With Is The Is Are, DIIV’s sophomore LP, indie-noise dreamer Zachary Cole Smith is letting loose a few unwelcome demons.
Taken from the Fame Issue of Wonderland.
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“The first album, Oshin, was about water, if the second was about fire, people would be like, ‘What the fuck? This doesn’t make any sense’,” says Zachary Cole Smith, singer of DIIV, who goes by his middle name rather than his first. He’s got a point.
Over the past two years, Cole has publicly wrestled with drug addiction following his high profile arrest for heroin possession alongside his girlfriend Sky Ferreira, before a gig in New York state. Predictably, the media dragged the couple’s names through the muck. Smith went to ground, entering rehab (though not completing it) and channeling his energy into DIIV’s forthcoming double record, Is The Is Are. “Making something honest and personal, taking everything that happened and running with it. I wanted to make something powerful and potentially transcendent. I saw it as a rebirth, to change the conversation from people talking about everything but the music, to finally talking about the music again.”
The result is a very, very good album. Its 17 tracks are quintessentially DIIV, still dreamily reaching out with broad, open-palmed soundscapes that wind round and round your head with an intense, melodic focus. But many of the songs bear a new, rawer feel that evokes Joy Division at their most taut and cornered. Talking about the music, ironically, bends conversation back to Smith’s troubles: a miasma of drugs, doom and destruction spurred on the record’s darkest, most powerful moments, such as the bleak “Mire (Grant’s Song)” or “Bent (Roi’s Song)”.
“‘Roi’s Song’ was hard to get through. Even recording it, I kept losing it,” Cole admits. “The story behind it is that me and a friend kept bumping into each other at various points when… umm, we were going through the throes of, umm, whatever we were going through and trying to hide it. When I recorded it, my friend was still out on the street and using, and it was sad and dangerous and I was worried what was going to happen to him. It was really important to root everything in real experiences to make the record honest. It felt like all my deepest, darkest secrets were common knowledge [after the arrest]. So in response to that, people needed answers, they needed to know how I got to that point.”
Though on this occasion he wrestles, rather sweetly and awkwardly, with the terminology around his using and recovery, the lyrics on Is The Is Are are rarely abstract, more often brutal stabs of language that both humanise and confront his addiction. He’s just as frank on the band’s Tumblr page, posting lyrics and diary-like entries in an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness. Smith speaks frequently of alienation and miscommunication, acutely aware that his name has been clickbait for two years or more.
“It’s some of the most direct music I’ve made,” he agrees, “because the past couple of years has been me being completely misunderstood, and not feeling like the person I really am. The public’s opinion of me is so far from what I’m actually like.” They see you as a rock star cliché? “Like King Asshole or something,” Cole sighs. “People wanted to know about my personal life but not the actual me, they wanted to create their own version. Like so many others, I’m fascinated with the doomed rock ’n’ roll archetype, but the experiences I’ve had have lent a human element to their stories as well. It changed the way I see them – it’s not glamorous, it’s more sad. The relationship between drugs and rock ’n’ roll is older than God, but this record is kind of a new entry in the discourse.”
Cole’s transparency is admirable – he’s opening up a discussion around drug abuse, a conversation that’s healthy – but it doesn’t stop haters from hating. “Everything I’m talking about on the record doesn’t just exist in the past,” Cole says, quietly. “You’re recovering for the rest of your life, because there’s always the possibility of falling back into where you were. It’s something I struggle with every second. I have vivid dreams every night where I’m out on the street and trying to find the drug dealer… it haunts me. I don’t just want to be ‘the heroin band’, but it was necessary to engage with that stuff. People will take my story and use it as a jumping-off point to criticise. Obviously not everyone is going to like the album but being in such a vulnerable place, it might hurt me. It’s definitely liberating though, to finally say my piece. I never even got to make a statement, everyone who worked with us said, ‘You can’t say anything’. Two years later and I’m allowed to say something, but it’s hard.”
Is The Is Are, Cole admits, is an autobiography, albeit an unfinished one.“‘Under the Sun’ and ‘Loose Ends’ are outside of the drug story, they’re about people and about love. On Tumblr I wrote about ‘Under The Sun’, that I wouldn’t have gotten out of [addiction] without love. The solution, on the record, is love,” Cole – who is still with Ferreira and whom he calls “brilliant” and “inspirational” – insists. “Those tracks are levity, I’m pointing to them as the light in the situation. My life wasn’t all death and doom, it hovered over and permeated everything I did, but me and Sky had great times.” Indeed despite the turmoil, the album is as much a celebration of love as it is a nod to near-death.Three quarters of the way into our chat, he lets out an unexpected laugh. “It’s straight-out recovery speak, but you take one day at a time and that’s what I’m doing… I can’t go back.”
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