Ever since Zachary Cole Smith catapulted onto the music scene in 2011 with his five-piece, guitar-driven rock band DIIV, he's been in the public eye. But not for his music.
“It just kind of got glossed over,” the 31-year-old says. “There was this weird thirst for info.”
And for good reason. Though DIIV's 2012 debut album Oshin made it on a number of year-end lists, the media was more interested in Smith's girlfriend at the time, Sky Ferreira, and in his sordid, drug-riddled past.
As a teenager, Smith was expelled from multiple high schools, ultimately attending six institutions in five years. And after his freshman year at Hampton College in Massachusetts, he was expelled again. He spent his 20s living in New York, serving as guitarist for a number of bands — Beach Fossils, Soft Black, and Darwin Deez — all the while battling a heroin addiction. After forming DIIV in 2011, he began dating Ferreira, but it was in 2013 that shit really hit the fan.
First, Smith canceled the band's European tour, then he sacked his manager. The band then traveled to San Francisco to hash out material for their second album with help from Chet “JR” White, the former bassist for Girls. But that was a failure, too.
“We ended up going into the TL and scoring drugs and then just going to the studio and falling asleep on the couch,” Smith says. “It was not good. Being there was horrible for my psyche, and I really did not do well.”
The biggest blow came on Sept. 13 when Smith and Ferreira were driving an unlicensed van to a DIIV show in upstate New York. The couple was pulled over, and police found heroin and ecstasy in the van. Smith, who was also driving without a license, was charged with two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance, one count of possession of stolen property, and one count of aggravated unlicensed driving.
“It sucked,” says Smith, who was ordered to attend rehab. “It was a big fucking mess.”
But like any good artist, Smith used the trials and tribulations of the last few years as fodder for his second album, 2016's Is the Is Are. Whereas Oshin had muffled, hardly intelligible lyrics, Smith's vocals in Is the Is Are are more upfront, and the autobiographical references — to his arrest, his history of addiction, his relationship with Ferreira, and his struggle to get clean — are easier to grasp. He also included lyric sheets in the album because he “really wanted people to know what (he) was saying.”
Smith penned the album's first single, “Dopamine,” in January 2014, shortly after his release from rehab. The harmonic, multilayered song is a candid recounting of the withdrawal effects Smith experienced. In between soaring guitar chords, Smith evokes an image of an addict suffering from those symptoms, with lyrics about intense sweating (“I'm soaking”), noise sensitivity (“eardrums shaking”), and cravings for drugs (“Fixing now to mix the white and brown”). “Bent (Roi's Song)” is a third-person narrative about watching someone succumb to an addiction, and “Waste of Breath,” as the track's title suggests, decries the futility of trying to convince someone to let go of a bad habit.
But there is redemption in the album. “Under The Sun,” which Smith claimed on Tumblr is a love song, could easily be mistaken for a paean about getting clean, and “Take Your Time” is peppered with words of encouragement and motivation. “Last time I walked down this street / I walked down this street / I wanted to die / Die,” Smith mutters in the album's most evocative tune, “Is the Is Are.” “Now I'm fighting / I feel like I'm fighting / I feel like I'm / Fighting for my life.”
The fact that Smith is willing to return to San Francisco to perform on Sunday at Outside Lands is also an indicator of both his and his band's growth and recovery. (In 2015, DIIV drummer Colby Hewitt left the band to get help for a drug addiction.) Sure, Smith might not love it up here — “In reality, it's my broken dream,” he says — but he's coming back for the sake of the music and his fans.
And besides, he says, it might “even be cool.”