Shifting In and Out of Focus

SOPHIE NEVRKLA reviews five-piece DIIV’s recent London gig. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist via. Bad Luck

Since their breathy, murky and magical 2012 debut, Oshin, DIIV have remained oddly quiet. Frontman Zachary Cole Smith has been in rehab, and the band have spent 4 years working on a more ‘forward looking’ sound, encapsulated in Is the Is Are?, their latest offering. Whilst the live set is not squeaky clean, no fan ever expects polished perfection from DIIV. It is a difficult gig to review. Whilst the music’s blurry, shoegaze brilliance speaks for itself, the band themselves were not all there, one step removed from the instruments they so deftly play. Hearing the album live did not add anything to my experience of the record – instead, something was lost.

Throughout the gig, the band interspersed songs from Oshin with those from Is the Is Are?, which emphasise the shift that the band have undergone. As Smith murmured songs such as ‘Follow,’ ‘Human’, and ‘Sometimes’ into the mic, and guitars and bass lines danced and skated around the melody, his voice is buried in a sea of instrumental flourishes. Indeed, the album has previously been described as ‘guitar-driven’ and ‘instrumental’ by the band themselves. As the band move to tracks such as ‘Dopamine’ and ‘Waste of Breath’ the songs become more structured, emerging from the mist: Smith’s voice solidifies. He explains this new focus on lyrics in an interview with Rolling Stone, explaining how he found that he and girlfriend Sky Ferreira listen to music in very different ways: she notices the lyrics straight away, whereas Smith’s mind is initially drawn to the melody, to the bigger picture. ‘It was a new way of listening that blew my mind,’ he explains. ‘So I made this record for people like her.’ Is the Is Are? Is noticeably darker than Oshin as a result of this shift: many of the songs examine Smith’s personal struggles with addiction and desperate state when trying to kick his heroin habit. This intensity is palpable in the live set – this, combined with DIIV’s mastery of their instruments is intoxicating. Whatever their faults, the music that the band produce is undeniably beautiful. Visually, the show is also a triumph. Projections of New York (and, most frequently, of Ferreira) shimmer on the screen behind the band, shifting in and out of focus as the music does the same.

Photo Credit: Upset Magazine
Photo Credit: Upset Magazine

As I write this article, DIIV have just announced that they are cancelling a large leg of their European and US tour, due to ‘an urgent health issue.’ It is obvious to any fan what these issues are. Drugs have plagued the band in the press; lyrically and musically, they are the ghost haunting every song. The band repeatedly had to restart songs two or three times to get them right; Smith’s lapses of memory forced them to ask the audience for help with the setlist; at one point, entirely unprompted, the frontman even said ‘I am sorry the projections are in slow motion – that’s not my fault,’ though they seemed to be moving at a normal speed. For a moment, Cobain’s face flickers on the screen. Not for the first time, it feels as though Smith is buying into the cliché of the tortured, drugged-up artist – doomed to die young, but somehow enlightened, superior, all the same. All the audience are given as a result, is an unprofessional set that could have been a great one. It is sad to watch, not because the band play badly (which they don’t), but because their minds are quite clearly somewhere else. And because it feels amateurish, blasé, as though the band only make music for a hobby – the very word that Smith dismissed in a recent interview. Watching DIIV, it felt as though the audience wanted to be there more than they did: we were propping them up the entire time, and they were in need of constant reassurance. This is the opposite of how the dynamic should function. Even the constant ‘Hi, we are called DIIV’ (which prefixed nearly every song) seemed unnecessary, underconfident. More than anything, it was boring. The hour and a half long set dragged itself out, enjoyable only because of the brilliance of the songs themselves, not because of how they were performed.

It was bizarre to watch. DIIV have progressed leaps and bounds musically, experimenting with their instruments and managing to strike precisely the right balance between change and continuity from Oshin to Is the Is Are?. Both albums received unanimous praise from critics, musicians and fans alike. However, live shows have always attracted poor reviews – whilst the band’s music has moved forward, their live presence has stayed stock still, perhaps even regressed: there is a schizophrenic dichotomy between the two. To a certain extent, this can be blamed on the type of music that DIIV make. Layers upon layers of sound colour each song – it is hard to capture this live, especially in a venue like Heaven, where the acoustics of the room mean that much of this sonic vivacity is lost. Moreover, the term ‘shoegaze’ isn’t one immediately associated with captivating live performances in the traditional sense: it was coined by the British music press in the 90s to mock lack of stage presence. Bands usually stared downwards at their effects pedals rather than speaking to the audience, appearing detached, nonchalant, and introspective. The murmured, whispered lyrics and distorted sound effects of shoegaze and dream-pop bands are not targeted towards getting a crowd going in the same way that a band like Pulp or Blur would. These are issues that certainly apply to DIIV. Perhaps Smith’s problem is that he is uncomfortable with the label of the ‘frontman’. He is a media personality, and his charisma and colourful offstage life means that the audience expect something from him. But his music demands something different – a greater concentration, perhaps, an absorption in it that is not catered to live performing.

I left Heaven feeling strange and unsure, and a little bit sorry for DIIV. I had expected more from them, but at the same time, I didn’t know if I had a right to, or even what I had been expecting. Smith and the rest of his band were caught in a no man’s land between the audience and their instruments, and should have picked the former. In our twenty-first century age of the cult of personality, many fans will demand a frontman – but the music that DIIV makes requires a greater introspection than this allows.