Smith spent some time working construction and landscaping jobs in Northampton, doing whatever work he could find to get by. That winter, he attended at a New Year’s party in New York. There he met a cute girl who invited him back to her unheated apartment off the Halsey train stop in Brownsville (“One Of Brooklyn’s Most Dangerous Neighborhoods” — Time). Their relationship didn’t work out, but Smith ended up living at the girl’s apartment for many months anyway, sleeping on the kitchen floor with the oven open for warmth. He and his ex-girlfriend-turned-roommate are both vegans, so to impress her, he applied for a job at the East Village organic restaurant Angelica’s Kitchen. They weren’t hiring, but the guy behind the counter invited Smith to play bass in his band. After a few weeks hanging out and playing shows, he met the whole restaurant staff and ended up working there after all. It turned out to be his gateway into a community of New York musicians. “I was totally wide-eyed and wanted to learn everything about music,” he remembers.
He ended up playing guitar in Vincent Cacchione’s folksy indie-rock group Soft Black, a band in which Matt Molnar of Friends also logged time. They gigged constantly around town and eventually booked their own US tour in 2009, heading out across the country with two other bands crammed into one crummy van. The vehicle broke down in rural Arizona, the last straw in a rough outing that essentially dissolved that version of Soft Black. Smith’s stepdad was living in Arizona at the time, so he took a bus across the state, borrowed money to get the van fixed, and dropped off his bandmates in various West Coast cities before driving back to New York just before the van went kaput for good. He sees that period as the most important part of his story: “That was like college for me — playing in bands and just kind of paying your dues or whatever. Playing shows where there’s no people, writing songs, practicing four or five days a week just for nothing, just playing for nobody, going on a huge US tour that you book yourself with no money, and the whole thing just liquidates. And then it’s over, but you just move back and try it again a little bit better.” His next attempts would be more successful by far.
Back in New York circa 2009, Smith bumped into a guy on the train who liked his shirt and asked if he knew how to play the drums. That turned out to be Dustin Payseur, who was in the process of assembling the live band for his spindly, reverb-drenched indie-pop project Beach Fossils. Smith’s tenure behind the kit didn’t last long; after a handful of shows, he skipped town and bounced from Minneapolis to Seattle to London for the better part of a year. During his time away, he began to write his own music seriously for the first time. He returned to New York and rejoined Beach Fossils as a guitarist in time to tour in support of their 2010 debut album. When not touring, he mostly kept to himself in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with no running water, listening to free jazz and recording shimmering, propulsive post-punk tracks into his computer.
Beach Fossils’ debut made them minor stars in indie rock — Smith’s first band to really draw crowds and capture the media’s imagination. They were one of the most prominent names in a Brooklyn scene that was bustling at the time, overflowing with talent such as Real Estate, Vivian Girls, and Crystal Stilts. If Smith was ever going to be in position to find success with a project of his own, this was it. Plus he was feeling lonely, and forming a band seemed like a good social stimulus. So in the summer of 2011 he booked a show and asked Bailey, Perez, and Hewitt to be his band. They called themselves Dive after the Nirvana song “Dive” and because all four members had aquatic astrological signs. (The alternate spelling DIIV came a year later in deference to a Belgian industrial act also called Dive and because Smith’s band “[outgrew] the [original] name and its associations”.) Soon, Smith and company were playing Brooklyn venues such as 285 Kent and Shea Stadium constantly, gigging as often as six nights a week. “It just kind of became like, if you need an opening band in New York, just get DIIV because they’ll do it and people like it,” he remembers. They became almost a scene unto themselves, the nexus of a community of young creative weirdos with a penchant for fashion, drugs, and noisy rock music.
Among those who quickly fell for DIIV was Captured Tracks head Mike Sniper, who was already working with Beach Fossils at the time. After Smith dropped off his demo to Captured Tracks, Sniper heard initial single “Sometime” drifting through the office and was floored. “I didn’t even know it was Cole,” Sniper recalls. “I just blindly heard it and was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?'” Captured Tracks signed the band and issued a string of acclaimed early singles, followed by the full-length Oshin in June 2012. Although the album was mostly written and recorded over the course of a week in May 2012, it was the product of careful deliberation on Smith’s part. “The first record started as a sound,” he explains. “It was a type of record that I felt was what people wanted to listen to. I felt like people wanted a record that you can just throw on at any time, and it works perfectly as background music but also if you listen to it there’s a lot to hear. You kind of hear new stuff every time. It’s a little bit mysterious.”
Smith sees DIIV and Oshin in particular as the culmination of a lot of careful learning. “The whole band was just an experiment to see how well I knew what I was doing based on mistakes made by the bands I was in before,” he says. Which lessons? “Nothing specific, but stuff about putting yourself at the right place at the right time. I just saw a window. I remember when Beach Fossils would play New York and we would get all these show offers for these small shows, and people would be like, ‘We just want a cool, young, energetic rock band.’ And there isn’t any. And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just make one.’ It fell right into this gap of something that was missing in New York at the time — a fun rock band with good songs, just a fun band to go see and fill this void that Beach Fossils got too big to fill.”
Soon DIIV got too big for those kinds of shows too. Oshin became one of the Captured Tracks’ best-selling, most acclaimed releases, widely praised for its brisk yet impressionistic blend of krautrock, post-punk, grunge, and psych. (Our take at the time: “Oshin takes the soaring guitar interplay of Smith’s old group into edgier, darker, more scorching terrain.”) People stopped talking about DIIV as a Beach Fossils side project. The band signed on to open high-profile tours and played “Doused” on Letterman. Things were going exactly according to Smith’s plan.
“Everything about the band was just something that I felt needed to exist,” Smith says. “It wasn’t just like, ‘This is the type of music I make, and this is who I am,’ or whatever. That’s partially true. I can’t really write any other type of music other than this. But I wouldn’t have even tried if I didn’t feel like it would be successful. It wasn’t a point in my life where I felt like I had the luxury to just do something for the fuck of it. I needed to do something that was going to be able to support me.” When I point out that Smith’s studious approach to DIIV is essentially the polar opposite of his behavior in school, he smiles. “I feel like when I was in school I probably was like, ‘Why aren’t you doing it this way?’ But nobody wanted to listen to me,” he says. “I just liked making up the rules myself and just being in control of it.”
The results of Smith seizing control were hard to deny; DIIV were riding high after Oshin. “It’s like a little bit of a success story,” he says. “Anybody can do this. You can do this because I did it, and I felt like I had no advantage over anybody else except just knowledge… You have to put in work. It’s not just having good songs or being cool.”
On top of all the band’s success, Smith soon ended up dating the woman of his dreams. He met Sky Ferreira through their mutual friend, video director Grant Singer, in late 2012. Smith and Ferreira were both attracting a lot of media attention for their music at the time — Smith for Oshin, Ferreira for her breakthrough single “Everything Is Embarrassing.” They also had the same publicist, who suggested they collaborate on some music. The duo recorded a song inspired by Robert Smith and Steven Severin’s collaborative album The Glove, and although the recording never came out, the creative process sparked a friendship that rapidly progressed to the brink of romance. There was just one problem: “She had this shitty boyfriend,” Smith remembers. His solution was to exert some influence via the song he and Ferreira recorded together. “I wrote this song that was basically the words I wished she would say to him. I wrote this thing about what I wanted her to say to her boyfriend, like ‘You don’t own me!’ and all this shit. Subliminally I wanted it somehow to sneak into her consciousness, and it did. A couple days later she broke up with her boyfriend, and a couple weeks later we were dating.”
“He straight-up asked me,” Ferreira remembers. “He was like, ‘I want you to be my girlfriend.’ And we’d known each other for like two days.” After years spent dating much older men and finding younger men emotionally immature, Ferreira was elated to have found someone closer to her age who enticed and challenged her. She broke things off with the previous boyfriend and leapt headfirst into a romance with Smith. “We just kind of started instantly dating like right after we met. I guess it all happened really fast. There was never a transition like ‘Oh, are we maybe dating?’ or ‘We’re seeing each other.’ We instantly became boyfriend and girlfriend.”
They quickly became inseparable. “It was so perfect,” Smith says. “We both needed something just then.” Although they’re seen regularly together around NYC clubs, they hobnob with famous photographers such as Hedi Slimane and Terry Richardson, and their Tumblrs and Instagrams are often filled with shots of the couple traveling the world together, Smith describes their day-to-day life as “pretty low-key.” His entire being softens when he talks about his experiences with Ferreira, be that fending off overzealous fans in South America or walking down to a deserted Brooklyn waterfront to watch a lightning storm. “We’ve been really good for each other,” Smith says. “It’s just awesome to have somebody to be with who can understand my weird sense of humor and I can understand her weird sense of humor. We just hang out and keep to ourselves and watch movies.” For her part, Ferreira gushes about the way Smith unlocked her writer’s block and gave her the confidence to write and record most of Night Time, My Time in a month. “I think because I was finally experiencing things again,” she says. “There was such a long time when I felt so weird. I had gone through cycles of people telling me no and shooting me down, constantly telling me what’s wrong with me, that I kind of forgot how to have fun for a while.”
By most people’s standards, Smith had made it. He could finally afford to pay the bills. His band was on the rise. He was dating a beautiful, talented woman who understood him like no one else — and whose career was ascendent too. Slimane even tapped Smith for some Saint Laurent modeling work. There was a certain point in early 2013 when, from your average internet-surfer’s perspective, Smith seemed to be living out a movie-script ending. In fact, his life remained tumultuous beneath the surface, and his private chaos was about to spill very messily into public view.
Thursday evening around 8 o’clock, Smith and Ferreira are hanging out with the rest of DIIV’s inner circle backstage at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg, reading vicious comments about themselves on Brooklyn Vegan. Everything that was up in the air Monday night has been resolved successfully: Ferreira’s birthday went off without a hitch, DIIV’s gear is ready for the road, and the government allowed Smith to push back his meeting with his probation officer. The band even snuck in another rehearsal before last night’s Sky Ferreira/DIIV show for David Lynch Foundation, which was a smashing success. You wouldn’t know it from the comment thread. Some of the choice assessments of Smith include “Talk about a delusional, narcassistic [sic] nerd” and “yikes, this choad needs a solid opened hand grill slap.” Regarding Ferreira, one poster wonders, “Who’s [sic] idea was it to have the benefit’s main act be a crackwhore?” Another asks, “Did she have sex with the pedophile [Terry] Richardson guy?” which is answered in quick succession with “bout a 99% likelihood” and then “or caught a load to the face.” The first comment in the thread, regarding DIIV’s merch table, reads, “T-Shirts $15, Posters $15, Decks $15″ followed by “decks were $10″ — references to the “42 decks” of heroin police found in Smith’s pickup truck last fall.
Together in this festive environment, they can laugh about the toxic levels of hatred being spewed in their direction. But the truth is Smith has become deeply weary of such barbs. He’s shouldered a lot of criticism in the past year and a half, sometimes for making mistakes and sometimes for just being himself. Ferreira has faced similar persecution — some of it due to choices she had to know would be controversial, such as appearing topless on her album cover, and some of it by virtue of her association with Smith. Smith acknowledges that becoming a professional musician is an exercise in attention-seeking by default, but he seems shellshocked by how nasty so much of that attention has been. “I feel like both my girlfriend and I, this thing happens where no matter what we say, people tend to instantly hate us when we say it,” he says. Ferreira says she’s developed a thick skin about public ridicule, but Smith hasn’t learned to cope with it as well. Over and over again, when his troubles come up in conversation, he fixates on the public’s merciless critique and the deep wound that creates. “It just feels really bad to know that people hate you.”
Among the controversies that made Smith such a polarizing figure: In a March 2013 Tumblr post, he reasonably criticized the business-first, music-last mentality at SXSW and was derided by some as an ungrateful baby who should have known what he was signing up for. Three months later, in a heavily circulated interview, Smith responded to a question about Kurt Cobain’s influence by musing, “To be told that you’re the voice of your generation is such an incredible amount of pressure, and I haven’t faced that. Maybe by the time our third record rolls around, I will. My goals are to be a band like that in five years.” As a result, a tidal wave of commenters accused Smith of delusional egotism. He says he uttered the remark with a sarcasm that didn’t come through in the transcription. In the same interview, Smith spoke frankly about firing his manager and feeling angry about the way money is divvied up in the music industry, which triggered another round of boo-hoos from the commentariat. Those were all examples of Smith willfully speaking his mind and being predictably critiqued for it. But by far the most vitriol has stemmed from an incident last fall that has unfortunately come to define Smith, Ferreira, and DIIV for the casual observer.