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Diiv's Zachary Cole Smith on heroin, Kurt Cobain and taking control

The New York indie band's troubled frontman tells us how he fought through addiction to make one of 2016’s best albums, ‘Is the Is Are’

James Manning
Written by
James Manning

‘FUBAR’ spell the beads around Zachary Cole Smith’s skinny wrist in big, friendly letters. Something about that sums up the Diiv founder and frontman nicely: both the childlike wonder of his music, and the fact that Cole (as everyone calls him) spent a considerable chunk of the last few years fucked up beyond all recognition.

In 2012 Diiv released their debut album ‘Oshin’. With the dreamy reverb haze of Slowdive and a pulsing energy that one-upped fellow Brooklynites like The Drums or Crystal Stilts, it was a thing of joy: ‘one long pleasurable sigh of music’ said our review at the time. But as the praise mounted, Smith was getting in over his head. Drugs had broken into his life and changed the locks. In September 2013 he and his girlfriend, the singer Sky Ferreira, were pulled over and arrested. In their van (police reported) were 42 bags of heroin.

‘My worst fear was being just a footnote,’ says Smith now, ‘where the first thing when you mention my name is, “Oh yeah, he got arrested with Sky Ferreira for…’ He trails off. We’re midway through discussing ‘Is the Is Are’, Diiv’s superb, expansive new album, produced by Smith and based ‘a hundred percent’ on his long parabola through addiction and recovery. He’s 31 but looks much younger, with baggy clothes and wide, sincere eyes. His drawn-out answers to my questions suggest he’s done plenty of thinking over the last few years. Though he’s still uncertain about a lot, one thing’s for sure: the ever-changing sprawl of ‘Is the Is Are’ confirms Smith and Diiv as much more than a footnote.

The new album is enormous: 17 tracks long. Was that always the plan?
‘Yeah. It was such a long process and there was so much pressure: all this stuff that all these different people wanted it to be. It really wasn’t easy at all. So it was conceived as a double album from the very beginning. I felt that by doing something risky, it would help people root for me. Critics love to tear a double album apart.’

Especially when it’s so focused on your own life. Some people might call that self-indulgent.
‘Right, totally. Making a new entry in the world of drugs and rock ’n’ roll is such a cliché at this point, but I wanted to show the human element of it. That comes from my own fixation on Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. I was in rehab and I wanted to climb the fence and escape like Kurt Cobain did. I could see the human decisions these rock god-type people were making. And I want people to see me like that, rather than judge me: I want to be human, and I want people to see drugs and music as a complete picture, from beginning to end.’

Zachary Cole Smith, Diiv

‘You can google my name and see my mugshot. There’s nothing cool about that’

How do you do that without glamourising drugs?
‘I mean, just looking at my biography, there’s nothing glamorous about that. You can google my name and see my mugshot: me from every angle looking like an idiot, wearing weird shit. There’s nothing cool about that at all. It’s humiliating. In order to make things glamorous you have to exclude certain information, and there’s nothing I can hide. People can access the whole story on the internet.’

What have you done do to counter that?
‘I wanted to take control of the narrative and be as transparent as possible, and root the songs in reality. I feel like any sense of mystery around us was completely smashed, so all I can do is present myself as I really am, and hope that people will respect that at least.’

But you didn’t choose that situation, did you?
‘No. I think I was totally forced into that. I wouldn’t have chosen any of that stuff for myself. But now the record’s done, the light at the end of the tunnel is so close. Just making this record was so crazy hard, and I feel really refreshed being able to talk about shit as it is, because there’s no narrative I have to remember. When somebody asks me a question, I just answer it. Sometimes being honest just feels so good.’

Diiv play Heaven on Fri Mar 18. 'Is the Is Are' is out now.

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