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DIIV: ZACHARY COLE SMITH The X-Press Interview


One of the brightest lights in modern indie rock, Brooklyn dream pop four-piece DIIV released their third album, Deceiver, last week via Captured Tracks. The follow-up to the band’s critically acclaimed 2016 LP, Is This Is Are, the release of Deceiver follows a complicated period for the band, after lead songwriter/singer Zachary Cole Smith sought help with addiction and the rest of band entered hiatus mid-album tour 2017. Now reunited with renewed energy and a spring in their step, MICHAEL HOLLICK spoke to the band’s Cole Smith, Andrew Bailey and Colin Caulfield about their prepaations for the upcoming world tour, what it was like working with producer and Flood protege Sonny Diperri, and what inspired the lyrics on the new album.

What are you guys up to today?

Cole: We’re at our practice space getting ready for our tour in October. We like practicing, it’s fun. Previously we would never really practice but this time around we are doing long days to make sure we’re ready for the road.

Was committing to this extra practice a band decision?

Cole: Yeah, we’re choosing to do it. We’re being mean to ourselves. And it’s working… it sounds good, we’re going to fucking rock.

Given this is the first time you have all participated in the writing process, would you consider this the first DIIV ‘band’ record?

Colin: This is definitely the first full band record. I think for the last record (Is This Is Are), Andrew and I went out to LA to meet up with Cole and work through some of the demos he had but this time was way different. We started from scratch together and sometimes spent 10 hours a day together in our practice space just working through songs, just over and over and over, talking about what was working and trying any idea to see if it would work, like a process of elimination.  The big takeaway is that we were all holding each other accountable for the quality of the songs, and I think if it was any one of us doing it alone, just individually doing this, then we would have stopped trying so hard really early on, so it really helped us get really close.

The lyrics and vocals are higher in the mix and more noticeable on Deceiver than on your previous releases. Was this a conscious decision?

Cole: I think having a vocal driven song was important to what we wanted. We wanted every song on the record to be able to stand on its own, just guitar and vocal, without all the texture. The lyrics are a big part of that. As we were building the songs, it was like, these instrumentals are good, we need to make the vocals good. So we would work on the vocal arrangmenets, and then it was like, wow, these vocal arrangements are good, now the lyrics have to be really fucking good. It was a whole month process of reading stuff and listening to stuff and focusing on lyrics and listening to music in a new way for me, I hadn’t been much of a lyrics listener and now I am very much a lyrics first person. 

How would you describe the difference between the lyrics on Is This Is Are and this record?

Cole: The lyrics on the last record were a little more immediate and didn’t have a whole lot of perspective. In the year that we took off from the band and from the time we all spent working on ourselves, I spent time working on myself, (and) there is a little bit more perspective and clarity in terms of talking about problems and their solutions side by side. There is a message there that I think is really important and I think it’s not just applicable to people who are dealing with addiction. Almost everybody is affected by it, whether it is yourself, or a family member or a friend. 

With the greater focus on preparing the songs this time around, how did you know when they were ‘finished’?

Andrew: When our time ran out (laughs).

Cole: That’s a bit of a joke but it’s also true. We were working on the songs up until they were done, so to speak, and done meant taken away from us. That being said, we weren’t overly precious. It’s easy to get carried away and hung on really specific things when you’re mixing and finalising a record. But we had worked on the songs and they had gone through so many versions over the seven months, it kind of felt for most of them that the version we arrived at was the best one. so it wasn’t like, “oh what if we totally change this part?” as we had already done a lot of that trial and error work in the rehearsal space. It’s always hard to say goodbye though.

Who made the final decision? 

Cole: I think certain songs started being done earlier than others and then, in our minds, that song was done. But then we would go back and work on something else, and that song would get better, and we would compare it to what we thought was done and realise that it was not done, there is a lot more growth that can happen, so we were leapfrogging each other in terms of quality. And then when we got in the studio, we had landed on final arrangements for almost everything and that was really a part where (producer) Sonny (Diperri) helped us a lot in terms of “this song is two minutes too long” or “this part doesn’t need to exist” but it would only really be something he would speak up about if it was something that we were struggling with. So it was a real group process, and that includes Sonny and Tyler (our engineer) chiming in and being honest with the way they felt. We weren’t precious with what we had. 

Given that you wanted certain sounds on each of the tracks, how much were you able to emulate the sound you wanted and how much did producer, Sonny Diperri, help out?

Cole: (Sonny) was a master at getting a tone really quickly and he would sketch something up and we would tweak it a tiny bit, but we were getting all the tones we needed within ten minutes. He had a similar reference palette to us, so we would cite something and he would listen to it, and go “I think I know what’s going on”. Most of the record was recorded guitar into amp, with maybe one or two pedals. We were not like a major ‘pedal-band’ on this record, which was a bit of a surprise for us.

Was having just one pedal limiting for you?

Cole: It wasn’t really a limitation, over time with Sonny we learnt that less is more. We spent a lot of time deleting stuff and taking layers out and not over complicating the sound because I think it makes a little more pristine and ultimately, a little bit louder sounding.

Speaking of pedals and sounds, the new album features an increase in sonic extremities, in particular, large build ups and distorted moments that are heavier than what DIIV have previously released. How did you achieve that sound and what inspired it?

Cole: For the distortion stuff, especially the chordal stuff, we referenced Smashing Pumpkins a lot and (lead Pumpkin, Billy Corgan) is kind of famous for doing a lot of layers. Ultimately, (layering) didn’t suit how we were doing the record, so the main pedal we found to get that sound is the Grey Chanel, made by Earthquaker. We took two guitars and panned them in stereo through the pedal.

In your eyes, what are the other influences that have made it on this record?

Cole: The way we approach influences is kind of more specific than just taking influence from an entire song, and being like “let’s recreate it” because recreating someone else’s music is generally impossible. Some of the references are a little more obvious, some of the less obvious ones are the singer-songwriter stuff that was informing the way that the actual song came together. We were listening to Elliot Smith and (Sandy) Alex G, listening to how a song should be put together because we didn’t know that much about it till we spent that time listening to those records and talking about it amongst ourselves.

Finally, you have been very brave in sharing your struggle with addiction so publicly. Do you feel that you would be able to help others at this point in time? Or do you not think you’re at that stage yet?

Cole: I think for me, and for everybody that is in recovery, a core tenant of recovery is helping other people. That is critical, you know, so that you are able to help yourself and so that you hold yourself accountable. And so helping others was something I was very keen to do from very early on. And I have had the opportunity a couple of times to help out friends who have been struggling and it has been really inspiring to watch their progress. And it holds me accountable for me to stay on my shit, because if I don’t, what’s to stay that they should either.

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