DIIV Lead Singer Zachary Cole Smith Celebrates Sober Milestone

By Paul Fuhr 08/30/17

The newly sober singer spoke about his path to recovery in a new interview with Billboard magazine.

DIIV's Zachary Cole Smith
DIIV's Zachary Cole Smith

“Never thought you’d go so far but you really gotta get away” isn’t just the opening lyric to DIIV’s rousing, propulsive track “Doused”—it’s now become a painfully prophetic line for the NYC indie band’s frontman, Zachary Cole Smith.

A new profile in Billboard details just how far the 32-year-old musician had to go before finding recovery after years of struggling with substance use. “I was so fucked up that I was canceling tours and crying on stage and just a fucking mess,” Cole told the magazine, recounting his torturous route to support both his music and his drug habits.

And with only two albums under the dream-pop group’s belt (the stellar Oshin and Is the Is Are), DIIV isn’t exactly a household name. Still, the band has had more behind-the-scenes trouble than groups with decades-spanning careers. 

This past February, Smith announced that he was entering rehab for a years-long addiction to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. In a heartfelt Instagram post, he announced that it was “time for me to stop kidding myself” about the size of his problem and pledged to see everyone “on the other side” of treatment. (By the way: the post was a two-photo collage of a blurry raccoon, with the text “Are you insane like me/Been in pain like me” superimposed over it.)

Whether the blurred image spoke to Smith’s frenetic mental state at the time isn’t really the point—it’s that he’s beaten the odds and avoided becoming a footnote in the Hipsterdom’s Ground Zero: Pitchfork.com. Six months later, Billboard observed that Smith has emerged with “a seemingly boundless energy,” as he opened up about the problems plaguing the recording of 2016’s Is the Is Are and his dedication to sobriety.

To describe DIIV’s music is to try describing a color, in that it’s almost impossible to do so without the description falling in on itself. The band’s music is all at once ghostly, relentless, and alive—a combination that may sound aimless while it’s actually all perfectly attuned, precise and plotted out. And in many ways, that perfectly captures Smith’s road to recovery: a seemingly ambiguous path that’s anything but.

“It’s a framework in which you do the steps and the work, and do shit yourself,” Smith told the magazine. “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.” (For his part, Smith regularly attends recovery meetings wherever he’s at on the road—a far cry from his touring days/nightmare bottoms where he was frantically calling people for cocaine at 4 a.m.)

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Smith’s arc to sobriety is how each album marks milestones in his addiction. DIIV’s Is the Is Are is something of a time capsule about false sobriety, produced in the wake of a failed 2015 trip to rehab.

In one interview, however, Smith went so far as to say the album “trivializes sobriety,” in that each track is ostensibly about sobriety while having been written under the influence. In the interim, Smith went from blithely stating “Yep! I’m sober! Easy. Here’s a record about that” to taking a long, honest appraisal of himself after having “tried so many times getting clean” with things only “getting exponentially worse” every time.

Now, after six months, Smith is as cautiously optimistic as he is keenly aware that he’s still fresh in early sobriety. But given the drive and vitality of both Oshin and Is the Is Are, it’s almost astonishing to think of what lies ahead for DIIV.

For a group committed to articulating emotion in broad, epic strokes, DIIV may very well tap into Smith’s sobriety to produce something wholly unique. One thing is certain: no matter what it sounds like, DIIV’s third album will be compellingly honest in ways its past two albums never could be. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.