Cigarettes After Sex singer Greg Gonzalez on going viral The Texan musician talks about YouTube superstardom, the rigours of touring, and being honest about porn Say what you feel: Greg Gonzalez wants his songwriting to be ‘like a good conversation where we throw ideas out’
Michael Hann and Michael James Hall
Rare is the interview in which one pauses to ask the subject: “Why are you answering my questions?” But that is what happens half an hour into my conversation with Greg Gonzalez, singer, songwriter and de facto embodiment of the American group Cigarettes After Sex.
Over the course of two albums, the band have built up a large and unusually global audience — unlike most indie bands, they have visited Indonesia, India, Turkey and Thailand, among many other places — with their luscious, dreamy kind of pop. It’s all swooning synths, reverb-laden guitars and echoing drums, Gonzalez’s startlingly high and androgynous voice floating above it all. “Not long ago, we had someone come to the show and want their money back because I wasn’t a girl,” he says, in a surprisingly low speaking voice. “That was a bit strange.” Then there are Gonzalez’s lyrics. They are, as he happily admits, unusually preoccupied with sex. “It was something I wasn’t seeing that I wanted to see,” he says.
“All the sexuality in music was so forceful, like in club music. And I do love music that does that. But why can’t we have a narrative where I’m just telling a story about love and it includes sexuality?”
One of the songs on Cigarettes After Sex’s second album, Cry, is called “Hentai”. In it, Gonzalez describes the first time he slept with his girlfriend and how he preceded that by telling her about the Japanese anime porn he had been watching. Did he never think twice about sharing this with the public? “It’s weird,” he says, “because I’m presenting what it felt like. But if you read the lyrics, then it could sound really raw.” By “raw”, I think he means “yucky”. He suggests that the sound of the record, “the context”, is what stops it being simply “raw”.
Does he believe, then, that pornography is beneficial?
“Yeah, it can be. There are bad aspects to it as well. You can express those feelings in a healthy way by watching something pornographic . . . I grew up watching soft-core pornography, which probably contributes to the way I write. That stuff was shot in a very gentle way; there would be a plot and there would be romance to it. I wasn’t really one for watching hardcore stuff. I needed more of that sensual element. That definitely contributed to my personality and how I view sex: be more delicate, be more soft. I feel like it was beneficial to me to watch that stuff.”
Band members Jacob Tomsky, Greg Gonzalez and Randy Miller on stage in Milan. ‘I love touring, but it’s sensory overload,’ Gonzalez says
And that is the point at which I ask him why he is answering my questions. Saying you think porn can be good for young people isn’t the way to win friends right now — especially as a man pushing 40. “It feels like [not answering] wouldn’t be true to what I am trying to do.” He wants his songwriting to be honest and heartfelt, he says. “It would be dishonest not to talk about it . . . It feels like a good conversation where we throw ideas out. I like that exchange.”
Gonzalez achieved his initial success almost wholly by accident. Before Cigarettes After Sex, he had been making all sorts of music in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, achieving nothing more than obscurity. Having mainly made songs in his bedroom, in 2012 he tried recording instead in a stairwell at the University of Texas.
Suddenly, with the vast echo, he realised the effect he wanted to achieve: “It sounded like you had entered the heavens or something, it was so cosmic-sounding.” But El Paso is not the centre of the recording industry, and no one took any notice of the first EP. Then, late in December 2012, a track from it called “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” was posted on YouTube and a few people started listening. And then more people started listening. Then it blew up.
The video has now been watched more than 100m times, having helped Gonzalez secure a manager, a record deal, a move to New York (and now Los Angeles) and a career. We had someone come to the show and want their money back because I wasn’t a girl. That was a bit strange When the song began to take off, Gonzalez was shocked. “I had notifications on for all that stuff. I remember lying in bed in the middle of the night and seeing someone had subscribed to the channel, and this was going on every second for weeks. I finally had to take off all notifications. It was very strange. It was really exciting, but scary too.”
Going viral with that song — and having a bunch of others just as good as that ready — meant Cigarettes After Sex didn’t have to go through the usual indie band slog of touring all the grimy clubs in their city, then state, then country. Through YouTube they had gained a ready-made, worldwide audience.
On tracks like “Hentai” and “Kiss It Off Me,” Cigarettes After Sex build barely there soundtracks for your most intimate moments; the songs float just above a groove, wafting around the room like smoke, while Gonzalez pinpoints usually unnoticed details about the love-making experience: a hat tossed off the bed, hair wrapped in a towel, a white bodysuit.
With Cry, Gonzalez dug deeper into the shoegazing-while-making-out sound (gauzy synthesizers, creeping basslines, slow-building guitars) and themes (sex, intimacy, romance) he captured in 2012 and 2017, creating a final chapter of this decade-long experiment, he says.
“This record is as deep as we could’ve gone into that sound, and as far as I can go into sexuality and love. It’s the end of an era for me,” he says. “So now, there must be a rebirth or it ends here. I think it’ll be rebirth.”
Though a reborn aesthetic is yet to be daydreamed—the band’s stark, shadowy album covers remain instantly recognizable—Gonzalez already has a new sound percolating.
Ever had a best friend with whom you want to be more? Gonzalez certainly has. He daydreams often about his close friend, imagining what it would be like to kiss them and perhaps go even further, but he knows he won’t actually say anything. Gonzalez’s vocal tone in the chorus is everything.
Greg Gonzalez) brought the sensuality back to indie rock with his 2017 self-titled debut, an album that, across swaying dreams like “K” and the unmatchable “Apocalypse,” brought an unexpected edge of sexiness, open-heartedness and musical transportation to a rather staid scene.
Cry, the relatively swift follow-up is, if anything, even more moody, subtle, and ethereal than the debut, masterfully swooning into the sublime on songs such as “Kiss It Off Me,” an addictively warm hug of a song that may have welcome, wandering hands. “Tell me it’s love, tell me it’s real,” Gonzalez pleads on the lilting, softly embracing “Heavenly,” reflecting the yearning nature of his songwriting.
Gonzalez’s trademark Parker Fly drenched in candy-colored reverb characterizes the album-mystical and intimate, much like the lyrics on “You’re the Only Good Thing In My Life.” “Laying in the sun/Never need to tell me when you come/Because you know that I can just feel it,” Gonzalez sings, his level of lyrical honesty and detail as precise and moving as his playing.
Then of course there’s that voice. Gonzalez’s feminine, hushed vocal tones lift the Lynchian arrangements to a level of intimacy that envelops for the duration—it’s a soft conversation, placed gently in your inner ear. As on the tenderly soaring title track, Gonzalez offering the savage self-assessment “I need to tell you something/My heart just can’t be faithful for long/I swear I’ll only make you cry,” the heart-on-sleeve nature of the record can be a little disquieting, were it not paired with such plaintive delivery.
A band world-building effectively is a rare thing; Cigarettes After Sex have created a monochromatic, slow-motion universe of loss, love, hope, sex, and devotion that reaches new heights on this sophomore statement.
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