Zachary Cole Smith opens the door wearing a collarless white button-down shirt so big it could pass for a nightgown. The 28-year-old DIIV frontman is also rocking a leather ball cap over his light brown shoulder-length locks, plus baggy white shorts and black low-cut shoes with tall black socks climbing up his calves. Short, slight, and boyish in the face, he looks like a kid dressed up as a 19th-century baseball player for Halloween. It’s about 10 o’clock on a seasonably hot July Monday night. We are on the sidewalk in a vaguely defined area of Brooklyn between the heavily gentrified Williamsburg neighborhood and the increasingly gentrified Bushwick. Across the street in a warehouse decked out with colorful murals and gym mats, a group of men are breakdancing. Various musicians have been coming in and out of the graffiti-strewn brick structure Smith just emerged from, one of those industrial buildings where bands rent out space to practice. DIIV are borrowing a room from their buddy Matthew Molnar of Friends for tonight’s rehearsal.
“Sorry, the space is really small,” Smith says, leading me inside down whitewashed halls and identical doorframes. “Our drummer’s not here, so maybe you can sit there.” The space is really, really small — smaller than some people’s closets — so I press my back against one of the plain white walls while four out of five members of DIIV scramble to practice new songs. Also present: guitarist Andrew Bailey, a grade-school friend of Smith’s who wears blonde braided pigtails and used to play in gothic garage-rocker Shilpa Ray’s band the Happy Hookers; bassist Devin Ruben Perez, a skateboarder and devoted astrologer who’s never been in a band before DIIV; and guitarist/keyboardist Colin Caulfield, a veteran of various underground music projects who joined DIIV last year to flesh out the live sound. All of them are wearing baggy clothes with long hair streaming out from under their baseball caps.
Not present yet is drummer Colby Hewitt, formerly of Smith Westerns, who is off somewhere working on a photo project with his girlfriend, the acclaimed documentary and fashion photographer Sandy Kim. In Hewitt’s absence, his bandmates are attempting to play along with demos from Smith’s laptop using a click track, and the resulting racket is not helping anyone figure out whether these songs are ready for the road. Smith clicks around his iTunes library through innumerable recordings — some of them familiar to his bandmates, others not, most of them described as “that weird one.” This process repeats several times over: Smith plays a few seconds of one song, then another, then another, until eventually he stumbles upon the song he’s looking for. He intersperses his search with brief digressions about the influences behind these songs, referencing “the Television scale,” Weezer’s “Only In Dreams,” and one poppy new number that descends into “some weird Suicide jam.” At one point, he spends several minutes seeking out a track they’ve rarely rehearsed before. “I found it!” This is it! Let’s do this,” he says. “Or is that a waste of like one hour of practice?”
Smith doesn’t really have an hour to spare tonight. He and his bandmates are scrambling through what might be their only rehearsal for their first US headlining tour, which launches later this week. The goal is to road-test new material for the follow-up to DIIV’s 2012 debut album, Oshin, an underground breakout hit that marked them as one of indie rock’s most promising bands on the rise. Tomorrow he has to take care of countless logistical matters for the tour such as picking up borrowed gear and buying a van, which would be stressful enough for a random Tuesday. But tomorrow is also the 22nd birthday of Smith’s girlfriend, the model and acclaimed pop singer Sky Ferreira, and he needs to make it special after spending much of her 21st birthday stressing out about an impending European tour. “Last year I blew it,” Smith says. “She was so upset.” On top of all that, he’s also supposed to meet with his probation officer upstate, one of many unpleasant consequences of being arrested for heroin possession and other crimes last September in upstate Saugerties, New York.
Smith has decided not to go to the appointment in Saugerties and is crossing his fingers that he’ll be allowed to push it back. “I made a decision that I can’t go and that rehearsing and getting my shit ready for the show and being with my girlfriend on her birthday is more important than that,” he says. “My lawyer says that they should be able to postpone it, but we don’t know what their response is going to be.” To help make this happen, I’ve been asked to supply a letter on company letterhead explaining Smith’s commitments for this feature. It’s being forwarded to the courts along with the contracts for DIIV’s tour dates in the hopes that with enough documentation the authorities will take Smith’s commitments with the band seriously. “If somebody was like, ‘Oh, I have to work at the factory on Tuesday,’ they’d be like, ‘Oh, OK,'” Smith says. “For me, they’re like, ‘No!'”
The preeminent stressor of the moment, though, is band practice. There are so many songs to learn and so little time. DIIV are opening Ferreira’s benefit show for the David Lynch Foundation this Wednesday at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg, and the tour kicks off in earnest Thursday and Friday with two more sold-out headlining gigs at the same venue. “This is our first US headline tour, and it’s kind of crazy to be doing it not on a record,” Smith says. The main point of the tour is to workshop new material and move forward with the second album, so DIIV have to get some of that material ready for the stage tonight or else remain in between-album limbo. Still, Smith seems less concerned with the number of songs they bash out and more focused on satisfying his audience. “On this tour people want to hear new stuff, but nobody likes hearing new songs,” he announces to the band. “Nobody’s gonna want to hear us play the next record all the way through because they don’t know it.”
Technically, there’s no next record for people to know just yet. It’s not for lack of effort. DIIV recorded some material with JR White of Girls last summer, but the sessions were scrapped, and Smith returned to writing and recording DIIV’s music in isolation. He says he’s finished more than 150 songs in the two years since Oshin, and those are just the ones he still likes. Still others have been deleted or disappeared into the crevices of his hard drive. Many are saved under names like “Shitty Song” and ” Fuck You,” which doesn’t much help Smith remember which one is which. Smith presents the best of these creations to the band, supplying each member with a meticulously written part. Some of those parts are incredibly simple, to the extent that while rehearsing one song, Bailey can load up Yankees highlights on his phone with his left hand while jangling away on an open guitar string with his right. That’s just the way Smith writes — lots of independent bits and pieces that don’t amount to much on their own but, when deployed at the same time, fade into careening post-punk mirages.
After about an hour of middling results and a water-and-cigarette break, Hewitt shows up — also in baggy clothes and a ball cap, but taller than his bandmates and with close-cropped hair — and immediately DIIV’s new songs jolt to life. The heat is suddenly far less oppressive, whether due to the water everyone is chugging or the sense of lifting pressure as the new material comes together. These songs reveal a real diversity within DIIV’s carefully honed aesthetic: One song starts out dreamy, accelerates into aggression, then glides gracefully to conclusion. Another one is an instrumental post-rock slow-build that could almost pass for Explosions In The Sky. Yet another is ominous, noisy, and crushingly heavy from start to finish. DIIV spend most of their time tonight perfecting one song in particular, a brisk krautrock-informed joyride built around some of the most effortlessly pretty guitar lines of Smith’s career. Tentatively titled “Under The Sun,” it will make a marvelous lead single whenever LP2 finally emerges.
At the center of the swirl is Smith, more coach than dictator but definitely in charge. “Try and stay on the root notes and 4 and 5,” he counsels his fellow guitarists. “If we’re all on dissonant notes at different times it just sounds like a mess.” When posed with questions about the band, the rest of the members mostly just direct me to him. He’s DIIV’s founder and unquestioned alpha dog — the one who selects which song to practice, who stops the practice runs midway through and decides to circle back and try again, who notices when one of his bandmates’ instruments is out of whack and instructs them to tune up. At one point he even reaches over and twists Bailey’s tuning peg for him. Smith exerts control over DIIV down to the most minuscule detail, in part because he has carefully studied what makes music tick and how bands ascend from obscurity to maintain lengthy careers. In part, though, it’s because everything else always seems so close to going off the rails.
Smith was born in New York City to a musician named Zachary and a Vogue fashion editor named Debbie. That sounds glamorous, but any hope of an idyllic urbanite childhood fell apart pretty quickly. “They were old when they had me,” Smith says. “They had done their whole career and stuff. I don’t think my dad wanted to have kids, and my mom was like into her career and stuff. So they were like 35. They’d lived out their marriage. And as soon as they had kids, I guess it got super real for my dad.” The family moved to Connecticut when Smith was about 3 and his mom was pregnant with his younger sister. Smith’s father dropped off Debbie and little Zachary at a house they’d never seen and left for two years on tour. When he finally returned, he announced he was leaving for good. From then on, Smith went by his middle name, Cole.
Abandonment is bad enough, but being left behind in an unfamiliar place was especially rough for Smith’s mom, who loved living in New York but couldn’t afford it anymore as a single mother. Instead she was stuck raising two children alone, working six days a week at retail jobs she hated and living in a dilapidated house. “It felt like a shack,” Smith says. “It was this falling-apart, tiny, weird house that I spent my whole teenage years trying to rebuild and fix. I painted it, re-sided it, put all new doors and windows — like, basically rebuilt the house starting when I was a teenager until she sold it.” She dated a series of men, none of whom stuck. “My mom was almost a character out of a Helen Hunt movie,” Smith says. “She was a struggling single mom who just kind of hoped that she would land on a good space and somehow some miracle would happen to her.” She later married a man whose promises of financial provision didn’t pan out. “She couldn’t quit her job, which is all she wanted. She couldn’t even reduce her hours.”
Meanwhile, Smith was switching schools almost as often as he changed underwear. “I had disciplinary problems. Like, really bad,” he says. “I used to get in a lot of trouble in middle school and got suspended a lot. But then my freshman year, the very beginning of the year, like two months into the year I got expelled from public school. And my mom just didn’t know what to do with me at all because I was a completely out-of-control kid.” Untamed by his mom and stepdad, he ran wild for a year, skateboarding with friends and sneaking into school to mess with teachers. Eventually his stepdad stepped in and enrolled Smith at a private school, but before long he was expelled from there too. “I just loved when things would go wrong, like when the teacher wouldn’t be able to turn on the TV or something,” Smith says. “I just would do shit to make their lives difficult.” The process of enrollment and expulsion repeated several times over. School psychiatrists wondered if Smith was developmentally disabled, but he regularly earned high scores on aptitude tests such as the ISEE. “Nobody knew what to do with me,” he says. “I just underperformed so much.” Finally, after six schools in five years, he gutted out a diploma from the Wooster School in Danbury.
Throughout high school, Smith gravitated toward creative pursuits such as visual art and fashion. That’s when he started wearing humongous shirts, which he attributes to a combination of personal expression and shame about his physical appearance. “When I was in high school, I just felt really, really, really small,” he recalls. Smith’s mom would buy him XXXL shirts from her retail stores, and her friend would shorten the sleeves for him. He eventually learned to sew his own clothes, one of many hobbies that continue to this day. Here’s another: He collects rare coral reefs in a 50-gallon salt water tank at his apartment. “In a lot of ways, I feel like that’s who I am,” he says. “I’m a person who dresses kind of weird and just has some cool hobbies.”
Music was also a constant during Smith’s high school years. Becoming a musician had always appealed to him — and it frequently came up as a potential career on those aptitude tests — but he never considered it as a possibility until one of his mom’s boyfriends gave him a guitar during middle school. The fact that his biological father played music for a living (and in fact wrote the famous cotton jingle “The Fabric Of Our Lives”) never dawned on Smith growing up. “I never thought about it because we just never talked,” Smith says. “I didn’t talk to him for basically my entire life. We just only recently connected as adults.” As teenage Smith learned to play guitar, he downloaded a program called n-Track and started recording songs on the family computer. “I’ve always recorded on computers since then,” he recalls. “I could only think of music in a multitrack way.” Those self-taught methods have carried Smith far, though they also carry certain limitations: “I don’t really know chords. I don’t know songs. It amazes me when somebody can sit down and play an Elliott Smith song or something on guitar because I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
His mom insisted on college, so Smith chose Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts because (a) he sensed there was a good sense of community there, (b) his uncle went there, and (c) it was the college “where it seemed like the most people were smoking weed.” In 2004 he enrolled at Hampshire to pursue a degree in studio art, his primary creative passion at the time. But even in the most liberal education environment imaginable, Smith despised school. “It’s like, wait, these people are paying $40,000 just to have a nice library and somebody who tells you what books to read?” he says. After his first year, he told his mom he wanted to drop out and follow the course syllabi on his own, but Hampshire beat him to the punch. “I ended up getting expelled from the hippiest hippie school in the world,” he laments. He now realizes that his anti-authority streak resulted in a lack of respect for the faculty, and just like in high school, he also struggled to connect with his peers. “The only people I fit in with were, like, the druggies,” he recalls. When Smith told his mom he didn’t want to do college anymore, she accepted the decision but also cut him off financially. “I’ve never taken a cent from either of my parents,” he says.
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.
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.