Zachary Cole Smith of Diiv: ‘It wasn’t like we said, Oh, I’ve got addiction issues, check it out. I got arrested’

A decade ago the singer was lost in substance abuse and his band were imploding. Now they’re about to play in Ireland – and it’ll be a kind of pilgrimage

Diiv: Colin Caulfield, Andrew Bailey, Ben Newman and Zachary Cole Smith

Zachary Cole Smith, of Diiv, has a straightforward answer to questions about his history of addiction. “It sucked,” the singer and guitarist with the cult New York indie band says. “Even publicising it, it wasn’t like we said, ‘Oh, I’ve got addiction issues, check it out’ – I got arrested, and that was a media thing. Becoming the centre of attention was not the goal.”

Smith, a former model who has worked alongside Cara Delevingne and walked the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week, is fresh-faced and upbeat as he dials in with his three bandmates in advance of their gig in Dublin next week and the release, in May, of Diiv’s fourth album, Frog in Boiling Water, the latest in a catalogue of hazy, propulsive alternative pop. Rewind more than a decade, though, and he was in a far darker place.

Back then Smith was lost in substance abuse and Diiv were imploding. He would break down in tears on stage. Friends and family worried that Cole’s public admiration of the late Kurt Cobain – he referenced the Nirvana singer in countless interviews – might lead somewhere bleak. (Diiv are named after – and pronounced like – Dive, the Nirvana track.)

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Rock bottom came on September 13th, 2013, the night before Diiv were to play a high-profile gig in a hip industrial space in New York. Smith and his then girlfriend, the singer and model Sky Ferreira, were pulled over by police. A search of their car uncovered heroin and ecstasy. Smith was charged and ordered into rehab. Although all charges were dropped against Ferreira – the drugs belonged to her boyfriend – the damage to her modelling career was significant.


“Basically I just was stupid,” Smith told the website Consequence the following year. “I f**ked up, and it was entirely my fault, and I f**ked up my girlfriend’s life. She literally didn’t do anything wrong. She basically was just a passenger in the car with a person who was out of control for a minute. She got in deep sh*t ... Her career got really f**ked up because everybody thought she was a drug addict, which she’s absolutely not. That’s the worst part of it for me, that I really f**ked her over.”

Today he and Diiv are in far better place and looking forward to a European tour that will include their biggest ever Irish headline show, at Vicar Street on Thursday, March 14th. (As fate would have it, Ferreira plays the city three days later.) Smith has cleaned up: “no drugs, no alcohol ever, for the rest of my life,” he told Billboard in 2017. Diiv have gone on to release a series of extraordinary albums that combine Joy Division-style monochrome indie with the maximalist ennui of their favourite shoegazers, My Bloody Valentine.

The singer sees his arc from tragedy to recovery as a positive story – and, with luck, a help to people fighting their own demons.

“It is inspiring for people to hear stories of recovery and see that it’s possible,” says Smith. “It’s something we were either forced to address or wanted to address. It is an important thing to know: if you’re struggling with addiction, you can overcome that way of life. It’s a lot of work. And it’s a journey. Hopefully we can be maybe some type of inspiration to somebody else who is struggling.”

Frog in Boiling Water is set to catapult Diiv to a new level. The record is preceded by the excellent new single Brown Paper Bag, a puzzle box of shoegaze guitars and Strokes-level New York cool.

The song announced itself with a bang in late February with a video in which Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit is shown introducing Diiv on Saturday Night Live, an institution of American comedy. It’s Durst, all right – the knuckleheads’ knucklehead connected with Diiv through mutual acquaintances in Los Angeles. But the “Saturday Night Live” bit is a fake cooked up by the group.

Diiv have nothing in particular against Saturday Night Live. They are aware, however, that their video is likely to put them on the show’s naughty list.

“I do think that there is a layer of irreverence about SNL and us doing that. For so many people [headlining SNL] is the goal,” says Smith. “People were, like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? You’re not going to be able to play [SNL] if you do that.’ That show has to me come to symbolise some sort of dystopia. Watching [old] clips online, it feels so unreal – it hearkens back to a time when things were much simpler. It feels discordant now.”

There is a nod of agreement from Colin Caulfield, the band’s bassist, who regards SNL as a shadow of its former self. “It’s something that has happened to so many institutions, where they used to be cool and respectable. We’re 1990s kids – so many of our favourite artists have played SNL. Now it’s top 40 [artists] or whatever. It’s not unique to SNL. Every newspaper has the same headline. None have an identity or point of view.”

Diiv are in a positive place. But they haven’t quite found their Hollywood ending. The press release accompanying the new LP makes for ominous reading. It describes “a four-year process that nearly broke the band” and mentions “complex dynamics of family, friendship and finances entangled, coupled with suspicions, resentments, bruised egos and anxious questions”.

“When you’re in a band, especially when we’re making a living off it, which we’re lucky enough to be able to do for the most part, there are so many things tied in,” says their guitarist, Andrew Bailey. “We’re friends. There is this family aspect. It’s our livelihood. It’s our creative outlet. There are so many elements involved in negotiating that dynamic. It can be difficult to make decisions and agree on stuff.”

There’s a misconception that great music drops from the ether, that the only thing you have to do is catch the sparks, he continues. The truth is more complicated. Sometimes it’s all about the graft. “There’s this mythology of, you know, a band like [the acclaimed postrockers] Slint walks in the room and sits down and collaborates. Four people make one of the greatest records of all time. I think that is mythology.”

There will be an element of pilgrimage to their Dublin visit. They are visiting the city that gave the world My Bloody Valentine, the ear-drum-shredding indie astronauts who stand as a key touchstone for Diiv – Kevin Shields, the MBV frontman, grew up in Cabinteely, in the south of the city.

Parallels between the two groups go beyond the merely musical. Foreshadowing the tension and conflict surrounding Diiv’s new LP, My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece Loveless, from 1991, was years in the making and nearly bankrupted their label. It’s a useful reminder that the best albums often come together in trying circumstances. Sometimes hard times make for good music.

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“That’s such an interesting record for us,” says Smith. “When we made [2019′s] Deceiver, we set out to make a shoegaze record. We studied Loveless. The conclusion we came to was nobody could make this record. It is absolutely perfect – they did it, it’s perfect. It’s not just the textures but the songwriting and arrangements. It’s untouchable.” He stops short, a hint of wistfulness in his voice. “That band, and that record, they’ve always been essential for us.”

Diiv play Vicar Street, Dublin, on Thursday, March 14th. Frog in Boiling Water is released on Friday, May 24th