AJT: And how has the general reaction been to the record so far?
ZCS: The only people who have heard the record are my friends and then all the journalists I’ve spoken to recently, and everyone is extremely positive about it. It seems like people really understand what my intention was and where I’m coming from, which I’m not sure I expected straight away.

AJT: When I spoke to you around the time you were recording Is the Is Are you were really nervous about putting those emotions out there and you weren’t sure about how people would react. Do you feel a sense of liberation now?
ZCS: Yeah, basically for the past two and a half years this album has been like a light at the end of the tunnel. Having something to be working on and a sense of purpose is so valuable, so I’m really lucky to have had the record to focus on. It’s such a valuable outlet to express all the horrible experiences I’ve been through, and all the amazing ones, no matter what they are. I can really explain everything going on in my life and all I want to do is be as honest as possible and show myself as a human. For me, whilst all this stuff was happening I’d find myself in situations… like being in rehab and having this feeling of being deeply embarrassed and wanting to just climb over the wall and escape, even though I could just go to the front desk and check out, it was a voluntary hospital. I see it as very sad, and human, and deeply flawed. It’s not glamorous at all. And I wanted to express this through my record, turn myself into this human and describe the whole process involving my relationship with drugs, from the very beginning through the end, and every step in between.

AJT: You can sense that throughout the record, there’s a strong narrative woven through. It begins with Out of Mind, which is very soaring and ethereal and then the album moves into a darker, heavier period and that dark aesthetic sort of continues until the end.
ZCS: Yeah, so true. Maybe it’s like an unfinished story or something. By showing it from beginning to end I almost want to create a new entry in that world, that relationship between sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, you know? That trifecta, that relationship is as old as time. I wanted to put my story into that world, something more human. It’s not glamorous, it’s natural, it’s a product of the decisions I made in my life and I want to fill in the blanks with this album. It’s a slippery slope. I hope that through my honesty I can help people… if I could help just one person and prevent them from going down that path, then I’d feel like the record is successful. I don’t want people to emulate me, maybe they can learn from my mistakes and avoid that lifestyle for themselves, or maybe they can at least emphasise with me.

There was such a backlash when I got arrested and I think people didn’t understand where I was coming from and thought I was something I wasn’t. So often people would say negative shit and then when I’d respond they would change their tune so fast because it’s so easy… people tend to see musicians as a commodity and you can just be like, “Fuck this commodity, I don’t want to consume that.” But when I respond and I’m a real person they would always change their tune, it’s odd. Feeling like you’ve hurt someone’s feelings feels bad, and if the record can help people see me as a human, then hopefully it will change the way people talk about me in general. All I ever wanted for this record was to change the conversation from being about all this other shit to being about the actual music. For as long as everybody talks about everything except the music, and changing that conversation is really important to me.

AJT: Absolutely, and I’m sure they will as it’s an amazing album. I was sort of worried how you’d top Oshin to be honest, but you’ve come up with the perfect second album, one that works in harmony with the first, yet pushes onwards. It’s nice to have that connection throughout your output and for your listeners to be able to hear the progression.
ZCS: Thank you, and yeah absolutely. First and foremost it’s so important to me that musically every song sounds like us, so people can hear just five seconds of a track and be like, “Oh, that’s DIIV.” I felt like the record had to be a double album because in order to cover the diversity that I wanted to cover, musically, I think if it had been a single record it would have been too all over the place and too jumbled. So by spreading it out over two records each song has its own space, every song has purpose, every song has a reason to be on that record and each song puts another song into context and allows the whole thing to exist and cohere. I think people will relate to the ambition, everyone knows the stakes were extremely high and I think they will appreciate that I still took a risk making this record. I want people to see that and hopefully respect that. I didn’t just try make Oshin part two, I really wanted to branch out and explore new avenues.

AJT: To me that totally comes across. Oshin is like one whole piece of music that you can put on and listen to as a whole, whereas Is the Is Are has elements that jar and confuse, it’s multi-faceted. Also the songs tend to be longer on this record, was this a conscious decision?
ZCS: Yeah, Oshin was about boiling everything down to its essence and making one piece of music, like a wave that crashes over you and you experience it like that. This record is very much meant to engage you, that’s why I wanted it to be on four sides, you have to physically get up every four songs and change it, you can’t just let it play and zone out. I want people to engage with each piece and figure out where each song fits in the overall context. Like I was saying, the songs are diverse on purpose. It’s based on the past two or so years of my life, and it wasn’t all just dark, drugs, addiction and jail, it wasn’t like that. It was also some of the happiest times of my life, I met someone and fell in love, so there are love songs in there too, I started having success with my band, I had purpose, I was travelling, I was doing all these things I’ve always wanted to do. In a lot of ways it was the best period of my life too, but I had this private struggle. I really wanted the album to reflect that and almost be uplifting at times. 

AJT: That refrain at the end of Dopamine lyrics really embodies those feelings of ecstasy torn against your addiction: “Would you give your 45th year/ For a glimpse of heaven, now and here?/Would you give your 34th year/ For a glimpse of heaven, now and here?”
ZCS: It’s something I thought about a lot, not even would you give up something in the future for something now, which I think so many people would, and obviously I would, and was, but also it was very present in my mind throughout my whole relationship with drugs. I always thought so much about my own mortality, it’s so easy to do something wrong and just die. I did think about that a lot. That line represents that, would you really give up every single thing you will ever experience in the future just for this? You know? And obviously the answer to that was yes for me, but I also want to make people ponder those same questions.

AJT: The lyrics are very prominent in this album, which wasn’t the case with Oshin, I suppose that emphasis on the narrative was vital in order to tell your story this time. Will the lyrics be included with the record?
ZCS: Definitely. The art and everything with this record, the package is extremely important. The amount of art I had for it. Every great record, for me, and every record I make, I want it to be a world in its own and you accomplish that with great art and a cohesive message. That really was my intention.

AJT: And in terms of the album’s overall sound. What sources of inspiration did you tap into?
ZCS: When we first came out people saw us and thought, “Ok, they’ve taken the rhythmic ideas and structures behind krautrock and mixed in dream pop textures.” People called us a shoegaze band for so long and I really don’t think that we are that at all. On this record there was one album that I sent to our sound engineer and was like, “How do we get these sounds?” That was Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising, that album sounds like a band playing in a room, it sounds like a guitar amp in a room feeding back and dying. Underneath a lot of our songs there are these symphonies of feedback, sounds that are melodious or ominous, that sort of came from Bad Moon Rising. I really wanted the record to share that quality of sounding like a band in a room with an amp on its last legs.

JR (Chet ‘JR’ White, former member of Girls), a producer I worked with in pre-production, sent me a Boo Radleys record that from beginning to end you can hear this guitar amp dying, you can hear every small characteristic about this amp and that was something I really wanted to capture with this record, something really raw and live. We recorded the album in a really nice studio, but then after that we were left to our own devices to mix it and I didn’t really know what I was doing but I spent time on my laptop and just mixed the record. Capturing a vibe is such a difficult thing but I really think that by taking the high fidelity tracks and running it through my process… I don’t know what I’m doing to be honest [laughs], I don’t know how to make things perfect in terms of EQ, but I do know what it’s supposed to sound like. I think that was why it was important for me to do it myself and get the sound exactly how I wanted it. I think I probably broke every rule, but it was all about capturing that sound and soul.

AJT: Absolutely, and the Sonic Youth influence does really shine through. The track with Sky [Ferreira], Blue Boredom, for instance, Sky’s vocals have a real Kim Gordon edge to them, it reminds me a lot of Tunic (Song for Karen).
ZCS: Yeah, I mean that one wasn’t really coming from a Sonic Youth place so much to be honest, that one was written before I nailed down Bad Moon Rising as being a key influence. I really wanted Sky on the record and it wasn’t until really late on in the process that I figured out where she would actually fit. I had so many ideas for that song, I wanted our guitarist to read a short story he wrote, but that didn’t really work, then I wanted to read some stuff I wrote, but that didn’t work either. So then I had Sky read some of these left over lyrics I had, sort of like a string of consciousness, just meandering. She delivered it in such a sexy, intense way… that’s one of my favourite tracks on the whole record. A lot of people mention a Kim Gordon vibe but that wasn’t the intention, it just ended up being that way inclined. But also, I think the same applies to Mire (Grant’s Song), a lot of people have told me that the delivery in that track has a Kim Gordon thing going on, and I like that. Shadow of A Doubt is probably one of my favourite songs of all time and her delivery on that is just perfect, literally. So many of my influences happen subconsciously.

AJT: So away from music, what other materials or people influenced this record?
ZCS: When you talk to Sky about music all her references are films, she is like a film encyclopedia, just always watching films, and she has this very cinematic vision for her own music. Whether it’s Gaspar Noé shooting her album cover, or it’s naming the album after David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me, it’s a very cinematic vision, that’s the way her brain works. I don’t know if I have such a film-based vision for this record, but I was definitely inspired by the way she looks at her own work. For me there’re a lot of influences I wanted to almost namedrop in the album, there are a lot of little references in there from things I was reading or listening to, or inspired me.

Elliott Smith was another huge influence on the way I recorded the vocals, tracked the vocals, the harmonies, the panning, just a lot about the way he wrote and delivered lyrics, that was a big inspiration on the way I approached the vocals on this record. But in terms of authors or poets, there are a couple of references on the record, for instance, the first line of Dust, ‘”the only way to be quiet is to be quick,” is a line from a Frank O’Hara poem, I love him and was definitely inspired by reading his anthology. The line “incarnate devil in a talking snake” is from a Dylan Thomas song, and that whole song was me kind of bastardising a bunch of ideas from a couple of his poems and trying to write lyrics almost Led Zeppelin-esque, very dense, fantasy imagery. Susan Sontag’s journals were another big inspiration for me, I love reading artists’ journals because often they are just so candid about the things they are going through. Reading about her being about sixteen, a child protégé, already in college, and she’s discovering her sexuality as a young woman and then discovering that she’s a gay woman. It’s written in such amazing prose, the honesty of her words is amazing, it really struck a chord with me.

AJT: Do you write journals yourself?
ZCS: I’ve kept journals in the past but I don’t really do it anymore, mostly because I just kept losing them and then being like, “Oh, fuck.”

AJT: Would you ever worry that someone has found them and is reading your personal thoughts?
ZCS: I remember I lost one when I was on tour and I’m convinced that someone stole it because I wrote a setlist in it and put it on the stage. So I’m sure someone out there has my journal. They can keep all those ideas [laughs]. I think this record has a real journal feel to it because I’d write a lot of ideas down on my phone, on the notepad, I’d always write down ideas and try make them rhyme and put them in a couplet so it would be easier to use later in a song. I wrote down lyrics the same way I would write a journal, I didn’t sit down and write them all at once, it’s just thoughts I’ve accumulated over like, two and a half years. It’s all there in my lyrics, my thoughts are already out there for people to read.

Top image: all clothing Cole’s own
Additional fashion credits: grooming Liz Lazo

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