His face obscured by the dirty yellow hoodie he’d been wearing all week, Cole Smith stood on stage at the Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds on March 22, 2016, and said, “This is gonna be the worst show we’ve ever done.” Unhappy with the venue’s sound, DIIV‘s frontman apologised after every song until he could stand it no longer. He forced the band to stop, becoming tearful in the process. They finished the set and made it through gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but three days later 13 remaining tour dates were suddenly cancelled “due to an urgent health issue”. Then came a familiar flurry of questions and disappointment among fans who had seen it all before.
One day shy of exactly six months later, Cole is on stage in Brighton wearing a smile that hints things have changed. “I don’t think we’ve ever played successfully here,” he says, referencing two scrapped gigs during a turbulent 2013, when DIIV pulled a European tour and appearances at Reading and Leeds and Cole was arrested for heroin possession. “Thank you so much,” he continues, acknowledging the crowd’s patience from underneath the brim of a bucket hat that’s half weekend camping trip, half Madchester dad. The ensuing noise says all is forgiven.
It persists for the duration of a near 90-minute set, bouncing off the walls of Concorde 2 and through the open window into the salty breeze outside. The boozy mass of kids in clothes as baggy as the band’s shout along to the riffs, trying to outdo guitarists Cole, Andrew Bailey and Colin Caulfield. The combination of a room full of Friday night excitement and the power and synchronicity of a good DIIV show – you can really feel it when this band are on form – evokes a sense of release, as if some long-pent up force is finally being unshackled.
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Every song connects. From the sedative first strum of instrumental intro ‘(Druunn Pt. II)’ to the wash of ‘Wait’, DIIV’s tangle of melody, groove and noisy harshness gets everyone right in the guts. It feels like it did when they first came to Britain in 2012 – before the drugs, controversy and sideshow took hold – only tighter, louder and more all-encompassing. DIIV’s thing when they started was to play as many shows as possible, driven by Cole’s desire to hone a simple, guitar-based sound that only his band would be capable of. The noise they make here has to be what he had in mind.
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They surpass it two days later in London, at the good old grubby and reliable Electric Ballroom. Girls proved that emotional, druggy, outsider music could work in this big, air-conditioned room with mirrored walls in 2011, and DIIV do exactly the same. The early deluge of ‘Under The Sun’, ‘How Long Have You Known?’ and ‘Dopamine’ – their three most accessible songs – proves they can do ‘sticky dancefloor hit’ as well as, say, Tame Impala or The Cribs. Although it’s hardly a genius move, delivering them together must be a handy mini DIIV dossier for any of the more casual ears in the room.
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Not that there are many. This is another shrill crowd full of DIIV freaks (including Gavin And Stacey‘s Matt Horne, who loiters near the back). The usual requests section is met with an impenetrable clamour for the deep cuts. The band do their best to decipher every one, and we get a rare verse of meditative ‘Oshin’ track ‘Air Conditioning’, before a roll through ‘Take Your Time’ and a shout out for a fan the band saved from being chucked out of the previous night’s show at XOYO. “This is so fucking fun,” Cole says, for the seventh time. Seasoned observers will know the frontman likes to parrot the band’s name and hometown at every available opportunity, but he’s forgiven a little repetition here. “Fucking fun” is just right.
The frequent patter – also from Bailey, Colin and even drummer Ben Newman, at one point – gives a sharper sense of connection than in Brighton. “That was a sad song,” Cole says quietly after Elliott Smith homage ‘Healthy Moon’. Before the glorious nightmare of ‘Dust’ – written about overdosing – he mentions the stigma attached to his drug use by a review of March’s London show at Heaven. He’s not moaning, but articulating his view that addiction should be be understood rather than discriminated against.
The 31-year-old has always been outspoken, using interviews as a way to encourage as many people as he can into DIIV’s world. It doesn’t always work and there’s been a lot of backlash, but perhaps this slick, quietly-arranged UK comeback marks the end of a chapter.
DIIV’s story so far plays out via home-recorded videos splashed onto a projector screen behind Newman. There’s ex-drummer Colby Hewitt, Cole’s ex-girlfriend Sky Ferreira, the van he was arrested in, the upstate hideaway that hosted the peak of his addiction and countless shots of his grimy, grinning bandmates.
The images say, ‘If you’re interested in DIIV, we want to show you everything.’ February’s candid, indulgent ‘Is The Is Are‘ was designed to portray the impact of addiction for the same reason. The music holds it all together, a hypnotic, hissing exploration of what guitars and amplifiers can do. It’s the kind of experience Cole’s envisioned all along, and it’s worth holding out for.