For a long time, Zachary Cole Smith has wanted to make what he calls a “political shoegaze record.” As you might expect, this was not an easy assignment. First, there were the inherent limitations of the genre. Shoegaze music is not associated with political lyrics — or decipherable lyrics of any kind. It’s possible that Cocteau Twins wrote songs about trickle-down economics in the 1980s, but who in the hell would know if they did?

Then there was the matter of Smith’s own history. As the leader of DIIV, Smith has been known for a volatile private life that contrasts with the consistent excellence of his band’s output. If you don’t know his music, you might still remember his highly publicized bust back in 2013 when he and his then-girlfriend Sky Ferreira were pulled over by police and caught with heroin and ecstasy. While Smith was shipped off to rehab, he was saddled with a reputation as an emotionally fragile “Kurt Cobain of his generation”-type, an image that informed DIIV’s pitch-black 2016 double album Is The Is Are as well as the 2019 followup Deceiver.

“There was a lot of baggage to get out of the way first with the other records,” Smith admitted during a Zoom call with his bandmates — guitarist Andrew Bailey, bassist Colin Caulfield and drummer Ben Newman — last month. “It’s like we gazed inwards and then it gave us the privilege to gaze outwards a bit more.”

The result is DIIV’s fourth LP due out May 24, Frog In Boiling Water, which melds the band’s cavernous, widescreen guitar atmospherics with lyrics that ponder a world that appears to be in a permanent state of decline. On the title track — the titular metaphor’s meaning is self-evident — Smith takes on the persona of a fascist leader who extols the virtue of burning books. In “Everyone Out,” he wonders if the idea that the structures that undergird society can actually be changed amounts to false hope. In the luminous single “Brown Paper Bag,” he likens himself to tossed-off detritus “stuck on the ground / down, wasted.”

The topical polemics of Frog In Boiling Water are well-timed given that this is an election year, though Smith brushed off my suggestion that the album coinciding with the impending Biden vs. Trump rematch is significant.

“I think our faith in electoral politics is very low,” he said, “so I would say not.”

The album I have described thus far might seem like the year’s single bleakest and most depressing release yet. But Frog In Boiling Water doesn’t actually sound like that. While the words are frequently downbeat, they are paired with the most flat-out beautiful music of DIIV’s career. (The band is also funnier than they get credit for, as evidenced by the Fred Durst-starring SNL parody in the “Brown Paper Bag” music video.) After the more muscular and aggressive Deceiver, Frog In Boiling Water marks a return to the gauzy tranquility of their droned-out 2012 debut Oshin, which established DIIV as one of the finest bands to be associated with shoegaze in the 2010s. It took them a while to rediscover that path, as work on Frog In Boiling Water dragged on for four years. The process was hampered in part by the pandemic and also by their own exacting perfectionism and impulse to reinvent themselves. At one point they even considered making an electronic record. Only when producer Chris Coady came on board did they begin to move back to the dark-hued guitar rock for which they are known.

“For a lot of people, that is part of what they fell in love with with the first two albums — this rich, dreamy atmosphere that is very feelings-forward,” Caulfield said. “Rather than this song has an amazing bridge and an amazing chorus. A lot of times with the earlier songs, sometimes there wasn’t even a chorus, but it didn’t really matter because the song felt so good to listen to. I feel like the new album has an element of that which makes it feel more comprehensive in our catalog.”

I agree with him — Frog In Boiling Water is a summation of everything DIIV does well, starting with their knack for turning out the sort of mile-wide, so-sad-they-make-you-happy rock songs that made The Cure and The Smashing Pumpkins their respective eras’ kings of pain. While DIIV has not achieved the level of popularity of those bands, Frog In Boiling Water suggests they are on their way to establishing their own considerable artistic legacy.

I love the music video for “Brown Paper Bag” and how you take this institution of mainstream pop culture, Saturday Night Live, and slowly make it seem more and more demented. How did that idea come about?

Zachary Cole Smith: The first thing that we did around the record was the Soul-Net website, which was really fun and cool and we’re really proud of it, but it felt super niche. It was micro-targeting this specific area of the internet that the song deals with. We talked about broadening the scope and then we’re like, what is the bastion of whatever’s popular? So, we went for Saturday Night Live. It was really nice of them to have us on the show.

It’s very accessible as a symbolic target. Was playing SNL ever something you aspired to?

Ben Newman: We were huge fans of their musical guests in the ’90s. We watched tons of SNL performances, but it seems like they’ve transitioned into only the most mainstream, Top 40 artists now. So we weren’t too worried about making them mad. But we did trick a lot of people, unfortunately.

ZCS: Some people early on were like, “It’s going to alienate SNL,” or whatever. And it’s like, there’s no shot of us going on. It doesn’t matter. SNL represents the most banal neoliberal culture, and so it felt like a fair target. And they deal in parody, so it felt like it would’ve been hypocritical if they asked us to take it down.

Any good Fred Durst stories?

Colin Caulfield: He was extremely cool. He drove from where he lives, which I won’t reveal, but he drove a distance to get to us during a really crazy rainstorm where there were a lot of road closures. It really seemed like he wouldn’t be able to come, and he just appeared. That’s a testament to how committed he was to really showing up to be in the video, which is really cool.

ZCS: There were maybe 15 people working on the video. There were camera people and audio people and a lot of our friends who were helping, and he individually went to each person and thanked them before he left. He did the opposite of the Irish Goodbye. I’ve heard it called the Midwest Goodbye, where you individually say goodbye to every person.

The title of the album is taken from Daniel Quinn’s 1996 book The Story Of B, which deals with themes related to environmental disaster and slow societal collapse. And you can see that communicated in the video, which again takes this popular institution and depicts it gradually falling apart. Why were you drawn to that as subject matter for these songs?

ZCS: It’s what we’re interested in. It’s what we talk about and it feels like what we had been wanting to make music about for a while. But there was a lot of baggage to get out of the way first with the other records. It’s like we gazed inwards and then it gave us the privilege to gaze outwards a bit more.

We’re also in an election year. Did that influence you?

ZCS: I think our faith in electoral politics is very low, so I would say not.

Andrew Bailey: It’s not like, “Oh, we got an election coming up, let’s get political so that we can make sure Trump doesn’t become president.” But it is good for us that there is an election just because a lot of the themes that we’re talking about are best exemplified by a U.S. election. We’re talking about how we actually don’t have democracy because there’s only one economic philosophy on the ballot. It’s neoliberalism on both sides. That idea sort of stretches to all the themes that we’re talking about.

CC: Anything that deals with what is happening at all times as opposed to how people interact with politics or larger systems, which is to only hyper-focus on them when an election rolls around. Which I used to be very much like that. I would turn my politics brain off or my socioeconomic brain off, and then when an election came around, I would become an expert. But this stuff that the album deals with, it’s not dependent.

On the title track, there’s a line that stood out to me: “Burn the books, don’t you see, history begins right now with you and me.” To me there are two ways to read that line. One is hopeful — the idea that you can set the past aside and start anew. The other way is sinister — there are clear fascist implications to burning books.

AB: It definitely has hope to it, but I think that that specific example is more trying to paint a picture of a false hope. Because the album also touches on many more types of false hopes, and one of those false hopes is the idea that if we could just crumble everything and start over, then everything would be all right, which is false because it’s impossible.

BN: We had an interview yesterday where he was talking about Covid and post-Covid times and how when you’re living through history, there is this feeling of, “Oh man, maybe we could get it right this time.” It hopeful but also kind of just sad because it doesn’t usually shake out that way.

ZCS: While we were making the record, my wife and I had a baby. There’s this conflict that I think any parent goes through of bringing a kid into a really fucked up world, and ultimately the decision we made was to do that. And I think you have to hold on to some type of hope, whether on a micro scale or a macro scale, and we deal with both of those. But the hope is a lot of times in the musical elements of the songs rather than lyrical. We didn’t want to make a totally scorched earth, black-pilled record because that would be boring, and I think the human experience is more complex. You do all types of mental gymnastics just to exist, and it’s important to have that kind of duality in the music. We always talk about it: happy/sad. That’s the best feeling that music can give you a lot of times.

I read that this album was initially going to break dramatically from your signature sound and be more of a samples-based record.

BN: Sort of. It went through a lot of different phases because it took us a long time to figure it out. We did use some samples, but I think it was more computer-based, like software instruments. It was actually years into the process that it started to become more of a rock record again.

ZCS: I think that was a direct consequence of being isolated in the pandemic. With rock music, you picture a band in a room playing to people, and without that context it stops making sense. So, when we were working on music on the computer, isolated, it was really in that direction. It wasn’t until we brought in Chris Coady where he wanted to lean into our strengths a bit more, and being a live band is one of our strengths.

CC: It’s just hard to distill. It took so long and it involved so many different approaches. Except for when Chris was like, “You guys are going to play the album,” it didn’t feel like there were big forks in the road. One path would bring us back to the same path and vice versa. It’s funny, because I do the same thing with other bands’ albums, but people love to get an understanding of the timeline. But when you’re actually making an album, you’re just throwing stuff at the wall.

Was it always the same set of songs or did you cycle through a lot of material to land here?

AB: These were always in the mix, but we definitely had a big pile of songs that we picked these out of over time. We had a whole rating system and democracy and all that fun stuff. These were the cream that rose to the top — not because they were the best songs, but because they fit and felt like they belong together.

So, there’s another album you could have made out of that big pile of songs?

AB: Oh yeah. There’s, like, 10 records.

BN: We talked about the idea of a double record or a Kid A/Amnesiac-type thing, doing two records in a row. I really wanted to have 15 B-sides or whatever. But when the time came to book studio time, it became clear that we had to narrow it down because of money and time. Ten songs took us four years. I could only imagine if we decided to do 20 songs.

CC: In my opinion, there is not another DIIV record in the stuff we made. I feel like we have such high standards, so there’s good ideas and songs, but the 10 that we wound up with are the DIIV songs, if that makes sense. The other ones didn’t fit. It’s a challenge for us because a lot of bands — and this isn’t a comment on quality of music or whatever — but they don’t have the same criteria that they’re rigorously trying to adhere to. They’re just trying to make songs, and we’re chasing an abstract feeling. Which is both cool and uncool sometimes, when it becomes difficult.

When you’re making a record, do you think about how this thing is going to fit with the other albums you’ve made.

AB: Definitely.

ZCS: I think that’s something that we were always thinking about. On Deceiver, we were referencing a lot of other bands. We were trying to make a genre record, so we were pulling up records and studying records and really being students of other bands. And on this one — it wasn’t really on purpose — but we did not do that ever. It seemed way more self-referential and trying to chase down this thing, what we do. Even picking the album art, I remember taking a screenshot of Apple Music and putting the album art next to the other albums and seeing if it fits. We literally did that.

My initial thought when I heard Frog In Boiling Water is that it distills everything you do well. I have this concept of the “new greatest hits” record, where it’s an album of new songs but they sound like they could be old hits. This album is like that to me.

CC: The thing that Deceiver lacks is the atmosphere that the first two albums have, especially Oshin. You put it on and it’s like a cloud that you step into, and it just surrounds you as you listen to it. And I feel like the new album really has that. For a lot of people, that is part of what they fell in love with with the first two albums — this rich, dreamy atmosphere that is very feelings-forward. Rather than this song has an amazing bridge and an amazing chorus. A lot of times with the earlier songs, sometimes there wasn’t even a chorus, but it didn’t really matter because the song felt so good to listen to. I feel like the new album has an element of that which makes it feel more comprehensive in our catalog.

Frog In Boiling Water also feels like the most overtly shoegaze-sounding album you’ve made. We’re in a moment when a younger audience is rediscovering that music via social media apps like TikTok. What do you think is DIIV’s relationship with that genre, and have you noticed an influx of younger fans?

ZCS: We’re definitely not genre purists and don’t really love talking about genre, but I think this rediscovery of shoegaze also represents a new reinvention of shoegaze, and seeing how the new generation processes it or expands on the genre is really exciting. I think we wanted to make a political shoegaze record or a political record that doesn’t seem like something that’s a part of the genre. We want to expand on it in our own way. And it’s cool that there’s this paradigm where people are — I can’t think of the word — not embellishing but expanding on the genre.

CC: It definitely feels like we have a surge of new fans, but it has yet to feel distilled or specifically part of that kind of shoegaze revival. But it does seem like all of those new bands that are blowing up are fans of us, which is cool. So, it feels like we’re connected to them. But we’re not necessarily reaping the benefits as directly as some of those new kinds of more viral shoegaze bands, which makes sense because like Cole saying, they’re expanding the genre in terms of aesthetic. And it feels like we did that with this album, but in a slightly different way, and a much more lyrically driven way.

AB: It’s always been confusing for me because I had never listened to shoegaze and still haven’t. When we first came out and people were like, “Oh, you’re a shoegaze band” I was like, “All right, cool, whatever you say.” But then we toured with an actual shoegaze band, No Joy, and I was like, “We don’t do any of that.” I guess it was just a vibe that people picked up on. Honestly, I’m still confused by it, but now that I understand what those essential ingredients are and seeing how we did use them on our third album, I guess I see what people are talking about when they think of us as a shoegaze band before any other genre that we could just as easily fit into.

Circling back to the “burn it down” conversation: Zachary, you have been an outspoken critic of Spotify and you co-founded the music industry collective United Musicians and Allied Workers union. How hopeful are you that there is a post-streaming future?

ZCS: I don’t think that listening to music online is bad. The problem is that it’s a tech giant using the library of recorded music as fodder to sell their tech and it devalues music. But I do think that a socialized streaming model or a public free library would be amazing. And it wouldn’t be all our money is going to a tech company.

I think that a streaming model is possible, but it wouldn’t be this one. It wouldn’t be a corporate one.

AB: There’s no reason at all that the main profits generated by streaming music go to the middleman. They’re using the internet, which was built with taxpayer money, to charge people to listen to other people’s music. The fact that there isn’t a nationalized streaming service is just absurd.