It’s strange to think that DIIV have only released one album so far. The stories that swirl around them as a band – addiction, drug arrests, rehab, cancelled recording sessions, outspoken interviews, and singer-songwriter-model girlfriends – are ones you’d often associate with a band maybe three albums deep. Now on the verge of releasing a double LP, ‘Is The Is Are’, 2016 is the year the band’s output will match the rep.
When we meet in east London, over a heroically bizarre lunch of grilled asparagus dipped in Marmite, frontman Zachary Cole Smith is bright-eyed and enthusiastic – a far cry from the image that’s been peddled in the media. He’s joined by keyboardist Colin Caulfield; both are singing the praises of their South American fans having just rounded off a tour there, taking in towns like Santiago, Lima, Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
They describe the crowds there as “electric” and talk about how incredible a tool the internet is for spreading music across the world; they’re equally keen for ‘Is The Is Are’ to get out into the ether. There’s a description of the up-coming LP on DIIV’s Tumblr, which Smith says is “long and rambling”; but having had the record on repeat for a while now, I think it’s a pretty good description:
“It is a happy record, a sad record, a happysad, sadhappy, mad, glad, quiet, mad, dark, glad, poppy, fast, slow, heavy, fast, peaceful, angry, chaotic, beautiful, lost/found, ugly, dry, wet, fuck, fast, dead, heartbroken, in love, loud, quiet, loud, loudquiet, quietloud, happy, mad, quiet, fuck, and loud record.”
“Most importantly it’s really diverse,” Smith tells me. “In some ways I think there’s something for everyone but in others it’s more a sense of progression – every song is recognisably DIIV but it questions the boundaries of what our music can be.”
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It questions the boundaries of what our music can be...
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Smith sees it as a very different record to 2012’s ‘Oshin’, not just in sheer length, but in its very nature: “I wanted to give people a lot. And something really honest. Be really forthright, super transparent to people,” he says. “The first record was hiding a bit behind an image, behind a sound – the vocals being really textural, and a sort of ambient thing. I didn’t want it to be about me as a person. The lyrics were almost like universal truths, not personal.
“With this record I wanted to do the opposite, I wanted to show my own humanity.”
He talks about the challenge he gave himself by aiming for a double record – a format so easy to criticise, with fewer places to hide in among all that space. Ultimately though, it was something he needed to do; it was a matter of survival. “I honestly felt like this was life or death – like this record would save my soul – redemption, salvation after everything that happened,” he says, without cynicism.
“I knew that making a new record was the only way of changing the conversation, bringing it back to the music. Otherwise I was doomed forever to be a footnote, a dumb story. Making a good record was my chance to change that up.”
And it is a good record, a really good one. The diversity Smith talks about is there, and drives it forward, making it feel shorter than its 19 tracks. Swooping guitars glide behind his soft mumblings on ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)’, while bright, shimmering ‘Dopamine’ drives forward, belying the darker (and very literal) subject matter: “Buried deep in a heroin sleep... Fixing now to mix the white and brown... Got so high I finally felt like myself.”
‘Blue Boredom’ features his girlfriend, Sky Ferreira; her breathy, enigmatic vocals in a near-trance stream of consciousness, with more than a hint of Kim Gordon coming through. ‘Healthy Moon’ is bitter-sweet and melancholic, you can hear that redemptive quality Smith attributes to the record, his vocals like a little boy lost now found. On ‘Dust’ it’s a totally different Smith – this time confrontational and urgent alongside wailing. It’s almost a different voice.
As Caulfield astutely points out: “The record doesn’t suffer from the ambition that Cole’s talking about at all – all the songs feel like they belong together.” And they were careful to avoid the pitfalls of a lengthy LP. “We’ve been talking about other long albums in history, like ‘All Things Must Pass’ [George Harrison’s 1970 triple album),” says Caulfield. “Even though it’s a great record, one of my favourite records, there are definitely a few filler tracks – like ‘Thanks For The Pepperoni’.”
They cite ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ – taking in a ballsy two hours – as what the new record most definitely is not; likening it more to Fleetwood Mac’s rock/pop/new wave collage, ‘Tusk’, or Can’s mysterious, experimental, ‘Tago Mago’. “When I was looking at how long I wanted the record to be I looked at those as perfect double albums,” says Smith. “They were exactly the same length – 75 minutes – so that’s how long we had.”
“I don’t think we could fit all the stuff I had to say in a single record. And it allows for more diversity in the songs – if you had a single record this diverse it would just feel scattered. It allows the sound to develop over time and for us to do much more. I always feel like this record will be really important to us, even in the future when we’ve made more music.”
Smith spent a lot of time listening to Elliot Smith while writing and producing ‘Is The Is Are’, and that’s bled into the sound – “The way he tracks his vocals, the way he writes lyrics, the way he layers and stacks harmonies” – as well as Sonic Youth’s 1985 LP, ‘Bad Moon Rising’: “It has this really raw, organic character – it just sounds like a band in a room. You can hear the space, you can hear the amp, you can hear its character.”
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He tells me about experimenting with different amps, in different parts of the studio, standing far away and right up close. One was wrapped in chicken wire, threatening to electrocute users at any second, but the experimentation was vital. “The vibe and ambience of this record was really important, and it was hard to capture,” says Smith. “I didn’t want it to sound slick or over produced. I wanted it to sound human and homemade. And that’s the key to this album, I wanted it to show humanity, imperfect and flawed – the album title, the way it was recorded, I wanted every element to sound human, then hopefully people can empathise with me rather than judging me.”
He is, of course, referring to the fall-out of the last few years, to his well-documented struggle with heroin (he’s clean now) that’s almost inevitably seen him compared to Kurt Cobain – the blonde hair, the grunge aesthetic, the smack. “I’ve been asked a lot about hero worship and doomed rock stars,” Smith says. “But for me a lot of the stuff I went through – like being in rehab – made those musicians much more real. Less like rock gods and more like people, with their own set of flaws, going through their own shit.”
Smith refers to Cobain on a first-name basis, and talks about how that over-told story informed his recovery: “It sends you in a different direction.” He describes drugs and music as being “so intimately tied together” and how he wanted to – with this LP – introduce a new narrative that doesn’t glamorise or romanticise drugs, which is “human, real, really fucked up”.
Lyrically, he says, he felt bound to projecting this message, that this struggle was something he had to write about and express in order to come through it: “In some ways I really had no choice, it was done for me. It was a hard situation to come out of and recover from, but this record was the light at the end of the tunnel – I knew that all I had to do was this and then all that shit would be over. I saw the record being done as the moment when all that shit would be behind me.”
“I hope that people leave it feeling like they understand what happened to me a bit better, and that it’ll steer them away from wanting to get into drugs.”
But ‘Is The Is Are’ is not all darkness; that would be far too simple. The light at the end of the tunnel is there throughout, offering hope. “What’s funny about that period of my life - that the record’s about, and has been discussed by everybody – is that it was really up and down,” says Smith. “In some ways, some of the best moments of my life happened then – the band was doing really well, I was travelling, having fun... I fell in love.”
“All this big amazing stuff happening, while I also had this internal struggle that I kept hidden. So it’s not all negative – that’s why I’m trying to recast it. It wasn’t all dark or bad.”
What they really want to talk about – but sound like they’re rarely asked – is the music. Smith describes the next single as a “straight up love song”; Caulfield’s got a few favourite tracks: “I really love ‘Bent’ and ‘Take Your Time’ – they both jam out and build, but have really hooky qualities. The one with Sky has this cycle of the bassline that ebbs and flows, and her vocal does the same thing – there’s an amazing song arc there, even though there’s no real pop structure to it.”
And that’s what this record is about: redemption, rebirth, and returning to the music.
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Words: Emma Finamore
'Is The Is Are' will be released on February 5th.