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Indie Rock Survivors DIIV Bring Shoegaze for the Revolution

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Only a day after Cardi B made headlines for declaring she would not be voting in this year’s presidential election because she doesn’t support U.S. involvement in foreign wars and doesn’t “fuck with” Joe Biden or Donald TrumpI am on a Zoom call with four activist-minded musicians who, it turns out, don’t disagree with the rapper. The gentlemen of DIIV know their politics and are, one and all, hard progressives. Leftists with not much use for squishy moderates. “None of us are neoliberals,” guitarist Andrew Bailey firmly asserts, before signing on to the idea that mainstream Democrats and Republicans are equally bad. “At the moment, yeah,” he says. “Because there’s only one economic philosophy on the ballot! And the fact that the people who actually have power right now are the people putting money in the pockets of both aisles, so, regardless of who you vote for or who wins, it’s those people who actually win. So, yeah… don’t vote for Biden!” Drummer Ben Newman demurs, but only slightly: “To say that they are all equally bad is maybe not true. But they are all bad, which I think is important.”

Why is any of this relevant to a conversation about the indie rock band’s new album, Frog in Boiling Water? Because on their long-awaited fourth LP, out now, DIIV have merged their hazy, beautifully layered sonics with lyrics that are sharply political, taking on social and economic injustice, militarism, environmental destruction, complacency, and—at the root of it all—capitalism.

It’s been an intriguing lead-up to the release. Along with their singles, the band has launched mysterious websites that tease an alternate universe that includes an evil overlord, Soul-net, and an underground resistance front, Frog in Boiling Water. They also released a faux SNL-style music video featuring Fred Durst and deepfake facial fuckery. The rollout has been wickedly funny, unsettling, and provocative. The disquieting image conjured by the title of the project was inspired by the late novelist and environmentalist hero Daniel Quinn. As their press materials assert, the band sees it as a metaphor for “a slow, sick, and overwhelmingly banal collapse of society under end-stage capitalism, the brutal realities we’ve maybe come to accept as normal.”

Are we having fun yet? If that sounds like a lot, know that Frog is also musically engrossing—even rapturous at times. It’s an extension of the bigger, slower, and heavier sound the band first explored on 2019’s acclaimed Deceiver LP, and a radical shift from its earlier, wiry and propulsive approach. With a swirl that’s hard not to describe as shoegaze, tracks envelop you like a warm hug, belying singer and lyricist Cole Smith’s often harrowing takes on our times. The band typically places vocals so deep in the mix that, without a lyric sheet, it’s easy to miss Smith declaring, “Our lives are done / The good guys won” or despairing, “You can’t unring a bell / We live in heaven and we live in hell,” or, as he does on the grand opener, “In Amber,” decrying “rotating villains, profiting off suffering.” (As for which foe he’s referring to, Smith says listeners can take their pick: “The idea of the ‘rotating villain’ is endemic to our political system.”)

As for DIIV’s outward-facing pivot on this album, Smith says this is what the band “was supposed to be.” “With [our 2012 debut] Oshinthere are elements that are personal, but it really was meant to be these truisms,” he explains. “It was all rooted in Zen poetry and Jenny Holzer art and wanting to speak to these universal things.” That later sets grew deeply introspective was, he says, a necessary aberration, arriving “in the depths of the Is the Is Are [2016] era and all the public-facing turmoil and stuff. That was kind of out of this black hole.”

What Smith is referring to is his protracted battle with addiction, to heroin and more. It threatened not just the destruction of the band he had created but all his relationships. Even his very life. (He and I have spoken about that battle at length, in a 2017 interview for Billboard.) That experience bled into his writing and a personal lens was “thrust on” album two. “The world was very small,” he explains, recalling those years. “It was just what was right in front of me. And then Deceiver was kind of a reckoning. This one is more where our interests lie, thematically. We’re talking about things that are important to us.”

They’re a principled band. And one of those principles is democracy, not just in the world but within their own ranks. Still, that dedication contributed—along with relentless touring and the global paralysis of Covid—to a lengthy four-and-a-half-year wait between Deceiver and Frog in Boiling Water. After Smith took the reins on the first two albums, the songwriting on Deceiver shifted to something more collaborative, between Smith and bassist and vocalist Colin Caulfield. Here they wanted to go even further.

It’s rare to encounter a band that is, creatively, truly an even-split democracy, and there’s a reason for that: It’s not the most efficient way to work. Fascists, after all, get the trains to run on time. Still, it can be special. “We’re just trying to make a mirror of the world that we want,” says Smith. “And it’s really cool to see everybody evolving and being able to express their voice as a songwriter.”

It was a process that ranged from free flowing to wildly contentious. “The record was, for a lot of it, really fun to make,” Caulfield says. “And then the closer you get to things becoming final, that’s when it gets really, really difficult, because everything starts to feel permanent and there’s just a different weight.” They tried to get serious about getting it done in early 2022, over ten days at a rented house in Joshua Tree, but came out with little. “When we were there, we were like trying to make the album,” says Caulfield. “Even though it was well ahead of when we went into the actual studio.”

We’re just trying to make a mirror of the world that we want.

At something of an impasse, they called on one of the biggest indie rock production names of the century, Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), which only helped to a point. “We had a little bit of a naïve idea that if we just brought in a producer that they would just be able to make hard decisions for us,” admits Newman. “And mediate our fights with each other. But that was not really what he was interested in doing. A lot of times, if we would fight, he would just leave the room. It wasn’t the kind of ‘magic bullet’ that we thought it would be.”

Eventually, Frog got done, democratically—gratifying, but not necessarily DIIV’s only blueprint for the future. “If you look at our trajectory as a band, it is baby steps,” Caulfield explains. “That doesn’t mean that that is now set in stone. If Cole tomorrow was like, ‘I have these ten songs,’ and they were all really amazing, I wouldn’t personally be like, ‘Well, I need a song!’”

The first taste we got of Frog was the October drop of the dreamy “Soul-net,” which soundtracked an Easter egg-type old-school website—late ’90s layout with Big Brother vibes, creepy self-help platitudes, conspiratorial jargon, and a hint at the album’s title. In February came the melancholy single “Brown Paper Bag,” with Durst introducing the band on a very convincing fictional SNL stage. (The band later tells me via email that the Limp Bizkit frontman was their manager’s suggestion: “We probably couldn’t have thought of a better choice. Fred is a chiller.”)

Tacked on at the end of the video? A recruitment promo for the evil Soul-net entity and a robotic host assuring us, “Capitalism is not the root cause of your personal woes.” This spring, the album’s title track got its own sitean apparent home for an underground resistance, that called on “every speaker of truth and guardian of freedom to come join us.” And this week, a defiled-world, nature-versus-man clip dropped for “Raining on My Pillow.”

The entire visual world they’ve created, in conjunction with their friend and creative director Parker Sprout, wasn’t envisioned at the beginning of the Frog project. Rather, it unfolded over time. “With all this like meta-narrative stuff, we’re kind of building the car and driving it at the same time,” says Smith.

The band recently signed with the indie label Fantasy Records, after three albums with the iconic Brooklyn imprint Captured Tracks, but last fall they wanted to release “Soul-net” without a label. “It was like, ‘Okay, so we have to basically leak our own song,’” Smith recalls. “And then we started digging into the thematic ideas behind that particular song and investigated these Internet rabbit holes. And so that [Soul-net] website emerged from us throwing ideas together and having fun building an experience that wasn’t just ‘Please listen to the song!’”

Frog in Boiling Water delves into a lot of ideas via lyrical “snapshots” of a grim world, but nothing is more of a target than war, militarism, and killing in general. On “Reflection”: “Slices of life, we kill then we die.” On “Little Birds”: “Changing for the worse, fighting all the time, came home in a hearse.” And “Frog in Boiling Water” declares, “You can see history with a big gun in your hand.”

“Our country has been at war for our entire lives,” explains Newman. (The entire band is in their mid-30s.) “When one conflict is wrapping up, they’re starting a new one, and it really makes you feel it’s conspiratorial—like they’re doing it on purpose. That’s part of the ‘boiling water’ metaphor, that we’re just desensitized to it.”

DIIV are determined not to become desensitized, often marinating in socio-politics, though not via mainstream U.S. media. Caulfield cites Al Jazeera as a source, Smith mentions Democracy Now!while Bailey prefers lefty Reddit. “We all get our news different places,” says Smith. “But we are very saturated in politics. And disconnecting is like a privilege that we don’t engage in.” Bailey, maybe the most animated of the group when talking politics, believes an anti-capitalist revolution is possible, however long that might take. Speaking about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which gained traction right around the same time as DIIV, he says, “A lot of people think of it as a failure, because it didn’t accomplish its goal, but that’s how revolutions work. It’s just a series of small steps, and Occupy, I think, did that.”

If anything, Bailey says, most protest isn’t disruptive enoughbut he adds it has to be “worth it” for the average person. To him, we’re not there yet. “But I do think that it will be at some point, and all these things will get us where we want to go. But the conditions have to be such that getting arrested isn’t that much worse than normal life, you know?”

Can Frog in Boiling Water be enjoyed without buying into the politics? Sure, particularly given the woozy DIIV sound. But wouldn’t tuning out the message to bathe in the music mean becoming the frog? (Or maybe, as in KC Green’s evergreen meme “This Is Fine,” a dog calmly enjoying a cup of coffee while the house is on fire?) There are few mainstream bands in history more explicitly political than the great Rage Against the Machine, and plenty of their fans came to shows just to headbang, unaware of, or uninterested in, its vital, in-your-face lyrical polemics. That doesn’t mean they got the most out of the work.

What do the members of DIIV hope fans take away from the LP? Caufield hopes it helps listeners feel less alone “in the face of all the concepts and issues and problems that it deals with.” Bailey concurs, but he also hopes that the completed set might serve as a guide for others the same way making it was for him: “There are so many forces working to distract you from figuring out who you are as a person, and what you believe, and how that affects your daily decisions,” he says. “And so a lot of people end up in lives that they don’t want. This album had a huge effect on me, because thinking about it so much forced me to figure out what I want in life.”

Many of those lyrical snapshots of the world Smith offers are heartbreaking (“Stuck on the ground, down, wasted, just a brown paper bag”) or despondent (“I want to disappear”) or seemingly resigned (“It’s over now / but it will start again / the cycle goes around and it never ends”). And, at times, it’s unclear whether Frog in Boiling Water is a desperate call for resistance before it’s too late or a eulogy for what could have been in a more just world. Even the seemingly hopeful tracks, including the pretty “Everyone Out,” Smith tells me, actually describe a false, delusional hope experienced by the characters within. But that doesn’t mean the album is devoid of hope or that Smith believes the world is irredeemable. How could he? He just brought a child into it.

“It’s probably one of the biggest existential questions and struggles I’ve ever faced,” he says of having a baby with his wife, Dani, in 2022. “I had to think about what would give me meaning in my life. What do I want or need in my personal life? And how do you balance these things? It makes life feel worth living, but there’s a lot of stuff to consider. You bring somebody into the world without their consent—they’re just… born! And you are making that decision for them, so it’s not something you take lightly at all. It really did inform the record and made it less doom-pilled or something.”

I’ve known Smith for nearly 15 years now, since before DIIV. I don’t know him well, but enough to root for him, his sobriety and his happiness, and for DIIV’s success on its own fiercely ethical, independent terms. With Frog in Boiling Waterthey seem to be more in that place than ever before. Near the end of our chat, the singer even indulges me the somewhat predictable question of how, a year and a half in, fatherhood has changed him. “It’s really difficult to articulate,” he says. “But somebody described it as: You think your heart is only this big—that there’s only this much love that you have to give—and then you have a kid and there’s suddenly this new realm. It’s like your heart expands or something. And that sounds kind of trite, but yeah—it’s been one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced. Just the capacity for love—it’s very big.”


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