Taking in police cells, tabloids and fan backlash, it’s been a rocky road to album two for Brooklyn quintet Diiv. NME’s Ben Homewood catches up with singer and chief songwriter Zachary Cole Smith as the record nears completion to find out if it’s all been worthwhile…
“Can you stop playing? I’m doing a phone interview; give me 15 minutes.” Zachary Cole Smith is picking his way between amps and instruments inside Strange Weather Studios in Brooklyn, New York, trying to find a quiet place to talk. Diiv’s frontman has underestimated how long studio engineer Daniel Schlett will have to keep quiet – our call lasts nearly two hours. There’s a lot to say.
Cole (he doesn’t use his first name) has been working on the follow-up to Diiv’s 2012 debut ‘Oshin’ for two years, and is nearing the end of a process that crashed to a halt in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, 2013 when he and his girlfriend Sky Ferreira were arrested for drugs and driving offences (possession of heroin and ecstasy and driving without a licence) in Saugerties, New York. “I couldn’t write anything for a year afterwards,” he explains. For Cole, who faced a backlash from fans after the arrest and is still battling to stay clean from heroin, Diiv’s second record has provided a much-needed escape. “I know I have to stay alive at least until the album’s done. This is one shot at immortality, if I ever have one, I know it’s by far the most important thing I’ll ever do. That’s very empowering, no matter what fucked-up shit is going on.”
After demo sessions in March in Los Angeles with his bandmates (guitarist Andrew Bailey, bassist Devin Ruben Perez, drummer Colby Hewitt and keyboardist Colin Caulfield), Cole returned to Brooklyn to record and produce the still-untitled album alone. Working with Schlett (who engineered ‘Oshin’) the 29-year-old has spent a month in the studio, much longer than the six days it took to record Diiv’s debut. The extra time has helped: “We have 19 songs, it’s a really cool-sounding record. The vocals and lyrics are more pronounced; some songs deal with drugs and their repercussions, which are fucking tragic. That guitar-based Diiv sound is still there, but we’ve expanded its parameters.” Two of the new tracks – ‘Dust’ and ‘Under The Sun’ – have been in the band’s live set for a year, but the heavy-rock sound of the latter has been “stripped away” on the album, which Cole excitedly describes as “real diverse”.
The breadth of its sound is the result of exhaustive experimenting with “different approaches to the guitar”, an instrument Cole has always fetishised. “We’ve got guitar feedback down to a science, it’s been a big part in determining the new songs’ structure. ‘Bright Side’ is this punk track built on two samples and a meandering bass part. The last song, ‘Waste Of Breath’, is like nothing we’ve ever written, the guitar is so weird, slow and heavy, then real sludgy. It’s like ‘Ghost Bitch’ from Sonic Youth’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, that record has been a huge inspiration.” The New York noise legends’ influence extends further than guitars. “There are some Kim Gordon-type vocals on one song, Sky will be doing those. It’s a spoken-word thing. I’m so proud, she inspires me every day,” he says, before pausing and almost inaudibly adding, “I’m so grateful to her.”
Talking about Ferreira is clearly emotional – she is currently living in Los Angeles and the couple rarely see each other – but with her help, Cole is finally jump-starting Diiv back into life. “She keeps me going,” he finishes. “Every day is a struggle, but I have to be the best I can, stay sober and finish this record.”