A Conversation with Cigarettes After Sex’s Greg Gonzalez
Cigarettes After Sex has been quickly gaining popularity since 2012 with their first official release, the EP I. The first track on the EP Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby, has accumulated almost 80 million hits on YouTube and propelled the project out of the underground into an almost-continuous world tour that began on January 2016. Currently promoting their eponymous debut album, Cigarettes after Sex played at Brighton Music Hall in Boston on October 9, 2017, and are now returning to play at the Paradise Rock Club on April 6, 2018. We sat down with Greg Gonzalez, lead singer and songwriter, to ask a few questions about the band and its latest release.
AG: Let’s talk a bit about the tour. What’s it been like playing bigger venues on this tour? How do you maintain the intimate atmosphere with bigger crowds?
GG: The US is definitely catching up to Europe and Asia, so we were playing big venues by the end of last year in Europe, so we’ve prepared for this; this, now, feels like what we were doing in Europe last year; it’s kinda strange, it’s syncing up at some point. But honestly, the music has so much space in it and it’s been played in spacious places like the stairway we did the first EP in, so it works out. You play it in a bigger space it becomes more ambient, sounds probably more like the record. It’s cool, it seems like it works well that way and the crowds dictate the energy of the show pretty much. We just stay and do what we do, we play very mellow, very faithful to the record. The crowd can get wild or they can do whatever they want and I think that’s kind of the cool part about it. Bigger crowd means usually wilder crowd.
AG: I remember talking to David at your show in January and telling him: they sound exactly like the record; this is amazing and very rare!
GG: That’s cool, and I like that. When I go see a band I honestly think, this might be kinda boring, but I actually want them to sound like what they sound like instead of doing some other thing.
AG: Have you noticed anything particular about your fan base around the world? Were there countries where you were surprised to be more popular than in others?
GG: Honestly, I think we have the best fans. Every fan I talk to has the greatest story to share. There are all these couples—one of our songs is their song. Or there are people who got married to the songs. Often people who are grieving use the songs to help them with stress and anxiety. All the best things you could ever want for a song to do, it seems like these songs do that for the fans so it’s great. I think the biggest surprise we had on the tour was in Russia: there were actually people waiting for us at the airport, which was a new thing for us, with all these stuff they wanted us to sign. A girl had a tattoo of “K.” That was for us a leap up to that kind of status in a different country.
DGD: What’s the craziest story you’ve ever heard from a fan about how your music affected them?
GG: Hm, let’s see, there’s many of them. There’s a pretty crazy story quite recently; a lot of them are quite sad too, so this could be kind of a downer. There’s a story where this guy lost his grandmother recently and he went to the cemetery where she was buried and he was listening to “Apocalypse.” He was waiting there, grieving his grandmother, and the last verse says “Sharing all your secrets with each other since you were kids,” and he said that at the moment a leaf fell down onto the grave, perfectly in sync with it. It was a sort of moment that he shared; maybe he thought something supernatural happened at that moment, it was a really sweet story.
AG: Let’s move a bit towards you guys’ image and sound. Something that people always talk about: your voice has been characterized as androgynous (GG: for sure); some say it’s the gentleness that gives it a feminine touch. Was that something you were going for or do you even agree with that [description]?
GG: Definitely. The songs are in a bedroom voice, like if you’re intimate with somebody and you talk in a more hushed tone, and it’s that kind of romantic feeling. But it is coming from a love of female singers. I love female singers more than male singers and I was influenced by them more. Like Francoise Hardy, Julee Cruise, or even older singers like Vera Lynn, Julie London. I just felt them the most and wanted to take beauty that I saw in that kind of singing and take it for myself. It was unnatural cause my speaking voice is actually quite lower, but it didn’t really matter to me. I was like “well for my singing voice I want it to be like this, I want it to have the characteristics that I think are from the most beautiful singers” And there’s someone else, other singers, someone like Chet Baker, who was a big influence too, it’s that same feeling about it. But mostly it’s female singers so I take it as a huge compliment that fans are saying “oh you actually have that quality to your voice.”
AG: For me I think when you switch from your talking voice to your singing voice I feel like it’s a queue that we’re moving from reality into the song. I think it’s quite nice.
DGD: When we were in the crowd, we just kind of made eye contact: wait what, that’s Greg?!
GG: It’s so strange. It often happens to be almost to the point of awkwardness. I’ll meet guys who had shown up to the show thinking that I was a girl and it made me wonder: were they having exciting feelings before they showed up and then I totally ruined all their dreams? “Oh I can’t wait to see how hot this girl’s gonna be” and all of a sudden it’s this guy that has nothing to do with any of that, it’s pretty great.
AG: You’ve said in interviews that you’ve been “compulsively writing since [you] were 10.” What drives you to write in general? What is the process like?
GG: It just happened out of thin air honestly, I just picked up a guitar when I was 10 and I started writing for some reason. I don’t know what it was. Some people just see a pen and they start drawing, kind of compulsively. Something with the guitar for me… I wanted to figure things out and try things out, experiment and it just got stuck that way. Over the years I felt like I got better, I think I can do it very naturally and very quickly. But I do it cause I just have to, like I said it’s compulsive, it just comes out of me and it happens. And if I didn’t do it I feel like I would be in some sort of great pain cause it’s really cathartic too, and I get a lot of feelings out through that. I feel actually very repressed in my day-to-day life and since I feel so casual and laid back, a lot of those emotions that are actually deep emotions, intense emotions, don’t really come out in my personality, they come out more in the music. I need it for that, to carry that weight. The writing process is usually very quick for the better songs, I think; a lot of the songs that are most popular were written very quickly, maybe in a few hours. “Sweet” or “Affection” were very very quick songs with melody and lyrics. And I love that, when it’s just like a lightning bolt comes down and you just have a song that quick; it’s not a labored process where you’re working on something forever, which happens to me sometimes. But mostly it’s pretty quickly and I think there’s something to that—just capturing an emotion.
AG: Why optimistic romantic stories?
GG: I just felt like I was missing that in other artists. I would get a great record about love and then there would be other stuff that went in another direction which I didn’t care for. I just wanted more records that were totally about romance all the time and didn’t go off in some other territory. There are some records that are kind of like that, “Blood on the Tracks” kind of does that. I can’t think of too many; even a record like “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac kind of like goes off on something else. So I just wanted to make my stuff like if you’re in love and it’s deep you just wanted to hear about love, which is what I wanted. It’s a reaction to that and very rarely seeing that in anybody else. And about love because it’s the thing that makes me feel the most and most passionate. The thing that makes life worth living in a lot of ways, for me it’s been love and a lot of relationships like that. So it’s a thing that I want to naturally talk about, it’s the thing that I just gravitate towards.
AG: Do you think you’re going to keep it as the theme of the entire Cigarettes after Sex project?
GG: I kind of want to, just ‘cause it feels bold to do that. Things wear thin of course, but if I could just say “this is gonna be this”, then maybe the band will dissolve and then I’ll do something else, it would be kind of cool to just keep it captured that way. I love bands that break up and don’t come back, I kind of love that.They’re just set in stone and their output is set in stone and that makes them, to me, a stronger band. Or like Cocteau Twins, that are not playing any festivals or not releasing new music. So I think there’s something really powerful about that and I’d rather do it that way, I’d rather say “let’s keep this this way” and then I’d be totally fine to just do a solo thing later. Then maybe talk about something else. I think this will kind of stay the same way.
DGD: Your songs have a lot of detail, they feel like very zoomed in moments of your life. Is that something you pay attention to a lot in your everyday life, little details that you could later work into your songs?
GG: Yeah, for sure. If I’m dating someone, often we’ll be talking and sharing intimate details about things and something would come up and just peak my interest. Those little details would end up in a song. You know when you’re with somebody and the scenery just gets stuck in your mind? Like a song like “K.”: all that imagery is totally real. It’s just stuff that makes a big difference to me, to hear about it, about the details. That’s how you set the mood too, this is what it felt like, this is what it looked like, these are the objects in the room, the lighting. For me that’s just good writing, and I just want to write very clearly and paint a very clear picture. These kind of details are very important as well. And honestly it’s kind of fascinating too, when I hear about someone’s life and they tell me something interesting that had happened. There’s a song called “Truly” on this record, and the girl I was seeing then told me the same thing, that she would wear different perfumes in different cities to remember the feeling of each city, which I thought was intriguing, so I kind of stole that from her [laughs].
AG: Is that something you decide on the spot or is it hindsight?
GG: I’ll make a note of it usually or remember it when I go into something else. It’s kind of cool, you create a portrait of somebody too, when you capture details about someone’s personality which I think is endearing. And the songs are all sweet, they’re not scathing or dissing someone [laughs].
AG: Do the memories you based the songs on change after sharing them with the audience, reliving them on stage?
GG: What happens is that they start to gather different meaning that they didn’t have before. When we played “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” quite often on the bridge of the song, I’d want to crawl back into the memory of the lyrics of that part, zoom back into it, remember what the moment looked like. But now, I think of this girl in Manchester that was wildly sobbing to that song and that’s part of the memory now too. She was sobbing so badly I was basically gonna cry too. Just watching her, it’s wild. The songs start to gather more meaning and different experiences in them.
DGD: How do the people you’ve written songs about feel about them? Any fun thoughts you’re willing to share with respect to that?
GG: The girls that I wrote about seem flattered by it and like it, for the most part. I never had anybody come back and say that they’ve hated something. One of the girls I wrote about, we don’t talk anymore, so I have no idea how she feels about the songs now. It might fucking drive her crazy ‘cause she’s hearing a song about her probably everywhere and she’s probably getting asked about it. But that relationship didn’t end well at all so I have no clue. Hopefully she’s gotten past it and thinks it’s nice cause the songs are meant to be nice.
AG: You’ve mentioned in your previous interviews that the greatest compliment you’ve received about your music is that it helps people sleep. Have you ever written a track having musical therapy in mind?
GG: I think it’s always in mind, but it wasn’t like I said let’s make it to do that, no. That was something that just happened, it was just a part of my personality because I love so much music that did that for me. A lot of ambient music and minimalism and things like that. And I thought it was beautiful music honestly, too. But I needed that music to survive during some really rough times and so I’m sure it’s just ingrained in my personality, my writing style. Because I’m saying that was so important to me, I want the music that I make to be an extension of that. It’s a circular thing.
DGD: So you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you were influenced by Cocteau Twins and Joy Division; are there any musicians out right now that you’re into?
GG: There’s a lot, I’m always trying to find new music. I like everything from Top 40 pop to more avant-garde stuff. As far as great lyricists go, I think Frank Ocean is really good. Andy Stott is really good, kinda strange ambient music. Todd Terje is another guy I’m into, every song by him is great. I like Tegan and Sara. I like Selena Gomez honestly [laughs]. Every time I hear one of her songs on the radio I think “wow this song is pretty well done.” Which sounds kind of ridiculous, but… usually for me it’s hard to say I love this one artist. Even with older artists, it’s like one song kind of does it for me. It’s very rare that I’ll like someone’s whole record. It’s very rare that I’ll go into someone’s whole catalog, but when I do they become a favorite band.
AG: We wanted to ask you a bit about the design of album covers and the image of Cigarettes After Sex as a whole, because it’s a very elegant, cohesive aesthetic. You used one of Man Ray’s photographs for your first EP. Why did you like feel that image was what best fit your music?
GG: I was kind of scrambling to find an album cover before the release of the EP. What happened was, we recorded that EP in 2012 and it just felt so much better than anything I’d previously done. Something special happened, something that I didn’t hear in my music before that EP. So I deleted everything I or Cigarettes After Sex had done before to restart, since no one was paying attention anyway [laughs]. I was like, “This is gonna be good, I gotta find an image with a feeling behind it that is gonna be just as good.” I thought about bands like The Smiths that were very unified with their album covers. I think Morrissey basically just took his personal photo collection and used that for his band’s single covers. To me that made The Smiths very special, so I thought I’d get actresses and do like a copy of that. But then a friend told me about Man Ray, and I just happened to see that necklace photo we used on EP I. and I thought “that’s perfect.”
DGD: How’d you get permission to use that photograph?
GG: You know what? At first it was kind of blurry, I just said, “I’m taking it.” I didn’t think anyone was really watching at that point. Even when the band broke nobody approached us about using the image, we approached them to make sure there wasn’t going to be any bad blood or anything. Licensing those images wasn’t the most cheap thing to do, but it was worth it. Now what I do is look through the work of different photographers and if I find something I like we’ll approach them to ask if we can license it. But Man Ray’s obviously of much bigger stature than any of the other photographers we’ve worked with since then.
AG: You said you kind of wanted Cigarettes After Sex to start over before you released your first EP. There’s some songs on YouTube that I found that you guys pretend don’t exist, and for a lot of time I didn’t know if they were actually you because they’re not mentioned on your website or anywhere else. Have you not considered taking credit for them? “Please Don’t Cry” has a lot of hits on YouTube.
GG: It does; it’s crazy. When we went to foreign countries it felt like there was going to be a riot if we didn’t play it, people would be chanting it. It doesn’t seem quite as well known in the US, but we added it to our repertoire because we felt like people wanted to hear it. For me it’s strange because I had a violent reaction to that record, which is what led me to what I’m doing now. I feel like I had to have that reaction, where I hated all of it, because it was me playing every instrument and doing everything in my bedroom. And then I said “this isn’t the right way to go about things, let me restart and get a live band and strip everything away, and make the writing more clear.” The fact that people like “Please Don’t Cry” is great; I came to terms with it again. But I think it would be confusing to put it up now; now doesn’t feel like the right time. We’ll see; I haven’t made my mind up.
AG: How did you put together the band?
GG: It started as a solo project. I met Phillip Tubbs (the keyboard player) in El Paso. He was playing live shows with the band since he joined in 2009, but he wasn’t on any records until 2012. Phillip and I both moved around the same time to New York, and at that point I met Jacob Tomsky (the drummer) and Randy Miller (the bass player). I saw them playing in another band and I thought they sounded great together, so I stole them from that. All the personalities clicked and it was like “alright, it’s actually a band now.”
DGD: How’d you come up with the name for the band?
GG: It was based on a true experience like all the songs are. I had kind of a “friends with privileges” relationship with this girl and she would always smoke after we were together. One night we were smoking together and the name just kind of flashed into my mind. I can still remember that moment, it’s kind of strange.
DGD: It perfectly describes the sound of your band, I couldn’t think of any other name for it.
GG: That’s cool. I’m glad it works, I used to get a lot of grief for that name. A lot of people told me to change it.
GG: I would get people who would be like “you can’t use that name because you won’t get anywhere. It’s too sexual.” I guess no one’s ever heard of the Sex Pistols. [Laughs] And every so often we’d run into trouble; at UTEP (University of Texas El Paso), our alma mater, they had to censor our name and call it CAS. Cigarettes and sex, those are two dangerous words, and when you put them together it’s like peanut butter and chocolate.
AG: “Young and Dumb” is one of your most explicit songs, while most of your other stuff is very sweet and tender. People have come up with different theories about the meaning of the lyrics. What’s the story behind the song?
GG: That song was written in 2013, about a year after the first EP. What it is to me is just like, I’ve had a few relationships where we’d share this dark humor where we could kid around and say graphic things, but there’s still a sort of sweetness to kidding around with them. We’d just enjoy teasing each other. “Young and dumb and hot as fuck” is based on the same girl, and other girls I’ve known too, that were like “attracted” to other girls even though they weren’t lesbians or even bi, really. They’d be like obsessed with models, have pictures of models on their wall, and be like “oh this girl’s so hot.” And they’d just kind of like to be surrounded by girls who were attractive to them. And so in the song it’s the girl saying “hey, let’s go hang out somewhere where there’s a lot of hot girls. I just like the feeling of being around that.” Humor is a big component in a good relationship I think, and that song’s kind of like let’s use humor this way. Any good love affair, I think humor has to exist there or something. Anyone that I’ve had that’s been a good relationship there’s been like a lot of humor to it. It can be quite dark at times. To me it’s a really sweet song. [Laughs] Maybe it’s not quite as apparent on the first listen. It’s the girl who’s saying “let’s go where the girls are young and dumb,” so I put the blame on her for that.
AG: In your music you focus a lot on setting the scene, and you talk a lot about your love for movies. I was curious if you’ve ever tried writing film scores.
GG: I’ve done a little bit of some of that but nothing substantial at all. I’d love to, to kind of figure out that at some point, just because I love film scores so much. I’m sure I will, I think it’s just a matter of time. But for the moment I mostly love writing pop songs. There’s an idea for us to do some sort of short film, we would kind of end up scoring our own film, cause I’m trying to kind of rethink the idea of videos, and obviously we haven’t done a video at all. I want to challenge the notion of videos; instead of giving a director a song that’s already done and them making a video after the fact, why don’t we get a director and build a song and a film from the ground up? We’d come up with some ideas and the band would make a song with the film at the same time, like a film score. And maybe it’ll be like a longer thing and we’d have moments that actually feel like a film score for a second. So that’s kind of the idea and that’s my way of thinking around videos. It might not be sooner than later, but we’ll actually do something like that. I’m excited by the idea and it’s stuck in my brain.
DGD: Speaking of music videos, I kept expecting you to show up as the musical performer at the end of an episode in Twin Peaks: The Return.
GG: That would have been great. Some fan told me that she was at some meet and greet with David Lynch and she asked him if he liked us. And he said he was a big fan.
DGD: You definitely seem right up his alley.
GG: That’s great. I was hugely influenced by Julee Cruise, “Floating Into the Night,” that record is in my top 10 records. And then you know, Blue Velvet is one of my favorite films as well. I just think he’s amazing.
Left to right: Ana, David, Jacob Tomsky (drums), Greg Gonzalez (lead), Philip Tubbs (keyboard, electric guitar), Randall Miller (bass)
Ana Georgescu and David Gonzalez-Dysinger are DJs for the Record Hospital. The Record Hospital airs weeknights from 10 p.m.-5 a.m.