DIIV on Money, COVID, Audience Hijinks, and the Dangling Carrot of Success

DIIV on Money, COVID, Audience Hijinks, and the Dangling Carrot of Success
Photo by Shervin Lainez

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a Baker's Dozen every Friday with music I've been listening to lately, along with some thoughts around it. (The Baker's Dozen didn't go out last week, as I was dealing with some unexpected personal issues—thanks to all for your patience and understanding.)

Here's a blast from the freakin' past: DIIV first clicked for me when I saw them at Cameo Gallery (RIP, complimentary) during CMJ (RIP, derogatory) shortly before Oshin came out. Cole came over after the (very good!) set and said hi, I remember he was wearing an oversized jersey of some sort...DIIV have gotten better and different with every album, and I've been very much enjoying their latest Frog in Boiling Water, which is out this Friday. The whole gang hopped on a call last month and we hashed everything out, it was a great convo and I'm excited for you to read it.

Tell me about what the last five years have been like for you guys. Deceiver came out right before COVID hit!
Ben Newman:
We were kind of right in the middle of tour when lockdown started, so we had to cancel that and the whole next year of touring that we had booked. We'd put out this record, but I feel like we didn't really get the chance to have people sit with the record and get into it that much. It was received well or whatever, but it kind of felt bad. Does anyone even care about this, or did we fuck up and make a bad record? But on the tour that we did after the pandemic, a lot of people were like, "This was my pandemic record." That's exactly what you could hope for as a musician—that the music got to someone at the perfect time. But before that, it felt like we had no idea what was happening with the record.

Cole Smith: There's this phenomenon that happens when you're a moderately successful band, where there's this carrot dangling in front of you all the time and you're like, "This record is going to be the one that like where we can make a living. Finally, all our work is going to pay off." And Deceiver really felt like that. There's a documentary on YouTube where we're talking about how we finally figured it out. And then that carrot was like put further away from us really suddenly, which is tough. That's something that we're always dealing with—that carrot, and catching it—but Deceiver felt like an accelerated version of of the carrot being pulled further away, like Lucy holding the football.

I've talked to some people who, after that carrot was put at a greater distance, they were like, "I'm done. This is all over." Did any of you have that moment?
Colin Caufield:
For the most part, there was a feeling of gratitude, or luck. because there were bands that had just gotten to Europe when we were there while all of the shit went down. They were just starting their promo. We got to do a big U.S. tour and most of a good Europe tour. But during all that, it was so confusing and like disorienting that I wasn't really thinking about it as much. Eventually, those feelings crept in—but, then again, we were lucky enough for people to discover the record during the pandemic, and then we got the second half of our album cycle a little bit. Once everything started up again, we did do some more touring that felt like we were like on cycle, but it was years after the record had come out.

Cole: There was this moment in the pandemic where like all the structure had fallen away around us, and the idea of playing in a room, in front of people, felt absurd. In one sense, it pushed us in a different musical direction, but it also forced us to embrace our DIY nature. We wanted to do something, so we put together a podcast, made some live session videos. That's how we kept busy. It's not like it was financially viable. But there was a moment where it it felt like we rediscovered ourselves.

Tell me about going back on the road after things opened up again. Touring during that time seems like one of the most extreme forms of exposure therapy one could undergo.
Andrew Bailey:
I'm pretty sure we all remarked on how quickly we got used to it. The first show, it was kind of crazy to see a room full of people. But after five minutes, it was back to normal. The brain adjusts quickly, at least for me.

Colin: We did one show in L.A. at this brewery, an outdoor patio show, and that felt terrifying. But, in hindsight, that was also a weird show because the P.A. was bare-bones—just a freaky show in general. But yeah, the people talking about how they don't know how to act in front of crowds or reconnect with themselves on stage or whatever...I felt like we all fell into it pretty quick.

Cole: It was really weird to get so used to being your private self—"I'm just some guy" or whatever—and then all of a sudden you're elevated onstage. It was really bizarre cognitive dissonance for a second. I personally had no idea how to act or what to say. It just it felt like we'd all been through something, and then you have a mic, and everything feels trite.

One of the first shows I went to after things opened up was an acoustic set from Daniel Rossen, and I was shocked because the entire audience was talking through it. Not even a whisper, just straight-up full-volume conversations. I was also talking with Ian from Militarie Gun earlier this year about how expectations from live audiences have changed in general. What's it been like for you guys?
Our crowds are really cool, chill, and very down for the music—but it is funny, because the whole throwing objects at artists phenomenon—was that even happening before COVID?

It started happening more after COVID, it seems like.
We recently we played in Berlin and people threw some stuff at us, and some people got mad on on our behalf. Andrew or someone else online was like, "It's chill, we're not pissed." There's crazy videos of crowds just acting wrong, but I feel like we don't really have that problem.

Cole: I feel like that trend started with that viral video of that guy crowd-surfing where someone throws a beer and he catches it perfectly and chugs it. People were like, "Oh cool, not only is there no consequence to what I'm doing, but there could be an upside or a viral moment." Like the person who threw their phone on stage and John Mayer did a slide guitar solo with it. In a crowd, you're so anonymous. If there's any way to break through and and become a singular individual, it's by throwing something.

Have you guys seen any of the videos from Mitski's latest tour?
Yeah. "Mother is mothering." That's another viral moment though, so who's to say...

Colin: The person got what they wanted.

Cole: Which would be to be told to shut the fuck up.

Another humiliation fetish for the books! Cole, you mentioned earlier about this notion of returning to a private life during the pandemic—which I do feel like is part of why everybody's throwing shit. They're like, "It's time for me to be the star of my surroundings," after spending so much time with themselves. What was spending time with yourselves like during that time?
I was in Brooklyn, so I never really had to do that. My girlfriend was working at a café that had a bunch of regulars that were there every day. It was closed to the outside public, so we were all just chilling inside all the time. It was trippy as hell walking around New York City and there not being other people around—that was crazy. It was also interesting to see that friend group completely implode shortly after. We all got way too much into each other's lives, and now nobody talks to anybody.

Cole: My first show I saw after the pandemic was Caroline Polachek at the Greek. Caroline lost her dad during COVID, to COVID. It's a private thing, losing a parent, but in the context of the of the pandemic it felt universal, and it was this really cathartic moment that felt really profound to be there for. I think she cried, and it brought everybody to the same level, which was a really special thing to experience.

Ben: I'm deeply introverted, so I enjoyed much of the pandemic. There's this thing when you like buy books or make a list of movies online, and you're like, "Man, when am I actually gonna consume this stuff, on my deathbed?" You got all day, every day, to look at your bookshelf or scroll through the TV. Of course, there was also this twinge of deep paranoia that went along with it, so I went in a darker direction than I probably normally would've. But I personally missed the lockdown era, and I will forever look back on that with—I mean, it was terrifying, but there was something about it that felt historic, which, obviously...I don't want to downplay all of the tragedy and terrible things that happened, and not everyone got to have the privileged experience that I did of chilling in my house for six months. But I kind of liked it, to be honest.

Colin: A lot of musicians have this constant question of, "What would I do if I wasn't a musician?" Then you get this opportunity where the music industry stops and you're able to just exist independent of your ego—especially when everyone's getting checks from the government for those few months, when people were just chilling. At the time, it felt like I was like learning a lot of things and doing something about myself—but, in hindsight, it was just a weird, unreal time. Everyone was in this collective daydream that also felt like a nightmare in many different real and imagined ways. It feels profound, weird, and surreal to talk about. I'm no longer annoyed [about talking about it]. Obviously, there's holes in this idea, but everyone was kind of on the same page for a second. That rarely happens. So it was this balance of feeling alone and lonely, but kind of connected to everyone because of this, too.

Tell me about writing music during the pandemic.
It was really strange at first. When you listen to rock music, you're picturing people in a room together and an audience—there's something very live about it. Without that context, it makes less sense, so I definitely didn't listen to rock music for the first year of being home. I remember talking to other musicians about it and being like, "I wish I just had a year to do all the stuff I need to do, then I could finally catch up and write some songs." There was an opportunity to do that, but what I kept hearing from people—and experienced myself—was that the music was like weird, paranoid and underwater-sounding. It lacked context within the type of music we tend to make. We had to push all of that out of the way. It was a bit of a reinvention of how to write songs.

Colin: I remember a moment where we were all making stuff, and I just sounded like too ambient. Then the four of us like went to our rehearsal space and started jamming, and that wasn't especially good because we were so rusty. Then, the as we were actually being together as a band, the disparate ambient, weird ideas started to collide and it was like, "Oh, okay, now we're writing." Even though it took a long time, we needed to be in the same room in addition to sitting around a computer and making weird stuff on our own.

Were there new vulnerabilities that seeped in while writing this as a result?
There was a real confluence of different emotions. There was a period where we had to grieve the old world. Besides 9/11, this was another turning point in our lifetimes. We're never going back to the way that it used to be.

The bio mentioned frayed relationships in the band as this record was being made. Want to explicate on that?
Growing pains.

Cole: Yeah, that's a concise way to put it. The thing that we keep thinking and talking about is how loaded being in a band can be. It's this really familial relationship, but it's also our job, our livelihood, our career, and our creative vehicle, which is very personal and intimate. So it came down to decision_making and working through stuff together in an even democracy. There's an even number of us, so you can't really vote on things—so working through decision-making processes and personal and creative conflicts felt really loaded, especially as we started getting towards more permanent decision-making as the album started to take shape. It just felt so high-stakes, because in a lot of ways it is. It represents such a totality of our lives, this band. It's just difficult to make decisions as a group structured like this, you know?

What do you think you've learned about yourselves and each other through being in this band, at this point?
It's hard not to be vague and just say that we've learned what we like and don't like, especially as far as songwriting and making music goes. It used to be that you'd try something and present it to the group fearlessly, and now you might write something and be like, "Well, I already know that this isn't going to fly because I know that their preferences are X, Y, and Z." You might censor yourself a little bit more. Interpersonally, it's kind of similar. There's different communication styles, so if you're trying to get your point across you might need to couch it in a certain way in order to appeal to someone's sensibilities. With all that being said, people are always changing. It's not like I've got them all figured out and I know exactly how they're going to react to anything. People surprise you, too.

Cole: The big takeaway for me personally was looking at conflicts and trying to examine my own role in them. You can't know what somebody's intentions are. People are so complex. You make up a person to be mad at. A huge part that I learned about myself was trying to communicate and talk to somebody about their intentions, because it's never the way that you expect, no matter how well you've known each other—and we've known each other for a long time. We've been through a lot of stuff together, and it's still impossible to know what somebody's intentions are—and assuming you do is just gonna create resentment. If I have a resentment towards you, it affects me negatively too, so realizing that was a breakthrough moment in navigating interpersonal conflict within the band.

Andrew: In a long-term relationship with somebody, the deeper you get to know them—which can be cool—it also exposes and shines a light on your shortcomings. Part of maintaining a long-term relationship with people involves constantly checking yourself and being like, "Alright, what is the thing that I do that sucks that I should stop." If you don't do it, then you literally can't maintain long-term relationships. So we all did that. It's not like we called each other out—it was just part of growing up. Everybody has to do it. We're just lucky that we have this intense, awesome situation with the band where it's not just a romantic or business relationship—it's everything all in one, which makes it that much more intense.

Colin: Creative people are really complex. It's our job to be complex. There's two sides of that coin: One is that you have to still be responsible for your own actions and the way you treat people. You can't just hide behind that and be like, "Well, deal with it. I'm emotionally unstable, I'm an artist." But then you also have to be consciously and constantly aware that the other people in the band are also complicated. It's this push-and-pull of giving people the benefit of the doubt and being critical of yourself, but also being able to give yourself the benefit of the doubt and, in certain situations, be critical of other people—to know when it's appropriate or necessary to make a decision. It's really tricky, because I know sometimes I need one of these guys to tell me I'm acting stupid. It works for all of us in different situations. With the making of this album, it seemed so intense—but, looking back, it's normal when that stuff happens. The moment when you forget it's normal is when it starts to feel really dramatic.

Tell me about how you guys perceive your sound to have changed over the years.
It's interesting to talk about after talking about the drama side of writing the record, because we are such different people with different tastes—but we all love to talk about music with each other and hash things out, and the big question we were always trying to ask ourselves was, "What is this band?" What is this ephemeral thing we're chasing? It feels cheesy to say, but you know it when you hear it. We probably made some headway in terms of figuring that out, which is part of why our sound has been mutating.

Colin: We're always chasing it, and as we change as people, that thing mutates and grows—but it's still this triangulation of all of our ideas. Then you arrive at a feeling and bring in the past—which, the past is something that every person is reckoning with. It's written in stone. How do our old records define us?

What's the financial situation in the band been like, pre-and-post-COVID?
Pre-COVID, our lives and needs were very different. We're older in such a meaningful way—we crossed some sort of threshold, both materially or in terms of some of us being married and Cole having a kid. Your needs change as you get older—but also, things are so much more expensive now, so sometimes it's hard to determine whether or not it has to do with the music industry being different or just getting older.

Cole: I do think that, with the streaming model and and all this stuff, we've seen music itself being devalued. It's really hard to make a record. We spent four years in these conflicts, and there's so much stuff that has to be done to make a record. It's such a crazy process, and it kind of just appears on this basically free library or whatever—essentially hosted by a tech company, where music isn't the product. As music is devalued, it makes the ability to make a living making music just so much more unachievable. We talked about the dangling carrot—it always exists. I would say it's not financially good for us right now.

Ben: You can also go further back than COVID and just look at a band that was our size in the '90s. They were still being exploited by their label, bad things were happening, but there was just more money. The pie was larger. Yeah, the label was taking a disproportionate slice of the pie, but because the pie was larger, it trickled down to the band more. It's only gotten worse with every technological innovation—every single time, to the point where maybe you could say we're technically making a living, I still feel worse for kids who are younger than us and starting bands.

Maybe this is a naïve, optimistic take, but it does seem like can things get much worse before they get better. Of course, they can get worse, but they can get better too. Maybe enough people are so passionately upset that we can do something about it.

Andrew: That's the problem, though. If it gets a little bit better, that's what the system does—it always maintains homeostasis by self-regulating. It'll give us a little bit to keep us from realizing what would happen if it didn't get a little bit better. One thing I've noticed outside the music industry in shit jobs—I'm always working side jobs when we're not on tour and in the studio—is that it's way more difficult now than it was before COVID. And the majority of my peers rely on those jobs for a livelihood. So I'm lucky that music didn't completely fall apart during the pandemic, because it's brutal out there in the service industry. The bourgeois in charge of that whole operation have way more leverage now. I feel like the breaking point is closer now because of COVID, because it's just so obvious to the majority of people that we can't work to survive anymore.

Yeah, I think a lot about how COVID essentially created a bunch of new ways to exploit people.
Exactly—and the way that capitalism thrives is by convincing everyone that, one day, they'll be the lucky one. Now, being the lucky one just means you have a normal job with benefits. That's crazy.

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Jamie Larson