Like countless musicians before him, Zachary Cole Smith moved to New York City with a couple of instruments, an aimless attitude, and a head full of jangly guitar riffs. After spending his troubled teens bouncing between high schools in New York and Connecticut, he settled down in the city full time. Living with a partner he barely knew in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he spent much of his twenties working in a vegan kitchen, which led to playing in bands like Soft Black and Beach Fossils. Eventually, he began recording rough solo tracks under the moniker Dive (named after a Nirvana B-side, as well as for the fact that he only called up backing musicians who shared similar astrological water signs). He established himself there at a lucky moment in indie music, when upstart record labels like Captured Tracks still had the cachet it took to get just about any dream-pop project touring beyond the confines of the then-thriving 285 Kent DIY circuit.
I was lucky enough to serendipitously stumble upon DIIV (they had recently changed their name, in an effort to avoid confusion with a 1990s Belgian industrial act also called Dive) right before they blew up. A couple days after I graduated from the eighth grade, I made my mom drag my lifelong bandmates and I from the Northern Virginia suburbs into Washington, DC to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra. As newby concert-goers are wont to do, we arrived pretty early – just moments after DIIV, the first of three acts, started playing their rough-but-spunky set. I was immediately hooked.
As someone who’d spent my final year of middle school going to underground shows in tiny record shops and sweaty church basements, I had been exposed to my fair share of grimy punk while I was still a mere child. With their massive, flowing clothes and weathered gear, DIIV’s set captured the aesthetic cool of the local bands I went out of my way to see around town. However, unlike a lot of those fledgling acts, they were also touting a high quality product – it sounded like the music I had heard on “cool” radio stations like Sirius XMU and KEXP, even though the band dressed like they’d haphazardly raided the most chaotic corner of an Urban Outfitters sale section. After they had unplugged their instruments, I walked up to Smith and told him his work reminded me of no wave-era Sonic Youth, my parental chaperone watching anxiously from afar. Smith was impressed that a visibly prepubescent teen knew anything about avant-garde rock. I spent the summer bragging about this to my friends, who (unsurprisingly) didn’t really seem to care.
At this point, DIIV’s handful of released songs weren’t easy to find online. Since I didn’t buy one of the 7″s they had for sale at the merch table, I had no way of listening to their music. Nonetheless, the material we saw performed live became a major touchstone for my young friends and I as we attempted to write tracks of our own in the freewheeling period to come. A few months later – 10 years ago this Sunday – the band put out their full-length debut, Oshin, which quickly cemented their status as key players in the early-2010s blog-rock landscape.
Smith self-produced Oshin after returning from a tour with Beach Fossils, who were enjoying a buzzy run of their own in the early 2010s. Holed up in a painter’s studio without running water in Bushwick, Smith brought these tracks to life over the course of a sticky Northeast summer. The end result sounded uncharacteristically professional and refined, given his roots in the lo-fi scene. He drew inspiration from an imaginary world that existed beyond the confines of the concrete jungle, as well as from musical artists including Faust and Arthur Russell and writers like James Welsh and Heart Crane. An intense sense of solitude underlined Smith’s creative process, but he enlisted his childhood friend/guitarist Andrew Bailey, scrappy bassist Devin Perez, and former Smith Westerns drummer Colby Hewitt to play in his live setup.
DIIV set themselves apart from their abundance of peers by masterfully blurring the lines between shoegaze and krautrock. Centered on almost frustratingly simplistic lyricism, the songs on Oshin are largely carried by motorik grooves and sweeping, interlocking riffs. Although Smith’s words are frequently indecipherable, ornate arrangements compensate for the lack of variety in his verse. On the single “How Long Have You Known,” he just sings the track title over and over again while pristine stringwork swirls in the foreground. “Wait” finds Smith repeating the phrase “In the city/ Wait for love” atop the contrasted clatter of train noises and a gorgeously sustained synthline. Even the record’s most fleshed-out tracks (“Earthboy” and “Doused”) shroud Smith’s low-mixed voice in so much reverb that it’s all-but-impossible to glean the subject matter. Ultimately, though, the album’s cryptic nature only adds to its allure. The understated jamminess of these cuts holds up alongside the timeless output of 1970s German bands such as Neu! and La Düsseldorf, as well as the work of lackadaisical ‘90s acts like Slowdive and Drop Nineteens.
Looking back, it feels like Oshin came out at just the right time. It arrived towards the end of the chillwave movement, and fit nicely alongside the work of Captured Tracks labelmates like Mac DeMarco, Craft Spells, and Wild Nothing. In its heyday, the label had a knack for signing breezy, summery guitar rock acts, right as they were about to hit it big. (Although the imprint has gone on to put out more visceral, challenging music, DIIV’s first album perfectly exemplifies the cohesive essence of its roster between the years of 2008 and 2015). It was also a time in internet culture when a few pieces of positive press could truly break a band, and DIIV landed their fair share of glowing coverage. They suddenly found themselves playing shows around the world, working themselves to the bone, and sometimes even sleeping beneath their van. “I think people probably would have the idea that we were successful and making money, but we weren’t,” Smith recently told Stereogum, reflecting on the hardships of their grueling early tour cycles. In the interviews he did between 2011 and early 2013, Smith often came off as exhausted and somewhat depressed. In actuality, though, he was strung out.
Shortly after Oshin dropped, Smith started dating buzzy model-turned-pop star Sky Ferreira. The couple had a provocative and extremely public relationship. They posted overtly sexual pictures on Instagram and had Terry Richardson photograph their steamy makeout sessions. They seemed to fancy themselves as something of a Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love for a generation of Tumblr kids like myself. On Sept. 13, 2013, they were arrested under misdemeanor charges for possession of 42 decks of heroin and a fair amount of ecstasy, after the police pulled over a truck with stolen plates that Smith was driving recklessly in Saugerties, New York. (Ferreira has pointed out that her charge was dropped, telling Pitchfork in 2019, “I didn’t have a drug problem, I dated someone who had a drug problem, I was in a car with someone who had a drug problem.” Smith expressed the same sentiments in a 2014 Stereogum feature: “Her career got really fucked up because everybody thought she was a drug addict, which she’s absolutely not.”) Smith and Ferreira stayed together for two more years following the arrest but ultimately parted ways. He found himself checking into and out of rehab clinics, with the pressure of the spotlight still turned towards him.
As a lonely 15-year-old weirdo playing in an all-ages music scene, I grew up yearning for a time in my life when I was 25 in Brooklyn and no longer a juvenile trapped in suburbia. I idolized the older musicians I knew through my city’s punk community and never really accepted that there were often drugs at play in DIY creative spaces. Smith’s outspoken struggle with substance abuse was an uncomfortable wake-up call for my friends and I, who had spent our adolescence up until then looking up to bands like DIIV and their contemporaries.
In the years since Smith’s self-destructive relationship with opiates and cocaine became public knowledge, an addiction narrative has understandably surrounded all of DIIV’s fresh music. 2016’s Is The Is Are was framed as a recovery album, and 2019’s Deceiver was billed as even more of a recovery album. Between the release of the band’s second and third records, Smith and Bailey decamped to Los Angeles, where Smith had undergone successful rehab and established a network of sober friends mostly removed from the music industry. Gradually, Perez and Hewitt departed and bassist Colin Caulfield (an accomplished solo artist who had previously collaborated with Sunflower Bean and Oberhofer) and percussionist Ben Newman joined the fold. As the lineup evolved, their sound started to veer into more polished territory – DIIV sometimes even employ proper songwriting techniques now. But there’s something about how effectively underdeveloped the tracks on Oshin are that comes across as very quintessentially East Coast. DIIV’s debut is as much of a New York album as Television’s Marquee Moon, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver, or Blondie’s Parallel Lines.
Ten years later, it’s easy to forget that, at one point, DIIV were simply seen as a staple in the buzzband circuit — the spookier, more solemn answer to acts like Real Estate and Girls. Today, the fragmented, oblique tracks on Oshin capture the essence of a manic, drug-addled mind, making art in a state of isolation. Back in 2012, though, Smith’s homegrown masterpiece came across as a vague and poetic work – a mysterious introduction to one of the most prolific and exciting rock stars to emerge over the course of the last decade.