“Dance music” is the way Cigarettes After Sex founder and frontman Greg Gonzalez describes his band’s sound, referring to the way classical pieces are constructed around particular movements. “[Our music is similar to] 50s music, built on slow grooves, I’d love it if the crowd were just dancing in a very old-fashioned way.”
Inciting the kind of infatuation and affection that does indeed lend itself to a stirring dance between two bodies, Cigarettes After Sex are the soundtrack to your relationship; from first sight to infatuation and onto shattering heartbreak. Rich in cinematic references and noir nuances, it’s this ability to capture such ambiguous emotions that saw the band’s 2017 debut record stun and seduce.
Twelve months on, Gonzalez is dancing to a new beat. “I want it to be really cohesive,” the musician tells us about the band’s sophomore record backstage before a sold-out gig at London’s Brixton Academy. “All we’re going to do on this second record is change the backbeats. It doesn’t seem like too much but I think our style is so packed in, even that simple change of altering the backbeats will be striking enough.”
To see you over until then, Greg & co have kindly released a brand new track marking one year since the release of their debut LP. Listen to Crush below.
Alex James Taylor: When did you arrive in London?
Greg Gonzalez: Last night at around seven, we woke up at about 5am and drove. It was kind of a long one.
AJT: Yeah, I always find it amazing how bands can psyche themselves up after so long on the road and a lack of sleep. How’s your tour been going, where were you before this?
GG: Oh man, where did we play last? That’s always the hardest question [laughs]. We just played Dublin at the the Olympia Theatre, it’s a pretty legendary venue, they’ve got photos of people who have played there; everyone from Bowie to Lou Reed, and bands doing like five night residencies. So that was awesome, it kind of looks like a smaller version of KOKO.
AJT: It’s an old theatre, right?
GG: Exactly, it was a really nice crowd too.
AJT: So it’s been exactly a year since you released your debut record, it did really well and certainly put you on the map in what felt like the blink of an eye. How has your life and career changed in those twelve months since?
GG: It felt like it kind of happened all at once when we went on tour for the first time back in March 2016, that was like jumping into a swimming pool for the first time, it just felt like we were diving into something new and had to swim or drown. Since then it’s just been like an expansion of that. It all happened so quick, we all got used to it because it was so drastic. Obviously it psyches you out a bit, but I think we’re just used to facing pressure now and we all want to do the best we can and perform well. Every so often there’ll be a moment that just blows me away, and obviously I’m always so grateful for everything, it’s a bit like a second life.
AJT: That’s what I imagine it’s like before record and after record.
GG: One hundred percent. We found success a little bit older than some other bands, so I felt like I had already lived this life of playing music in bars and even restaurants and wineries as a kid. Then all of a sudden, in my early thirties, this all happened and I feel like it’s quite natural now.
AJT: It is quite an unusual trajectory in the music industry, you were going for around ten years or so before you brought out your debut record. Briefly, what was going on in those years, were you changing your sound?
GG: Yeah, I was changing sound all the time because back then I was just writing anything I could, in all kinds of styles. So I had a band that was like an Elvis Costello and the Attractions kind of thing, I had a really avant-garde band that was a bit like ECM Records or early 70s Miles Davis fusion. So I was really just throwing in whichever musical direction I could try, just to see how well I could do it. But Cigarettes started when I was really obsessed with Erasure and Madonna and New Order, so it sounded super electro at the start but I quickly got sick of that – within a few months – and the sound just kept getting darker and darker. Then it became more influenced by The Smiths and The Jesus and Mary Chain and stuff like that, then finally in 2012… I kind of consider that the start of the band, with the I. EP, it felt like, “This is the sound of the band now”, there was a sound with an identity to it.
AJT: So you knew immediately that it was the sound you wanted to push forward with?
GG: For sure, and it all kind of clicked when we played live too.
AJT: I guess in those ten years before the start of Cigarettes you honed the art of playing live, whereas most bands are thrown into the deep end immediately and don’t get that opportunity.
GG: The thing was, I was changing bands all the time and members. But when you’re the main writer but have a band, like in my situation, that sort of thing happens. With me, at least, I’m a control freak and I emphasise more with singer songwriters like Paul Simon or Françoise Hardy, I like the mind of one writer as opposed to having all these different minds together, just for my own preference.
AJT: So how does it work in terms of band dynamics, do you write all the music too?
GG: Most of the time I’ll just write the song by myself with a guitar or keyboard and write the lyrics and all that and then bring it to the band, usually when they hear it for the first time it’ll be when we’re actually recording it, just because I think there’s a certain spark to that – everyone’s playing it for the first time so there’s this energy going on. I’ll just sort of direct them, I’ll never tell anyone what to play, but if they were playing something I didn’t like I might say, “Try something else,” or something to just steer it into place. So the band just sort of creates the atmosphere and the performance, but I really prefer the writing to just be myself, it’s more personal that way.
AJT: One of the things I love about your music is that it exists in this halfway house between reality and fiction. You tend to mix fictional places, people or metaphors within real stories from your life to create this strange world, it’s something I admire in many musicians or writers.
GG: Totally, I feel that a lot of powerful writing, in film, in music, in anything, it’s based on personal experience but you take a real moment and you make it a little more imaginative. I think there are a few songs like that for us, such as Apocalypse, Opera House and Firefighter, those are based on very real relationships and there are details in there that are real but obviously the song itself is more surreal and blends truth with fiction.
AJT: Absolutely, and also when you pluck references from films or books, that really helps blend in the surreal aspect of the narrative. It also makes it interesting for the listener as you can research the references and discover new things through it.
GG: That’s cool, it sends you on a path of influences. I love doing that and totally admire artists who lead you down this rabbit hole.
AJT: Does it also help you to express your own feelings, placing them into this somewhat surreal world?
GG: I think so, and it also just makes it more interesting. There are some songs like Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby and Truly where nothing is really fictionalised… I mean, it’s still a memoir so it’s going to be my take on something, but every detail in those songs actually happened.
AJT: It’s funny, when I talk to friends about Cigarettes After Sex, they almost always have a story to tell about how you soundtracked either them falling in love or total heartbreak. How does it feel to be the soundtrack to a person’s relationship and/or collapse of it [laughs]?
GG: We hear it all the time, and it makes sense because it’s romance music, but I love that, it reminds me of my own relationships where we bonded over so many different bands. It’s really important, that connection and the things that bring you together.
AJT: In terms of drawing influences from films, I read that you used to own a movie theatre?
GG: Yeah, not quite own [laughs] I wish – that’s like when the story becomes bigger than it actually is. I wanted to get the first job that I could get in New York because all I ever did was play music for a living, so when I went to New York I thought it was wise to not try play music straight away so I thought about what job I’d want, and I thought working in a movie theatre would be cool. So I quickly started to manage the theatre and the cool thing about managing the theatre was that I had access to the place and I’d have people over to watch movies after we’d closed.
AJT: That’s the dream.
GG: I actually still have the keys to the theatre, maybe I could go back [laughs]. Luckily I grew up in a big movie family, my dad worked as a movie distributor so he’d go to rental stores and help them order however many copies they needed of whatever was the big movie coming out. So since he was doing that job we’d get these big boxes of promo tapes and we had this huge closet of like 1000 movies, so we basically had our own rental store, which was great because I was exposed to so much stuff. It wasn’t just mainstream movies either, there was like the Three Colours trilogy in there and documentaries like Hoop Dreams, then there’d be all the big stuff too like Back to the Future.
AJT: If you could play in any fictional venue, which would you pick?
GG: It would have to be the Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive… actually that place is a real venue so doesn’t really count. One I’ve just seen that’s cool is in Jim Jarmusch‘s Wings of Desire, when Nick Cave plays at that club in the end, that’d be a cool place. It’s funny because we’re actually playing with him soon.
AJT: Oh wow.
GG: Yeah, we’re doing a whole tour with him in the US in October.
AJT: He’s another one who mixes fiction and reality with such aplomb. In terms of your next record, have you started writing new material yet?
GG: Yeah, it’s a weird task to do the second record because we’ve been on tour for two years and the thing with me is that I usually need like a quiet space and more time to finish lyrics, so there’s a lot of songs where the backing track is done but the lyrics aren’t. So now I have to go back to New York and see if I can add lyrics to these songs.
AJT: What direction do you want the second record to go in?
GG: I want it to be really cohesive, all we’re going to do on this second record is change the backbeats. It doesn’t seem like too much but I think our style is so packed in, even that simple change of altering the backbeats will be striking enough. We’re taking influence more from modern hip-hop backbeats, unexpected places. On our first album there’s a very 60s groove, so we want to get away from that and shake it up. I think of our music as dance music, in the old fashioned way in which all great classical music was a waltz or a foxtrot, it wasn’t ever meant to be concert music, you were supposed to go and dance to it. Our music is dance music in the way you’d have 50s music, built on slow grooves, I’d love it if the crowd were just dancing in a very old-fashioned way.
Cigarettes After Sex go on tour with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in October 2018.