From VMAN 28 Winter 2012
PHOTOGRAPHY BJARNE JONASSON
Zachary Cole Smith, formally referred to as Z. Cole Smith (and just Cole in casual conversation), is seated in a crowded van somewhere outside of Ventura, California, on his way up to Santa Cruz. He’s coming from Santa Barbara with his band, DIIV—Devin Ruben Perez, Andrew Bailey, and Colby Hewitt—where they played to a packed house the night before. Along the drive, Cole purchased a guitar amp from a guy off Craigslist and plugged it into an outdoor electrical outlet curiously embedded in the trunk of a tree. The gang is joined by Hewitt’s girlfriend, Sandy Kim, and they all chime in at various points. When asked how they’d describe their past year, there is murmuring. Cole yells back “Really?!” before explaining, “Two people said ‘shit storm.’ I wouldn’t ever say that. It’s been charmed. I feel lucky.”
It’s easy to see how both could be true. Their name is pronounced “dive,” which was their previous moniker, abandoned out of respect for Dirk Ivens and the original Dive (a Belgian industrial band from the ’90s). Smith once said the name was derived from the obscure Nirvana B-side of the 1990 single “Sliver” (and subsequently the ’92 compilation, Incesticide), but has since declared that names are meaningless anyway. The foursome from Brooklyn is easily one of the biggest breakout bands of 2012—their debut summer LP, Oshin, was an arrival heralded by both critics and audiences, the former spotting admirable references in the sonorous, snaking guitars and the latter thrashing joyously in mosh pits, drowning in disaffection and noise. At the moment, the band has just finished their first-ever European tour.
“I crashed my car in the middle of the night in Copenhagen,” Cole says. “I was driving this girl home without realizing she only lived one block from where we were. I drove around this corner and I don’t remember crashing it, but I woke up and it was crashed.” All in all though, the trip went well. “They respect you there,” he says. “You have a hotel every night. Now we’re going to San Francisco. Colby and Sandy know everybody and we’re still like, Where are we gonna stay? We’re looking for a floor to sleep on. There’s a whole sensibility in Europe of people respecting art and artists more.” He gives an example of a friend who receives money from the Belgian government to make art and doesn’t have to work. Then he laughs. “Colby says that’s why European art sucks. But there is something about struggling that is an important experience to have. It filters out people who aren’t as serious about it. You need to have a huge work ethic to make any sort of art happen anyway. Having a band is a full-time job of answering e-mails and making calls. I found out the most important role a musician has is making sure to CC the right people in certain e-mails, and then to remove them and then put them back in CCs and add more people to CCs until the CC list is massive and gets filtered back down. That’s literally all I do. I’m like a switchboard operator.”
As grueling as that sounds, one might be flummoxed to learn that the project that is DIIV—they of beautiful droning guitar and skygazing dream-pop melodies—originated in spite of a complete lack of ambition. “I never wanted to make music when I was a kid or whatever,” Cole says. “I had a guitar because I guess everybody just does.” After moving to New York he got a job at a restaurant and ended up playing in bands like the Soft Black and Beach Fossils. “After playing in other people’s bands, I learned from their mistakes and figured it would be cool to start my own thing. It didn’t start as an artistic vision. It wasn’t something I needed to get out. It was more like, I know how to do this so I’m just gonna do it.” After making notes on what music was missing, Cole determined that it was a shame there were no good rock bands in New York. “The scene in New York is so scattered,” he says. “All the bands we’re friends with we would never be paired with musically. People aren’t really inspired by each other. Our music is mostly inspired by bands that don’t exist anymore. I don’t really listen to new music. I’ve sort of made up this whole fake scene in my head and I pretend we’re a part of it.”
While the bulk of Oshin was composed by Cole alone in his room, the band’s new material will be the result of a group effort, and hopefully one with extreme results. “We’re gonna take every direction we hinted at on the record and push it out as far as we can, because everything nowadays is so safe. There aren’t many mainstream weird records. People don’t make weird decisions as often as they used to. I wanted to be safe on the first record because I kind of knew how I wanted it to end up. I don’t want to dismantle it, but I want to play with it as much as possible. I feel like I was in college and now I’m in postgrad.”