I’ve always either felt like a boy or something else. I feel really uncomfortable thinking that, technically, I’m supposed to be a man, because I don’t feel like one. ZACHARY COLE SMITH
In September 2013, Zachary Cole Smith was arrested in the small town of Saugerties, New York, for possessing heroin. His band, DIIV, then cruising a wave of new approval from the music world’s arbiters of taste, were scheduled to play the Basilica SoundScape event in nearby Hudson. (Smith’s girlfriend, the compellingly transgressive pop star Sky Ferreira, was arrested for possession of ecstasy.) The show went on, but so did the story. With only a debut album, 2012’s aggressively dreamy Oshin, to prop themselves upon, the band induced chatter less about their burgeoning victory of a musical entrance, and more about DIIV’s salaciously good-for-clicks seedy side. DIIV, and Smith in particular, became synonymous with recklessness and trouble. That the musicians he cites as influential are figures we’ve come to know as symbols of destructiveness—Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, the Velvet Underground—only further reinforced his disorderly reputation.
Smith, now 30, went to rehab in the winter of 2014 but didn’t stay. Instead, he made a record, an ambitious, eerie double album called Is the Is Are (set to be released in February on Captured Tracks), on which drugs, death, and destruction are pervasively present. On DIIV’s website, Smith describes the effort as being “a diverse record, it is a happy record, a sad record, a happysad, sadhappy, mad, glad, quiet, mad, dark, glad, poppy, fast, slow, heavy, fast, peaceful, angry, chaotic, beautiful, lost/found, ugly, dry, wet, fuck, fast, dead, heartbroken, in love, loud, quiet, loud, loudquiet, quietloud, happy, mad, quiet, fuck, and loud record.” It’s a peace offering of sorts, meant to reclaim the band’s reputation and replace the tired rock-star mythology with something less caricatural, despite how imperfect things remain. In early November, from the passenger seat of an Atlanta-bound tour van, Smith tells me about redemption.
CARLY LEWIS: I’ll preface this by saying we should only talk about the past as much as you’re comfortable. A lot has been written about your arrest in 2013 and about its aftermath …
ZACHARY COLE SMITH: When I read about myself and how writers have focused on negative stuff, it hurts my feelings. But I don’t know what to say in interviews to make it so people don’t write that stuff. I guess I kind of dug my own hole. I could have just gotten arrested and not said anything. I’m too trusting. I felt like if I stated my point of view, people would see it more as a cautionary tale, or they’d see the humanity behind it, that I am a person who made a mistake. Nobody really chose to frame the story in the way that it actually existed. Websites positioned it as some kind of rock ‘n’ roll cliché: “Wow, they’re zany rock stars.” I think I did myself a disservice by talking about it. There have been a couple of pieces I’ve done where I really trusted the journalist—we got to know each other and hung out—and then I really felt betrayed. I just felt like a subject, you know? This is my life. My parents and my grandparents read that stuff, and obviously it doesn’t make them feel good. And it doesn’t make me feel good. But then again, it’s all true. Pitchfork broke the story, which is ironic because I was there playing a Pitchfork event. When I was in jail, I didn’t know who would be in the area, so I wrote some of my friends—well, not friends, but people I knew who worked at Pitchfork—and asked them to help bail me out so I could play the show and go on with my life. And that made them privy to the story. I felt like it was a low blow, for them to just cover it for clicks. But I don’t blame them. In the end, I’m responsible for my own actions. I guess it’s just business. They need to make money; everybody does. All I’m trying to do is make music that people like and that makes people happy. The main thing I want to do with this record is change the conversation around the band.
LEWIS: Is that why you made a double album, to give people more?
SMITH: Oshin was short, concise, and very deliberate. I wanted to show a different side of ourselves. I wanted to see in what ways I could explore something new. I felt like working on a double record would give people a lot to have, after such a long break. Three years between records is longer than average. Double albums are much more of a statement. I really wanted to put myself out there on this record as much as I possibly could. I wanted to make it intimate; I wanted to make it extremely easy to criticize. But hopefully, nobody will. I want the album to win people over.
LEWIS: “Easy to criticize”—do you mean vulnerable?
SMITH: There’s nobody more vulnerable right now than me. I was in rehab, and I left AMA—”against medical advice.” They check off your risk level when you leave: “not at risk, at risk, highly at risk, extremely at risk.” They checked “extremely at risk” for me. That’s where this album is coming from. I feel like I am extremely vulnerable and extremely at risk. I wanted the album to be extremely at risk in its own way.
LEWIS: What you’ve gone through in the last few years is very present on Is the Is Are. Music journalists are going to keep asking you questions about that—drugs, being arrested. Do you feel distant enough from that period to safely relive it by talking about this album in the press and performing its songs every night?
SMITH: I’m not distant from it at all. I’m very much reliving it every day. I left treatment a year and a half ago, and I’ve had more relapses and episodes than I could even count. This record is still very, very much where I’m at. There are a million things out there every single day that trigger me—songs, smells, even the season that we’re in, fall. Something about the air. I left rehab in January and relapsed within hours of getting home. I just remember the smell of the air. I’ll never ever forget that for the rest of my life. So I don’t think making my record about it is putting me in any worse situation. It’s everywhere; it’s inevitable; it’s just something I have to live with. One of the 12 steps is to admit that you’re powerless, but I think that’s bullshit. I think it’s important to empower yourself by facing the stuff that triggers you.
LEWIS: Do you ever think about going back to treatment?
LEWIS: The day you announced the record, you put out a second new song, “Bent (Roi’s Song).” Why that one?
SMITH: That’s one of the most important songs on the record to me. It’s about me and a friend going through the same thing at the same time, and not seeing each other for a while, but then bumping into each other at different stages of recovery. It was really intense. I thought I was going to lose this person—I really did—for months and months. He’s a person who I introduced to drugs and extremely dangerous drug combinations. I would not have been surprised at any moment if he was dead. I had just been through what he was going through, and I am still incredibly shocked that I’m alive. I still at times think, “Wow, this is what it’s like to be dead? It’s exactly like being alive.” I don’t know how I did it. I came so close so many times. I’m just so happy that he did make it out. When I was in the studio making this song, he was still out on the street. It really killed me. I could barely sing the words. A psychic told me, “If you don’t get clean, this friend is going to die.” She gave me his initials and everything. So I moved to L.A. and told my friend that I was sober, even though I wasn’t. Months later, after the record was finished, he told me that he went to treatment. Now he’s nine months sober. When I hear the song now, it makes me so happy, because all of those struggles are in the past.
LEWIS: Do you believe in psychics?
SMITH: I trust it. There are just some things that you can’t deny. It wasn’t even my psychic; it was Sky’s psychic. Sky’s psychic told her, “I need to talk to your boyfriend,” and she gave one of my best friend’s initials. How the fuck would she know that? I recently had a friend pass away. The psychic gave me and Sky a message from him a couple days after, with details about where his body was, when his body hadn’t even been found yet. Nobody could have fucking known. I have no option but to believe what this psychic says.
LEWIS: Sky is on one of the new songs, “Blue Boredom.” Was it challenging to collaborate artistically and professionally with someone you love and know so intimately?
SMITH: Me and Sky have always really inspired each other. We constantly are bouncing ideas off each other. But I have always been afraid to ask her to sit down and do something real for one of our records. She can be intimidating to work with because she’s so brilliant and so next-level and so inspiring, and onto things that so many people aren’t. She has such incredible nuance and sophisticated, encyclopedic taste. But there’s a level of mutual respect that kept it inspired. If she didn’t respect what I do musically, and if I didn’t respect what she does musically, our relationship wouldn’t work.
Subconsciously, I guess I do feel the need to repent. I do feel like I owe the world a great album. I don’t know why I feel that way. I just do.ZACHARY COLE SMITH
LEWIS: Do you guys live together?
SMITH: We have a place in New York, in Williamsburg, and a place in Los Angeles, in Silver Lake. She’s been in L.A. for a while, and I’ve been in New York and now on tour for a while. We’re both kind of taking time to ourselves to write and to work.
LEWIS: She’s got a bit of a Kim Gordon vibe on that song.
SMITH: I was super-inspired by Bad Moon Rising, the Sonic Youth record. That’s why there’s so much guitar feedback. On a couple of the songs, I feel like I deliver the vocals in a Kim Gordon-ish way, too.
LEWIS: I wanted to ask you about the song “Healthy Moon.” By chance, are you an Elliott Smith fan?
SMITH: Oh very, very deeply. That song came from a weird period a long time ago. Years ago, I had a practice space where I would work every day. I would wake up at 4 p.m. and go to the space and work until 8 a.m. It was before I got arrested. If anybody other than me had ever entered that practice space, I would have been humiliated, just from the amount of detritus on the floor. I was a complete shut-in. I was deeply and darkly depressed. A lot of my output from that period is kind of bizarre. I was listening to a lot of Cat Power. What Would the Community Think was a huge touchstone record for me at the time—there are a couple nods to that record on our new record. That line about having “a loose grip on a tight ship” [from “Nude as the News”], I love that line. I thought it was important for me to remember that time in my life, because it was pretty bad. Decisions I made then got me in the pit I spent a lot of time in later. There’s a Cat Power song on What Would the Community Think called “In This Hole.” That was a big influence on “Healthy Moon,” as was Elliott Smith. I’m really inspired by the way Elliott Smith experimented with layering and multiple takes.
LEWIS: Who else inspired this record?
SMITH: Frank O’Hara, Dylan Thomas. There’s a lot of homage on this record. I like to wear my influences on my sleeve.
LEWIS: Your mom has a fashion background. Have her ideas about style rubbed off on you?
SMITH: My mom worked at [American] Vogue before I was born. She has always been fashion-minded. I grew up with original Yves Saint Laurent sketches on the wall in our house. A lot of that rubbed off on me. My dad was fashion-minded, too. I am super-interested in fashion. I love being a person whose clothes get discussed. That makes it more interesting for me. And I love any opportunity to wear women’s clothes. It’s just fun to do. I like to play with androgyny and gender.
LEWIS: What draws you to women’s clothes?
SMITH: Being surrounded by women, I guess. I was raised by all women. I had no men in my life; it was my mom, my sister, and my grandmother. I’ve never identified as a man. I’ve always either felt like a boy or something else. I feel really uncomfortable thinking that, technically, I’m supposed to be a man, because I don’t feel like one.
LEWIS: You’ve said that you owe the world a good record. In the Is the Is Are announcement on your website, you implore people to “please love” the album, and then you ask, “Do you love me?” I’m sensing some repentance in the way that you talk about your work.
SMITH: I never really thought of it as being repentant, but I guess you’re right that it is. I can only attribute that to fucked-up recovery-culture mentality. Recovery culture teaches you that you have to repent. I don’t think that’s necessary. One of the 12 steps is to repent. You have to go through your phone book and apologize to every person you’ve ever wronged. I think that’s fucking gross. I don’t think you have to repent for a disease that you have. I really don’t find that to be productive. But subconsciously, I guess I do feel the need to repent. I do feel like I owe the world a great album. I don’t know why I feel that way. I just do. I’m glad that, despite everything, I was able to get work done and finish something. I never finish anything. So just being able to finish this record and to make music like this is a great gift.
CARLY LEWIS IS A TORONTO-BASED WRITER.