Spotlight: Cigarettes After Sex

Justin Jacobs on April 28, 2020
Spotlight: Cigarettes After Sex

Greg Gonzalez is well aware that his band, Cigarettes After Sex, is having a moment. But when he speaks about his El Paso, Texas ambient dreampop outfit’s recent success, what he really wants to talk about are the feelings. The songs are important, sure, but Gonzalez sees his music more conceptually—one piece of a puzzle that also includes his album covers, his black-and-white Instagram aesthetic and his late-night recording methods. In other words, Cigarettes After Sex isn’t just a band—it’s a vibe.

Gonzalez describes it like this: “It’s a really sweet memory from long, long ago. And as time passes, it becomes sad, something melancholy. It’s fading away from you. Those emotions and fading memories are the feelings we are trying to capture.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Indeed, the music of Cigarettes After Sex exists, much like the band’s name, in a haze—dimly lit, unfurled in slow motion, drenched in echoes, overtly sexual but just out of reach. Since 2015, that feeling, which truly crystallized on the band’s 2019 sophomore LP, Cry, has brought Gonzalez hundreds of millions of streams, global tours and adoration from surely countless lovers lost under the sheets.

But it almost never happened: Gonzalez originally envisioned Cigarettes After Sex in 2008, and released the band’s debut EP, I., back in 2012. At the time, he promoted it the only way he knew how; his efforts left him wanting more. But the internet is an unexplainable animal sometimes—and, in 2015, the video for I.’s “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” took off on YouTube. (Since it was first published in 2012, the video has racked up over 99 million views.) Suddenly, Cigarettes After Sex needed to tour, and they needed a debut album.

“We were waiting for lift off for the longest time,” Gonzalez says. “The old cliché in music was that you played a show with some music exec in the audience, and they signed you on the spot. But now, lightning strikes and you go viral. And when it happened, it was as emotional and profound as possible. Whatever work I was doing then has multiplied to infinity. But that’s what I signed up for. I love it.”

Indeed, following the release of 2017’s self-titled debut, the band spent months on a global tour circuit, ending with a week to kill before that year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. Gonzalez was exhausted but energized, and the band sounded better than ever. To keep the momentum building, they landed in Mallorca and rented a house far from the tourist noise.

The new music started flowing from that very first night, when the group set up their gear and began meditating on a crawling, starry guitar line that became Cry’s “Hentai.” The song’s lyrics find Gonzalez telling a lover about an animated Japanese porn video he watched, featuring a female character who can predict the future. The album’s version is the fifth take, recorded under the Mallorca moon.

“It was completely nocturnal. We’d start at 8 p.m. and record until 3 a.m.; wake up the next day, have lunch and repeat the process,” says Gonzalez. “We recorded in the courtyard of the house, outside. The songs were improvised on the spot, recorded live. So what you hear—you’re in that courtyard with us.”

The band left Mallorca with an album’s worth of new music, but Gonzalez wasn’t ready to write the words. He sat with these new sounds for nearly two years, playing more shows, entering a new relationship and watching his band’s influence continue to grow, before finally collecting enough experiences—in the bedroom and out—that he felt ready to write his largely autobiographical lyrics.

“Sometimes I want to describe a moment perfectly, and sometimes I want to write a complete fantasy and create a dream. ‘Sunsetz,’ [from the band’s 2017 self-titled LP], for example, is written about an ex I don’t talk to anymore,” says Gonzalez. “I knew she’d hear the song and just know. It’s like writing a letter to somebody.”

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.

“I keep coming back to Nat King Cole; the power of his voice is so pure and beautiful, lush and dreamlike, orchestral but surreal,” he says. “But I love music that’s danceable. So much hip-hop today is druggy and slow and strange, but still gets played in the club. I want to put those ideas together, with a gentle feeling on top.”