Through rainy skies and hotel hallways, we catch up with the elusive yet intimate Greg Gonzalez from one of the greatest bands of the decade, Cigarettes After Sex.
Listening to Cigarettes After Sex is like peeking behind the curtain of someone’s most intimate diary or as if you’ve become an outsider to these past moments unfolding again in real-time. It’s a certain feeling that is hard to pinpoint when the records crafted by Cigarettes After Sex are so entirely naked, straight up and vulnerable, and the master of these tracks is quite distant in comparison to everyone’s social media standards.
It’s completely refreshing to have music crafted from someone’s must human moments – the love, the heartbreak, the lust and the mess all around it. The best way to listen to Cigarettes After Sex is by comparing it to catching up with an old friend in a softly-lit bar as they tell you their tales of love, including all the shitty parts that come with it. To be so connected to their words, melodies and chords and to not know a lot about him adds a certain kind of magic to their songs. We don’t need to know more – their music is a stark naked reveal into relationships that is so softly sung and still doesn’t hold back from brutality.
The tale of how Cigarettes After Sex came to be almost matches the mysterious aura that surrounds them. Greg Gonzalez – the machine of Cigarettes After Sex – has been crafting these songs and melodies for over a decade, whilst the instrument players tend to change, Greg Gonzalez has always been who we know to be Cigarettes After Sex. Starting off based in El Paso, Texas, Greg had always been writing these telltale heart love songs since 2008. After moving to New York and finding his surroundings and other bandmates changing, Greg began to notice a shift with how the sound of the music began to align with the songs he was pouring out from his romantic experiences. Even though he personally felt like the world wasn’t looking, the songs just kept coming. With no reason behind it, in 2016, Cigarettes After Sex song ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’ went viral pretty much overnight and the world was suddenly peering into Greg Gonzalez’ diary.
The more that Cigarettes After Sex released after that moment the more the world fell in love with the stories he had to tell. With such a distinct sound that is entirely their own, and the prolific lyrics that Gonzalez is able to spin from his heart it’s no wonder why they’re ultimately one of the best bands of the decade. The tenderness they evoke, the nostalgic feeling that each track provides is something close to a kind of magic that makes you feel like this song has been written just for you. That’s the magic of Cigarettes After Sex though. I remember the first time hearing one of their tracks, and every time I listen to them I am taken back to that moment. When seeing them live it’s hard not to drift away to each memory that is connected to these tracks. It’s a haunting quality, but it’s always nice to look back upon the past, if only for a few minutes. And the same can be said for the millions of lovers who let Greg Gonzalez become the soundtrack to their lives.
As Cigarettes After Sex close their world tour after the release of their second studio album ‘Cry’, we meet up with the man behind it all on an appropriately rainy day in London to talk all things love.
If you had to give a brief synopsis of how Cigarettes After Sex came together, what would you say?
I feel like I’ve been trying to refine this story forever and make it really simple because it seems so complicated. Basically, I started the band in 2008 – it was more like a solo project founded in El Paso, Texas, based around a set of songs I’d just written and they felt distinct from everything I’d done before. Flash forward 4 years later, to 2012, we finally record this EP with the band and it finally felt like for the first time the band had some identity after that kind of four year warm-up period.
That record came out, and no one cared for it. I decided to move to New York, because I thought New York was the greatest city for music I could think of and for the arts. So flash forward 3 years later (2015), I record another song called ‘Affection’ and ‘Keep On Loving You’ with the new lineup of Cigarettes After Sex. Once that record comes out in 2015 the band goes viral on Youtube randomly and since then its been this wild ride, you know. There’s been twists and turns here and there.
You guys have such a loyal fanbase. How does that feel after, as you said, those years where you felt like no took notice of the band?
I think that’s the most surreal part of it. What happened has probably happened to other musicians in their life, you grow up with all of this music and mould your own identity from all of these other artists that you love. Whether there are more like peers or like artists that have been around forever that you look up to, and then it’s strange when they boomerang and come back and say “oh I really like your band”.
Its happened in really strange ways for us where it almost feels like too specific or something – meeting a singer like Françoise Hardy, who is my biggest influence, and then she said she was in love with our music. That’s the most surreal thing that’s ever happened. Or, just most people that come back and liked us and have been a big fan of us like Lily Allen, Taylor Swift, or Lana Del Rey have talked to us briefly. I mean, even David Lynch said he was a fan. So that feels really good, it feels like we’re doing something right, to get all these masters and all these artists to come back and to actually respect us in some way.
“It feels like we’re doing something right, to get all these masters and all these artists to come back and to actually respect us in some way.”
You said it took a while to have an identity, and your visual world is so well refined – did that come with the changes to the band?
That took like equally as much work as the music I would say. Where I just felt like I was trying on every hat forever and ever. Once that EP was done, the first one in 2012, it felt like the music needed some kind of image to make it whole, to make it feel really perfect, and around that time is when I saw Man Ray’s photographs. That’s when I realised ‘Okay, that’s the style of Cigarettes After Sex’.
It just should be this black and white image – it feels really sensual and it’s kind of surreal too. Kind of dream like. It was almost like that was the start of it, that image alone. We just based everything off of that one image with the visuals. That took quite a while and I think the music had to catch up really good to get the visuals all together too.
In terms of the writing, it always feels like a journal, it’s super casual sometimes. Is it hard to put that much truth into writing about love and romance, or does it come quite naturally?
So, it always felt kind of natural to me, like I felt so repressed as a person, it’s hard for me to talk sometimes. It’s hard to bring up certain things – if someone asks me a question I can answer really honestly, but the hardest thing for me is to bring up something I’m going through. Even to a friend and say “I’m really heartbroken right now”. It’s just so hard for me to do that. So, with writing I just find that I can easily do that, I can just say this is the way for me to talk about it.
Since I have done that it makes it very easy to talk about this stuff and it never feels wrong. It always feels like that’s where I put all these feelings into and that’s where it needs to go to keep me alive. So, it’s never felt like I shouldn’t be doing that – it’s always felt very open and maybe the first time I’ll show the song to the band or something I’ll feel a little shy, besides that it’s like a really instant thing. The first time we played ‘K’ I kinda thought it was pretty personal, but then I get over my shyness and it feels fine.
When people are singing your lyrics back to you, do the same emotions get brought back up when you were first feeling those emotions at the time?
Yeah, it changes night from night for sure, but I find often now that the thing that matters most to me is the reaction on someone’s face if I look into the crowd and I just see someone singing along and just the look on their face whether they’re smiling, really enjoying it or they’re so sad and crying. That always gets me and takes me somewhere else. Every so often, I close my eyes and I can picture the settings of these songs, specifically on ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’, that little bridge section like from the microphone with the sunglasses on, that was a real moment. So, often I’ll close my eyes when I’m playing that song and just think of what my room looked like and it’s kind of nice to just go back on that memory for a while sometimes.
“If I look into the crowd and I just see someone singing along and just the look on their face whether they’re smiling, really enjoying it or they’re so sad and crying… That always gets me.”
Your writing comes from personal experiences. Is it hard when you’re on the road, do you ever miss the way things used to be?
Sometimes I do. I enjoy this cause it’s so different now – I feel like I’ve come into any success I’ve had much later in life. I was already 30 by the time the band took off so I’d already had that other life. So this is like a new life – I feel like I regained my youth or something – it’s very strange. I love touring and everything so much, but it means I have to balance it otherwise it destroys my creative process. I think if anyone was on the road too long – you can’t really do anything, there’s too much going on. You’re running around too much. So, the next thing for me is to get back to being really creative, to do what I really want to do with music and all the ideas I have. There has to be a little more time away from the road.
What are you planning on doing with your upcoming time off?
I think I have off until late March – which is pretty good for us. My writing process is pretty long though, I usually take forever. I think I’m going to write for the entire of next year and I do – now that we’ve done this last record ‘Cry’ – feel like we’ve gone as far into this ‘sound’ as we can. I’m still going to retain what’s good about the band, it’s always gonna’ be gentle and romantic, I’m not going to sing differently or anything. But, I think there should be some kind of boldness to the next work we do that does show some kind of contrast – it won’t be like jarring but it’ll be like, ‘oh OK, something has changed in like a refined way’. It’s really exciting.
Are you going to take any of the upcoming time off to recharge?
Probably not because I pretty much am always obsessing over influences, I’m always writing down ‘OK maybe something like this,’ ‘something in this song’ and ‘in this song and I want to take the drum sound from this song and vocal from this song and put those things together’. Thinking about films, books and all that kind of stuff. Even like what collaborators to bring in to help us work on stuff. So, it’s mostly that, and then I just want to really return to the way I want to write songs – which is with a guitar, with a piano, finish the entire song and it’s done and then I go record it. With this last record, it was experimental in a way that I wrote a lot of songs in Majorca, with no lyrics and they were done. Then, two years later I came back and tried to write the lyrics – it was very bizarre to try and do that. It was a cool challenge, cool to know I can do that.
“This is like a new life – I feel like I regained my youth or something – it’s very strange…”
Who are your heroes in life?
Jeez, there’s so many. Let me narrow it down to the four main heroes that are like a guiding light for what I do with Cigarettes or just whatever I write. The main ones are Françoise Hardy just because her voice is the most beautiful voice that you could really have and her music is so extremely beautiful. Second is Eric Santie, the piano composer, just because I think his music had the rarity that it sounded like it could be ancient to being very modern. His music sounds the most timeless to me out of any writer. It’s all just so simple, a lot of his songs are like one chord. Then it’s Bob Dylan, just because Dylan’s writing to me was the most emotional – somehow his lyrics were the ones that would really get me. His music really steered my life in a lot of ways and he’s so prolific too, he seems to go the deepest out of any writer I’ve encountered in his lyrics and his songs, so deep into his catalogue. Finally, I would say, Miles Davis. Davis was just a master at assembling bands, knowing how to play strings for different players and stuff like that. Also being very innovative, going through so many different periods, reinventing himself.
So, why the name ‘Cigarettes After Sex’?
What I like about the name now is everything about the band has been so autobiographical, I mean there are songs that deal with fantasy and some that are memoirs too, all those things go together, but the name is in the same sense. Basically, the name came from a moment I had with this girl that was like a friends with privileges type relationship, and she was the first girl I was with who would smoke after we were intimate, and I just found that after we would smoke together there was just this mood that was really special that I haven’t really had before. It was really peaceful and just one time during one of those moments I just thought ‘hmm Cigarettes After Sex, that sounds like a good name’ and here we are.