Interview

DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith Talks Addiction, Sobriety, & His Breakup With Sky Ferreira

A silver van with California plates has just pulled up outside Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre, off Prospect Park’s Grand Army Plaza, and behind the wheel is a familiar face. And yet, different.
It’s not just that DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith now sports two-tone locks, his familiar bleached blond hair newly offset by long dark roots. He still favors a loose, button-down shirt — on this day a bright red one. And certainly the face is the same — even at 32, he perpetually looks like he’s going on 18. But it’s the smile on that face, and a seemingly boundless energy, that hint at the real Story of Cole 2017: he’s six months sober.

In a widely shared Instagram post in February, the singer and songwriter announced to the world that he was getting serious about kicking a years-long drug addiction that he’d been “kidding himself and everybody else” was under control. “Checking in now for a long-haul inpatient treatment,” he wrote. “See you on the other side.” A musician who not that long ago was “sure I was going to die” opted instead to live, by taking the tough journey to real and true sobriety.

This is what the other side looks like, right now. Cole and girlfriend Dani Nelson have just finished a cross-country drive from Los Angeles, done in a fairly leisurely six days, visiting friends and family along the way, with “An Evening with DIIV (Unplugged)” at the Murmrr serving as the ultimate destination. The theatre — a synagogue that has only recently begun booking live music shows — is an unlikely setting for the indie rock band, a few miles south and a world away from the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick where DIIV made its name. But then, this is a unique show, comprised of mostly acoustic renderings of DIIV favorites and rarities, along with a healthy dose of covers of songs from artists who provided Cole with inspiration and solace in what was, at times, a wrenching stretch in rehab — “stuff that gives an insight into what is going on inside my head,” he says. A day before the Brooklyn show, in an upstairs room at the Murmrr, he spoke in remarkably candid terms about this new start on the rest of his life.

DIIV

“So basically, my program of recovery is super hard line,” he explains. “No drugs, no alcohol ever, for the rest of my life.” While he can’t identify the program, it’s clearly in line with addiction treatments that have rescued many others worldwide. He spent a first month in a rigid in-patient facility — no phone or internet — and music was his greatest companion. That was followed by a stint in a sober living house, where he shared a room with five other guys, and had a curfew, chores, and a strict schedule. That’s in marked contrast to the lax approach of a Connecticut rehab facility where Cole spent time in 2015 — not so much 12-step as 12 days.

“They were like, ‘We’re not a 12-step program,’ he recalls. “And I didn’t really know what a 12-step program was except from like, movies. So I thought, ‘I guess there’s something wrong with the 12 steps. I mean, if these people don’t like it, and they seem to know what they’re doing.’ But then I got out, and it was probably 45 minutes after I left that place I was like, ‘Well, I’m out. I guess I can just do drugs, cause I’m out! I’m not in there anymore. I got the piece of paper!’ So, it kind of put something in my head that 12 steps are outdated, or outmoded or something. But like, the approach has existed for almost a hundred years unchanged, theoretically, and it’s saved millions and millions of people.”

The hard truth about sobriety is it only works if you want it to, and if you’re not willing to put in the work, it likely won’t. Of his current program, Cole says, “It’s a framework in which you do the steps and the work, and do shit yourself. You just put yourself in there and once you’ve been in there for a while, the core concept of it is you stay sober by keeping other people sober.” While he attends daily meetings no matter where he is, he realizes he’s still very early in his recovery and calls himself still “at-risk.” Still — unlike others I’ve known who six months into recovery didn’t want to be in the same room as alcohol — he can tolerate being around those who are drinking.

“I went out to dinner with my mom the other day and I hadn’t seen her since I got sober,” he says. “And I told her, ‘If you want a glass of wine you can order a glass of wine,’ but she said, ‘No no, it’s good.’ But then the next night we went to my sister’s place and they were drinking wine.” He likens it to having been a vegan for 12 years. “I never was the kind of person that was like, if someone is sitting across from me and is eating a burger, I’m not gonna say something about it. Also, alcohol was never my drug of choice.”

Cocaine and heroin were. I first met Cole in 2010, at South By Southwest. At the time he was playing in the Brooklyn outfit Beach Fossils, one of many hired-gun gigs he had in his early years in New York. Soon enough, though, began a wild seven-year ride with the creation of DIIV, a musical project whose mix of Krautrock drive, eddies of chiming guitars, and dazed vocals had as signature a sound as any band to emerge from 2010’s Brooklyn. An early EP and a sparkling debut LP, Oshin, were followed three and a half years later by the resplendent, underappreciated Is The Is Are, a record made in fits and starts that nearly depleted the band’s finances. In between? Numerous tours, a high-profile relationship between Cole and alt-pop star Sky Ferreira — the couple prompted Kim and Kanye-level fascination in corners of the indie world — and Cole’s increasing drug use. Not even the nadir of that period — a 2013 arrest on drug charges in Saugerties, NY, in which the singer was famously found to be in possession of “42 decks of heroin” — did the trick.

If anything, following his 2015 try at rehab, what Cole calls “the insanity” only got worse. Touring — DIIV spent much of its existence on the road — only exacerbated the problem. “I was so fucked up that I was canceling tours and crying on stage and just a fucking mess,” Cole says. “I was like, putting my feet to the street in every city, getting robbed on the street. Putting everybody into fucked up situations, trying to get drugs in weird countries.” The creation of Is The Is Are took on a new urgency because the musician thought it could well be his last statement. “I literally thought that I was gonna die. I thought, ‘I’m already dead.’ Part of me, and a lot of my friends were like, ‘Well you’re already fucking dead.’ There was just nothing. I tried so many times getting clean, and shit just kept getting exponentially worse. It just kept escalating and escalating, to where it almost like capped out, and there was no way out. So I thought, ‘I’m fucking dead. I want to make something.’” Even guitarist and band mate Andrew Bailey, who has himself been sober three years, couldn’t help. “Bailey would be sitting right there and be like, ‘You know, I have the tools. I know what you need and I can help you do it.’ But sometimes it’s just too much when it’s a friend.”

Ultimately it was Cole’s girlfriend Dani, her mother, and their family friend, Ed, who helped point him in the direction of the treatment he needed. The first month was expectedly rough, and he developed a visceral attachment to music. “Literally all I had was one of those little Target — you can’t have anything that takes pictures or connects to the internet in any way — so I had, not an iPod but kind of a player with just a bunch of music on it,” he recalls. “And I couldn’t sleep, and I would stay up all night listening to music. And I was just feeling these feelings, and they were so strong, I’m just like, ‘These songs make me want to explode.’”

“All the feels” is one of those memed-out expressions that’s been neutered to the point of being meaningless in 2017. Try kicking heroin and it might not seem so silly. “I would listen to songs and just cry, after the first note,” he shares. “You know when you just feel a song so hard, you’re just like, ‘I want to fucking live in this song for the rest of my life. I never want to leave this song.’ And maybe it was just some type of chemical response or something, or whatever. But it changed me.”

Cole’s long been a self-described “fan boy” at heart, and he’s especially animated when talking about the musicians that inspired him in those first weeks of recovery: Elliott Smith, whose “Rose Parade” he learned to play thanks to guitar tabs printed out for him by an employee at his in-patient facility, and whose “Needle In The Hay” was included in the Brooklyn show; Sparklehorse, whose delicate, haunting “Cow” Cole covered and released online just last month, along with a dusty, lonely California-set video; and Girls’ erstwhile frontman Christopher Owens, a master of songs that are simultaneously heart-rending and joyful — a dichotomy that fascinates Cole. DIIV covered Girls’ deceptive “Summertime” too at the Murmrr. “Summertime, soak up the sunshine with you — it sounds happy,” he explains. “But it’s not. The song is dark, and fucked up and sad. So if we can convey that, that’s the big challenge.”

Cole is keenly aware of the tortured associations with those artists: Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous died by suicide in 2010; Smith in 2003; and Owens, while very much alive, has himself battled addiction. That’s to say nothing of Kurt Cobain — the avatar of angst who more than any artist Cole has name-checked as an influence over the years — and slowcore/sadcore hero Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters, who’ve been a recent fixation. But while the singer admits he’s been drawn to the “rock ‘n roll martyr archetype,” he’s quick to downplay the idea that he has a “morbid obsession” with tragic figures, noting that Smith wrote “Needle” when he wasn’t even using drugs, and explaining that it’s the simple, observational beauty of “Cow” that drew him to the song. He also cites a less fraught artist — (Sandy) Alex G — as a current favorite, praising the young Philadelphian’s unique gifts as a storyteller. As for art’s tendency to romanticize addiction and depression as signifiers of “authenticity,” to promote the idea that John Coltrane or Cobain were only great when they were using? Nonsense, says Cole. “For me one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my creative life as an artist is that you don’t need to experience shit first hand to write about it,” he asserts. “You just don’t. You just fucking don’t.”

Onstage at the Murmrr, joined by the rest of DIIV — Bailey, Devin Ruben Perez, Colin Caulfield, and Ben Newman — there’s a passing similarity to Nirvana’s legendary Unplugged. The band is seated amongst candles, flowers, rugs, and aqueous images on a giant screen by Drippy Eye Projections, and plays a set that includes a slowed-down version of DIIV’s debut single “Sometime” and a rare performance of Oshin closer “Home.” There’s also self-effacing, even goofy stage banter from Cole. Several times he asks the audience of nearly 700 what they make of Big Brother, season 19 (only a couple of people seem to have a clue); he tells anecdotes about songs; refers to Alex G as “Alex Jesus” before realizing that might not be the best comment to make in a temple; and repeatedly talks about how nervous he is to be sitting and playing acoustic, something he never would have had the nerve to do in the past.

“We’re doing things that are low-impact,” Cole says of DIIV’s gingerly return to live shows this year. “Just to let everyone know that the band still exists.” There have been “random one-offs and fly-ins,” all of which have had contingencies including Cole having a sponsor or sober companion present. They played a handful of western cities in May, none more filled with conflicting emotions than San Francisco. It’s long been a triggering place for the musician: his dad moved there when he left the family when Cole was very young; some of his favorite artists have called SF home, including Girls; and it’s a city inextricably tied up with drugs.

“I had people at the show that I remembered calling at like 4AM and being like, ‘I need to get coke right now! What are you doing? Where are you?’ Plus we were playing in the Tenderloin, which is basically an open-air drug market,” he says of the night. “But I was looking around at the people around me that night, and they were so supportive. And I just started talking to the crowd about it. You know, saying, ‘I’ve been doing this, for this amount of time, it’s…whatever’ — just pouring my heart out a little bit. And the crowd just started clapping and didn’t stop for like a full minute. And I was just sitting there and I had to turn my back to the crowd. I was thinking, ‘I really don’t want to cry in front of everybody right now. I’ve done enough crying on stage.’ But I was in shock. And it kind of gave me this new space for San Francisco in my mind, like a new mental place to inhabit that city in. It was life-changing.”

Cole’s a talker. “Airing out my feelings is how I’ve gotten through everything,” he says. It’s a good quality to have in a recovery program, and one appreciated by a journalist. But one subject he hasn’t broached in the press in the nearly two years since their breakup is his relationship with Ferreira. It’s as though the two were one day together — captured by fashion photographers in their early throes and for a time seemingly inseparable — and then they weren’t. In previous interviews, Cole has expressed his deep regret over Sky being caught up in his 2013 arrest (she was unaware he was using drugs at the time). And today, he has only kind words for her. “She’s a real artist, and lives her art,” he says. “She’s one of the real ones.” He also lays the dissolution of their relationship squarely at the feet of his addiction.

“I was using drugs, lying about using drugs, constantly,” he admits. “Because that was my life. That’s how you survive. It’s like breathing. It’s not like I could wake up one morning and be like, ‘Okay, today I’m gonna not do drugs.’ I had to spend basically a month in a hospital drooling before I could even think about re-entering the real world. And then still have a six-month period of transition, and then I’m just where I am now. It’s a long journey of self-discovery and exploration. And you can’t just one day do that. So with Sky I was constantly trying to get myself better, and I would want things to be better. But I would use and lie about it, and use and lie about it and get caught and hurt her feelings. Because if you see someone you love shooting heroin in the bathroom, finding them blue on the bathroom floor, it’s gonna affect your ability to trust that person. And it’s gonna hurt you, because you think, ‘Why can’t I help you? Am I not enough?’ It creates this deep-rooted trust and insecurity issue that ultimately you can’t repair. And that was my fault. Sky’s young, but she’s been through so much and I feel horrible that I’m just like another person that hurt her. Because everybody saw me at the time as being the person who — they’d say, ‘You’re gonna treat this girl the way that she deserves to be treated.’ I tried my best. I wanted to be a great guy and I wanted to be nice and I wanted to be everything. But ultimately I was a liar, because I had this fucking drug problem.”

There’s a reason Neil Young called it “The Needle And the Damage Done.” Cole’s drug use and subsequent recovery have impacted every relationship in his life. Upon leaving his live-in facility, he deleted “probably 200 numbers” from his phone, beginning with anyone that he might call to get his dealer’s number. He’s got a whole new group of sober friends in his adopted home of L.A., most of them not involved in music. And of loved ones still in his life, he knows he needs to make amends. “Because my family doesn’t trust me, my girlfriend and people around me don’t trust me,” he explains. “They still don’t. The damage is done. I lied, and I was a fucked-up drug addict, you know? So that shit is all — you just create a path of destruction, and then you have to like do your best to clean it up. But they can’t just be like, ‘Oh alright, you’re not using drugs right now. All is forgiven.’”

Other than saving his life, the circumstances of recovery also helped Cole become a better musician — the sort of musician who actually can sit down and play an acoustic set of his own songs, and others’ — nerves be damned. He may have fronted his own band for six years, but he recalls occasions, from Christmas get-togethers with his grandmother to a gathering of musicians in Paris, when he declined invitations to just pick up a guitar and “play something.” “I always wanted to be able to do that,” he says. It was only when he had no phone or laptop, just a music player and an acoustic guitar, Cole began teaching himself those (Sandy) Alex G and Elliott Smith songs.

“Then when I got my computer back I had a microphone and was just recording a bunch of songs, just stuff for fun” — including a cover of Alex G’s “Icehead,” which Cole impulsively released online in April — a first sign that we would be seeing him “on the other side.” “And then I went to this music meeting for people in recovery,” he recalls. “It’s called like, a ‘coffee shop meeting,’ and they had people perform every Friday. And I would go sometimes and you would see like the random person who would cover like a beautiful Leonard Cohen song or something and it would be amazing.” Other times it was…less amazing…but it was the amateurs that really helped Cole get over his own hesitation. “It was like, ‘These people are fucking brave.’ They’re up there, and they’re not musicians, they’re just people and having fun, and that’s cool — so cool.” Finally, he took his turn. Next, a friend’s art opening, where he summoned the nerve to play a short acoustic set. And here we are.

Back in Brooklyn, Zachary Cole Smith and DIIV have just finished a two-hour acoustic set — part homecoming, part homage to influencers, part brand new start. Family and friends are in the Murmrr, there’s love all around, and it’s beautiful. “I’m just getting up there and playing music that has this cathartic quality for me,” he says. “And by doing it in front of people I think it will close like, a chapter. And hopefully I can move on.” The band has a run of shows in China coming up, and U.S. and South American dates in the fall. As for a new DIIV record, Cole says he “wrote a lot” in rehab — don’t be surprised if things take a more alt-country turn — and he may even produce the next album himself. But one day at a time, as they say.

For now, for today, there’s this. “It’s really a massive personal quest,” Cole says of sobriety. “It’s so intense, and it’s going on all the time.”

This article originally appeared on Billboard.