“Which one of us looks tired? The one in his pyjamas? He always looks like that. But yeah, we are tired. It’s a perpetual tiredness.”
It may not be Zachary Cole Smith that we’re here referring to, though he doesn’t look quite as he may in his every unblemished and faintly ethereal press shot: sprawled out, his skin soaked in bluish biro faded over whiled away afternoons. No, in the flesh, his is a far more boyish charm; a striking, childish guile. He resembles Link of The Legend of Zelda splattered in NYC thrift store garb, and he is the pied piper – replete with proverbial ocarina – of his seemingly less merry men. Traipsing Holloway Road in quest of an elusive Sicilian coffee shop to which his trade has already been committed, they’re coated in socks, no shoes, and oversized American football paraphernalia; spindly, twig-legged silhouettes set against the misty blackness of a disarmingly mild north London November night. They attract many an incisive glare from the general bustle of commuter that looks as zonked as they. Do they care? Not a lot, nope.
We convene here in these surely soon to be significantly more salubrious environs ahead of a show next door at The Garage. Promoted by the impeccably tasteful Bird On The Wire flock and since sold out, these are palpable signs of progress. And the live experience DIIV channel has evolved accordingly: “It’s gotten faster – faster than it’s ever been.” It’s an in no way concerted development, the straggle-haired brigade avow in unison. Instead, incidentally, it just happens to have sped up over time. “One critique we get a lot is that maybe it’s too fast, so maybe tonight we’ll slow things down.”
They scratch at three quarters of an hour, thunder through most of Oshin at breakneck speed, before blood rains from a spacked nose to the omnipotent tune of Doused. Wednesday night is, by the seems of it, quite alright for fighting, and DIIV appear in no way averse to such flagrant barbarity. They instead chortle and comment as though forsaken high school outcasts only too aware that their time may yet come. They could be conceived to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ at any rate, such is their explicitly direct fightin’ talk.
Though this, the live show, is not only highly regarded, but revered. It is, they unanimously contend, “the most important thing. Or at least, like, with the record I wanted to have some element of live show there” goes Cole, asserting his irrefutable authority. “But I feel that the record is just a way for us to get what we’re doing live, like, everywhere. We’re a rock band, and that’s what a rock band is. Starting a rock band, in the beginning, you know there’s gonna be a lot of strain.”
There’s all manner of applicable punnage to be applied to this, the live entity: the place is soused in perspiration long before they close it all out on the trippiest of highs (that bloodshed aforesaid), various other bodily fluids gradually form a thick patina of putrid gloop underfoot, and it’s a happening into which you really need to hurl yourself headlong. Many, if not most comply. Thus it’s only in this grossly moist arena that the name assumes a convincing significance.
They were once Dive. They then dropped an e, added an i, and capitalised. Cole once confessed to growing out of the initial moniker, though the finer intricacies of that verdict have since been blurred somewhat, as is all vision just a few hours later that evening. “I forget what I said”, he shrugs with a cursory indifference, though as I echo his own sentiments once said right back at him he thankfully agrees. Yet there is one surefire benefit to this favouring of the quasi-phonetic: search engine optimization [sic].
“People have definitely started mentioning that. And it’s fuckin’ true! We’re definitely the first thing to come up when you type it all in now. Which is nice. But that was definitely not a thought-out reason. There were a bunch of reasons both to change it, and not to change it. But when it came down to it, I just thought, well, who gives a shit, really?”
It’s an estimably, and arguably rightly blasé attitude to elect yet in this age of ads and unrepentant hit mongering, the power of Google etc. of course oughtn’t go underestimated. Though the way in which we seek assurances by dangerously compartmentalising all we consume leads us to be fairly swift to judge. And certainly an aspect of this attitude can be referenced within the as yet largely unwritten histories of DIIV: “Some people came out saying: ‘This band, they’ve just ruined their career.’ And I just thought, well, what the fuck are you talking about? Most of the people that know us [now] didn’t know of us before the name change anyway. The only reason they know about the name change is because everybody still talks about it.”
That all started back at that point at which April became May, when a since almost canonised Pitchfork interview was followed right up with the digital unveiling of Doused. The name changed quite subtly in amongst all that. Though beyond the unorthodox exchanging of vowels, there’s a fairly cogent reasoning behind the switch: “If we hadn’t been called Dive in the first place, then nobody would know how to say the new name. Very few people know how to say it right, anyway.”
Not that there’s a great deal of ambiguity to this one, but it’s pronounced dīv for the sake of clarity. So as I say, as you might dive into the deep end of something; anything. The Butlins Splash World, or a most brilliant début LP. More on that in a bit, as for now Cole continues: “Although we were thinking about changing it, but only when we play the UK. We’re called The Divs tonight.”
They’re not. Mercifully. I put to them the notion of that sounding alarmingly like the sort of grunge-y drivel dribbled in pastiche to play Camden every fucking night of eternity until that apocalypse its every resident is seemingly dressed to await dawns. Heck knows if they’ve ever ambled down Camden Road, though I sincerely hope they mightn’t now.
Something Cole is rather more acquainted with, however, is this usage of phonetics and the artwork to embellish Oshin is suffused with such stuffs, thereby achieving a sense of continuity in line with that ever referenced name change. “I don’t know – it’s totally kinda random, but I guess it’s just a natural feeling I have to all stuff like that. It’s just whatever name I think of at any one time. It definitely wasn’t like: ‘OK, I wanna have a bunch of songs with weird names.’ Actually, I named all the songs before I even really wrote them.” Heretical as per, it’s a weird one and ever more so, given how seemingly effortlessly cohesive a record Oshin turned out to be. Even its artwork, despite comprising pieces from three different past masters, carries a definite sense of coherency: “Two of them were family members, and they all worked in the same Government Issue trailer out in the middle of nowhere in the ’40s, and ’50s, and ’60s. Um… They’re all dead. But no, I mean it’s not like they’re three separate artists that I went out and curated from all over the place. I just found out about this studio, and got a bunch of artists from there.”
The irrefutable cohesion of Oshin is, however, broken by the late insertion of Doused. The penultimate splash, it’s a tidal gust of propulsion amid the more ambient experimentalia available elsewhere. It is, in Cole’s increasingly assertive words, “an outlier.” Though our order came muddled to begin with: “It wasn’t meant to be the first one. It was the first one out here, but in the States we had Sometime, then we had How Long Have You Known, and then we had Doused. So it kind of built up to that. But here, it went Doused, and then somebody had Sometime down as a single, which makes no sense to me.”
It’s a strangely pragmatic turn of phrase; the painstakingly rationalised sound of reason. Personally, I thought the days of carefully ordered releases were long since over. He reckons otherwise, when quizzed on the relevance of the conventional single format: “Here they are [important]. I mean singles are important, primarily because they get out on Pitchfork. And they’re important in the UK too but, like, I mean you have to have singles, even if I guess all I really wanted to do was to make an album album that’s cohesive throughout, and not just a collection of different singles.”
Ironically, Rihanna’s We Found Love blares out almost impudently in the background, puncturing the invasive splutter of a recalcitrant cappuccino machine in what is, for want of a better idiom, the epitome of that “hopeless place” immortalised in that in itself hopeless track aforesaid.
Though to revert to the Pitchfork interview previously alluded to, it was then that Cole spoke of wanting to see the band “grow up in the public eye.” And although he grows increasingly affable across our short while spent together, he still comes across as every bit the introvert. It’s in his nature, arguably, and I feel it’s reflected in the intimate effects of the album itself. Does he feel akin in songwriting approach to this reclusive character he projects? “Yeah, so far” he swiftly retorts, thus insinuating an increasingly collaborative follow-up. “I guess? I mean it’s kind of a mixed process, as obviously we’re writing it as we’re playing it live. And we’re writing it for people; for that purpose. I spend some time on it, and there’s something introspective about it all purely because that’s the sort of person I am. But it wasn’t like I made this record for myself, without caring if anybody heard it or not. That’s not what it was about. I wanted to throw a live band together, and play a bunch of fun shows for my friends, and that was it. It then grew beyond that, but that was all I initially intended on doing. Playing around Brooklyn.”
And Brooklyn has, to this point, played out something of a formative part in his nurture as a recording artist. The impact of his sporadically inhabiting (or at least momentarily holing up in) New York is self-evident across the washing wides of Oshin. Though of course defining what that indescribable NYC sound actually represents is of course a turbulent task in itself, given the rate at which the city’s waves of fad and fashion change: at the turn of the previous decade, it found itself at a throwback forefront. This then ebbed away slightly, only to later wash up in Brooklyn where a more forceful current could be found brewing in the Borough’s dense artistic depths. The likes of Yeasayer, David Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors, Annie Clark et al. then rode this toward a greater prominence down the tail end of those naughties.
Derailing the train of thought, Cole interjects: “I definitely notice things moving in waves like that, but I think that this current [concerted emphasis on current] New York thing is not a real, like, scene. It’s just, like, the internet. And the band was kinda reactionary in that way – there was nothing going on at the time. You know, there was just a lot of bullshit. But bullshit that had this big kinda built-in audience. So you’d see all these shitty bands, with tons of people at their shows, so we just thought: ‘Fuck it.’ And started a band because of that. There was already an audience out there, so we just had to put ourselves out into the right place at the right time. We found the right slot, and once we were there it was only natural that it’d grow in New York. Also once you start to pick up a lot of attention in New York, then it’s bound to spread beyond purely because there are so many tastemakers there and stuff. So it was just to do with putting ourselves in the right place at the right time.”
Of course the term scene has been one long since widely derided. The preposterousness of a post-Libertines void put paid to that this side of things, though there is one Brooklyn institution Cole cites as one cultivating such an embracive aesthetic: Mike Sniper’s unfailingly excellent Captured Tracks label. If you’re yet to be made formally acquainted with the indie, I couldn’t advocate its output highly enough: recent releases have included the immaculate Mac DeMarco 2, Wild Nothing’s much lionised latest Nocturne, and Chris Cohen’s exacting, though wholly rewarding Overgrown Path. Sniper’s got genuine artistic innovation in the crosshairs, and the bullseyes are being hit with nigh on every shot. And, as Cole acclaims, “that’s the closest thing we have to being a part of a scene. There is no Brooklyn scene, you know? The only band we like in New York moved there after we left.”
So for all the hushed mumblings of DIIV being an out-and-out Brooklyn band, they’re no longer living that Empire State O’ Mind? “We live on the road. We all have a place we can go, and my mom lives in Manhattan.” Home comforts? Perhaps not. “My cat lives in Brooklyn”, chips in oldest chum and guitarist Andrew Bailey, the words emanating from a clearing in stubbly whiskers. “But I don’t live in New York City. Ever.”
Though one may argue that with the stratospheric rise of the relevance afforded the www. since, say, Is This It the geographic situation of the artist is of a diminishing significance. New York may have nurtured Cole’s craft, though the internet has proven its catalyst. At least that’s how it’d appear from the outside peering in. I mean come May 1st, Doused had become an omnipresent internet sensation, stuffing our every social media feed. Facebook’s admin page would surely have branded its admittance into the UK as something or other in some way viral. “Well, I think that was more… Once that track came out, and once our record was coming out… You know, I lived in London a couple summers ago, and I began to realise back then how important radio was. So when Doused came out, that’s when I hired a radio team and we did a radio campaign over here. And that was when I first started to try and spread it. It was already doing well in the States, so I thought I’d bring it over here and give it a try. I hired a bunch of people – press, and so on – so I wouldn’t say it’s all to do with the internet. I think radio over here still has a real importance. Certain papers too, like The Guardian and the NME – our success over here has to do with having support from them, as well as the support of BBC [Radio] 1 and BBC 6 [Music], so it’s not so much the internet. And Pitchfork too. But I like the system here – it’s much more straightforward. In the States it’s all about Pitchfork, and so nobody gives a fuck if you’re in Rolling Stone, or on MTV, because that’s just all so cooperative that no new music gets out there, you know? Rolling Stone’s still talking about Aerosmith.”
Haggard shrivels of repugnancy somehow still afforded innumerable pops at both teen cherries (so says Perez) and Hyde Park, it’s this end of the city Cole once called home(-ish) to which our attentions relocate. For Oshin (Subsume) was last week featured on a certain show. “Oh yeah, I know about that. MiC”, he knowingly reveals. Perplexed whats ring around the table for varying reasons. I concede that it’s our shameful equivalent to any given US sitcom concerning a gaggle of outspoken, and absurdly overly wealthy twats from way out west London. In doing so – and in drawing attention to the fact that I’ve shamefully indulged almost secularly in the programme for far too long now – all street-slash-Holloway Road cred is abandoned. Or so I’d have thought…
“We’ve had two or three songs on that show. I am getting money, but do you know how much they pay?” Every face illumines, although again this happens for many a wildly varied reason. Cole’s words slow: “Fifty pounds. Per use. Per thirty seconds. So I owe you guys, like, two or three bucks. Here – that’s on me. Direct from Made in Chelsea.” A styrofoam espresso receptacle slams down on the coffee ring-plagued table lacquer.
I propose that to be one of the issues with modern-day licensing: pecuniary insignificance aside, you throw something out there, and you allow even the mangiest of wolves to feast. And to talk of the mainstream consciousness into which the E4 shitshow bleeds a numb discontent, DIIV are most likely a band few such someones are in any way aware of. Though for they that pride themselves on an inside-and-out know(-almost)-all of independent musics and what have you, there’s an almost intrinsic sense of ownership. So when that indie (in its purest, and moreover most original sense) seeps out only to become diluted by this more general public, you can end up feeling immoderately bereft. You may own the 7″ and not the MP3, though when bands blow up they tend to explode into so many different shards that, in effect, you feel as though they’re no longer yours.
Ever the subverter, Cole counters: “I kinda like that – it’s nice to throw something out there and just, kinda, see where it ends up. I didn’t know that the Made in Chelsea thing was a bad look or anything. I just thought: ‘Well, you know, I’ve never heard of that!'”
“In their defence, they do pick out some pretty palatable music”, I vouch in staunch defence of they that reticently watch. Someone probably ought to establish a blog documenting all that’s on there beyond Midnight City, I ponder…
“Well, I mean that’s what I got told. They were like: ‘Oh, well this band did it, this band did it, and this band did it.’ And when I spoke with some other friends to have done it, I was just like: ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But, like, yeah it’s funny to think that you make this thing, and that then, for the rest of your life, it’s just out there and it can be drawn completely out of context. You know, you hear a song on the radio, and you know… Our song could be on the radio when somebody’s driving to their dad’s funeral, or it could be mixed in with the radio static of another song – it’s just out there in the world, and I no longer have any control over it. I like that.”
His words here resound with newfound ebullience. Again childlike, it’s as though he’s finally got how alphabetic graphemes can compute in an algebraic world of utter, utter confusion – one largely dictated by integers. But as a boyish bright spark may safeguard homework from wandering eyes with straggled hands, does he not feel protective of his work? “No. You put something out because you say to yourself: ‘OK. This is approved for use in the world. There.’ That’s why you take such a long time recording it, mixing it, and making sure it’s good.” Though this stereotypically arduous process or recording, mixing, and so on wasn’t something that did in fact take such a long time. “It would have. But we had no money; no budget. A recording studio costs $600. Per day. So I had ten days, and I pushed it over to eleven, just because I was like: ‘It is not ready.’ So we did four days of tracking, and then six days of mixing. But with this studio we needed that, because you record everything super raw, and then you add all the effects and stuff during the mixing, so that’s sort of when everything happens. It’s very ’80s style.”
Incidental or otherwise, this approach is starkly illustrated in much of the end product. Though this is categorically intentional, if Cole is to be believed: “I mean the whole record was so deliberate – I knew exactly what it was gonna sound like, and I had to fight with the guy. Like: ‘No! Turn this up!’ But once it was done, it was kinda alright. Next time I definitely wanna spend more time in there, get a cheaper studio – we were talking about moving into a studio for a month, and living there, and just approaching it in a different way because doing it this way, you lose control of it after… I mean you don’t lose control over it, but you just have zero time. It’s eleven thirty at night, and you say to yourself: ‘This has to be done tonight.’ The engineer’s in a fuckin’ pissed-off mood, I’m sat there with my then girlfriend, Bailey’s tired and we’d be sitting there, like, ‘is this song good? Is it fine?’ ‘Cause then it takes an hour to cut it to tape – we bounced the whole thing to tape. Each track. And then bounced it back. And then we’d have to do the stems, so we’d have to bounce the vocal take, and then bounce it back again. Just the drums, and bounce them back. It’s all incidental, but that takes, like, seven hours straight out of a ten-hour day max. You know, you have an hour for lunch, an hour for coffee, an hour for smoking cigarettes, so then you’re left with, like, five hours in this ten-hour day. You know what I mean? The whole process just took so much time.”
Of course the most pertinent question is, therefore, did Oshin turn out exactly as he’d originally envisaged it to? “Not exactly, but I’m happy with it. It’s close enough”, his voice now imbued with a genuinely infallible air of assertion. “Sometimes the engineer would be like: ‘Alright, you want more reverb?’ [He signals ranking a dial up to some unfathomable, and as yet nonexistent degree.] You know, with a lot of the songs, I would be sat nervously in the studio asking whether my vocals were too out front, and he’d be like: ‘They’re fine.’ So I’d say: ‘Just put a little more reverb on there’, so a couple didn’t come out quite right. There’s too much reverb on there at times, and some of the guitars are a little low, but everything else sounds great to me. I mean, I don’t care. I’m just ready to move on to the next thing. When the record first came out, I would carry my anxiety by listening to it. I’d think: ‘It’s OK! It’s done! I can die now.’ But now, I just never listen to it.”
“So whereas before I’d look back on it and think ‘yeah, this is something that I’ve done’, it’s kinda more ‘yeah, that’s something that I did’ now.”
“What’s next, baby?” drummer Colby Hewitt slouchily contributes at long last.
What’s next is highly inconclusive. There’s no new material to neither speak, nor rant, nor rave about aired that evening. But I think that this fidgety attitude is somehow symptomatic of everything nowadays being regarded – or perhaps disregarded, even – as a product to be used, abused, and subsequently junked. So upon looking, and evidently not listening back over Oshin may it be viewed as the finished article by this completist virtuoso?
“Well, I know people basically just download MP3s now, but I definitely wanted all the singles to be on 7”. I wanted the record to actually be, like, a record. I wanted the artwork… Well, I remember reading an interview with some guy, and he was asked, like: ‘Oh, where did you get your artwork?’ And he was like: ‘Uh… I think I found it on Tumblr, or somethin.’ [Guffaws ripple around the table.] Well fuck you! The actual album cover I found in a book on Shamanism that I found on the street while we were walking home from band practice this once. And it all basically centres around that image. But it’s all from real life – I didn’t use the computer for any of it, except for the sending to the actual guy. Everything else I did myself – laid it all out, put it on the scanner, and emailed it to the company that printed it. So it was all physical, and I wanted it to be that way.”
A completist’s fantasy, Oshin is an appositely physical record therefore. It plays to a vital spectrum of human emotion: from sunny lulls (How Long Have You Known) to gruelling, quite guttural thrums (Doused, of course) it’s an album born of disaffection yet veneered with both love and loathing; the vivid and the torpid. So to cite one final London location, it may be somewhat hackneyed to conclude by stating that Smith demonstrates a maturity beyond his years over the course of Oshin – start through finish – but it’s a record that honestly? Has to be heard to be believed.
Oshin is out now on Captured Tracks.