DIIV Play with Excess on 'Is the Is Are'

Photo: Zachary Chick

BY Cam LindsayPublished Jan 27, 2016

Since DIIV released their debut album, Oshin, in 2012, more drama has emerged from the band than music. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Zachary Cole Smith was arrested for drug possession with his girlfriend, musician Sky Ferreira; bassist Devin Ruben Perez was outed for writing a racist, homophobic and misogynistic post on 4chan; and most recently, they fired their PR company after its founder was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. While all of that was going on, DIIV were hard at work on a new album called Is the Is Are (out February 5 on Captured Tracks), but it wasn't just those incidents that caused the delay.

"I feel like in a lot of ways it's a new climate for musicians," Smith tells Exclaim! "Since touring now is so vastly important, I think a lot of artists put touring at the forefront, so there are bigger gaps between records. If you look at most big artists, they're not putting out records every year like they did in 1982. They're putting out records every few years, because that's the new climate. And obviously it's that, combined with a lot of personal stuff, like getting arrested and going to rehab. I couldn't write for a while afterwards because I was so shaken up about it and still had stuff to deal with. The record was finished just under a year ago, but getting it 100 percent perfect really took a full year."

Making Is the Is Are was a series of stops and starts for Smith, who was the primary songwriter and performer on the record. Recorded in various spots around Brooklyn, Smith originally hoped to make the album with Chet "JR" White, the former bassist and producer in Girls. Unfortunately, a week of writing sessions went awry when Smith travelled to San Francisco.

"Me and JR had talked a lot because I am a huge fan of Girls, and his production on stuff like Spectrals and Glitz," Smith says. "We'd been talking on the phone a lot about stuff for this new record. So I flew out to San Francisco and burned a week of sessions. I didn't have that much written because I thought we'd write it in the studio. But we got some rooms at this crappy Travelodge in Mission, and it was just really depressing there. We were doing way too many drugs and not focusing on the music at all. We had an engineer with us who was a bad influence on us, drug wise. And he took us down this bad path where we spent every day doing drugs and coming back to the studio really high and not doing anything for the rest of the day. It didn't seem like the best working relationship at the time, because none of us were in the best place. He's an awesome guy and a great friend, but it just wasn't healthy. And then soon after that he discovered Tobias Jesso Jr. and worked with him."

While there was no shortage of incidents to throw Smith off course completely, he succeeded in not just turning in an album that builds on Oshin's sprawling, guitar-driven dream pop, but turning in a double album. Even though he was fully aware of the trappings that come with such an undertaking, he had planned the double album since he first started writing.

"There had been a lot of time between records, and I did want to deliver something substantial," he explains. "But I also really wanted this album to have a very human quality that is easy to criticize. When you think about double records, they're always associated with bloated, rock'n'roll excess, which is something I kind of wanted to play with. I wanted to make a record that at first glance seemed like a mistake or imperfect, but throughout the course of the record it wins you over. It was conceived as a double record from the beginning. Just the number of songs I had and to cover the amount of ground we covered, I felt it wouldn't be able to be as diverse as it is without having two full LPs."

The most talked-about song on Is the Is Are is the Sonic Youth-sounding "Blue Bedroom," featuring Smith's girlfriend, Sky Ferreira, on vocals. While it may seem like an obvious collaboration, the song was only added at the very last minute.

"There was a song where I didn't know what to do with," he says, "and it was this instrumental that I originally wanted as an interlude at the beginning of the record. I wanted [Andrew] Bailey, our guitar player, to read a short story that he wrote over it, but it felt too long. I was inspired by this Velvet Underground song called 'The Gift,' where they read a short story over an instrumental, but it wasn't working. So I had a bunch of scrap lyrics left over that I compiled into this stream of consciousness thing, and I recorded myself singing it, but it sounded terrible. So then I just gave it to Sky and asked her to do it the way I did it. I think we did three takes at home and used the first one. We had talked about her being on the record, but it didn't feel like it was going to happen. Then at the last minute this came up."

The Sonic Youth influence, however, was a complete accident, at least for that particular track. "There is definitely a Kim Gordon vibe," he admits. "I didn't really want to go there because Sonic Youth is already such a big influence on the record, especially Bad Moon Rising and the song 'Ghost Bitch,' which was a huge influence. The comparisons were inevitable, but it wasn't really what we were going for."

Check out the title track "Is the Is Are" below.

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