Sophomore albums are always difficult, especially when the pressure of the internet is weighing down around you. The pressure was especially inescapable for DIIV - fronted by Zachary Cole Smith, whose second album 'Is The Is Are' has been a long time coming by most considerations. However, it's been worth the wait.
It comes 4 years after the release of 'Oshin', a debut album that captured the attention of the indie press in an unexpected way - Cole tells us, “I just fell into making music. I never even intended to be a musician. I just made a record and people were asking me about the second record, so it's like, 'I guess I'm a musician now, I have to make a second record.'”
A band fraught with scandal would often be considered great for publicity - but not for DIIV, who just want the focus to be on the music and nothing else. Smith never wanted his face to be the face of the band - alas, anonymity is never possible in the world of music that we live in today.
'Is The Is Are' is a natural progression from 'Oshin', however the lyrical importance is made abundantly clear on tracks like 'Bent (Roi's Song)', and 'Blue Boredom (Sky's Song)' - a song that features a spoken lyric by Sky Ferreira (Smith's long-term girlfriend and now collaborator).
We chatted to Cole while he was in Sydney for Laneway 2016, about the release of 'Is The Is Are', his songwriting, and being misunderstood…
COUP DE MAIN: Your new album, 'Is The Is Are', is so immersive, it really draws the listener into your world over the 17 tracks, and I think the fact it's a double album really adds to that. The double album is somewhat of a rarity in music today where so much of the industry is single-based. Why was creating a double album something that you felt so strongly about?
DIIV: Well, there's kind of a bunch of reasons I guess, but most importantly, it'd been so long - it'd been hyped for so long, it just felt like it was really important for me to make a big statement with our second record. The first record was very concise, and the second record I wanted to make something much… We'd been talked about so much, I felt like it was really important for the music to live up to the kind of mythology and hype. So I wanted to make something substantial and take a lot of risks. I wanted the record to have a human quality, and feel almost, like, easy to criticise, and have a vulnerable side. And double albums always have this kind of sense of being bloated or overindulgent, and I wanted a record that would come in with these, kind of easy to criticise on the surface, but ultimately the record when you listen to, it will win you over - and that's kind of how I felt as a person too, I felt like, people have all these judgements about me and feel like I'm all these ways, and feel like people think that I think I'm like their fucking second coming of Kurt Cobain or something - which is just absurd. And then when you meet me, hopefully you don't have those ideas anymore. So I wanted a very substantive record, but I also wanted something that seemed-- that would win you over - and in order to have the amount of diversity that we had on the record, I feel like you have to have that amount of material.
CDM: On 'Bent (Roi's Song)', you sing, “I can't shake the terror of my life fleeting, minute by minute." Do you think fear is one of the strongest human emotions?
DIIV: I think it's very Freudian, I guess, but at the core of every human is the fear of death. That was something that became extremely immediate for me - just like, going through all the rehab programmes and all this stuff, kind of like being involved really deep in hard drugs, there was this ironic dichotomy of having this fear of looming death - just that everyday; one day you're gonna die and your life is ticking away, but at the same time, I'm doing all these drugs and shit that could kill me at any second. It's kind of meant to be slightly ironic. I don't think fear necessarily is a core human emotion, but I do think fear of death is something that is at the core of every person's existence.
CDM: In a Tumblr post where you were talking about the nature of the album title, you said you wanted, "Something that made the reader feel like they weren't grasping my intent, like I was being misunderstood, because I've felt so misunderstood throughout the entirety of DIIV's existence." Has it been a frustrating part of your career to be so misunderstood?
DIIV: Yes, definitely. I mean, like, for me, I didn't start this band because I wanted to be recognised as a person. I didn't want any recognition or celebrity or anything off of it. What I wanted was just to make music, and so, originally I just wanted to hide behind the album cover of the last record, and I wanted it to be almost anonymous. So then when I started kind of taking on this persona, the music started getting associated with me, and it was hard to deal with, for sure. Because it wasn't really what I had wanted, but throughout the time that the band has been in existence, I've tried to be clear about who I am, and be as open as possible with the press, and speak extremely candidly and openly about stuff. I feel like in almost every instance, it's completely backfired, and I feel like people have all these kind of absurd ideas about the way I think about myself, and my own self-identity. I never wanted my face to be at the forefront of this project, but because of everything that happened, it is.
CDM: I guess anonymity is kind of impossible with the Internet.
DIIV: Yeah, it's kind of impossible. So, I just tried to deal with it the best I could by being as honest and open as possible, and trying to explain myself to people. And in a lot of ways it has backfired, because people either think it's a ploy to sell records, or they think it's... I dunno, I think you can never win, but ultimately it's a big struggle of mine - feeling completely misunderstood is at the core of my issue with having this band. People attach all this stuff to me, whether it's things I didn't even do, or things I say but are taken out of context, it's just, no matter what, feeling misunderstood is at the core of this band, and what I really want is to continue to try to explain myself the best I can throughout the life of this band.
CDM: In a recent interview with NME, you said, "I poured my heart and soul into it. It's a perfect album, to me." What do you think defines perfection in music?
DIIV: Well, when I say it's a perfect album, I don't mean it's a perfect album in the context of, you know, The Beatles' 'White Album' is a perfect album and I made an album like that. I think people are completely misunderstanding what I even say when I say that. What I mean is that it's the best I could do. It's perfect, to me. I did the best I could do. I don't say it's a perfect record, there's no flaws, I'm a perfect god-like musician--
CDM: And I think that's impossible in music, because it's made by humans.
DIIV: Obviously. What I mean is, I made the best record that I could make, and I don't have these high aspirations for myself. I don't think I'm some fucking genius. I just fell into making music. I never even intended to be a musician. I just made a record and people were asking me about the second record, so it's like, 'I guess I'm a musician now, I have to make a second record.' Given that context, I did. I worked super fucking hard, and I poured by heart into the record, I made something I feel like is honest and real, and very true to my experience, and I think it's the best I could have done - and that's what I mean by perfect.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT THE RELEASE OF 'IS THE IS ARE'…
CDM: You told Pitchfork that, "I'm not a storyteller. I'm just telling my own story, in a way." How does your songwriting process work? Do you tend to write vocals or melody first?
DIIV: I write and record at the same time. So the music starts as being way separate from the lyrics, and I write-- I have notebooks that I fill with drawings and just words, and stuff that I've written. I write a lot of stuff, and over the course, I write all these demos and make all this music and I try to kind of slowly turn it into an album. While I was making the album, I would take this stuff I've written, and slowly try to add it to the songs. But, for me, the lyrics are just kind of observations I'd write down, or just little nuggets that I'd write down. For me, the most important part of the lyrics-- I'm like part of the Kurt Cobain school of writing lyrics, which is the syntax of the words is more important than... is where it all comes from. So it's about, “I need a word that's this length and blah blah blah.”
CDM: Like syllabic?
DIIV: Yeah, the syllables are important. So I have the rough structure, then I have all these lyrics and all this random poetry, random stuff I've written - and then whatever I can fit into the songs, I try to fit into the songs. But I have a lot of writing that doesn't wind up on the record - I write a lot of words. They're not all lyrics, they're just things that I write down. They don't necessarily rhyme or do anything, but then when I plug them into the songs, they start having a rhyming structure or something.
CDM: The lyrics seem more at the forefront of this album than on 'Oshin'. Did your writing process change between the two records?
DIIV: Yeah, a lot. The first record was like, honestly, it was kind of like a fluke. I just really didn't expect it to go where it went. The first record I wanted to be, in a lot of ways, almost anonymous - just like with the album cover, kind of hiding behind that, not having my voice as a singer being super up front. I wanted it to be almost anonymous. Because of that, I didn't want the lyrics to be about specific things in my life, I wanted them to be about generalised experiences I'd had. So when I'm writing about relationships or somebody leaving you or something, a lot of lyrics are partly about failed relationships I'd had, but they were also about my Dad, and being abandoned as a kid. A lot of the songs are-- some of them are about very specific things, and have very specific digs or words to people, but a lot of them are very generalised. This record, the lyrics were SO important to me to put at the forefront, that they're all extremely specific and they're all very much about stuff that happened to me.
IF D.I.I.V WERE AN ACRONYM, EACH LETTER WOULD STAND FOR…
CDM: It's a very honest record.
DIIV: Yeah, it is.
CDM: There's been some harsh reviews of 'Is The Is Are' floating around on the Internet, and you recently replied to one of them with just a sad face. Do you often read reviews of your own work?
DIIV: Yeah. I just think it can be... when a record like ours is hyped up, I think it's very fashionable to try to find a reason to hate it. And obviously there's so much about me on the Internet that you can turn against me, and you can make me into any person you want. If journalists ask me about Kurt Cobain, I'm gonna talk about Kurt Cobain - and every fucking journalist does. If journalists ask about my history with drugs and everything, I try to be as honest as possible - but to them, they can portray me as being desperate, or this wannabe, or all this shit. They can put words in my mouth, and try to make the record seem like this thing it isn't. But that's so easy to do, and that's so fucking lazy. Like, it's so easy to hate something. It's harder to genuinely appreciate something. So I know that every person who wrote a shitty review, if they had actually just taken a minute and tried to appreciate where I'm coming from or what I've been through and what I'm talking about, they would like the record. But it's just so easy. Music journalists are some of the lazy, most uninspired, dull people I've ever met - not talking about you, obviously.
CDM: I think it's easy for journalists to write a bad review as a click-bait article, because they know that the artist will see it on social media. It's to get a reaction.
DIIV: Right, definitely. It's like, if you're gonna tag me, if you're gonna tag my Twitter handle in a negative review, then they're obviously trying to get a rise out of me, and get attention. And that's not the way to win attention, you know what I mean? There's positive attention and there's negative attention - negative attention is easy, positive attention requires actual hard work.
CDM: Audio engineer Kurt Feldman worked with you on the record and described you as the kind of artist who gets to the end of a project and can't let it go. How do you know when a song, or when an album is complete?
DIIV: I had to have the record literally taken away from me. I am such a perfectionist. I'm such a perfectionist, and the pressure on me to make a great record this time around was so high, that I just wanted every little thing to be perfect. I remixed every song like ten times, and Kurt was unfortunately part of that, because for a while I was having him do 'editions' before I learned I could do them myself.
IF I HAD A DAY OFF IN NEW ZEALAND, I WOULD…
CDM: You were involved in the mixing of the album, which is something you hadn't done before, was it something you wanted to do for the extra control over the record?
DIIV: It was absolutely out of necessity. I had to do it that way, because the record had to be taken away from me - I mean, I completely grossly underestimated how much time it would take us to make this record, so we ran out of time in the studio. I was desperately trying to book engineers and get people working on the record, and I just couldn't find people who were willing to dedicate entire days to mixing songs with me. SO the only option I had was to get the software and do it on my own. Jarvis, a friend who I'd gotten to help me work on the record, was mixing in his kitchen on his laptop, and I was like, "Wait, you can do that?” And he was like, “Yeah.” So that's how I learned I could just get the software and do it on my own. It was about control, completely. I don't know what I'm doing - I don't know about EQ graphs and stuff like that, how to do that stuff, but I'm smart enough I could probably figure it out. But I do know what I want the record to sound like. And somebody who knows all about how to make the record, or how to make records, they know how to work the EQ and they know how to work the stuff, but they don't know what I want it to sound like. So it's just easier for me to do it myself.
CDM: I guess if you know exactly what you want in your head, you want to fulfil that entirely.
DIIV: Yeah, I knew exactly what I wanted the record to sound like.
CDM: 'Dust' is a song that's been around since 2013 when you performed it in live shows. What made you decide to revisit that song for the album?
DIIV: It was always going to be on the album. A lot of the songs on the record do date back that far. 'Valentine' is one of the first songs I wrote. And actually, that song on the record 'Yr Not Far', was the first song I wrote after 'Oshin' came out. I remember writing in a hotel room, on one of the first shows we played after 'Oshin' came out. So the songs do date back, some of them pretty far. The songs were written over a long period of time, and they're kind of all over the place. But 'Dust' is kind of an important part of the record for me because it's kind of an outlier - you know, a lot of people were disappointed that I recorded it differently than I do live, that it's more kind of mellow, and I'm not screaming like I do live. But for me, it's always been important to have the live band be one thing, and the recorded band be kind of another thing. So to make the live version and the studio version of 'Dust' the same wouldn't allow there to be something that surprises people live.
CDM: You often reply to people on Twitter who say things about the misunderstood “racism” of DIIV, asking them to e-mail you directly about the problem. Although the “racism” was something that you weren't at all involved in when it happened, do you feel responsible for the image and reputation of DIIV?
DIIV: I mean, I am DIIV, so when people are saying all this shit about Devin [Ruben Perez] - who's a person of colour - being racist, and it's these white kids, it just… every time I say, "E-mail me," I give a very long and nuanced response to what they say, because there's really no validity behind what they're saying.
CDM: Do lots of people e-mail you about it?
DIIV: Yeah. I mean, when I say, "E-mail me," around half the people do. The other half just apologise right away.
CDM: The box-set of the album looks beautiful - with the art, printed lyrics, and the 32 page chapbook of art and poetry. How important is the relationship for you between your music and the physical release?
DIIV: Super important. I feel like every great record is like a world in itself. I felt like I really wanted to make a record that felt like a world; that had a world all around it. I commissioned, like 50 paintings to be made for the album art - the album art was massively important to me, in inspiring the album, it's a huge part of it. The album title came from the album art - the album art is intrinsically tied into the record. So I think that when people download the record they're kind of missing out on part of the experience, because it's really meant to be an immersive experience.
CDM: Did you commission the visual artists during the creation of the record?
DIIV: I found them all before the record was done.
CDM: What happened to the commissioned paintings?
DIIV: The artists still have them. When I go to Tokyo - all the paintings are in Tokyo - I'm gonna hopefully come home with some original stuff. The album cover isn't a painting, it's actually an amalgam of a bunch of different paintings, from three different artists.
Listen to 'Dopamine' below...