DIIV: 212°F and Rising

In our latest Digital Cover Story, the New York four-piece talk about embracing the contradictions of parenthood, being a band nearly on the brink of fracture, conspiracy theory websites, working with Chris Coady, and making their most “DIIV-sounding” record yet, Frog in Boiling Water.

Music Features DIIV
DIIV: 212°F and Rising

After releasing Deceiver in the autumn of 2019, DIIV’s music had become a “soundtrack to personal resurrection under the heavy weight of metallic catharsis.” Vocalist Zachary Cole Smith calls that era of the band “the old world,” given its pre-COVID context. Deceiver was a multi-faceted reinvention for the band, both sonically and mentally; Smith had written the record after a period of inpatient treatment for substance abuse, and the band studied albums like loveless in order to make a pivot from the hooky, noisy indie bedrock of Oshin and Is the Is Are to a total shoegaze renaissance packed with wall-to-wall, soaring guitar sounds and drab, darkened lyrics about addiction, self-hatred, guilt and lies. The band that made “How Long Have You Known?,” once written off by naysayers for embracing the kind of dream-pop-adjascent stylings that would surely die-out as quickly as they surged as trends, had come into their own.

In the band’s conversation with Interview Magazine that year, Oliver Shaw pegged Smith’s recovery as a metamorphosis crucial to the band’s narrative then. On DIIV’s latest album, Frog in Boiling Water, there’s less interest from the four-piece in expelling their own personal inventories. Though recovery is what allows Smith (and the band) to still be here with us making music, there’s more to that narrative Shaw outlined five years ago. “We’re indebted to it completely,” Smith says. “Recovery is the thing that allows us to be a band, period. And I think, around the time of Deceiver, [we were] reckoning with that. I think there’s an attempt, on that record, to place the story of my personal recovery—or [the story of] people close to me—within a broader social test and then expand. In that world, when the band first started, that wasn’t meant to be the narrative. It became a part of the story, and I think it’s a key part of the story, just because it allows us to be here today—but [on Frog in Boiling Water], we didn’t want to make another record [about] taking out the trash.”

As is the case with any new record borne out of creative fracas, DIIV are, again, under the knife of a predetermined narrative arc. But this time, it’s clearer than ever that they are in complete control of what part that arc plays in how they speak, consider and nurture the album. For the last handful of months, as Frog in Boiling Water has circulated through numerous legs of press, the focus has been on “a four-year process that nearly broke the band” and the “complex dynamics of family, friendship and finances entangled, coupled with suspicions, resentments, bruised egos and anxious questions.” For Smith, guitarist Andrew Bailey, bassist Colin Caulfield and drummer Ben Newman, they certainly found themselves on the brink of a fracture as a unit. What that entanglement was, exactly, still remains murky—as they never take off the mask fully—but it’s clear that their first-time approach to making an album via a member-focused democracy led to their chemistry coming apart at the seams.

After demoing, practicing, recording and jawing for the better part of two years, in June 2023 DIIV went to Echo Park Lake to clear the air, reconcile and make one last push to finish Frog in Boiling Water. “Previous to that, we foolishly were like, ‘We’re just going to finish the record and we’ll deal with our interpersonal conflicts afterwards,’” Newman says. “But, it just started to feel impossible—you still have to communicate to make music together. Our communication was fully broken down, so we had to take a minute to reset in order to really finish, because there’s so many decisions, even in the mixing phase, that feel really permanent and important. We had to take a minute to regroup and then get back to work.”

“What realization did you have to come to in order to say, ‘Fuck it, we have an album to make. This is our band, we’re gonna do it right’?” I ask the four-piece. “Our commitment to ‘doing it right’ is part of what led to a lot of the conflict,” Caulfield admits, “because ‘doing it right,’ in our minds—other than having this more democratic approach to making the record—was also just working as hard as we could to make album as good as we could.” That intra-band and friendship maintenance was given the backseat during most of the Frog in Boiling Water recording process, in an effort by DIIV to remain in service to finishing the album. “And I think, around that time, it was a real group realization of ‘Oh, we can’t just do that, we have to be friends and talk to each other and navigate this whole mess of making art together and being in a band together as a unit, instead of just working hard,’” Caulfield furthers.

Figuring out “the right way” to make an album was a big part of the Frog in Boiling Water experience, according to Smith. “We’re driving the car and building it at the same time,” he says. “Group decision-making is a really difficult exercise, and I think everybody struggles with it—the world struggles with it. It’s a microcosm for that kind of model, but it was something that felt philosophically important to the approach to [Frog in Boiling Water]. There’s no right way, we just figured out a way, but a lot of it came with new problems that, then, we had to learn how to solve together—the resentments that you start building and then trying to think through your role in that and communicating. We were figuring it out in real time.”

The 10 songs on Frog in Boiling Water did change between the demoing and mastering phases, likely due, in part, to the conflict that shadowed over the band during the album’s making, but the tracks aren’t presented in the black and white of “before Echo Park Lake” and “after Echo Park Lake.” DIIV refuse to be reductive by oversimplifying the delineation of the album’s different phases. “The album is, as it stands now, completely indebted to all of those phases, even though it’s maybe most reflective of just a couple of them,” Caulfield explains. “It’s just as much indebted to the period of when we were struggling and fighting with each other as it is to the times when we were really stoked and having so much fun around the computer.”

With that in mind, it makes sense that the finished product of Frog in Boiling Water sounds like a cohesive and euphoric revelation unlike anything we’ve heard from DIIV before. As if it was left in a pot on a stove burner turned to low, the album simmers and makes hooks and poppy, energetic upticks an afterthought. Songs like “Brown Paper Bag,” “Fender on the Freeway” and “Raining On Your Pillow” are some of DIIV’s best efforts yet, offering expansive, dynamic, motorik journeys through purpling egos, economic anxieties and end-stage capitalism—with, of course, tinges of personal grief and systematic brutality like hues coloring popped stitches. It’s a “chicken or the egg” question, as Caulfield calls it, about whether or not the music was inspired by the interpersonal chaos or vice-versa. “When Cole was really digging in on the lyrics, the intention—and, still, the intention of the album—was for each song to be a snapshot of the different problems in the world and different difficulties of existing right now,” he says. “The more we talk about it, it’s interesting to think about how it also applies to the band and our own microcosm of people just trying to make it work—and seeing the same similar pitfalls in communication.”

Frog in Boiling Water—and its snapshots of different perspectives of the, as Smith calls it, “symptoms of a sick society”—was partly inspired, lyrically, by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It really blew my mind, how it’s the story of traveling to all these different cities and from different perspectives. You enter from this way and the city looks like this,” Smith continues. “But, really, the story of the book is that it’s the same city with different perspectives on it. It can be the same narrator the whole time; you’re a different person every time you approach something. I think, with all of the different kinds of perspectives and everything going on in the world while still trying to exist in it, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance and a lot of paradoxes that you have to embrace—and there’s hope and there’s false hope. They’re all just ways the people find to exist in a society dominated by capitalism that doesn’t serve the people.”

Part of that cognitive dissonance, that tug between hope and false hope, worms its way onto Frog in Boiling Water, too. During the recording process, Smith became a dad for the first time and that transformative change in his life led to the album’s bombastic, seething critiques of the system’s merciless clutches and humanity’s propensity to allow it (“Lying like a fender on the freeway, tangled in a sprawl,” Smith sings at the album’s end. “A life of pain, a life of comfort—systems fail and empires fall, walking the earth like ants on a sugar ball”) being counter-balanced by pensive, glass-half-full estimations (“There’s a river out there, somewhere, I’m the only owner of,” Smith sings on “Raining On Your Pillow,” a peace he echoes on “Everyone Out”: “Ready for my life, have faith, this beautiful time will all be mine”).

“It’s, I think, a really difficult thing that every person who’s becoming a parent—probably at any point in history, but especially now—grapples with,” Smith says. “This world is so damaged, but you make a decision to bring a human being into it. There is a really powerful contradiction at play in that, and I think that was where the hopeful side of the record came from—because even that can be a false hope. It’s a really difficult thing to navigate. I try to be as present for the band as possible, just as anybody would try to be present at work and at home. I think we’ve been pretty good at finding a balance, but I think it really did inform the nature of the record in that, in terms of subject matter and the feelings and emotions behind it, it was really powerful and contradictory.”

Contradictions remain musically present on Frog in Boiling Water, too. The album’s emotional centerpiece, “Everyone Out,” arrived perpendicular to the band’s previous single (“Brown Paper Bag”), immediately becoming one of their most compelling tracks ever. DIIV calm down during the instrumental, allowing a patient, syncopated acoustic strum to slowly morph into a bevy of tape loops and synth-programming. In a rollout that has found critics and fans alike clamoring to the sealed-in-amber consensus of Frog in Boiling Water being DIIV’s heaviest album yet, “Everyone Out” is soft and sobering—as Caulfield and Smith harmonize “I’m ready for my rinse” with a striking intimacy to their vocals, embracing collapse by never swelling up. It’s, to me, DIIV at their very best—as they make good use of their own musical elasticity and stretch the confines of what everyone may have once considered possible for the quartet. So, maybe it’ll come as a surprise to know that “Everyone Out” almost didn’t make the final tracklist, nearly becoming lost to the confines of quarantine rehearsals. “It was hanging on for dear life, but it instantly became everybody’s favorite demo for a long time,” Smith says.

DIIV weren’t separated for very long during COVID, quickly reconvened during quarantine and creating an isolated “pod” together—where they were able to be in a practice space and make music together while other bands went dormant like much of the country. “It felt like a contrast to the world slowing down,” Caulfield says. “It was a vibrant time for the band.” Smith echoes his bandmate’s recollection, saying that DIIV’s return to their DIY roots “felt empowering without the pressures of having to make it a ‘real thing.’” “Everyone Out,” reflects those roots vividly. “Early on in the pandemic, when we were first meeting up, before we’d even established the pod and we were still staying six feet away from each other outside, we were trying to imagine writing music and collaborating like that—acoustic guitars out on the porch with a synth hooked up to a little practice amp—was the beginning of us starting to write the record,” Bailey explains. “And then that quickly got abandoned once we got into the actual studio.”

Once the band had whittled the Frog in Boiling Water demos to about 20 while they were out in the desert, “Everyone Out” began to manifest itself more than any other song. “It really started with someone saying, ‘Wait, why don’t we try it acoustic?’ And I don’t remember who it was or how that came up, but we started tracking it in the living room of a house we were renting, and somebody picked up the acoustic guitar and that was that,” Bailey continues. “The demo was more rock and Ben put these vocals on it,” Smith adds. “It sounded like a Heatmiser song. So, seeing it transition to acoustic guitar, it felt like that path from Heatmiser to the first Elliot Smith record.”

But Frog in Boiling Water is DIIV’s best album, and their, as Newman puts it, “incidental” heaviness is a measurement of the band discovering how to incorporate those denser textures into their sound. Caulfield suggests that the record’s heftiness stems from a production decision made by producer Chris Coady to capture DIIV “playing loud music in a room together.” In that case, Frog in Boiling Water shares a similar DNA to Deceiver—just as Oshin and Is the Is Are exist as two sides of the same coin. During the recording process, Coady became a fifth member of DIIV, according to Smith—a sensical decision, as the mixer/engineer’s resume speaks for itself: Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever to Tell, Beach House’s Bloom, Smith Western’s Dye it Blonde, Future Islands’ Singles, Slowdive’s self-titled and IAN SWEET’s Show Me How You Disappear, just to name a few.

Upon meeting Coady, DIIV had a different idea of what Frog in Boiling Water was going to be. “We thought it was going to be sequenced on drum machines and really this electronic, feeding the computer experience,” Smith says. “And Chris really seemed to know how to translate that. He was the one who was like, ‘You guys need to do it as a band.’” Coady, however, has garnered a reputation as one of the best mixers in the business, and that reputation lived up to itself once he got in the studio with DIIV. “As far as we know, he’s a scientist. Sound is so complex, there’s all these frequencies and the way it’s made. It’s completely out of our understanding,” Smith continues. “What we want to do is just feed ideas into the thing, and that’s the fun part. Chris was helping us focus those and then helping us delete stuff to make room for the song to exist without turning into mud. It really is a nuanced and scientific art form that we just have no understanding of, in general. It was amazing watching him work, it’s so esoteric from our perspective.”

In October 2023, DIIV marked their return by uploading a song called “Soul-net” (which they had been debuting at shows on a tour opening for Depeche Mode) to a mysterious, Geocities-style website filled with memes, platitudes, conspiracies and a nine-minute clip that housed the four-minute song itself and sending it far and wide (and even to people, like myself, who didn’t remember ever signing up for updates from DIIV’s website in the first place). “Are you starting to think this is all the same? The military industrial complex picking and choosing what is cool, where to go, what food to buy? THE BARBIE MOVIE AND OPENHEIMER AT THE SAME TIME? Are you a frog in boiling water?” the site said, hinting at the forthcoming album.

“I feel like every good album creates a universe for the listener to enter, and this being the first song—not just the first single, but the first glimpse into the world that we were going to create but hadn’t created yet and hadn’t fully thought out yet—it just made sense to borrow from the theme of the song itself, which is a really specific conspiracy theory that exists online and goes back to the ‘90s,” Bailey says. “Since then, it’s been awesome—because that was the foundation for the building we didn’t fully have plans yet for. It made the rest of the rollout so much easier.”

The Soul-net website—which might remind some visitors of the still-intact Heaven’s Gate website—was inspired by the story of the song itself and the world it lives in, which centers around a person finding solace and community and meaning in their life, which they lacked previously, in wild conspiracy realms (“We were lost, now we have something,” Smith sings. “They own our lives and harvest our suffering, turn from the light, cycle is karmic, I want to be nothing”) “The paradox of that song, of losing yourself and finding yourself at the same time, was such an interesting idea to us,” Smith says. “It made sense. We didn’t have a label when that song came out, we wanted to put something out that was not on streaming services. It really was fun to make a song and be able to extend the world through the rollout. That’s something we’ve never done or been able to do.”

DIIV, which began as Dive 13 years ago in Smith’s “bedroom with no internet and [he] didn’t know it would ever leave,” have become a prevalent and beloved emblem of a shoegaze movement that came swirling back into view in 2013 after my bloody valentine dropped m b v. Now, in 2024, as shoegaze and slowcore are having a moment with Zoomers, and bands like Duster (whose song “Inside Out” was recently certified Gold by the RIAA, on account of some 230 million streams on Spotify thanks to a surge in internet popularity), Blue Smiley and Deftones have all seen streaming spikes in the last year or two. Noise rock and reverb-soaked guitar music are in, and the rewards are already being reaped: the Drop Nineteens recently reformed and put out their first album in 30 years; Slowdive dropped their best record since Souvlaki last year. New bands, like sign crushes motorist, Wisp, full body 2 and They Are Gutting a Body of Water, are cropping up left and right and fielding waves of press, accolades, festival slots and high Spotify numbers (Wisp’s breakout track, “Your face,” has almost 60 million plays alone).

So DIIV’s re-emergence after five years couldn’t have come at a better time, even if Smith sings “I want to disappear” at the beginning of Frog in Boiling Water opener “In Amber” and the band don’t fully know what to make of shoegaze’s cultural resurgence just yet. Where Deceiver was a queasy, angrier fit of guitar chaos and dingy, brooding, messy and familiar portraits of addiction and recovery, DIIV’s fourth album is about what comes next—what your personhood becomes when the claws of capitalism sink themselves deep within it. The former was, as Caulfield calls it, a “genre study.” “We had such a specific goal in mind of making a shoegaze album, and we were studying a lot of stuff and we were referencing so many specific songs and albums and sounds,” he says. This time around, DIIV felt their complexities becoming radicalized by a liberating sense of self-actualization in the music itself.

“We wanted to make a DIIV album that referenced ourselves even more than any other music,” Caulfield continues. “Obviously, we’re always inspired by other stuff, but it was a rare moment in the studio when someone was like, ‘We should do this here because it happens in this song and it’s cool.’ We’re more abstractly trying to tap into some vague idea of what a song could feel like. And that is, ultimately, just a combination of our experiences—four different people with different tastes and ideas of what that could feel like. We’re waiting for the moment where we’re like, ‘There it is! That’s the DIIV song!’

It’s that pivot in focus that makes Frog in Boiling Water one of the year’s best rock records. To understand the allegory of a “frog in boiling water,” you must first decide who and what belongs to each part of the saying. Before the quartet gathered at Echo Park Lake a year ago this month, it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to say that DIIV were the frog, and that the boiling water was all of their unchecked grievances and the democratic album-making beliefs that were beginning to rip them apart. But at some point, DIIV themselves turned the knob back down below a simmer and, rather than fall into their self-described “tranquil stupor” and allow themselves to boil to death, they climbed out of the pot, grabbed hold of their musings on societal collapse and the “brutal realities we’ve come to accept as normal,” and reinvented themselves, again. “History begins right now with you and me,” Smith proclaims on the album’s title-track, a reckoning that can be aptly pinned on the future of DIIV’s music, too.

“We were going through our demos, trying to figure out if something was good or bad. We would listen to a demo and be like, ‘This is cool, let’s try playing it,’” Bailey remembers. “And even if we played it perfectly and it sounded like the demo, there’s something about how it feels when we all play it. There’s no list of what makes something a DIIV song, but we can hear a demo and know if it’s a DIIV song or not. That didn’t really occur to me until Chris Coady came into the room and said: ‘There’s just something about the way you four people play something together that makes it something.’” If you find yourself on the Soul-net website these days, a banner on the homepage reads: “Where are you in Life? Are you Absolutely Sure? Are you struggling with your FAITH? Do you find yourself questioning???” Below it, in the heart of a digital wreath, it says, in all lowercase: “you’ve found us.” Such is true about Frog in Boiling Water, as DIIV have reminded us why we all started looking for them in the first place.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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