DIIV—Upfront and Extremely Personal

During a call from Los Angeles, where the members of DIIV all live, singer/guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, guitarist Andrew Bailey, and bassist Colin Caulfield, are open and honest about the potentially sensitive subject matter on their third album, Deceiver, which was just released on October 4. With this album, they’ve kept the intense and atmospheric blend of post-punk, shoegaze, and dream pop that they first displayed on their evocative 2012 debut, Oshin, and their equally affecting 2016 follow-up album, Is The Is Are, but the lyrical approach is markedly different this time around. Deceiver documents the fallout from Smith’s drug addiction and the resulting damage done to his personal relationships, as well as the redemption that came after his successful stint in rehab. His confessional approach is clear right from the opening track, “Horsehead,” when he sings: “I sat in a slump so my shadow sat slumped too/I laid among the rocks and stones/Fuck it all.”

“It’s not like the themes to the record are obscure or the lyrics are difficult—they’re not super-abstract. They are important,” Smith says. However, he acknowledges that DIIV fans, who are accustomed to hearing his vocals buried deep in the mix on previous albums, may be startled by how clear and prominent they are this time. “I think it’s difficult for listeners of our band because the lyrics have never been important in the past—I think people zone out and listen along musically. But this is a vocal-driven record, where the core of every song is like a singer-songwriter type [of] song, rather than just guitar layers or cool effects.”

This upfront approach is in keeping with the way Smith has publicly addressed his situation: for years, he has used the band’s official social media outlets to document his ups and downs. As he wrote in a February 7, 2017 Facebook post, “so i [sic] guess now is the time for me to stop kidding myself, and everybody else. checking [sic] in now for a long-haul inpatient treatment… I’ve [sic] taken this road way [sic] past the point of sanity and fucked with way too many people. see [sic] you all on the other side.” Fans responded with messages of encouragement and stories of their own similar struggles. Smith responded: “#soberville #day12 #killme thanks to everyone for all the support. send [sic] your #soberstories to me they’re so inspiring.” Then, in August, he posted, “6 months clean/sober — time (doesn’t) fly but in all reality my life is so much better for it.”

Through it all, Smith’s bandmates have remained steadfastly supportive, keeping the band going during his time away and encouraging him to use the lyrics on Deceiver as an outlet for his thoughts on the situation. They say they have no trouble playing these songs, even though the lyrics are removed from their own personal experiences. “Somebody asked me, ‘What is it like playing these songs that are about this?’” says Bailey, “and I don’t think about that at all—it never crosses my mind.” He adds that this has always been the case: “For me, the songs have my own emotional attachment to them, where it’s like, if I picked up a guitar and started playing “Human” [from Oshin] right now, I would think of a festival we played in Europe—the songs remind me of the experiences that I’ve shared with them, rather than what they’re actually about.”

As the one band member who can’t escape the songs’ meaning, though, Smith says that singing them is not as hard for him as people seem to assume. “I am on board with those things that we’re talking about and the ideas feel like they’ve already been digested,” he says firmly. “There’s a distance. It’s not like this immediate struggle. It’s more talking about stuff that happened in the past, and I can’t change that, so I’m completely happy to talk about it.”

Many of Deceiver’s songs were fine-tuned while DIIV went on tour with post-metal band Deafheaven after Smith completed treatment in 2017. Caulfield says it was an easy decision to work on songs this way, due to DIIV’s special nature. “There is something really specific about this band, especially live, where we can play the same song for the two-thousandth time and still, there’s something there that feels new. It’s just fundamentally different than most gigging or show experiences that most musicians have, where they play the same song and it’s like, ‘This one again…’ But when we do it, it always feels fresh and it’s just good energy on the stage. You’ve got to be thankful for that kind of thing, because we could all stop this and go start new bands and be like, ‘We really messed this up by not holding onto that thing that felt really special.’”

DIIV songs have always had a very evocative quality, but on this album, fans will notice that the band’s songs have taken on a slower, more serious vibe, perhaps as a result of the more solemn subject matter. This, too, is another reason for the band’s decision to road-test the material before recording it, according to Smith. 

“There was a lot of decisions we wanted to make on the record that felt scary to us. We wanted our crowds to be really energetic, but now we’re writing all these really slow, heavier songs. I think we had to try them out live, and see what it felt like in real time, rather than just writing the record, recording the record, and then going out live and being like, ‘Wow, these songs are really slow.’ We had to step outside our comfort zone, and that was part of what we did by practicing songs on tour.”

“We’d talk about it after a show and be like, ‘Wow, that part [is] really long,’ or ‘Damn, this song is not working,’” says Caulfield. “We learned a language for communicating [what] we wanted to do on the record, just by looking at each other. Sometimes, I’d glance back at Ben [Newman, drummer] during a part and we’d be like, ‘This isn’t feeling good right now.’ Or the opposite, we’d be smiling.” They agree that they are looking forward to continuing to play these songs during their U.S. and British tour dates that start this month and continue through February 2020 (they will play a sold-out show at Warsaw in Brooklyn on October 24).

Now that the album is released, the band members admit to “trolling the comments sections [on social media]—we’ll text each other really funny reactions that we get from people getting upset about it sounding different,” Caufield says, amused. Adds Smith, “Or people getting to the absolute heart of what we were going for in the song and tried to hide. And they’d be like, ‘Sounds like this!’ And we’d be like, ‘How do they know that?’” They say that the fans’ reactions so far have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, though, which they appreciate.

They are also grateful for fans’ loyalty despite the lengthy wait between each DIIV album so far. But, as Bailey says, “In between every record, we’ve got a bunch of personal shit we’ve got to take care of!” He and the others laugh at this, but then become serious as they explain that they are now determined to shorten the gap between future releases.

“We’ve been talking about wanting to start writing the next record pretty soon,” Caulfield says, explaining that the new goal is to release “maybe not like an album a year, but a year and a half to two years between albums would be great. It just requires a lot of dedication and work and commitment, where previously, we were kind of a slacker rock ‘n’ roll band!” Smith and Bailey laugh at this comment, but Caulfield protests, “It’s true, though! We weren’t very adult about the recording and scheduling process. We’d just kind of make the records happen when they happened.”

But now, as Bailey says, there “is a sense of obligation or responsibility to our fan base, because they’re super-dedicated. People hit us up in DMs all the time being like, ‘This song changed my life, because I was going through this and this.’ And it really feels like it’s something important that we owe the world. I realize that that’s not entirely the case—it’s [for] a small group of people. But it still feels like we have a duty to perform.” Caulfield adds, “When we finished recording the record, it didn’t feel like we had run out of ideas—it felt like we could’ve kept going. We’re still feeling inspired.”

Be sure to catch DIIV when they play Warsaw in Brooklyn on October 24!