DIIV interview: "The process is one that requires a lot of discipline on your own, but we kept each other in check."
DIIV have just released their third album Deceiver this past Friday on Captured Tracks. It's a record which continues to map and delve into the addiction troubles of band leader Zachary Cole Smith (Cole), but this time around his bandmates have taken the plunge with him, and collaborately they've scavenged what lessons can be learned from them.
Working in close proximity as band during the protracted writing phase of Deceiver has allowed them to hash out, discuss and explode their sound, moving DIIV from a band that was shoegaze-adjacent firmly into the cavernous sound of that hallowed genre. Bigger, bolder and more brutal than they've ever sounded before, DIIV's new record is a brave launching pad into the depths of personal trauma and overcoming.
We got to sit down with two of the band members, Cole and bassist Colin Caulfield, to talk through the sonic touchstones, the poetic stories and the expanded ambitions of their new album. Read it below, accompanied by photos of the pair by Niralee Modha.
I'm curious about what you said when Deceiver was announced, Cole, that on the last record you hadn't fully committed to your recovery; when did you realise that and what did you change?
Cole: Everybody's story is up and down, relapse-recovery, it's normal, it's a lot of people's stories - also mine. The last record me had had exposure to recovery, but I think I was looking for an easy solution and I was exposed to these ideas but not really committed to it. I just could see that there was a lot of work that I had to do, and at the time I didn't do it.
Then, in the lead up to this record I had to spend a lot of time working on myself, examining my own actions etcetera. I did a lot of work before the record, so it wasn't this active digestion of ideas and trying to grapple with anything, all this work had already been done and then we just described it in the record. Part of the whole thing is rigorous honesty, so it's important to be honest to myself and to each other as a band. So this record feels honest, and the last record, maybe it's honest because everything's true, but it wasn't actual self-examination.
For you guys in the rest of the band, did you know what was going on with Cole, were you in dialogue?
Colin: Yeah, we spent a lot of time together, it was impossible not to. Cole and I were in dialogue about it for a long time; I think I was one of the first people in the band to put a foot down.
Cole: You're one of the only people probably in my life.
Colin: Yeah, one of few to be like "yo, what the fuck?" But like Cole was saying it's part of the process, and this time it felt really good because of all the bad shit that happened, so there's not a lot of regret now, it's just part of the story.
Your previous albums were quite insular for you Cole, the way you wrote them, but this one is much more shared; did you ask them to do that or did it happen naturally?
Cole: It happened naturally.
Colin: When we started Cole and I were talking about influences and references and things we want to do; big picture ideas of the record. The further we got along in that process the more comfortable I felt making demos or suggesting shit, and so it felt really natural. It wasn't like "hey, this time I wanna write a song."
Cole: We kind of knew that we had to make a good record and we kind of realised together that the best way to do that was to really figure it out and talk it through. The process was one that requires a lot of discipline on your own, but we kept each other in check, we had a lot of interesting and fun discussions about music, a lot of listening to music, learning about music. A lot of making the record was spent learning - learning together so we were excited to apply these ideas and try new things together. We had a good system for communicating and being honest with each other.
Which influences were in your conversations at the beginning?
Colin: We knew from the get-go that we wanted to make a heavier record and to lean into some things that we did on the last record; a little bit less of a beachy sound, less jangly. I think we wanted to make the ideas really clear, not even necessarily in terms of effects - that wasn't the intention at first - but to make the record really stark sounding. A lot of what we would listen to was a bunch of slowcore bands, a bunch of shoegaze bands, a bunch of singer-songwriters, and the approximation of all that is its own thing.
Cole: We used our references more as a palette; "what's happening in this song that makes it sound this way? How do we do that?" It would be a hyper-specific thing; it wouldn't be like "what is My Bloody Valentine doing?" Because you listen to that record and the first thing you think is "well, nobody's gonna make that record again." So the first thing you try to figure out is "it sounds really loud, why does it sound loud? Oh because the vocals sound this way or the guitars sound this way." Just focusing on a specific level and having esoteric nerdy music conversations, that are exciting when you're making music that you're excited about.
So you took a bunch of these songs out on the road, so when did these specific sonic ideas come in? Before or after playing them live?
Cole: All of the above. We were definitely discussing a lot, that was part of the idea, it was "let's play them live and see what feels good" and then at a later stage we'd be like "this part feels long" or "this part doesn't need to exist" or "we're missing something here". It helped us get comfortable, touring them before they're even remotely done, there were not even lyrics, we were just touring these demos. I think it helped us get comfortable with things outside of our comfort zone like playing slower. But we were always talking.
Colin: Yeah the songs weren't done until the final mixes were printed. Shit was changing all along the way. Even one of the songs we cut a minute and a half off it in a very late stage of making the record. That was the approach the whole time; we were trying to make it as good as possible and not be too precious about an idea just because we had spent a lot of time on it. Playing live was a really helpful part of that process.
And then the words come last?
Cole: On this one they did, yeah.
Was that tough to apply the words? Did you already have an idea of what you wanted to say?
Cole: It's a lot of pressure. We kept pushing ourselves, we’d work on one song and it would get better, and then we'd look at the other songs and be like "oh we need to work on these now too", and they would step up and we would go back to the first and be like "we can do this now".
So we had the instrumentals basically done, then Colin and I spent time at my house, like a month, passing the mic back and forth getting the melodies and phrasing. Then fitting the lyrics to it was tough, but it was like "the songs are good, the lyrics need to fit this". It was tough, but I approached it the same way I approach everything else; pretty diligently. We did a lot of listening; writing lyrics we did a lot of listening to lyrics, kind of for the first time as a songwriter really focusing on lyrics, doing a lot of reading.
Colin: It was helpful splitting up the process like that, because when we got all the instrumentals done with the band we were like "now the vocals have to be really good". After we got the vocal melodies down, if we were happy with those then the lyrics had to be that much better. I think if we had done it in a different order it would have come out a lot differently; it was a good way to hold ourselves accountable for quality.
And it turned into the final product, Deceiver - why did you decide to call it that? Are you the Deceiver, Cole?
Cole: It's a theme; there's a lot of deceivers on the record, and it seemed like something that as I was examining my own motives I felt like it's possible to notice that same behaviour elsewhere and examine other people's motives. So yeah there's a couple of deceiver characters, but a lot of the record deals with myself.
It starts with 'Horsehead' - does that have anything to do with the Horsehead Nebula?
Cole: Yeah, I have a poster in my room that has a picture of the galaxy and it just says "Horsehead" and I thought "that's cool". There's obviously multiple meanings, but that's where it comes from yeah.
It's kind of Shakespearean to me, I don't know why. But what are the other meanings to you?
Cole: Horse is drug slang, and there's that Alex G song 'Icehead' that we covered; it seemed like a little bit of a nod or something.
Sonically as well it feels like you're blasting off into space, which works with the nebula. Is that why it's first?
Cole: Yeah, we had talked about that being track 1 before the record was even remotely done. It was like 'Horsehead' first, 'Taker' in the middle and 'Acheron' last, that was the framing of the record. Those are the heavier songs and it seemed like splitting them up beginning middle and end was effective.
Colin: Those three songs do everything that the record does, but in different ways. 'Horsehead' introduces all the ideas; it has really loud parts, it has really quiet parts like slowcore and then gets heavier at the end; it has a big chorus. I think when we were sequencing the record it was important to unravel ideas and introduce things in a way that wouldn't tire the listener, because it gets really loud and overwhelming at times, and if we put all the overwhelming songs in a row you'd feel spent.
Cole: It wouldn't have the same effect. Also track 1 on a record is kind of like a non-single single, but having a six-minute single is difficult to sell to anyone, so it's a way of highlighting it as kind of a single, because people do still listen to records beginning to end hopefully - that's how we listen to music, and that's how we make music.
'Like Before You Were Born' - is this about dying? Because there's that idea that death will feel like what it feels like "before you were born".
Cole: Um, yeah.
So is it about dying or wishing to be dead? Or is it about fighting death?
Cole: I don't really want to talk about that song, but you're on the right track.
Fair enough. In both of the first two songs you talk to the sun; is that because it's a constant, it's reliable?
Cole: Exactly. There's that other song where I'm talking to trees, because they're just these characters that are just the same old guys just hanging out. It's like you have nobody to talk to, but that's gonna be there.
There's moments in those opening two songs, and in many others, where you just seem to kick into gear with your guitars; are those super fun to play live? Are you hoping to see a big audience reaction?
Colin: Yeah, we try to make it impactful as much as we could.
Cole: Yeah like even when a section's loud we always tried to restrain a little bit and let it grow over the course of even the loud section. It's a moment as listeners that we really like, when something kicks up and then kicks up again. I think it'll be fun to play.
What is a 'Skin Game'? Does it come from the phrase "I have no skin in this game”?
Cole: I think it's from [William S.] Burroughs, although I couldn't find it. I wrote it down and I thought that's where it's from, but I was trying to explain it to somebody and I was looking through a couple of books but I couldn't find it. But it's like a game where your skin is on the line, so I guess having skin in the game is related - but you do have skin in the game very literally in this case.
Why was this picked as the first single?
Cole: We talked about singles - we talked about everything - a lot. It seemed like a good stepping stone from what people know the band as, with these melodic single-note guitar lines, and it really does a lot of things; it covers a lot of bases on the record. It's got elements that we use throughout the record, some that are a little more different for us.
Colin: The record is really diverse, and we really like all the songs for different reasons, so picking the singles was tough because we wanted to accurately convey what the whole record was gonna sound like. It wasn't just "these are the three best songs", it was more "does this give a glimpse? Are we being honest with these songs?" It was important to give an accurate picture.
How do you think listeners will categorise this record? Do you think it's strictly shoegaze or do you hope that people hear more than that?
Cole: Well, we did set out to make a shoegaze record. We've been called a shoegaze band, I think kind of wrongly, for a long time. There's so many interesting textures and feelings that that music has conveyed for us that it was something that we wanted to delve into a little bit more. I'm sure people are going to pigeonhole the record in a lot of ways, like a lot of artists are pigeonholed and we have been, but I think ultimately we made the record we wanted to make, and we're proud of it. Whatever people say is out of our control.
It's a hallmark of shoegaze to put the vocals low in the mix, so do you hope that listeners will search out the lyrics and examine them, or is it mainly another melodic element?
Cole: The lyrics are definitely important to the record. I think they are much drier than we were comfortable with in the past.
Colin: Also the vocals are considerably louder than they've ever been in the music. We didn't want to make a pop record where the vocals are all the way at the top, we still wanted to be atmospheric and moody, but we did try a lot to make it so that the vocals were at least intelligible if you're listening for them. There are definitely moments where they're veiled, but we weren't trying to hide them, they're a huge part of the record.
Does writing the lyrics help you to process? Is it part of the recovery?
Cole: It wasn't part of the active [recovery] process, but we're very lucky where we have an outlet where we can discuss things, and it was a little bit of a post-mortem. The record's cathartic, but I don't think writing the lyrics was cathartic, it was more like describing stuff that already happened.
I'm curious about the line in 'Taker', "there's oil in my name" - is that because of Cole/coal?
Cole: Oh, cool! No...
Colin: I hadn't thought about that.
Cole: 'Taker' was kind of a funny exercise in using a specific image but never saying the word. So it's like this song about lying and deception, what's the go-to metaphor for that? Snake. Then I thought of snake oil, so that's where the oil came from, and the next like "my tongue flickers like a wilted flame". It was not a direct snake metaphor. It seemed pretty easy, so we tried to remove it one step.
It's just the two of you that sing on the record, but sometimes it sounds like there's a female voice in there...
Colin: That's me. We actually did talk about how I could act as the girl, because we love female vocalists.
Especially in the likes of Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, they're so important to the sound.
Cole: A lot of music we listen to, especially current music, is female vocalists. It just seems like a much more valuable perspective and voice to have.
Colin: And it's a texture, it's a range of melodic information that makes it so that the lower vocal can be a lot louder. If we were doing close harmonies the whole time in our normal range, it would sound cluttered, this is a way to add a different feeling.
Side B of the record kicks off with 'For The Guilty', and to me there's a tonal shift...
Colin: For sure.
What were your thoughts on that?
Colin: The first half of the record is much more consistent and cohesive, tone-wise, and the back half of the record is where it kind of cuts loose and rewards the listener for getting that far; there's more surprises. But the sequence is just like a puzzle, you put one thing at track 3 that means something else can't go there; so everything else just starts to fall. We knew that we wanted certain songs certain places and then it ended up happening that way, whatever felt best.
The line "curtained in with arms outspread" is a stark image.
Cole: That song is about isolation; it's about a number of phases of recovery, but that specific line is the isolation phase, especially in active addiction. You fucking isolate because that's how you enable yourself. So that line's about self-isolating.
'The Spark' to me sounds most like the previous DIIV material.
Cole: Yeah, that was the idea.
Colin: We felt like it was important because we go to new extremes on this record. It's stuff that we're really interested in, but we still enjoy that kind of music, we just didn't want to make another whole record of it. That one felt good, and it still gets really thick and psychedelic with the guitars and everything, it felt like a good balance.
Cole: Thematically too; in most of the songs there's meant to be a little bit of hope and solutions that I've found for the problems that are on the record, but that one's just a straight up love song. I'm engaged now, my life is much different than it was, and it's due to the other work that is talked about elsewhere on the album, but I think it would be dishonest not to have a love song on the record. It's one that addresses history, but it is a love song.
It's self-loving as well. But it starts with this imagery, speaking like a ghost then a boat in a cove; what’s that about?
Cole: It was from a book of poetry that my fiancé gave me at a very critical time. It was the only book I had, and I read it a lot, and that specific poem that that line draws from, I felt a love of love every time I read it.
Tell me about 'Blankenship'.
Colin: There's a coal mining CEO Don Blankenship who was convicted for negligence, due to poor safety regulations in a mine a bunch of people died.
Cole: And as an energy CEO he's obviously a climate change denier.
Colin: So he became this metaphor or figurehead for corporate greed, but also deception, people being deceived by energy companies about climate change. That was actually just the jumping off point, it was something that I ad-libbed in the original demo; I thought it was a nonsense word but I must have seen it in the news. Then Cole ran with it for the lyrics.
Cool. It's kind of the only song on the record that's sending its negative feelings outward.
Cole: But there's parallels, that's why it fits. It's still about personal responsibility, it's about deception. Just like you face your life with honesty and taking responsibility for your actions; each individual person interested in climate change has things that they can do. It's a very personal thing that every person has to face up to, so that's why I felt like it fit on the record.
It makes sense, I like that. The record finished with 'Acheron', where does that title come from?
Cole: It was an image that we used in the song, and Bailey our guitar player had the idea of specifically naming it. That's the only song where there's not a solution, because it's much more about the big questions. Acheron is the river that you cross over between Earth and Hell, and there's a boatman who brings you across, so we kind of extended that metaphor of like "What's next to the river? What else is there?" I guess it's one of the more difficult songs to talk about because it's very bleak.
Is that why it's last, because it's asking these open ended questions?
Colin: Part of it.
Cole: Musically, most of all, is why it's last, because it's this climax.
Cole, you said you read a lot; do either of you have books you would like to recommend? Not necessarily something that influenced the record, just anything.
Cole: I'm reading this book right now that's really fucking me up, it's called Malfeasance by a French writer and professor at Stamford called Michael Serres. It's about the way that people interact with their immediate surroundings and with other people, and every interaction where you're establishing yourself in any particular place, you're destroying that thing. It's really enlightening for me. I also read a really good novel that I enjoyed called There There [by Tommy Orange].
DIIV's new record Deceiver is out now on Captured Tracks.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 7th October 2019.