Man at His Best

DIIV-ing Deep, Rising Above

Amidst the spectacle of indie-rock stardom, Zachary Cole Smith might have taken a beating but he isnít down for the count.

BY Jonathan Fong | Sep 8, 2017 | Music

How difficult is it to sustain a successful indie-rock career? For New York band DIIV (pronounced “Dive” after the Nirvana song), the four-year gap between their highly successful debut Oshin and their sophomore follow-up Is the Is Are has been plagued with setbacks, controversy and run-ins with the law.

Essentially the musical project of Zachary Cole Smith, DIIV play guitar-laden dreamy rock songs that sparkle with poppy melodies and sunny beach vibes. Cole’s relationship with singer-songwriter/model/actress Sky Ferreira has put both him (and the band) under much media scrutiny through the years; getting busted for drug possession in 2013, while in the company of Ferreira, was the personal nadir of a largely difficult period. As if that didn’t threaten to derail DIIV completely, the band’s bassist, Devin Ruben Perez, was found to have posted sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks on the website 4chan. Cole publicly chastised and apologised for his band mate, making clear his own stance on the issue.

I spoke to Cole over the phone two weeks before the release of Is the Is Are. Polite and earnest, the 31-year old seemed eager to set the record straight and elaborate on the journey leading up to DIIV’s new album. For one, Is the Is Are is a deeply personal record for Cole. He sees it as an honest album that aims to communicate to the listener what he has been though in the past few years. “Hopefully, after people hear the record, they know more about me, more about my situation, and are not as likely to judge me, or say shitty stuff about me, which they love to do,” Cole enthused.

Haters aside, DIIV have also struggled to manage the business side of things a little better. They’ve learned the hard way, having lost money on previous tours. How so? In endeavouring to push DIIV to make their live shows as good as they possibly could, Cole insisted on dipping into profits from shows and investing the money back into production.

“Is balance the key to keeping things together?” I asked, referring to Cole’s music endeavours, tours with DIIV and other projects like modelling, with Ferreira, for Saint Laurent. “Modelling, that’s just kind of been out of curiosity, taking opportunities when presented to me,” he clarified, “while touring is a necessary evil.” Ultimately, Cole is happiest when writing and recording music for the simple fact that it lasts. While touring might be fun, he finds it fleeting and highly stressful on occasion. “Writing and recording: that’s your permanent legacy. The music that you put down on vinyl or CD that’s what people will see forever.”

Cole must feel proud of the praise that Is the Is Are has received, both from critics and fans alike, since its release. While cathartic in documenting his journey, vindicating his efforts to detractors might actually be the more satisfactory triumph he truly desires. In learning from past mistakes and having the awareness to centre and find renewed focus, I hope Cole does not fall prey to the trappings and the clichés known to trip up those on the cusp of greatness. Instead, here’s to rooting for DIIV to notch 2016 as a highlight in an oeuvre of greater things to come.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, March 2016.