DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith Tells All – Because He Has To
Sometimes your choices leave you with no options. For Zachary Cole Smith, founder of the New York City-based hypnagogic pop outfit DIIV, that initial choice was heroin. Pretty much everyone, even people who don’t know his music, knows what happened after.
For anyone who’s managed to find the off switch for salacious news stories, let’s get you up to speed: In September 2013, Smith was arrested with his semi-famous girlfriend, pop singer Sky Ferreira, while driving in New York. The officer nabbed Smith immediately for an existing warrant for vehicle and traffic infractions; the officer then searched the vehicle and found a bunch of heroin and ecstasy. Ferreira was later absolved of any charges, but Smith’s stuck.
After the success of DIIV’s debut full-length, Oshin, Smith had hit a career peak. And in linking up with Sky, he found love. He had everything, it seemed. Nothing like a very public drug arrest to ruin everything, though, right?
Fortunately, Smith has managed to crawl out of that nasty pit of chaos. The band’s forthcoming sophomore record, Is The Is Are, is more a reaction – an inescapable result of his addiction and the battle to overcome it – than it is a deliberate creation.
“I kind of just fell into it, you know? I kind of just got put in this position where I suddenly had all this pressure to write all these songs,” he says. “I don’t know if ordinarily, if the first record hadn’t done well…I don’t know if I would have written these songs otherwise.”
Oshin debuted in 2012 on the wave of existing buzz about DIIV after a series of well received 7-inches on Captured Tracks. It didn’t disappoint: Circular, nearly dizzying pop numbers, all gauzy with reverb and with an inherently New Wave fragrance about them, made for a memorable album. But the ensuing trouble a little more than a year later has practically eclipsed all that. Now, he’s widely known as the junkie indie guy arrested with Sky Ferreira.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Smith issued a moratorium on questions regarding his legal troubles and heroin addiction. But he hasn’t – because he feels he has no choice but to talk about everything.
“I was put in a position where a bunch of cops took the contents of my backpack and made it public, and every fucking media outlet on earth decided to print that story. I had no choice but to just run with it. I really didn’t have a choice,” he says. “I’m actually a very private person, but I really didn’t have an option but to address that stuff on the record. It’s common knowledge, you know, everybody knows what happened, and I think they want answers. What brought me to that point? And where do I go from there?”
Smith has opted to go even further, though. Is The Is Are is basically a sonic scrapbook of his struggles.
“I’ve been writing the album over the course of the past three years, two years…it’s kind of been all over the place,” he says. “I can kind of pinpoint different times when I wrote different songs… ‘Dopamine’ is one of the more visceral songs – that’s directly about the experience of getting really high. But other stuff is about the aftermath, and there’s a couple songs about recovery and going to rehab and going through the 12-step program and going to meetings and meeting people at meetings, talking. It kind of runs the gamut of experiences.”
Smith wasn’t sober from the album’s start, he admits, but is doing considerably better now.
“Obviously sobriety is a take one day at a time kind of thing. But yeah, I took some time out to take care of myself, and things are going good right now,” he says.
But if the entire work is the story of Smith’s recent life, then “Dopamine” is somewhat of a misleading first glance at the bigger picture. It’s sunny and upbeat; it practically twinkles with all its chime-like guitar work – which puts descriptions of mixing “the white and the brown” and lines like “I got so high/ I finally felt like myself” in a gentler, less harmful light than they deserve, especially considering Smith’s reality. But the song also makes reference to futility, hopelessness: He mentions “burning out” and “running in place.” Is The Is Are, as a whole, is really meant to be a “cautionary tale,” he says.
“I have a lot of kids that come to me and tell me I helped them work through their own shit. It happens a lot, and that feels great because I really feel like there’s so many artists in the past have done a lot to glamorize drug use. That was never something that led me to use drugs. I’ve always been a person that you just can’t tell me not to do something, I have to try everything myself. But I really feel my experiences really don’t glamorize it in any way. I think it’d be really hard to look at my life and look at the shit that’s happened to me in the public eye and say, ‘Wow, I really want to try this drug, you know?’” he half-laughs. “If I felt that way, I think I’d be doing a huge disservice to people. Because there’s nothing cool or glamorous in there at all; it’s just sad and pathetic. I think a lot of kids have been real good about seeing it how [it is]. I think it’s steered kids away from going down that path themselves or kids that are already struggling with any type of addiction or anything, I think the band has helped them a lot. And I think the new record really will, because you know, it’s all genuine. Everything there is stuff that happened to me. It’s all very real, immediate stuff that I either felt or am describing something that happened to me. It’s all real.”
Part of the transparency Smith says he’s offering up on the album comes from the prodding from Ferriera, who has stuck with him – even though she’s been slapped with plenty stigma of her own as a result of the 2013 events. In fact, they seem closer than ever. They’ve always been candid in sharing their relationship with fans on social media, and they continue to be. Collaborations are still a regular thing, too: Smith directed a video of Ferriera’s last year, and the chances that one will show up at the other’s show – sometimes for a duet onstage – are still high. Now, she’s not only lent vocals to a track on the new album, but also helped push the work in a more personal direction.
“She listens to music in a different way than I do; she hears the lyrics first. On the first record, I didn’t spend too much time focusing on the lyrics. I’ve always been a huge reader, and a huge poetry fan, and the first record I had some stuff that was kind of influenced by poems that I liked, but they were less important,” he notes. “This record has a lot more. There’s like direct references to certain poetry and poets that I love. The lyrics are a huge focus for me, and I think it’s made the record, as a whole, a lot stronger.”
Smith points that he had “no capacity to be creative whatsoever” while trudging through the mires of addiction.
“Songwriting wasn’t coming naturally in this period, for a while. I kind of had to sit myself down and be like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s work on this,’” he says. “I’m really glad I did. I think I was able to capture a lot of stuff that ordinarily would have been lost or would have had no benefit. It’s hard to think of a benefit to having all these fucked up experiences, but I can say that I did get some quality art out of it. I’m really happy that I have something to show after everything, because most people don’t.”
He’s been forthcoming about his distaste for the traditionally accepted recovery programs in several interviews already, and he says it again – he’s “never related” to them. Making the album is what helped fuel his rehabilitation.
“Especially in the studio singing all the stuff for the first time, [it] was pretty emotional. For me, writing was a whole part of the recovery process…it actually really helps me to sing the stuff every night,” he says. “I mean it makes me happy every day that I’m working on leaving all that stuff behind. It’s soul-sucking, you know. It’s fucking…it’s like the worst thing you can do to yourself.”
Addiction is something Smith will likely grapple with for the rest of his life, but his current perspective suggests he’s prepared to put up a fight. He may have felt trapped by an obligation to the public to document it all on Is The Is Are, but ultimately, the effort is inspiring – both for Smith and his fans.
“I have a huge problem with anything where you’re saying you’re powerless over a substance or you’re powerless over something, because that’s not true,” Smith says. “It’s about empowering yourself, I think.”