How the Brooklyn shoegazers mined turmoil for their most bracingly honest record to date.
Every new DIIV album is a precious thing; you know the music is going to tug at your heartstrings, and leading up to the moment when it’s official, you can never really be sure if it’s going to arrive. Deceiver is the Brooklyn dream pop band’s third LP, and it emerges—much like their celebrated 2016 sophomore album, Is the Is Are—from a period of turbulence. In February 2017, frontman Zachary Cole Smith posted on Instagram that he’d be checking into “long-haul inpatient treatment” to manage a drug addiction. After going through the program, Smith reunited the band and began making music again. The product of those songwriting sessions would be Deceiver, DIIV’s third studio album, which Pitchfork’s Evan Rytlewski calls “an unbridled pleasure.”
Deceiver captures the loneliness and self-loathing that entering treatment can breed in a recovering addict. On “Skin Game,” Smith performs a dialogue between two recovering addicts, one that feels both introspective and bracingly political. “Strung out to please the king in the metropolitan Sackler wing,” he sings, pointing the finger at the family who controls Purdue Pharma, the makers and marketers of Oxycontin—the drug at the epicenter of the opioid crisis. As opposed to previous DIIV releases, Smith presents Deceiver with distance and perspective in regards to living with addiction. He’s confident about his recovery, but he knows there’s no truly beating addiction; there’s only learning to live in spite of it. “You can’t change the past,” Smith says. “All you can do is look back at your behaviors and your flaws and try to change the things that caused you to do that damage.”
Sonically, Deceiver is heavier and darker than previous DIIV releases, with more baleful basslines from Colin Caulfield and deeper, more reverberant drums Ben Newman. Producer Sonny Diperri, who’s worked with My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, and Protomartyr, proves to be a perfect creative partner for this era of DIIV. The band road-tested a few songs that would land on Deceiver on tour while they were opening for Deafheaven, which Smith says impacted the album’s more ominous direction. As Smith tells it, it’s the first record where the band members all arranged the songs together, making it DIIV’s most collaborative LP to date.
Ahead of their sold out show at Warsaw on October 24, we talked to Zachary Cole Smith and guitarist Andrew Bailey about living amends, second chances, and what they’d tell others going through earlier stages in the recovery process.
AdHoc: It’s been three years since you released a DIIV record. How did you change your approach when writing and recording Deceiver?
Zachary Cole Smith: I’d say it’s a completely new approach. Not just that the sound is different—I think from the beginning, we wanted to be more deliberate about the music we were making and not cut any corners. We worked on the album as a group in different phases. We workshopped a lot of ideas and songs over and over. We went on tour and played the songs live before they were finished to see how we could push our comfort zone a little bit and get used to it. There was a new palette of references that we included.
And lyrically, this is the first record that has any type of distance from living in addiction. I wouldn’t say that the other records are necessarily dishonest or that I set out to lie on them, but I wasn’t really in the place that I was projecting myself to be.
How did road-testing the songs while you were on tour with Deafheaven impact the finished product?
Andrew Bailey: Quite a bit. I’ve always thought that revision and totally re-doing or overhauling an idea is the best way to make something good. Not every song was road-tested, but the ones that were went through radical changes. Some of them even came back around to where they started. It’s really important—and this is the first time we really did it—to see how the crowd reacts, to see how we feel playing it.
Cole: The biggest thing for me was getting comfortable with things that weren’t really a part of band before. Our old approach to live shows was just to play old songs from the record and play them really fast, to inject them with this new energy. It didn’t really seem to suit the direction we were moving [in]. So we wanted to get comfortable with playing songs slower. We wanted to see if these heavier songs that we were writing would work, back-to-back. We were playing with a very heavy band, so we wanted to see if it would work to play these songs for an audience who was there to see Deafheaven. I think we were all pretty satisfied with the reactions we got, so we decided to lean into that a little more.
On the song “Skin Game,” you sing, “Vow do no harm / Buy the cure / But first you buy the disease.” What do those lyrics mean to you?
Cole: That little couplet is a more specific indictment of the opiate industry and the doctors they bought out. “Do no harm” is the Hippocratic Oath that every doctor swears to. But a lot of doctors […] over-prescribe[d] opiates to patients who didn’t need them and created a massive epidemic of addiction that we’re especially seeing the consequences of today.
“Buy the cure, but first you buy the disease” is they’re like, “Take these pain pills or whatever,” and you go, “I’m addicted to pain pills,” and they’re like, “Well, we make a product for that, too.” Then they switch you to the methadone or Suboxone or whatever. So that’s what that couplet’s about.
I have family members who have struggled with addiction, and I know first-hand that addicts aren’t solely working on themselves as individuals, but often have to repair and focus on their relationships. How were you able to pull off writing and recording an album in the midst of your recovery?
Cole: Working on the relationships in my life was one of the most important things that I did. I think when you’re inspecting the damage in past relationships and trying to be real with yourself about things you said and did and what your motives were, you can’t change the past. All you can do is look back at your behaviors and your flaws and try to change the things that caused you to do that damage.
Obviously, you approach every relationship in your life differently, but with the band, we all have a lot of love for each other. We’ve been together a long time; we’ve been through a lot together. We work together, but it wasn’t necessarily a given that we would just show up back at the rehearsal space and be like, “You want to jam?” or whatever.
I think the band was looking for specific changes from me, and I was looking to change specific things about myself. It wasn’t a big sitdown of like, “Alright guys, this is the way I am now and we need to adjust accordingly.” I just worked to change the flaws in the way that I approached the band as people. We organically got back together and started playing a couple shows and working together. I think Bailey can speak better about the band’s perspective, but for me, I was trying to do a living amends, if you’re familiar with that concept. The key part of the amends is you change yourself. I wanted to fix the things about myself that caused me to be selfish or egotistical or anything that’s a damaging behavior in a group dynamic.
How do you think music and being creative helped get you through the period between the last record and this one?
Cole: We’re really lucky as artists that we have an outlet, not to mention that I have a job after everything. I’m grateful for that and it puts me in a unique position as opposed to most people that I encountered in treatment. I think we’re also really lucky that we have an outlet to talk about these things. It’s nice to process your feelings and make something out of it.
My experience isn’t unique at all. It’s something millions of people are going through right now. I’m just in a unique position where I have a platform and a voice and some kind of outlet where I can channel it into something more direct and special for people, and special for myself. It’s a nice thing about my life.
Andrew: When I got sober, everybody was like, “How do you do it? Not everybody can do it,” and I was lucky because I had a job. Like Cole said, most people when they get clean and sober, it’s a rock-bottom moment where they’ve lost it all and they have to start from scratch. But we still had a ton of fans who wanted to hear more music. That made it a lot easier.
Cole: We could’ve lost it all. I think we were really fucking close.
Beyond your personal journey, were there any inspirations in particular that you were drawing upon as you wrote and recorded Deceiver?
Cole: As artists change as people, it makes sense that their music changes, too. We all individually did a lot of growing up. We analyzed what’s important in our lives and decided that if we looked at what our priorities were for continuing the band, the reason we all wanted to do it was because we wanted to make the best music we could. So we worked really hard on the music and incorporated influences that spoke to what we were into at the moment rather than just sitting down and going, “What does DIIV sound like? Okay, let’s make that.” Instead, it was what’s interesting to us and what speaks to the emotional content of where the lyrics are going.
We took different influences for different sections of the music. We wanted the core of every song to be something that a singer-songwriter could sit down and play. They’re songs, rather than just a vibe or a textured, layered thing. So that was influenced by singer-songwriters like Alex G, Big Thief, which were the modern ones. Or stuff we’ve loved, like Elliott Smith.
We’ve been called a shoegaze band for five years, and I felt like that label was never appropriate. So we were like, “Well, this is music we like, so why don’t we just lean into it more.” Stuff like My Bloody Valentine was a big influence, and then heavier bands like True Widow or Neurosis for specific tones or sounds. We tried to take what we felt was best from different styles. Take what serves the song, but not try to make a specific homage to any certain artist or genre.
The last few years have been filled with ups and downs, complemented by a lot of self-exploration and soul-searching. If you had the opportunity to go back and talk to yourself 10 years ago, what would you say to that person?
Cole: I don’t know. Sometimes I really like to think about stuff like that. But whatever that thing is that I would tell myself, I’m sure there were 10 other people that told me that at the time. You just don’t listen. I’m sure if I had the most insightful nugget—“here’s the one thing”—
Andrew: “Buy bitcoin.”
Cole: [Laughs] Yeah. I just wouldn’t listen.
Andrew: I think about that a lot. I don’t think I’d tell myself anything. Obviously, things could’ve worked out better, but I’m very happy with the ride so far and I really wouldn’t have wanted it to be any different.
Cole: That’s what makes you who you are.
Having both gone through treatment, do you have any advice for someone who’s in an earlier chapter of their recovery process?
Cole: Go to a meeting. Talk to somebody. Walk in the room, chill, smoke a cigarette, and after the meeting, go talk to anybody who’s standing there. They will help you.
Andrew: It feels good. And I usually tell people, “Don’t expect the program to be perfect.” The program is not that great, but it’s the only thing that you have other than just trying it on your own, which doesn’t really work that well. I told Cole when he was going in, “Just think of it like in order to survive, you have to drive across the country. And you only have this fucked up car and Jesus is driving.” You’re still going to take that car, because the only other option is you’re going to die. You’re not going to complain about how the car has shitty wheels or bad gas mileage or the radio doesn’t work. Just get in the car and drive.
That’s what helped me with the program despite all the things I disagreed with. And in the end, I realized I actually didn’t disagree with it. I think it has a really bad stigma. But it’s not about God and it’s not really even about addiction. It’s about figuring out what your faults are, dismantling your ego, and being a better person in society. Any politician that gets elected should work the steps—not because they’re addicts, but because it just makes you a better person.
You’re sharing a deeply personal work of art with the world. How are you feeling right now?
Cole: We’re excited. Kinda nervous. I think, for us, the main work and the main part where we had to be worrying was when we were making it. All we could really do was make the best record we could make. We did our part, and all we can do is surrender. That’s what we’re doing. So now the focus is on making the live shows the best we can because that’s the next thing coming up. We have our task; we have our role. Everything else, we don’t really have power over. Obviously, we hope people respond to it. We hope people listen to the lyrics, we hope people have a place for it in their lives. But we can’t control that.