Japandroids aside, it's hard to think of a more unanimously praised rock record from this year than DIIV's. Formed in 2011 by Brooklyn songwriter Zachary Cole Smith, the band released their debut album Oshin, in June to slew of eights-and nines-out-of-ten from right across the music press – not to mention a more than favourable 8.5/10 from us here at The 405. As a record, it sits somewhere between last year's efforts by The War On Drugs and Real Estate: it's a rock and roll album, but it's a subtle, sophisticated one. Its washed out feel doesn't make it any less memorable, and while it takes occasional left turns towards Krautrock tribalism (see recent single, 'Doused') it's never overindulgent and maintains a vibrant, punk rock directness.
It's in that sense that Cole has something in common with his musical hero, Kurt Cobain – the ability to make music that's simultaneously ambitious and immediate, as well as a knack for writing lyrical puzzles that sum up a certain feeling without explicitly stating it. And like Cobain he's been the driving force behind his band, recruiting Andrew Bailey (guitar), Devin Perez (bass) and Colby Hewitt (drums) to play his songs. Cole was even the band's manager for the first year of their existence.
Live, DIIV are loud, melodic and frankly remarkable, and their recent UK tour was one of the strangest that any band will do – one night they're supporting The Vaccines at Alexandra Palace, the next they're playing for free at the Old Blue Last. The 405 made it to the Deaf Institute in Manchester, where in a messy backstage lounge, amongst a huddle of hacks, press people, Mac DeMarco and one of the dudes from Egyptian Hip-Hop, we find Zachary Cole Smith and Andrew Bailey.
You just played Alexandra Palace – what was that like?
Cole:It was nuts, man. It was the first time we've ever played a show like that and it was a less eye-opening thing for me because it made me realise that that's not the type of band I want to be. I don't want to be a big arena rock band like that and I felt like a fish out of water.
How did it even come about?
Cole: I think it's just because The Vaccines are super cool and instead of going with whatever arena bullshit support band they went with us and Fucked Up, which is like a gnarly hardcore band. They're just fans of our music so instead of pandering to whatever their management wanted they chose bands that would be cool and that they're fans of. And they genuinely are fans of our band.
It must have been weird because you're not two bands you'd naturally put together, I don't think. I wouldn't imagine there's much crossover between your audiences.
Cole: There's something really cool about The Vaccines which is that they're just a rock band. They don't have tons of backing tracks, they're exactly like us, a guitar, bass, drums rock band without too much else going on. I'm impressed by their live show and it's amazing but that's not the band I want to be. I don't aspire to be The Vaccines.
So obviously The Vaccines are fans, but the album in general, I've not seen a review that's any less than 8/10.
Cole: Well it is like an "album" album. I think that as an album it works really well and it's not a singles-based record. I'm almost surprised it did well in England because England is so singles-forward.
How did you get from writing the songs to making the album what it is? Because production-wise it seems like the atmosphere surrounding the songs is almost as important as the guitar playing or the drum parts.
Cole: For sure, it was definitely a really deliberate sound. We spent four or five days recording and six days mixing so it was a really fast process and I knew exactly what it was meant to sound like already, and I produced it. So it was a really deliberate record – it was supposed to be a really cohesive sound.
Have you always written songs or is it something you decided to do fairly recently?
Cole: I always kind of wrote songs, I guess.
Andrew: Every guitar player is trying to write songs.
Cole: The whole thing was a very deliberate thing like, "I'm going to start a band," and it's going to sound like "this". This was all part of the vision from the beginning.
Because you did play / still play with Beach Fossils?
Cole: I don't still play with Beach Fossils, I guess, but they are definitely a big influence. Dustin [Payseur, Beach Fossils] is a big influence because he's one of my best friends. We challenge each other, which is good. He made his record and his band and I made my record almost as a kind of response to him, and now he's made a new record which I think is a pretty cool response to mine.
When you put DIIV together were you worried about being "the live guitarist from Beach Fossils"?
Cole: No, I mean, from the beginning I always said, "Don't say that", to our press people because I played in the Beach Fossils band – I didn't write shit. I just showed up and played somebody else's parts. It was kind of like a weird thing to say.
With that in mind were you quite keen to do something distinct from Beach Fossils, as much as you say that Dustin is an influence.
Cole: It wasn't meant to be the same or different. It was just, "This is what I want my band to sound like".
The way your lyrics are put together, they're quite cryptic lyrics anyway, and they're often pretty inaudible. Why do that?
Cole: The reason that I wanted the lyrics to be inaudible – well, not inaudible, but elusive – was that didn't want all the music to centre on my voice or the lyrics. I didn't want to be a singer-songwriter. I'm not trying to be like Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith out there, singing my words. It's about the band and the sound. I wanted everything to be weighted democratically. Your ear naturally goes to lyrics and words and I didn't want that to distract from the record.
You mentioned Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith just then – were they particular influences?
Cole: I'm hugely obsessed with both of those people. With the Nirvana influence, I was more inspired by Kurt as a person – reading his journals and seeing how deliberate he was in everything. Every step of their fame, he planned it out and he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what his goals were. He had a very clear vision of exactly what each song was. He had a list of all the songs that were going to be on 'Nevermind' and he was sketching out the cover art, and he was writing next to each track, "mad", "sad", "happy". To have such a clear, deliberate vision, that's what inspired me mostly with Kurt, and the way that he approached the whole thing. Of course his music is my favourite music – it's the primary influence behind the genesis of the project but it doesn't have to do with just the music.
I guess it's more of an influence in attitude or approach rather than sound.
Cole: Yeah, definitely in approach. It's punk but it's deliberate. Kurt would never sabotage himself.
So what's your vision for DIIV?
Cole: I think there's a natural way for things to progress. I think that we've hinted at a number of different directions for the band and I think we're going to pursue everything that we've hinted at. The live show has a punk energy that I want to bring more to the record. I want to feel like I have a more diverse variety of songs because this first record, the songs, it's not that they all sound the same or something like that but they have this very blatant feature that unites them all and I want to push the limits. I would not have made a different first record but it gives us a lot of space to grow.
How involved were you in the record Andrew, because Cole, didn't you record a lot of it on your own?
Cole: He was there every day.
Andrew: Naturally, I came as often as I could. It was definitely him doing it and every time it was, "Hey, do you want to play this part because you play it live?" I definitely wanted to be there, be a part of it, even if that was just sitting there offering advice once in a while.
Cole: A lot of the parts are written with these specific people in mind. It wasn't just like, "These are the parts" it was like, "This is a part for Bailey to play, this is a part for Devin to play, this is a drum part for Colby to play". But on the record it was kind of confusing because Colby quit the band in the middle of the record so I played drums on one third of it and this other kid who's a friend of mine played drums on a third of it and Colby played drums on a third of it. There's a few songs on the record that I recorded completely by myself and some of them we recorded almost, basically live in the studio as a band. The approach changed a lot.
Would you want to go down a route of writing more collaboratively in future?
Andrew: We haven't really had an opportunity to try that yet. We tried to squeeze them in during soundchecks but we stopped doing that because there wasn't much coming out of it or there wasn't any way to document it. When we finally have some time off we'll give it a shot and see what happens.
Cole: I almost have a starting point at least. I have like 30 demos or something.
Are you wary of getting other people more involved in the creative process of the band?
Cole: Do I worry about it? No, I'm excited, of course.
Andrew: I worry about it. [laughs]
Cole: I'm just psyched on it. You have all these resources of cool talented people who have ideas on music and we have always mixed and always listened to all different types of music. It's boring just hearing one person.
Andrew: It makes me nervous because that was The Strokes' downfall. The first record was just Julian and the second record, it was all of them, and it sucked.
Cole: But they probably were edging in their material and he was fighting it. I feel like I would maintain the ability to ixnay on anybody.
So you're not a control freak?
Cole: I am a control freak.
You are a control freak? How do you think that's going to affect your second album then?
Cole: I don't know. We'll see.