DIIV on How Daniel Quinn, Shoegaze, Post-Truth, and More Inspired Their New Album ‘Frog in Boiling Water’

    DIIV‘s new album, Frog in Boiling Water, lifts its title from the “Boiling Frog” in Daniel Quinn’s 1996 novel The Story of B. The premise is well-known and self-evident – if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will instinctively jump out; but if you place it into lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, it will be lulled into comfort and boil to death. More than simply recognizing it as a metaphor for the decline of modern society, the shoegaze quartet identify the paradoxical complexities within it: How can the collapse feel so overwhelmingly slow and rapidly accelerating? How can it contain such vast amounts of both pleasure and pain? And how can one – in this case, frontman Zachary Cole Smith – lyrically grapple with the effects of end-stage capitalism while bringing a child into the world?

    The results are neither entirely bleak nor hopeful, and Frog is less of an explicitly political album than a politically outward-facing one, following a series of albums centered around addiction and mental illness. As much it curdles with anxiety and existential dread, the record is alternately haunting, soothing, sour, and enthralling, a culmination of DIIV’s singular sound after their attempt to make a “proper” shoegaze album with 2019’s Deceiver. Its world feels even wider and more playful when you factor in the promotional cycle behind it, which has included their own websites and a fake SNL performance featuring Fred Durst. “I’m not afraid/ I’ve lived through pain/ But I’m learning to see through/ Everything,” Smith sings on ‘Soul-net’, and maybe everything is water, but at least it’s not lost on you then; maybe it’s a path to coping, however jagged. It’s up to you how the balance shakes out.

    We caught up with DIIV to talk about some of the inspirations behind Frog in Boiling Water, including Daniel Quinn’s Story of B, the post-truth era, shoegaze/shoegaze-adjacent music, and more.

    The collapse of modern society

    This is a broader theme that reflects some of the inspirations we’re going to discuss later on, but on a more essential level, it also comes as a result of shifting your gaze outward. What made this feel like a viable or compelling direction lyrically?

    Zachary Cole Smith: To continue the frog in boiling water metaphor, the collapse of society, that’s the water we’re in. It’s like that David Foster Wallace lecture that everybody loves talking about. That’s just the water we’re swimming in; it’s everywhere, for me, it’s everything. So it feels difficult not to talk about.

    Why was now the right moment?

    Andrew Bailey: I feel like we had to get some things out of the way first. The first few records were more introspective. You know when there’s an artist saying, “Hey guys, society sucks, and we should fix it,” but then that person sucks too? So we had to first establish how we suck and work to fixing it, and now we have turned our gaze on broader society.

    Ben Newman: Yeah, I think that the state of the world got a little more unavoidable, too. Everything seems to be heating up quicker than it used to.

    Even when you’re grappling with a societal structure or problem, the songs are still sung from the perspective of a character who’s either on the brink of collapse or clinging to some form of hope. What was it like to trace these individual journeys against this backdrop?

    ZCS: In examining capitalism or whatever the root cause of collapse is, it was important to look at the symptoms as well as the causes. A lot of the symptoms are things people experience – not necessarily us, although maybe there’s elements of ourselves in all the characters. They just felt like snapshots of things endemic to that system.

    BN: Each character represents a piece of subject matter that we’re interested in, so it unfolded naturally with each song having a different sliver of something we could talk about.

    Daniel Quinn’s Story of B

    Story of B was was the inspiration for the album title and this a metaphor for societal collapse. I’m curious if it was one of the books you discussed when you initially got together and started workshopping these songs in early 2022.

    ZCS: No, it wasn’t. It’s not a book that is deeply important to me. It’s more just that idea, that specific metaphor spoke to the world we had been building or summed up the collapse and the apathy around it, the increasing normalizing of atrocity or dystopian realities. We did talk about a lot of books or referenced them, and it’s funny that that became the biggest reference on the record. It was just a book I read in high school, and this idea stuck with me. But I’m not a Daniel Quinn fan or something.

    AB: I am a Daniel Quinn fan. The Story of B is the second book in a trilogy that had a pretty big impact on me when I was 18. But my favorite is Beyond Civilization, which he wrote after the trilogy, when everybody rode in saying, “Dude, you’re right. Everything is so messed up. What do we do?” Coming from the Neo-tribalist movement, his whole point is, “You guys are stuck on the idea that civilization is the only option and therefore try to figure out a right way to do it.” There’s a cool quote from Noam Chomsky, where he’s arguing with Foucault, I think. He’s saying we’re born with the capacity to learn different things, so our brain has a module for learning algebra or for learning language, but we don’t know if it has one for conceptualizing a just society. And Daniel Quinn is saying we don’t, so therefore, let’s just not. He’s not saying, “Let’s just die off.” He’s saying, “We gotta think of something new. We’re humans. We’ve proven over and over again that we’re able to conceptualize new things that people thought were impossible. We just have to do it.” That always spoke to me pretty deeply.

    What impact did it have on you?

    AB: Well, when I first read Daniel Quinn, somebody had lent me a book, and I was on my way to work. I didn’t go to work that day, and I never went back. It was one of those books where it was probably not a good time for me to read it, because I was just a young little alcoholic out in the free world for the first time, and then somebody tells me, “Hey, civilization is bullshit!” And I was like, “Oh, great! I don’t have to try, I guess.” I wish I was a little more mature when I got that message.

    ZCS: I think we talked in another podcast [The DIIV Podcast] about the fantasies that we all experience around “return to monkey,” these kind of anarcho-primitivist ideas. I think there’s an element of ourselves in that kind of idea.

    The post-truth era

    I think of a line from the title track: “The future came and everything’s known/ There’s nothing left to say/ Show’s over, take me home.” I’m curious what the conversation was like, beyond the conceptual level of discussing how to present this post-truth world, around evoking what it feels like to live in in it – especially when the lyrics are open-ended in that way.

    Colin Caulfield: I think musically, it happens more naturally. We’re just trying to capture how we feel, and musical language is much more abstract. We would talk about a feeling that a song was evoking and we wanted to lean into it, but it wasn’t like we needed to capture – except for a song like ‘Everyone Out’ or ‘Raining on Your Pillow’, ones that were much more evocative-sounding. Usually, we were just trying to make the best-sounding song. But I think by the end of tracking, when Cole started to work on the lyrics in earnest, he was like, “Okay, now the lyrics have to be really great because the music is really great.” At that point, I feel like the feeling of the music and the themes of the lyrics started to really coalesce and merge, and Cole was responding to feelings that were in the song. Because I think if lyrically you wrote a song like ‘Raining on Your Pillow’ or ‘Everyone Out’ and the music was totally mismatched, it would fall flat or be confusing. I think the cool thing about this record is that there’s a lot of synthesis between the musical feeling and the lyrics, but it wasn’t like we were necessarily talking that way when we were tracking or writing the music.

    ZCS: We had talked a lot about the pitfalls of political music and things we specifically wanted to avoid, like some kind of preachy solutions-based approach, electoralism, or boilerplate liberal talking points. We didn’t necessarily have a lot of great role models for that approach, so we figured out what we didn’t want to do, and knowing that gave us a bit of a path for how to walk the line of making political music. There’s hope in it, but a lot of that hope is diluted or false o avoiding cliché messages like “go out and vote.”

    What sort of challenges came with matching the lyrics to the instrumentals?

    ZCS: Well, the instrumentals, songs, demos, and everything that came before were so methodical, thought-out, and complete, so it was kind of like big shoes to fill. There were some placeholder lines that were jumping-off points – when you make a demo, you just sort of sing stuff that gives you a cadence and a melody, it gives you rules. Some of those words were nonsense, just placeholders, and some of them were keepers. Then I started to broadly think about what kind of idea the song evokes and made a document that listed at the top what I thought of. I tried to build it around that idea, using the rules that were in place, and would send it back and forth to the band, being like, “What do you think?” Sometimes they were on the right track and sometimes they were on the wrong track, but a lot of those broad ideas, the blurb at the top, stuck.

    A good example is the song ‘Everyone Out’, where there were a lot of placeholder lyrics that Ben had put in that ended up staying. My interpretation of what he was saying was correct in some senses and in others was my own interpretation and led it in a different direction – and maybe picked up on some things about Ben or his perspective that are inherent to him and made it into the song, either because I know him or because it was somewhere in the words.

    CC: And now it’s cool because Cole has an interpretation of that song, Ben has one, I think Andrew and mine are slightly different. But now, the album’s gonna come out, and everyone will have their own interpretation. What you’re saying about some of the lyrics being ambiguous is really powerful. Even if they were less ambiguous, there’s an inevitability of people having their own experience with the song, so it’s funny to look back on that time as us passing things back and forth and talking about the lyrics as a microcosm of everyone else’s experience of just listening and drawing their own conclusions.

    BN: We had another interview the other day, and the guy was talking about that song, ‘Everyone Out’. He was like, “I interpreted it this way, is that what it’s about?” We were kind of like, “No, you actually got it the opposite.” He was like, “Oh, I misinterpreted it.” And I wish I had jumped in and said, “You didn’t misinterpret it; you just interpreted it.” Like Colin said, everybody’s gonna have their own experience.

    AB: My girlfriend writes lyrics for her band and refuses to tell people what her lyrics are about because she thinks it’s crucial to the art for people to have their own interpretations that aren’t influenced by the artist’s intent. If the artist can’t convey with their lyrics what they want it to be about, then it’s open for everyone, and that’s that. With ‘Everyone Out’, it’s about a guy who thinks that when society collapses, he’ll rise to the top because he’s naturally better than everyone. It’s possible for someone to interpret that song as, “Yeah, that’s me, and I’m proud of it,” and we’re not in a position to say that’s wrong, even if it’s the opposite of what we intended the song to be about.

    Shock value, mystery, and doubt

    How are these concepts tied together in relation to the album?

    BA: There’s this book called The Shock Doctrine about how when catastrophic events happen, there’s a real opportunity for people to seize power. If they had a plan they wanted to do all along, when people are really confused and scared is a great time to implement them. Similar to the frog in boiling water thing, people don’t notice things are changing when there’s such chaos. I think mystery and shock go hand in hand because when things are chaotic, it’s hard to tell what’s real and true. Living through the pandemic was a great example, because information was always changing and it became really hard to decipher what was real and what was just someone trying to influence things.

    AB: And both can be true. The vaccines did help, but it was also a huge cash grab involving corruption.

    ZCS: During the four-ish years we were making the record, we experienced a lot, including that period of the pandemic. At the same time, I was about to have a kid, which makes you think about the world at large. It becomes this really zoomed-out macro thing, where you’re pondering existential questions about life and bringing someone into the world without their consent. It’s these big questions, but it also forces you to zoom in really micro and think about your own life and the house or routines you’re bringing them into. That experience, in the context of the world and everything we had been through as a society, represented the thoughts that were on all our minds, but were definitely on my mind with that larger question at hand.

    Uncanny Valley and AI

    ZCS: I feel like that world was more something we explored, for lack of a better term, during the rollout. When we were talking about this dystopian hellscape, the aesthetics of AI-generated art or deep fakes felt endemic to that theme. AI just looks dystopian to me, and the implications of it are so severe, and we tried to draw parallels on the frog and boiling water website, fibw.org – there’s discussions about the more sinister implications of AI. I think it’s tempting as an artist, when there’s a new tool, to lean too far into it, but we wanted to tip our hat towards it as just being another signifier of a sick society without embracing or leaning too far into it. It’s just a piece of the puzzle.

    CC: We talked about building a world, and a lot of this stuff is the lore of the album, but it doesn’t mean it’s explicitly found on the album. It’s just in the life the album takes on beyond just pressing play on Spotify or whatever. I play a lot of video games, and you can play a game and not read any of the appendices or journals you find, but then you can play it again and dig into the lore and have a completely different experience of the game. Both are valid experiences.

    ZCS: To tie it in musically, I feel like it’s relevant that the place where most people will consume this, on Spotify or whatever – that is an AI platform, a machine learning data collection service. That’s the product they’re selling, and the music is used to sell that.

    The phrase “uncanny valley” is something we talked about a lot, especially around the ‘Brown Paper Bag’ SNL video. When we put it out, we were getting texts from aunts and uncles saying, “Congratulations on SNL!” At first, I was like, “Man, their media literacy is low,” but then I realized that when they watched SNL, like, the Replacements were on it. It was a place to discover music. As institutions crumble or become co-opted by the status quo or big corporate entities, it felt worth playing with or exposing. Our label was like, “Aren’t you worried about alienating SNL?” But it’s like, no, we will never be on that show. Kind of like the post-truth thing we were talking about it, all the issues within capitalism that we talk about on the record apply to the music industry, too. It felt like something that was worth drawing attention to as well, because it’s all the same.

    Shoegaze/Shoegaze-adjacent music

    You talked about setting out to make a shoegaze record with Deceiver, whereas Frog in Boiling Water feels more like a culmination of what DIIV has done so far. How do you see the relationship between the genre and the band now, in terms of how you conceptualize or feed your music through those sounds and signifiers?

    ZCH: It’s funny because the contrarians in us want to reject the shoegaze conversation because it feels kind of reductive to us. But also, shoegaze is experiencing a moment, this thing that’s happening, and we want to be part of it too. We know a lot about shoegaze, we like shoegaze, but also we’re also sick of talking about it. But also, we want to be included in the conversation, not sitting on the sidelines.

    CC: Right when were done with Deceiver, we were like, “Let’s make another record right now.” That was very naive of us, to think we could just quickly make another record. But the takeaway from that is that we still had more to say in that vein. We hadn’t explored all the ideas, so it felt like shoegaze, even though with this one we didn’t set out to make a genre record in the same way, it was inevitably going to be part of the DNA of this album. It’s so cool now because the genre has very much exploded. Deceiver is genre-bending a little bit, but it’s more indebted to the historical concept of shoegaze. Now, especially with the blending of electronic music and production ideas, I feel like the genre is really pivoting and evolving. This album feels more connected to that, at least spiritually.

    BA: I think that when we reference stuff when we’re actually making music, it’s super specific to a guitar part or synth sound, rather than a big-picture genre thing. I think that’s how a lot of times the influences bleed in – through really specific tones, rather than aiming to make a shoegaze song or record, or any genre for that matter.

    The brutal realities of end-stage capitalism

    Obviously, this is related to a lot of the thematic elements we already talked about. But one aspect I wanted to home in on is that sonically, it doesn’t feel like the record is trying to mirror that kind of brutality – it may be referenced in the lyrics, and the instruments brood and swell, but I don’t feel like they really reach that point of being brutal to the listener. Was that intentional?

    ZCH: Yeah, we definitely didn’t want to make something one-dimensional. We wanted more to evoke the complex nature of individual experience within it, not just lean too far into making something entirely brutal. You still gotta live your life, and your feelings are complex around any number of issues. The way that we try to bring any “brutal” part in the song will be – we always call them the Jesu guitars. The big guitar stuff on ‘In Amber’ and ‘Fender on the Freeway’, that kind of serves as a signifier of that. But we try to balance it or contextualize it in a way that’s more nuanced. My favorite music is the kind that makes you feel multiple emotions at the same time, like I mentioned with shoegaze, or different people will experience it in different ways. We didn’t want to just hand-feed an emotion to somebody.

    CC: I think in chasing the idea of DIIV or what this music is supposed to feel like, a lot of times it comes back to ambiguity; this liminal space between opposing or contradictory emotions, even musically speaking in terms of the theory happening in the music. There’s rarely a song that’s in a major key or a minor key; there’s always this blending. Even in ‘In Amber’, the album starts off very directly, and that first guitar solo is one of the most brutal parts of the record, but then it’s immediately followed by one of the dreamiest parts of the album. It’s this push-and-pull between emotions – if anything, that mirrors what it feels like to be alive now more than just an explicitly brutal soundscape.

    My mind goes to ‘Fender on the Freeway’, where you leave things open as to whether the conclusion is a life of pain or comfort. That song feels like it lives in this liminal space, but I wonder if that ambiguity was ever a point of conflict or debate within the band.

    AB: When I contributed to the lyrics, that’s my problem, is that it was always too on the nose because I’m bad at ambiguity. I always felt like people didn’t understand what I was trying to say, so I’m just way too obvious with it, I guess. There was definitely an effort to keep everything not explicit.

    CC: With that song, too, there was some wrestling – not even conflict, but there was always an attempt to draw out the dissonance. That song has some post-rock leanings, which can read as very cheesy, and post-rock, as a genre, the thing I don’t like about it is that it reads as “epic” in a way that just feels one-note. But we like so many aspects of that music in theory, so it’s about trying to inject it with enough weirdness – putting in an odd meter thing or dissonant guitar parts or swirling textures to make you feel a depth of emotion rather than something straightforward like, “Oh my god, this song is like climbing a mountain.”

    ZCS: I feel like ‘Fender on the Freeway’ is one of the ones that builds in that conflict, the idea of pain as pleasure and pleasure as pain. It’s the human experience of that paradoxical thing where there is no resolution or answer; the reality is that unresolvable thing at a big-picture level. That’s the most zoomed-out one. It’s like, “We live in heaven and we live in hell,” those two things are true at the same time. I don’t see that contradictory nature as coming from two competing ideas within the band that we wanted to put in, it’s more just talking about the nature of things. That’s the story we wanted to tell.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    DIIV’s Frog in Boiling Water is out now via Fantasy Records.

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