Cover Story

How Does It Feel: DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith Rolls On

By Chris DeVille / July 28, 2014 - 10:09 am

On the night of September 13, 2013, Smith and Ferreira were driving through Saugerties, New York on their way to perform at the Basillica Soundscape music festival in Hudson when their pickup truck was pulled over and searched. “We were driving through a really small town in the middle of the night, and a cop pulled out in front of us and a cop pulled out behind us,” Smith remembers. “I had a warrant out for my arrest, so they arrested me immediately. And then they searched the car, which was full of gear — all of our music equipment, all of everything. And they just tore everything apart, and they just found all sorts of stuff… It was bad.” Here’s how the encounter played out according to police blotter from Hudson Valley newspaper The Daily Freeman:

Drugs: Zachary C. Smith, 28, of ________________, Catskill, was arrested by Saugerties police at 12:30 a.m. Saturday and charged with two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance, one count of possession of stolen property and one count of aggravated unlicensed driving, all misdemeanors. He was also charged with the violations of unregistered motor vehicle, driving without insurance, unlicensed driver, and having an inadequate exhaust system. Also arrested was Sky T. Ferreira, 21, of ________________, Brooklyn, on misdemeanor charges of criminal possession of a controlled substance and resisting arrest. Police said the two were arrested following a traffic stop in the village. Officers stopped a 1990 Ford pickup truck with New Jersey registration after the driver made several vehicle and traffic infractions, police said. Police said a registration check showed the license plates on the truck were stolen and the driver, Smith, was wanted by the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office on an outstanding vehicle and traffic warrant. While taking Smith into custody, officers found a plastic bag containing 42 decks of heroin, police said. Police said Ferreira, a passenger in the truck, was found in possession of Ecstasy and resisted arrest. Smith and Ferreira were arraigned in Saugerties Village Court and sent to the Ulster County Jail — Smith in lieu of $2,500 bail and Ferreira in lieu of $1,500 bail.

A series of bad decisions had caught up to Smith in spectacularly turbulent fashion. There were the drugs, of course, which have been a battle for as long as Smith can remember and which were getting out of control at the time of his arrest. “I’ve just always been the kind of person that you can’t say to me, ‘That stove is too hot. Don’t touch it.’ I have to just touch it and figure out how hot it is — you know, hold my hand just above it or touch it with my little finger. I always have to push my limits. So all the sudden there’s this drug that enters the scene that’s this ultimate forbidden thing, and that makes it the most tempting thing around. I’ve always struggled with various addictions throughout my life.”

Furthermore, he might never had been pulled over that night had he not been driving without a license, something he’d been doing for almost his entire adult life. “I lost my license when I was like 21, and I didn’t get it back until I was 28,” he says. “I probably drove across the country 10 times or more without a license and it just never mattered. Nobody cared. And then eventually I found one cop that did care, and that’s where the warrant came from.” Smith says he tried to appear in court four times but his case never made it on the docket, so he assumed the problem had gone away. Instead, a warrant was issued for his arrest. “I could have just paid the ticket or something, but it ended up being my undoing.”

The arrest caused countless unpleasant consequences for Smith and Ferreira. Besides the legal hoops they’re still jumping through — court-ordered rehab and regular probationary check-ins for him, anger management classes for her — there’s the seemingly irreparable damage to the couple’s public image. Ferreira lost several modeling jobs and faced widespread accusations of drug addiction, charges she and Smith say are entirely false. Smith still wrestles with profound guilt about the fallout in Ferreira’s life: “Basically I just was stupid. I fucked up, and it was entirely my fault, and I fucked 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 shit… Her career got really fucked up because everybody thought she was a drug addict, which she’s absolutely not. That’s the worst part of it for me is that I really fucked her over.”

He’s also haunted by the reality that his drug problem has eclipsed DIIV’s music in the public consciousness. “I feel like there’s all this weird mythology that sort of surrounds me, and it distracts from the purity of the band,” he says. “If somebody mentioned DIIV, they wouldn’t hum the song, they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, the guy who got pulled over driving a stolen car with heroin in it.’ I really hate that.” DIIV began as an intentionally shadowy enterprise, but Smith has become far from anonymous over the past two years. “I never wanted my face or personality to be part of the band, but it became inevitable,” he says. “This next record I did want to reveal myself a little bit more, but I never wanted to feel so exposed as I do now. I just feel like out there on the internet I’m just standing there completely naked and everybody’s just gawking, like, ‘Man, you fucking loser.'” Whenever he returns to this subject — which is often — his voice quivers with a fragility that matches his boyish frame.

“I just feel like people who prosecute drug addicts, they have no ability to understand what it’s like to struggle with addiction,” he says, troubled by the lack of empathy. “I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy and in rehab and different stuff that’s helped me learn how to handle it on my own, but they don’t really offer resources for how to talk to the general public about it. I know how to involve my girlfriend and my mom and my friends in my recovery, but when it comes down to the general public, it just gets reduced down to, like, ‘You fucking junkie, I hope you fucking OD.'” Aside from all the wearisome negativity, Smith is bothered by some people’s perception that he went on drugs and got arrested as a publicity stunt or to live out a certain rock-star archetype. “To act like I’m advocating heroin use is so offensive to me because I would never do that,” he says. “I’m living proof of how much it can fuck you.”

***

When DIIV go on stage at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, most of the beer the venue provided is still in the fridge. I’m not sure anybody has poured a drink from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s besides me. Bailey, DIIV’s pigtailed guitarist and resident Yankees fan, tells me he’s a recovering alcoholic as of last fall, when he almost drank himself to death. (For his part, Bailey still loves weed, but he forgot to bring his stash Thursday.) He used to maintain a detailed knowledge of the liquor laws in each state so that he could figure out when and how to acquire extra alcohol. Now he’s asked venues not to provide booze before the shows but says the hospitality staff always thinks he’s joking. DIIV used to be that kind of band, he says, but they don’t really pound beers anymore. In fact, neither during Monday’s rehearsal nor at Thursday’s show do I notice any member of the band consuming any mind-altering substances, at least until after the show when a celebratory round of champagne makes its way around the room. Everyone seems clearheaded and alert, including Smith.

So, is he done with heroin? “It’s a complicated thing,” Smith says. “With drugs you always have a pretty complicated relationship with it. So according to AA and all that stuff, I’m never recovered. But now I’m at the point where I’m in recovery. I have to report for drug tests and stuff. I wouldn’t say I’ve beaten it or anything because I don’t know if anybody can, but I’m trying my best. I can’t say, ‘No, I’m totally clean and sober.’ But like anything, it’s a little more complicated.”

Even the decision to fight his addiction didn’t come easy, but Smith says Ferreira weathered the storm with him when others would have cut and run. “It took me a long time to learn my lesson,” he says. “Even right after I got out of jail, I continued to engage in incredibly risky behavior and didn’t even think about it. Another person might have been like, ‘You know what? Fuck you. You ruined my life, and now you’re going to keep doing this same thing over and over?’ But she was just so patient. I think that’s part of what helped me get through it. She was just so good to me.” From Ferreira’s perspective, Smith is being too hard on himself. “I did lose out on a lot of opportunities, but it was my fault,” she says. “I was in the car.”

Ferreira is also of the mind that other people could and should have stepped in to help Smith break his addiction before things got so messy. “Even before [the arrest], I was trying to help him,” she says. “And that was the thing that I found so disgusting about it was nobody else was trying before that. Because that could have been avoided in a lot of ways. It’s not completely his fault.” She seems less upset about Smith’s drug abuse than other people’s failure to step in and do something about it. “It put me in a really weird position,” she says. “Because I want to be his girlfriend, not his mom. You know what I mean? Like, I don’t want him to resent me.”

When Smith enters one of his guilt spirals regarding damage to Ferreira’s career — a subject he returns to nearly as often as online persecution — she always insists that he’s not at fault for other people’s decisions not to work with her. “All I wanted was for him to get better,” Ferreira says. He was already crediting her with saving his life in interviews before his arrest, but now there’s a worshipful tone along the lines of “Amazing Grace.” He can’t believe the mercy she’s shown him.

Still, Smith’s guilt persists. The two-week rehab stint he went through late last year was useful on that front; group therapy sessions helped Smith see how much anguish he was carrying around, and he gained a sense of self-worth from helping other patients through their own struggles. “It wasn’t like a cure-all,” he says. “It wasn’t like I left rehab and then all of the sudden everything’s fine.” He remains in therapy, where he’s learning how to cope with the pain and anxiety that drove him to drugs in the first place. There’s also a legal incentive to get clean. “Basically the gist of my release from jail is I was released into the custody of the Ulster County court system. I don’t own myself right now. I’m property of the court until I prove myself to be cured,” he says. “That really sucks, and that casts a big shadow over the whole tour.”

Any sense of looming dread is not perceptible during Thursday night’s set. Smith, still wearing the same outfit from Monday, bounces his upper body with an aggression once compared to Major Lazer’s daggering. In this context, he seems less like a kid dressed up for Halloween and more like a wizard conjuring blissful swells of sound to ward off evil spirits. Every band member is coursing with a vibrant energy that never quite materialized during Monday’s strained rehearsal. As they burn through songs new and old — and a DIIV-ified krautrock cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” for good measure — the sold-out crowd rages on, a vocal antidote to the vitriolic chorus Smith has become accustomed to. Many of the teeming masses climb on stage and, ahem, dive back into the audience. In this setting, Smith’s problems seem shimmer up into the ether along with the reverb.

The roaring crowd reminds me of the continuing demand for a second DIIV album, which Smith says is almost finished. He’s not sure exactly what to call it or which songs to include, but he hopes to put it out before the end of the year. “I feel like I should have put out two records already,” he laments. Last summer he talked about releasing a record about the state of guitar music, but whatever he meant by that seems to have eluded him now. He’s fairly certain the final product is going to be a lot more personal than that. “I’ve just kind of had a difficult two years,” he says. “I’ve been going through a crazy time. Any lyric I write is just what I’m feeling right now. I’m not really like a storyteller. It’s much more like verbal diarrhea.” Any discernible lyrics would mark a major change from Oshin’s bleary, sometimes wordless mumbles. Smith also figures the album will be a reaction against Oshin’s intricately constructed sound — still unmistakably DIIV, but rawer and “more thrown-together.”

Nothing about the new songs feels particularly ragged tonight, though. DIIV are in the zone. As Ferreira and the rest of the band’s social circle cheer from the balcony, they tear through a triumphant encore, sounding bigger and louder than ever. The role of headliner is fitting them quite nicely. When the final note rings out into the auditorium, the crowd roars, and DIIV retreat backstage, beaming with a glow not unlike the translucent haze that emanates from their music. Ferreira greets Smith in the hallway, and they embrace, hands grasping each other’s faces. For now, everything is under control.

[Photos by Ryan Muir.]

An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Smith’s pickup truck as stolen. The license plates on the truck were reported stolen because Smith did not return them to the truck’s previous owner in a timely fashion.

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