DIIV Interview: Zachary Cole Smith On Heroin Addiction, Recovery Culture And Channeling Nirvana On New Album ‘Is The Is Are’

January 2013. Diiv frontman Zachary Cole Smith is on heroin, alone in a remote house two hours north of New York. The heating is broken and there’s no phone signal. He’s housesitting for a friend and recording songs for his band’s second album ‘Is The Is Are’. It’s the beginning of the most turbulent period of his life so far.

In a few weeks, his new relationship with singer and model Sky Ferreira, who he met after a mutual friend suggested they collaborate, becomes public knowledge. In April, Cole (he doesn’t use his first name) cancels a European tour, and in May he sacks his manager (whose clients include Lou Reed, who died later that year). On September 13 – a Friday – he and Ferreira are arrested driving to a Diiv show in Cole’s unlicensed van, where they are found with heroin and ecstasy (Ferreira’s charges are later dropped, Cole’s are not). He leaves custody and plays the gig wearing a balaclava and oversized parka, his bandmates – guitarist Andrew Bailey, bassist Devin Ruben Perez, drummer Colby Hewitt and keyboardist Colin Caulfield – wear dead-eyed expressions, adding to the night’s sinister feel.

The rest the year is taken up with San Francisco recording sessions with ex-Girls bassist Chet ‘JR’ White (abandoned because the group spent the whole time getting high), outspoken interviews, more cancelled dates and plenty of press attention and online backlash. All this is followed, in December 2014, by reports of Perez making misogynist, racist and homophobic comments on messageboard 4chan – actions Cole called “inexcusable” in a statement that also said the bassist’s future in the band was being discussed. Perez remains, but it’s fair to say preparations for ‘Is The Is Are’ – originally intended for release in 2013 – aren’t going to plan.

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Fifteen months later – in April 2015 – the 30-year-old singer is in Strange Weather studio in Brooklyn, New York. Over a three-week period, he and engineer Daniel Schlett – who engineered Diiv’s 2012 debut ‘Oshin’ – have painstakingly recorded 19 songs, with Cole playing and producing everything. Memories of that house upstate are fading.

“I definitely have weird memories about that time,” he says down the phone. “I was doing a lot of drugs and was in a weird zone mentally. It’s hard to make sense of anything being so far out on drugs.” After a pause, he adds that he was “making a lot of video art”. Kind of. He adds: “I have footage of that whole time, I watch it and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ I was listening to the same record over and over, out of my fucking brain, alone.”

The album in question, Sonic Youth’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ from 1985, is a huge influence on Diiv’s new music, particularly on a sludgy untitled track featuring vocals from 22-year-old Ferreira. When we speak, she hasn’t yet recorded her parts, and is in Los Angeles working on her own album with producers including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and Ride guitarist Andy Bell. He says their relationship is “the best thing I have”, but the couple are struggling, both with being apart and navigating Cole’s battle to stay clean. If he fails, he fears he’ll lose her. “Drugs is a door you can never close once it’s open. If a person isn’t feeling you’re being honest with them or they’re loved, then they can be gone. It’s worrying,” he says.

Cole does most of his worrying in Daddy’s, a bar near the studio. “I think about all the messed-up shit there – money, drugs, my band…”

Does being clean not include alcohol then?

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“Being sober for me doesn’t mean not drinking. For some people, it means being 100 per cent off everything, but for me it means not doing smack.”

He adds that he and his bandmates all still smoke weed: “Doing that doesn’t make me wanna go score smack on the corner. I think I’m going against a lot of general wisdom about recovery culture, but whatever.”

Cole doesn’t identify with recovery culture. He’s occasionally missed rehab and probation meetings since being arrested and says, “I respect it and it does work, but it doesn’t do it for me. I can’t take part in anything where the first step is admitting you’re powerless. You’re not. It’s about empowering yourself to get better.”

He admits that there’s still a lot pointing him in the wrong direction, but concedes Diiv “will always make drugs music”. “It’s just how my mind works. A lot of the songs are about drugs or experiences surrounding drugs. I feel like us being called druggy has more to do with our music being psychedelic.”

But then he says he’s “by no means the only member of Diiv dealing with addiction”, explaining that guitarist Bailey was “drinking himself to death”, and emerged from rehab two years ago “a much better person”. Drummer Hewitt has also had his share of struggles. “Drugs are something we all have in common,” Cole finishes. “I don’t know whether we’re using or not influences the songs, but it might affect whether we can get to a show on time. Or even make it onstage.”

In terms of Ferreira, Cole stresses his girlfriend doesn’t use drugs. “Sky’s never touched… even though her charges were dropped people still call her a junkie. We couldn’t say anything after we got arrested and she’s sick of dealing with drugs – she’s suffered enough.” Cole accepts full responsibility for the arrest and admits to “100 per cent fucking Sky over”.

The couple are still getting over it. While working on her record, Ferreira got an apartment in Los Angeles and Cole freaked out, fearing she’d moved to California for good. “She wanted to make sure I wasn’t using. I thought she’d break up with me and be like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t need this.’ And she really doesn’t. But things are good now.”

Does that mean he’s clean?

“Yeah…” he hesitates. “Yeah.”

Nearly eight weeks later, Diiv turn up for their first European performance in two years on time and just about in one piece (Hewitt is absent, replaced by ‘Oshin’ session player Ben Wolf). Gazing over a busy crowd at the Mediterranean Sea from the Pitchfork stage at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival, the frontman grins and waves dorkily. Their early-evening set contains eight new songs, including the heavy ‘Waste Of Breath’ and a disorientating swirl of intertwining guitars currently called ‘The Bendy Song’. The tracks swim into each other in the same way those on ‘Oshin’ do, and the noise is urgent and untameable. As the band career around the stage, Ferreira peeps through a gap in the curtains at the back.

Afterwards, we meet by the backstage gate. Diiv emerge one by one, dysfunctional and bedraggled. First Perez lopes past, followed by Caulfield, who snaps photos on his phone and looks noticeably cleaner than his bandmates. A grinning Bailey staggers by, a mess of gangly limbs, then Ferreira leaves for the hotel. A while later, after texting to apologise, Cole arrives, wearing huge ripped trousers, a giant Mickey Mouse T-shirt that fits like a nightgown and a shirt and sleeveless denim jacket draped over it. Straggly stubble dangles from his chin and his shoulder-length hair is dyed dirty blonde. The fresh-faced kid with the choppy bowl cut and smooth skin from Diiv’s early band photos is long gone.

Cole, who doesn’t seem bothered by which band members made it to Spain, says Hewitt isn’t here because he’s “dealing with several different drug addictions right now”. The situation sounds unsavoury and uncertain. During our earlier photoshoot, Cole specified he didn’t want his bandmates included, posing solo except for a few frames with Bailey, who he’s known since school. Cole spoke to the others onstage earlier, but off it he seems very much alone.

Via the bar, we walk across the site to watch Cole’s friend and Captured Tracks labelmate Mac DeMarco. Every few seconds, we’re stopped by frothing fans. One approaches, bows his head and mutters, “Thank you, your music is everything.” The singer smiles and says, “Sure, bro,” and the kid’s face lights up, offering a glimpse of the adulation Cole referenced in a 2013 interview when he compared his burgeoning fame to his idol Kurt Cobain’s.

Cole knows he’s nowhere near Cobain’s level, but wants one day to reach it, and hopes that ‘Is The Is Are’ will give people more access to him than ever, mirroring the way Nirvana fans obsessed over the frontman. To do so, he’s paying tribute to Cobain’s songwriting on it. “The record is universal, some lyrics follow the Kurt Cobain model based on syntax and content, sometimes it’s about what sounds best. Sky being on the album helps with that too,” he explains.

For Cole, Ferreira’s influence is vital. Her love of lyrics led him to put extra emphasis on his own, removing some of the reverb that smothered those on ‘Oshin’ to expose its follow-up’s “deeply personal stories”. One song is even influenced by a psychic telling Ferreira Cole would lose a friend – also a recovering addict – if he didn’t stop using drugs himself. “She makes me hear songs I love in a new way,” he explains, “I want my album to connect with her like that.”

Right on cue, his phone buzzes with a text from Ferreira, and minutes later she arrives and they head off into the festival arm-in-arm.

The next day, Diiv head to Italy for two shows, before travelling to Britain for their first gigs here, including a festival appearance at Field Day, since the two they played in 2013 (at Latitude and T In The Park). While in Italy, reports emerge that Diiv are asking for $10,000 to support New York theatre company Household, and online commentators speculate that the money will be spent on drugs (“Good way to pay for smack,” says one). Cole tweets to clarify their involvement was not intended to make money, only to help raise awareness for the project, which is run by a friend. At the same time, Perez mysteriously tweets Hookworms frontman MJ saying “making you upset makes me happier than literally anything in this world but maybe a little less than watching you bleed actually”. Diiv are due to play with Hookworms at Field Day, and Cole wades in to apologise.

With ‘Is The Is Are”s September release date approaching fast, Cole can’t afford to lose control of Diiv. He’s determined not to, and as he drags his rag-tag group back out on the road and from one problem to the next, he’s desperate to hold it together.

A few days after we meet, Cole sends an email that gives the impression he will, whatever the circumstances. ‘Is The Is Are’ is too important for him to throw it all away. “I poured my heart and soul into it. It’s a perfect album, to me,” he says, “It’s the real deal.”

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