- Words Russell Dean Stone
- Photography Alexis Jade Gross
With their heads firmly above water, DIIV’s Cole and Colin discuss addiction, moving to the city of angels, and the mellow metal of their third album in Notion 86!
Shoegazers DIIV first set sail in 2011 as the solo project of lead singer and guitarist Cole (AKA Zachary Cole Smith who goes by his middle name), before being fully fleshed out with additional recruits for their 2012 debut album, Oshin (a dream-pop record awash with melodic guitars). Photoshoots with the likes of Ryan McGinley ensued, along with a much-documented relationship with Sky Ferreira, cementing Cole’s status as an indie darling.
But by 2013 the boat began to rock, as Cole’s private struggles with addiction spilled over into public view when he and Ferriera were arrested for drug possession. Mugshots surfaced and the tide began to turn against Cole, as many spectators sought to cast him as a villain at a time when empathy for his struggle with addiction was sadly in short supply.
Enter Colin Caulfield, who initially came aboard playing keys, before replacing original bass player, Devin Ruben Perez, after his troubled exit from the line-up. In 2016 DIIV’s second album, Is the Is Are, arrived, facing Cole’s addiction and attempted recovery head-on. But the chaotic tour of the album that followed would culminate in Cole breaking down in tears onstage midtour, with the band cancelling the remaining dates entirely. It seemed DIIV were slipping under.
Cole spent six months in various rehab facilities during 2017 and over the following two years the band were thrown a lifeline as they relocated from New York to Los Angeles. The heavier third album they wrote there, Deceiver, is a testament to self-resurrection and the power of honesty. The band’s first foray into writing collectively, and their first working with an outside producer, Sonny Diperri (My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails), Deceiver is loaded with songs that use the personal to address broader issues like climate catastrophe and cycles of addiction.
The road to recovery is never a straightforward and DIIV’s triumphant return, along with Cole’s welcome road to recovery, is a riotous thing!
RDS: Have you figured out how to talk about this record yet? Were you constantly dissecting while writing and recording?
CC: A little bit — that was just part of the process because the songs went through many revisions and between those days of rehearsing them, we were just talking in-depth about what was working and what wasn’t working.
RDS: Were you guilty of overthinking?
ZCS: For sure, but that was the fun of it, kind of laser focusing on every little part of the song. We’d digest it all at the end of the day. We would leave the studio and be like ‘did we just fuck up?’, and then talk it through and digest it, then show up in the morning and listen to it and be like ‘okay’.
CC: We were careful not to go too far too. We were talking the whole time about the danger of sterilising the songs.
ZCS: And we had to be finished by a certain period of time. When you’re in the studio it’s a constant feeling of clock-ticking because it’s a lot of money, you’re thinking about it all the time. That helped focus us. That’s a huge part of music — someone has to take it away from you at some point.
CC: This time around we had semi ambitious ideas for the songs that felt out of reach at first, so they still feel fresh because we really pushed ourselves. It wasn’t really a comfortable process. It was really fun, but we were definitely going out of our comfort zone.
RDS: How did writing as a group change things?
CC: The approach this time was that if the idea was good, it got used, regardless of who came up with it. Which was very different because Cole had done everything before, but this time it was working — it was very freeing.
ZCS: We all had to be open to criticism. Being cool with saying to somebody else ‘your idea sucks’ and nobody was protective of anything, because if you said that then you’d at least have to have an idea of what was wrong with it. The record’s intense and serious at parts but making the record was really fun.
CC: Usually it was more like ‘this idea is good because’, rather than ‘this idea is bad because’. It was usually positive first.
RDS: What would you say to the haters who question why Cole didn’t do it alone?
CC: Cole and I wrote a bunch of it together, especially vocal melodies, but I don’t think I could have written for the previous record. It took me time to understand the formula of DIIV, it took me time to come up with ideas that fit it. It just felt right this time because we had all been in the band for so long.
ZCS: There’s something about writing for the band that’s a little hard, because there’s an element of the band in the past and something we tried to keep going a little bit is undefinable. It’s, for lack of a better word, kind of a ‘vibe’ thing. You know it when you hear it, otherwise there’s no specific thing. Over time we’ve been learning what the band is and we all had a pretty good way of communicating what we wanted for the record.
RDS: Why the title Deceiver?
ZCS: There’s a lot of different deceiver characters [on the record] — myself included. It was just a theme that united the record.
RDS: Did you discuss whether you should workshop the songs live on tour the way you did, in an age where people can film and upload it before you’ve even finished writing or recording them?
ZCS: At the time we were so excited about the songs being new, we weren’t really considering that they were unfinished.
CC: The benefits of going on tour like that and workshopping in front of people, far outway the disadvantages of someone recording it and 500 people watching it on YouTube.
ZCS: There was a lot of stuff we had to get comfortable with doing — especially playing at slower tempos because we’d always been a frenetic, intense live band, doubling the speed of the songs. It made us uncomfortable and we felt like we were boring people to play so slow, and then playing songs that were very slow on purpose was really interesting because it’s not painful at all, it’s not boring or any of that stuff. It took us a second to get used to that and figuring out what parts felt good to play and what parts felt a little lacking.
RDS: Is honesty important to you?
ZCS: It’s one of the most important things, especially being honest with yourself. It’s part of the whole programme that I’m doing — rigorous honesty in all my affairs — that carries over into everything. Ultimately the idea is that you’re honest up front and it’s hard in the specific moment but it is going to be better in the future. For a long time I was looking for a quick fix for everything. Sometimes the work you have to do is a little hard, but there are reasons for it.
CC: Dishonesty provides a really easy path, but it makes everything harder in the end. It wasn’t just Cole growing up and learning to be honest, it was all of us. That lent itself to a process that, from an outsider’s perspective, probably seems really difficult, everyone having a say, but it actually made everything easier, just being able to be honest about what we felt.
RDS: How has moving to L.A. influenced you?
ZCS: We didn’t make like an ‘L.A.’ record. It’s not like that specific place influenced anything about it, but it was just not being in the grind of New York. We thrived in New York because we had a very inclusive, supportive scene, that allowed us to have a platform fast. It was a self-supporting scene, like all the best underground scenes are, and it started to splinter for various reasons — people and places were priced out, and all the places where we hung out disappeared, people left. In L.A. we were able to find a very similar scene of people that were really supportive. That was the most important thing for us moving to L.A.
CC: Also, practically speaking, L.A. allowed us to really commit ourselves to the record and work on it for long hours. It doesn’t seem like we could have done that in New York, even if we were all like rich. The pace of L.A. let us say ‘hey we’re meeting up today again, after doing it for the previous five days, and yeah we’re gonna do another eight hours today’, and we could do that for months and it felt normal and good. It wouldn’t have happened in New York.
RDS: What have you been dreaming about?
CC: I had a fucked up one last night. I killed someone. The dream wasn’t about the act of killing, the dream was about remembering that I’d killed someone, and I woke up and it was one of those dreams where, for the next ten minutes after, you wake up you’re like ‘did that happen?’. It was really scary.
ZCS: With the state of the world right now, a lot of my dreams have been very anxious. I used to keep a dream journal and write it down, and it helps you remember your dreams, but I’m not so into it anymore. It’s not a good time to be dreaming in 2019.
RDS: Does L.A. feel removed from America and the things going on overall in the US?
CC: It feels impossible. My brother’s a park ranger at Yosemite, this national park in the States, and I went and visited him for ten days. He’s pretty removed, but even there you feel everything that’s going on. Everyone looks at the internet, it’s impossible to avoid it, even if you’re intentionally trying to turn yourself off, there’s this like spectre hanging over.
ZCS: Any person with any empathy whatsoever can not help being affected by a host of shit that happens every day. Distracting yourself or distancing yourself from it is both irresponsible, and privileged, and not possible.
RDS: Would you agree that the conversation about addiction, on the left of politics at least, with Elizabeth Warren and others, is turning much more to the idea of treatment rather than demonising addiction as criminally deviant?
CC: Cole, and addicts in general, got really stigmatised unfairly. Even in the last ten years, it feels different now, where people have more empathy. It’s such an epidemic.
ZCS: It’s still stigmatised, I don’t think it’s fixed. The epidemic is so bad that almost every person is either experiencing addiction themselves or somebody close to them. Everybody has a firsthand account of it, and it’s humanised it, but there are fingers to point and people to be blamed for the way it’s happened and helping people is important but so is examining root causes.
RDS: What have you learnt in recovery?
ZCS: The first thing you learn in recovery, is that you’re powerless over your addiction, and the same wisdom goes for people who are in a relationship with somebody who is experiencing addiction. You can’t control what another person does. You lead by example, or keep your side of the street clean, control the things you can control and then the things that you can’t control, it’s out of your hands. Part of controlling the things you can, is identifying what’s in your control and what’s outside of it. That’s a core tenant of the thing. As more people learn about it, they’re realising that a lot of these older approaches are wrong.
RDS: Does it feel indulgent to be writing personal records when there’s so much trash going on in the world?
CC: That’s one approach to talking about larger issues, framing it as a personal thing.
ZCS: Thematically, any time there’s a larger social issue we want to talk about on the record, there are parallels to the more personal. Any time there’s a problem introduced on the record, I try to put forward a solution.
RDS: Are you geeky about equipment?
ZCS: No! We wanna be, we never had the money to buy pedals and see what they do. It’s actually something we learned on this record, that was pretty exciting, that putting fewer pedals on something is actually able to make it sound louder and better and more interesting. A lot of the record is a good guitar, through a good amp, with maybe one effect at a time. We didn’t have the big pedalboards, we were pulling one pedal off at a time.
RDS: Did producer Sonny have anything to do with that?
CC: A lot. Especially because making a song is such a daunting task in and of itself and it’s really easy to get carried away with technical stuff. It was important for us to get someone like Sonny, who could come in and bare that responsibility, so that we didn’t have to necessarily be thinking about it all the time and we could abstractly talk about what we wanted and he’d help us achieve it.
ZCS: He had a really good way of explaining to us, in a very simple way, how music works and how the stereo field works or whatever. He had a really good way of helping us realise our ideas. A lot of really good decisions were made by just deleting stuff.
RDS: Do you believe in embracing mistakes?
CC: You only get something good when failure is part of it. That goes for life and for this record we made. We failed and made mistakes all the time, and it was important for us to do that, but not get too hard on ourselves for wasting time because there’s never really wasted time as long as you get something out of it. We all approach life that way now. It’s the healthiest, it’s the only way to really do it, otherwise you’re just going to live in regret.
ZCS: Using mistakes as a learning process to help you figure out what about yourself you need to change, or if it’s a song, what about the song needs to change. Making mistakes and accepting mistakes, is a huge core part of the way that I live and the band functions too.
CC: It’s the process of elimination. That’s why there’s that expression ‘everyone’s just figuring it out’ or doing their best. It’s true. No one has it figured out, no band goes into the rehearsal space and [snaps fingers] the songs done. It never happens that way. Making mistakes is just part of it. It’s good.