In 2015, a gauzy, moodily minimalist band with the straightforwardly sensual name of Cigarettes After Sex went inexplicably viral on YouTube with the song "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby," nearly four years after its initial release. While we may not understand why the band reached the public consciousness so belatedly, it's easy to understand why they continued to gather traction once propelled. Centered around Greg Gonzalez's hushed croon, listening to Cigarettes After Sex is an opportunity to enter an erotic world of satin sheets, stolen kisses, and passionate eye contact.
On Friday, Oct. 25 the band is releasing their sophomore record, Cry. Firmly planted in the same cinematic world established on Cigarettes' self-titled debut, the record continues to explore the topics of love, sex, and relationships through Gonzalez's autobiographical narrative-style writing. With a clear focus on creating a specific mood and atmosphere, the instrumentation continues to remain mesmerizingly minimal, creating a hazy, spellbinding effect. Cry establishes that Cigarettes After Sex is a band that long-ago found their sound and have every reason to stay locked in it.
Last month, KEXP spoke with Gonzalez about the long and difficult process of writing the perfect lines, recording on the island of Mallorca, and how he almost moved to Seattle.
KEXP: You're releasing your sophomore record, Cry, two years after dropping your critically acclaimed debut. Did you feel any pressure while making the new record after getting so many accolades with your first? Was there any concern of a "sophomore slump" or a fear of following it up?
Greg Gonzalez: Honestly, I wasn't really concerned with that. I was just mostly just worried about finishing it somehow. Because we got stuck in this cycle where the band was lucky enough where we're being asked to play places other bands don't really go to like India and all over Asia and in Bangkok and Indonesia and stuff like that. So that was taking up all this time, touring everywhere. There was literally just two years of touring after that record, which that's kind of atypical to be touring that long after. So it was just like, "How do we finish this and just take time and say no shows for five months?" That was really hard to do.
Because you love playing?
More just because we were getting all these really good offers. Like, "You guys want to come to South America?" And it was like, "Okay, we're just kind of turning things down now." And the problem was, too, that I think other bands who kind of do that. Like, they can maybe tour and write at the same time. But I found with me, lyrically, it's so intimate or takes a real focus where I just could never really do it on tour. I found that there was no way to write lyrics on tour. I would just be touring forever and think, "Nothing is getting done." So I knew I had to take some kind of exile to really finish it up. It was more about that than any kind of worry about how it's going to be received. I feel like I just knew it was really good what we'd done because, this is a little weird too, the music came first and lyrics came way later. All the sessions were from like two years ago but I didn't write the lyrics until this year actually. Basically winter of this year.
That’s an interesting process.
Yeah. It was way, way too long. So that was challenging as well. So it was more just like the fear of it not being good because it was like how do you connect music from two years ago to now?
Right. I've heard you say previously that lyrics have always been a little bit more difficult for you than melodies.
Yeah, way more.
Is it still that way or has it gotten any easier?
No, it's way more that way. The lyrics are just like... so I feel like I've been playing music so long and writing that that's become so natural. But, lyrically, what I want to do seems to take more time because it's kind of narrative-based and the goals I have for lyrics are making every line feel substantial. When I look at other writers it seems kind of random sometimes and I'm trying to keep it more contained and really logical and really keep, like I said, a narrative in some of these songs. So I feel like that takes a while because you also want to be a pop writer or make it sound good.
Right, absolutely. You want something catchy.
Exactly, it's got to be catchy and tell a story. And sometimes I'll be writing lyrics and it all looks good but then I go to sing it and it doesn't sound right. Like there's some kind of weird vowel sounds and sounds that are pleasing that the melody should go to or something. So I find that kind of difficult. I don't really feel like I've gotten any better at that.
Maybe it needs to be hard for you so that you really work to emphasize every single line being perfect, every single line hitting hard rather than phoning it in.
For sure. I think so. I mean, even Leonard Cohen would take years to write a line sometimes like he just had a really long process. He's a big hero and I feel like I'm writing based on some Leonard Cohen stuff like "Chelsea Hotel" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" which are two songs that are kind of the template for what I'm trying to do with Cigarettes. Those two songs tell a really rich story and they're both romantic stories so I guess I feel better knowing that he was taking his time as well.
Yeah, you're in good company. On your last record you said that every song had a specific person or memory or some sort of actual real life-based story. Is a new record also like that or do you get a little bit outside of the real-life narratives?
Yeah, on the early one pretty much most the songs were taken from a real person. And this one there's some songs that are kind of based on... like I had someone in mind but the events in the song didn't necessarily take place like they actually did before in the other songs. Some of them did. There's many songs on the record that are true, that are memoirs, but there are more than a few on this one that are kind of a little more blurred, more like invention, more just storytelling, but not like I'm like inventing things. So that's a little slanted. I guess that's just from having written so long in this kind of memoir-style since the first EP we did. I just wanted to kind of get into different places and see what happens.
Absolutely. Maybe running out of stories, too?
Yeah, sometimes, yeah.
Does it affect your dating or relationship life to write from such a personal place?
It felt like it was...I mean, it's always been good. I guess being in a relationship now it's maybe a little awkward to be singing about old flames. But she has some songs on the new record so it's kind of okay. And we just respect each other, as writers, she's a writer as well. So it's just that you have to tell an honest story. It's not about jealousy or anything weird, it's just about these relationships, like the ones from the past, those are just kind of photographs. Just a memory frozen in time.
And I don't even really have an attachment to those stories as far as like I'm not pining for these people in the old songs, but I just am really grateful that I was able to feel that way about this person and go through that with this person. And it's more about that than longing to be with them or something. It's special to have these moments in your life and that's where I kind of view these songs, where I'm just grateful to have loved and have had feelings for somebody and had moments that I thought were really special and just stuck with me.
Right, it doesn't really matter how it ended.
Yeah, doesn't matter how it ended. It's about that moment. Those moments frozen in time feel very...I mean, that makes you the person you are today.
Oh, absolutely. It's beautiful. I just wonder if your girlfriend ever worries a little bit, you know, like I imagine anyone who dates Taylor Swift is like, "Shit. She's definitely gonna write about this moment."
Yeah they're like, "Is somebody gonna come back or something from the past?" And be like "Oh you must still like me because you're still singing about me." And you're like "No, No. It was just a song."
Or if you're like in the middle of a fight. Although you seem to usually focus on the positive moments. You haven’t written a lot of negative songs about relationships.
Yeah, I try to. There's a few darker songs on this I would say that are like...but yeah, that's true, I was kind of trying to focus on the positive before. There's a few darker moments on this new record where it kind of tells a sadder breakup story.
Do you think love, sex, and romance will always be the overall theme of Cigarettes After Sex?
I feel like it should be. I feel like I've written... because this was kind of a late development for me, Cigarettes, because I was in so many bands before this and I was writing all kinds of different music and just having love for so many different styles. And I found the music that I felt the most deeply about ended up being just all this music about romance. That is just the thing that I want to write about the most so I feel really good if that was the identity of Cigarettes. Just to be like, if you wanna listen to the great songs about romance then you would go to Cigarettes and that's like the safe haven.
And with the name, especially, it just feels right.
The name is like totally...I think everyone can imply what that says. Just that moment you share with somebody.
Exactly. Like you put the record on and you know exactly what you're getting as far as a specific moment, vibe, story.
Yeah, exactly. I love that. And I love to just be really clear too, like clear writing where it's being protective over what we put out. Where we should all just be this kind of uniform thing. And not to say that I won't do something separate from Cigarettes.
Like some other project?
Yeah, maybe do something a little stranger. But for me, Cigarettes should stay very locked in, like it should be very strict. And it's going to go as deep as possible under romance with Cigarettes and then once there's nothing left to talk about then it'll just have to end at that point.
I mean, it could go on forever. There's always new romantic moments happening! Or, at least, one would hope.
That's true, yeah. I think so too. There's always something to write about that.
What's the dynamic within the band? Do you write the song's lyrics and bring it to them and then work them out together or does it start out collaborative?
No. I think it's just been me doing it on my own so long that I was very like control freakish about how it's just gonna be me bringing songs and then what the band does is create the atmosphere of the song. So it's basically almost like actors in a screenplay or something and saying, "All right, we're going to say this." There might be some invention here and there but it's mostly very locked in.
So it's like, "Here's a song that seems really good to me. How do we create this atmosphere that makes the story or the song way stronger?" And it's just getting players that really know how to play like the simplest possible thing and pretty much almost play nothing, almost to the point that it's invisible because it's just so minimal. And most players I found just couldn't do that. It's like, "Play this and don't play any drum fills". And they'd look at me like I was crazy or something. Saying, "What are you talking about? There's no flavor to them." And I'm like, "No. That's what makes it special."
There's no edges on it so it feels very smooth and very gentle. To make everything have this minimalism to it. So that's really valuable, us having the right players to get it across. But the collaborative process is just them playing what's totally appropriate for the song to make a powerful. But all the writing part is just me kind of saying, "This is what I wanna talk about and here's the ideas for it." They're the ones that lift it off the ground then.
I do like the minimalism. Like you're saying with a drummer, I can totally imagine there's probably such a desire to want to just bang.
Yeah, it's counterintuitive almost. But it's kind of cool, too, because it makes me think of hip hop or something where the beat is pretty static. There's like no fills or anything. I love when I find a drum song with no fills on it. Like "More Than a Woman" by The Bee Gees. There's no drum fills on it, it's just like a beat the whole time and I think it makes that song really special. Also, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper has no drum fills on it. And those songs to me are both super powerful and great pop songs like some of the most powerful I'd say are those two. And, to me, the band is a pop band and these are pop songs even if they don't come across that way necessarily. The writing is pop to me.
Yeah, it definitely has a catchiness.
Right. That's cool. That's good to hear.
Yeah. Especially the three songs you played today for the in-studio. Definitely the opening track of the new record.
"Don't Let Me Go."
Yes. That one's so good!
Thank you. That's good to hear.
So you recorded Cry in a mansion in Mallorca, which seems like such an amazing place to make a record. How did that experience affect the actual product of the record?
Yeah, it was a very strange process because I kind of showed up and didn't have that many songs, so some of the songs were just kind of improvised on the spot. I just was like, "Okay, we're all here and there's a bunch of mics set up, what do you have?" So I started to just write a song in maybe like five minutes or something.
Even the song that you're talking about, "Don't Let Me Go," was written in basically five minutes. I said, "Cool, like why don't we try something that sounds kind of early 60s, like 'Angel Baby' or something kind of shuffly like 50s, 60s kind of thing and see what happens?" And that song was born out of that. But I feel like the atmosphere of the mansion in Mallorca just kind of gave everything...it really influenced our playing, just put us in this kind of gentle, relaxed mood.
Taking in nature strangely made us meditative almost. It made us able to just kind of relax and get rid of all that noise you need to get rid of in order to perform really well. And it gave the record kind of a strange sound as well.
That sounds amazing. So you just performed your second in-studio for KEXP and I'm wondering how you feel about Seattle, if you have any ties to Seattle. You played the Neptune last month. Where'd you play the last time you were here?
I think that was our second time at the Neptune. There was talk about doing two in a row this time, but I think we couldn't do it. Seattle always has very appreciative crowds. I guess there's just such a great history of music here from so many other bands coming that everyone has an etiquette of how to appreciate a show. Which is great. You definitely don't see that everywhere in the US. It's kind of a mixed bag but Seattle really feels like everyone knows how to...like everyone has a natural affinity for music or something that comes across in the show.
The first time we came to Seattle was right when the band had gone viral on YouTube in 2015. I think it was the first time where...I think I was just here with like a friend and I had fans reaching out, like, "Hey, we'd love to meet you." And I remember meeting fans from Seattle when I was here, like we hadn't even played here yet, but I just met a bunch of fans that were just like, "We could show you around or something." And so I had a really sweet experience of coming to Seattle and the band taking off for the first time and having new fans and all this kind of stuff. It was very sweet.
That must've been really exciting.
Yeah. There was a time where I almost wanted to move to Seattle. It's such a beautiful city. I was like thinking like, "Maybe I'll go there for a while."
You're still in New York?
I actually just moved to L.A. now.
Made the hop! How do you feel about it?
I feel good because, honestly, if I say I live somewhere it doesn't even mean anything.
Right. You're touring so much that it's just like a place to put your stuff.
Yeah, exactly. And it's actually a creative move for me because I've been in New York for the last six years and I wrote this record in New York in a very focused kind of state and I feel like I kind of exhausted my resources there.
Yeah. New stories to tell in California, for sure.
I think so, yeah. It seems like a kind of writing trick. Like if you want to create a new period, you get a new house or you get like a new woman or something. [laughs]
Right, change something about your surroundings.
Yeah. So it's like I get that, that kind of makes sense. You know, you find your relationship and you find a new place. So this is more just like I'll go to a new place and kind of see what L.A. brings out of me writing-wise and see if it's any good or not. I'm actually just really ready to write more music because this has been such a long process, like two years, to get this record out that I'm just like, "Alright, what's next? Let's do something new."
Are you gonna take a break from touring for a little while to do that?
Yeah, we will actually. Which that was kind of weird too because we're putting a record out and we're saying, "Hey, we're gonna take off four months from touring."
I do think it's interesting the timing of your tour. Like you went on tour before the record even comes out.
Yeah, it's very strange.
But Seattle's show sold out so I guess it's working!
Yeah, so I guess it's fine then! And we're only playing like one song from the new record. Because if I go to a show, I think about it as a listener. And I love a lot of artists that don't do that like early Dylan or Miles Davis or something where you go to a show that's like all new songs. But for me, I'd rather just go... like seeing Tom Petty or something like when I saw him he's playing pretty much everything I want to hear. I probably like Dylan and Miles Davis more but I appreciate what Tom Petty is doing with the show as far as like as a listener, you get what you want.
And had the record already come out, that would be one thing, but no one has had a chance to hear it.
Right, exactly. It doesn't quite work. You can only play like maybe one that no one's heard. Because you just have no reference point at that point otherwise you're like, "Okay, cool. Seems kind of neat." That's all it is. People have to have their own experience with the songs in private and then bring that experience to the show. And that's what makes them special.
Cry is out now via Partisan Records. A brand new KEXP in-studio session with Cigarettes After Sex' should be dropping soon. Until then, watch their KEXP in-studio from 2017 below.
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The project of El Paso, Texas native Greg Gonzalez, Cigarettes After Sex shares some of the songs that helped inspire his own smoky, romantic, cinematic noir-pop music, as well as some of his latest contemporary favorites, on his exclusive guest DJ mix for Midnight in a Perfect World.