On their 2012 debut full-length, Oshin, DIIV’s densely textured approach — swirling, feedback-drenched maelstroms of guitar noise; a steady, almost motorik rhythmic pulse; breathy vocals shrouded in a haze of murk — led to the Brooklyn-based band being tagged with signifiers like dream pop and shoegaze. But while frontman Zachary Cole Smith acknowledges that these styles are where he “takes some cues from, in terms of tone and sound,” the 31-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist says he is actually striving for something more forward-looking.
When it comes to the new Is the Is Are, the second studio effort from the band originally named Dive (after the Nirvana song), he says, “This record is almost like me making a case for the existence of guitar music in 2016. Because right now, it’s very much about looking backwards; there’s a lot of retro involved. And I’m not interested in, like, chuggy chords with blues licks over it. I think that’s been done and done and done so many times, it just really has no meaning anymore. I wanted to take a new approach to the instrument. I wanted to take risks.”
Which meant, in this case, making a different sort of album. Smith says that Oshin, on which his vocals were bathed in reverb and buried deep in the mix, “almost functioned like an instrumental record — it had this very liquid feel where it washed over you.” For Is the Is Are, however, he had another approach in mind: “One reference point I brought up when we were making it was Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising — the kind of ominous, feedback-y sound they had on that record,” he says. “I was also influenced by old Boo Radleys albums, where over the course of it, you could almost hear the amps slowly dying because they’d been turned up too high. There’s something really punk about that.”
Another change this time around was that Smith opted to put greater emphasis on his vocals — a move that was, he says, in part influenced by his girlfriend, singer, actress and model Sky Ferreira. “When I first met Sky, I noticed she listened to music way different than I did,” he says. “The first thing she hears are the lyrics, whereas I tend to never even think about what someone’s singing. It was a new way of listening that blew my mind. So I made this record for people like her. Plus, I had a lot to say this time, so I wanted to put the focus there.”
Much of what Smith has to say on Is the Is Are centers around his struggles with drugs — in a very public 2013 incident, the singer was busted with heroin while driving with Ferreira in upstate New York; he later underwent court-ordered rehab. His despair and also desperation is palpable on tracks like the portentous, feedback drenched “Dust” (“I know I gotta kick but I can’t get sick”) and the droning, hollowed-out “Mire (Grant’s Song)” (“I was high but now I feel low/My own private I dunno”). In Smith’s estimation, writing about this part of his life “wasn’t really a choice,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t want to get arrested and go to jail and have my mug shot on the front page of every music website, but after that happened … you know, that became the story of the band.
“And people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just following this classic rock & roll cliché archetype,’ ” he continues. “And, yeah, it is a cliché archetype, but there’s a reason for that — drugs are an extremely easy hole to fall into. And for me, taking that period of my life and breaking it down, exploring it … I found it be a really rich and inspiring starting point for the record.”
And yet, despite the subject matter, the textured waves of sound and the tendency to bear down on trancelike, repetitive rhythms for long stretches of time, Smith insists that DIIV should not be seen as a band that’s just about “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” In fact, he says, “If you look under all of it, at our core we’re like a punk band — just guitars, bass, drums and driving beats. And the music’s designed so that we can play in a basement and sound great or play in a fucking arena and sound great. And we’ll always sound like us. Like, we could go up onstage at a U2 show, punch the Edge in the face, steal his guitar and play on all the band’s gear, and we would still sound like DIIV.”
“Drugs are an extremely easy hole to fall into.”
If he sounds overly — perhaps even violently — confident in his own musical sound and vision, Smith also admits that, until he started writing Is the Is Are, he didn’t even consider himself a musician at all. “When I made Oshin, I think I was more of a hobbyist,” he says. “But for this album it was like, ‘Oh, fuck, there’s actually an expectation here for me to make music now!’ And while DIIV is his main priority, in recent years Smith has explored other pursuits, including directing music videos and working as a model — he has walked runways and appeared in ad campaigns for Saint Laurent. Of the latter, he says, “Modeling’s cool, but I kind of did it almost so that I could empathize with Sky, and see what her life was like. But as far as my creative outlet, this band is where my interest is. And even if DIIV didn’t exist anymore, I’d still be writing music.”
That said, Smith also acknowledges that music might be a temporary outlet for him. “I know music is something that’s mostly for young people,” he says. “It’s a tough world to kind of grow old into. So I’ve thought about being a teacher in the future. Maybe working with kids or something.”