DIIV Frontman Cole Smith on Streaming Monopolies and the Shoegaze Renaissance

Cole Smith

Cole Smith, Andrew Bailey, Colin Caulfield and Ben Newman of DIIV, photographed by Shervin Lainez.

DIIV‘s new album, Frog in Boiling Water, derives its name from a well-known allegory. If a frog is put in a pot of water and the temperature is gradually raised, then the frog will be cooked alive and never attempt to escape. In my conversation with frontman Cole Smith, however, he underlines an important part of that parable: the temperature doesn’t rise on its own. Someone has to turn the knob.

The shoegaze quartet explores this haunting power dynamic all across their fourth studio record, out on Friday. In a country plagued by the scourge of capitalism and the specter of soulless AI technology, Frog in Boiling Water stays topical without getting overly pedantic about it. Instead, DIIV, as strange as it sounds, is having fun with it. They’re hanging out with Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst and creating their own websites as part of the promo cycle. At the record’s core is a candid and eerie reckoning with the rapidly accelerating decline of humanity, presented under the guise of unchecked growth.

Ahead of the album’s release, Smith dived into topics like the fake SNL performance DIIV did with Fred Durst, how the music industry has changed since their last record, 2019’s Deceiver, and his band’s place within the recent shoegaze resurgence.



COLE SMITH: Hey, Grant.

SHARPLES: How’s it going?

SMITH: Going good. How are you doing?

SHARPLES: I like the poster behind you.

SMITH: That’s the actual painting.

SHARPLES: Oh, really? That’s really cool.

SMITH: Yeah. We had to buy the literal painting to use the thing.


SHARPLES: Yeah. So this is the first DIIV album since 2019. How does it feel to be back after five years?

SMITH: It’s funny to think about it like we were on vacation or something. Making the record itself took multiple years of writing and recording and editing. Our process is very slow and deliberate, so we were working on it for so long, and the Deceiver cycle, even though it got cut short by COVID, was pretty rigorous. So we are back in the album rollout thing, but we were here the whole time.

SHARPLES: Yeah. There were no breaks. What were some of the things that were keeping you occupied before, during and after lockdown?

SMITH: I mean it was at first super isolating, and we were making music on our own. There was this crazy claustrophobia that seeped into the music so much that a lot of it was unusable. It was really underwater-sounding. We did keep some of those elements. The record is very paranoid at times, and maybe some of that stuck around. We were sharing music we were making and then got together and it was this interesting time because all of the infrastructure had fallen away and we’re like a rock band, and rock bands play in a room to people, and when there’s no room and no people, suddenly the idea of a rock band feels really incongruous. The music we were making was very much like we were feeding the computer, working independently into it, which we’d never really done before.

SHARPLES: Yeah. I mean the record to me does feel dystopian more than any other DIIV record. What you’re saying about feeding into the computer, I definitely hear that just from the presentation of songs like “Soul Net.” Were you playing into those dystopian ideas at all?

SMITH: Totally. The record has all these different perspectives or different snapshots of this post-capitalist dystopian wasteland. “Soul Net” in particular was the online side of it, the idea of losing yourself to the internet, but at the same time finding meaning for your life and looking for explanations for why your life is terrible besides examining. Like, “Wait, it’s just capitalism.”

SHARPLES: There’s so many different ideas going into just that one song. 

SMITH: Yeah. At the end of the SNL performance video, there’s an ad for “Soul Net Corporation,” which is explicitly like, “Capitalism isn’t the problem. You are the problem, and by giving us money, here’s how you can solve them.” And that’s kind of real.

SHARPLES: How did you come up with the idea behind that performance? 

SMITH: Well, after we made this Soul Net website, it was so much fun and it became this living art project. When that rollout ended we started thinking about how to expand it. So rather than expand it piecemeal, because it was such a niche, the scope was targeted. So it was like, “What’s the opposite of that? What is the bastion of neoliberal culture?” And it’s SNL. It’s like a political show, but it’s the face of neoliberalism in culture. And another dystopian aspect that we wanted to explore was this idea of post-truth or a commentary on echo chambers or lack of critical analysis of media. We tried to be as authentic in the rollout of that as possible. Even seated, you can pay money to basically publish fake news articles and have them float to the top of Google. If you Google “DIIV SNL,” there’s like four articles that say “DIIV is playing SNL.” We really wanted to explore the idea of a dead internet. I really like the idea of the internet becoming a space that, as you fill it with these weird fake, AI generated ads, it clogs up. I would love the idea of the internet becoming an obsolete thing. We wanted to feed it with more bullshit and do our part to hopefully kill the internet.

SHARPLES: How soon after announcing the fake SNL performance did you see these quote-unquote “articles” popping up?

SMITH: Well, we wrote them ourselves. And then paid money to an aggregator website that will post anything you send them to and float them to the top. 

SHARPLES: This really underlines how so much of the internet is just SEO gaming.

SMITH: That’s exactly what it was. It’s all SEO gaming. And obviously we were doing it for fun or to promote art, which in the end is not nefarious, but you could use the same exact things to say whatever the fuck you want, and it’s kind of scary. Same with the deep fakes we made of ourselves for the “Soul Net” video.

SHARPLES: Yeah. What are your thoughts on deep fakes and the rising prominence of AI in art, whether that’s writing music, visual art?

SMITH: I mean, when you’re an artist and there’s a new tool available, it’s going to get used a lot and probably in a really cheesy way. It instantly becomes dated, which we’ve seen really quickly with AI art. But if it’s used by an artist where there’s a conceptual underpinning it can be really cool. In terms of making music, you can imagine a world where if a company like Spotify owns the means for distribution that they’ll suddenly find that art made by a computer for free is more beneficial to them than art made by artists. But you can spot AI art instantly now, so who knows? 

SHARPLES: Yeah. On a less bleak note, what was it like making the video with Fred Durst?

SMITH: It was cool. He is nothing like the character he plays on TV. I wasn’t a Limp Bizkit fan, but knowing peripherally about what they do, it was cool to meet him as a guy and be like, “Wow, you are the opposite of what I thought.” He’s the sweetest, most down-to-earth, normal guy. He went around at the end of shooting his segment and thanked every person working on the video. 

SHARPLES: You said you didn’t grow up listening to Limp Bizkit, so why Fred Durst? How’d you guys link up?

SMITH: Obviously, for SNL you have to have a celebrity host, and there were so many ways of thinking about it. But our manager, Brian, knows him from a long time ago, and he sent Fred the album and the Soul Net website, and it was really up his alley. He’s really interested in these niche, paranoid subcultures and UFOs. All that stuff he said on SNL he made up on the spot, and I feel like he embodied the character and the weirdness that we were hoping for.

SHARPLES: Something else I wanted to ask you about is that in the time between Deceiver and Frog in Boiling Water, shoegaze has blown up exponentially. How do you view your band’s place within this new cultural renaissance?

SMITH: It’s hard to say. I like to feel like we’re a part of it, because everybody wants to feel like they’re a part of something. But these really young kids, the way that they discover music nowadays, it’s lacking context. When I grew up listening to music, you’d be like, “Oh, cool. Minneapolis 1991, or Seattle 1988.” And it was very rooted in context. There were these local scenes and you think about how this band was influenced by that band. With the streaming model, you are presented with stuff without any context, or it can be presented in this really cynical way of “workout vibes.” But Gen Z discovering music on its face for what it is, they see through it in a way, and they’re like, “Oh, these are interesting textures to explore,” or whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s good for us that shoegaze is having a moment, and I love to hear people expanding on a genre that’s been, if you call this moment fourth-wave shoegaze or something like that, maybe we were part of the third-wave and the renaissance in the early 2010s with Slowdive reforming around then and new MBV [My Bloody Valentine] record.

SHARPLES: I mean you see Duster suddenly got huge, and they haven’t released music in a long time. So like you said, it’s the younger generation discovering stuff on their own terms and taking music, not face value, but for what it is.

SMITH: Yeah.

SHARPLES: So, in terms of your lyrical approach, how do you go about it? How has it changed since you guys put Oshin out?

SMITH: Oshin was the debut record, and you want it to be this concise statement of purpose or something. So the influence for that record was kind of like, Jenny Holzer truisms, these universalities. The second two records are more personal, especially the third one. Deceiver allowed us to step into where we wanted to be all along, which was looking outwards and making political music because that’s where our interest lies. 

SHARPLES: I feel like Frog in Boiling Water is a continuation of that political insight, even just the analogy itself. Are we all just frogs in boiling water right now?

SMITH: Yeah. The analogy is really about the temperature being turned up. We’re trending towards collapse or dystopia or the frog being boiled alive. It’s less about pointing out that the water is boiling and more about pointing out the normalization of this slip into dystopia.

SHARPLES: It’s like you just get used to atrocities on a day-to-day basis?

SMITH: Yeah.

SHARPLES: It’s like what we were talking about earlier, it all comes back to capitalism and who’s benefiting from whom? Is that the main underlying ideological thread of this record?

SMITH: Yeah. We spend a lot of time analyzing the symptoms and less the disease. It’s important to us to accentuate the ownership class. In the title track, the chorus talks about that, or the idea of the rotating villain. 

SHARPLES: On “Everyone Out” I noticed it may be a character study about somebody going from naivety to disillusionment. Are you exploring that trajectory of how, at first, we’re so naive, but as soon as we realize, somebody’s turning up this boiling water and we’re all disillusioned and almost too inactive to do anything?

SMITH: Yeah. And that song too deals with post-capitalist alienation, where you don’t really have a place in it besides as a cog in a machine, whether you like it or not. That one is almost a character study of an accelerationist mindset of like, “I don’t have a place in the system, so maybe if it collapses things will reshuffle in my favor, because right now there’s no route.” It’s not autobiographical. Each song is a different aspect or a different type of character, and that one is that particular one. 

SHARPLES: I did want to talk about your point of view on the music industry. It feels like since the pandemic, it’s shifted seismically. How do you feel like it has changed in the past five or so years, and where do you see it headed?

SMITH: I don’t necessarily know much about how it was, but I think a lot about the gutting of money from getting in the hands of musicians. There’s monopolies that exist in live music, and in streaming, and it’s these behemoth institutions that you cannot work around. You can say you’re not going to put your music on Spotify, but you can’t fight a monopoly. As the ability to make money in music becomes more impossible, it’s going to start to limit who’s able to make art, and then you’re only hearing music made by rich people. That’s not where good art comes from, in my opinion. There’s a lot of really good writing from Liz Pelly at The Baffler about Spotify and the way that music is curated in that model. Spotify is a tech company. They’re selling tech and music is just the library that they’re exploiting to sell their tech. But if all recorded music exists on an app for 10 bucks, then it tells people how much that music is worth. When it’s devalued to such a degree, it undermines what music is actually worth to people. 

SHARPLES: It’s like, trying to quantify art in any capacity ironically devalues it. 

SMITH: Yeah. And the amount of labor that we put into making this record is staggering. The amount of money that we personally had to spend… and when you’re making a record, you can’t be working a job, you can’t be touring. It’s a huge investment, time investment, and then the end result is it just pops up on your thing that you’re paying for anyway. It obscures the process, which also devalues music.

SHARPLES: Do you think the live music space is a way for listeners to more deeply engage with the songs?

SMITH: For me it is. Maybe the younger generation feels differently. I mean primarily what we do is make albums, but we are very much a live band. When we were on tour with Depeche Mode, we were in these huge fucking rooms with 12,000 people and they’re all listening to the same song at the same time and experiencing it together. It’s this powerful, community building thing. Music can sometimes be really isolating. The way that you consume it now on headphones is so personal, and previously it had been you listen on speakers or you listen live. It was a more communal experience. So bringing it back to that is really powerful.

SHARPLES: Yeah. Are there any songs off this new record that you’re really excited to take to the stage in particular?

SMITH: We just did a tour in Europe, and I think we played maybe four or five of the new songs, which is cool because some of them people haven’t heard. When we did the Deafheaven tour before Deceiver came out, we were playing songs that we hadn’t recorded yet. So we got feedback in real time. But this one, the songs are already committed to tape, so we can’t change them. But bringing them into that space, it was cool to see how people reacted because it seemed like people were excited for songs they’d never heard before. “Amber,” the first song, is challenging to play live, but it’s been one of my favorites to play.

SHARPLES: What was challenging about it?

SMITH: It’s just a hard song, it’s really layered on the record. Every guitar has to do the job of three or four instruments throughout the course of the song to fill a texture that a synth would occupy. 

SHARPLES: I’ll just ask you one more thing: If there’s something that listeners could take away from listening to this record, what would that be for you?

SMITH: It’s hard to say. Musically, the textures and stuff and the meticulousness of the record, it’s like a record for headphones. There’s a lot of stuff just beneath the surface, it’s a record that has a lot of stuff you might not hear on the first listen. So maybe I would say, just throw on some headphones and consume it in your isolated space and react.

SHARPLES: All right. Well, thank you so much, Cole. 

SMITH: Thank you so much, man. It was really good to meet you.

SHARPLES: Take care. And congrats on the new record as well.