Imagine a black & white melancholically romantic film. That’s basically how Cigarettes After Sex sound like. Frontman Greg Gonzalez started the band back in 2008, but just in 2015 they’ve got a massive break-out with their single “Affection”. They just put out their impressive self-titled album and we had the chance to catch up with Gonzalez.
You started Cigarettes After Sex back in 2008. Tell us what led you to start this project in the first place.
I started way back in 2008 and it began as a solo project that I had based on a collection of songs. Since then the sound evolved more to a band around 2015.
You studied music at the University of Texas, El Paso, but then you moved to Brooklyn and you started working as musician and managing a cinema (the Beekman Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper East Side). Your music has this cinematic approach to it. Which films had impact on you while writing your songs?
I think the main ones that I like to think of for the sound of Cigarettes After Sex are the film The Double Life of Veronique by the director Kieslowski and also the film L’Avventura by Antonioni. I think those films have both kind of a mysterious beauty to them; they’re both very sensual, the visuals are very striking and the music is very beautiful in both films. They have a sort of exotic feeling as well. I really love those both films. I think they kind of sum up the feeling of Cigarettes After Sex for me. They are both moody and romantic films.
What other music references were important in the conception of your music?
I think the main one was Françoise Hardy music just because her music sounds so pure and beautiful… She’s my favorite singer, songs like “All Over The World” and “Voilà” are really striking. But also bands like The Paris Sisters and this kind of early 60’s gentle girl groups stuff, Julee Cruise and the stuff she did for Twin Peaks. Cocteau Twins were also a big influence.
Tell us about the band’s current lineup and how they joined you.
I met the keyboard player Phillip Tubbs in El Paso, he’s actually from my hometown as well and he was playing guitar for a long time. He played guitar in the first EP. Later on the members kind of shuffle in. I got back on guitar and he became the keyboard player, and then I met the drummer Jacob Tomsky and the bassist Randy Miller. I saw them playing in local bands and I thought they were great and that really sounded great together. I literally asked them to join. They were already fans of the band before they got in, so that was cool too. Once they joined, everything fell in place. I think everyone became perfect in their roles. Everyone has their own crucial place in the band.
Even though Cigarettes After Sex were formed in 2008, only in 2015 there was an impressive online break-out success with the song “Affection” and leading to the re-discovery of your debut EP, I, released in 2012. How do you look back to that?
It was strange. It felt like it was just a long time coming. I felt like in my heart I knew that something was going to happen someday. I knew that the music that I was making had quality in some way and I thought that was true, but I wasn’t really seeing the results of that. I just saw some people that would say that they liked it but never anything like now, where there’s many fans. I just felt like it would happen someday and it happened in a very strange way, which was something that I wasn’t expecting that was YouTube, it just went viral. I really thought that maybe we would get signed to a label, put out a record and get a good review and then things take off, but it was the total opposite, where we skipped all that and people just like it because they heard it somehow, in the most random way. But I think it is amazing. It was really better that way because people chose to listen to the music themselves, they didn’t have to hear it from someone else saying “You should listen to this.” They decided to pick that for some reason based on the album art or the name or whatever. It’s a cool thing how music is changing and how things are happening now.
One of the band’s aesthetic is your minimalist but striking black and white artwork. What did draw you to choose that imagery?
I loved black and white cinema as I was growing up and how deep the photography get is really beautiful like Citizen Kane, just these beautiful black and white films that I was watching. I thought there was something powerful to that and once we did the EP and the music was done, I was looking for an album cover and I was looking at Man Ray’s work, and when I put those two together they just felt so perfect. It was like they completed each other. That kind of sparked out and once I saw that I thought, “This is exactly what we should do.” I couldn’t really see it any other way. I really think that black and white is just more romantic honestly. There’s something about it that’s more dreamlike, so I decided to stay with that and I think there’s something powerful about it.
You’ve just released recently your first full-length and it’s such an immersive, intimate and melancholically romantic effort. It’s just superb. Tell us a bit about how the writing approach for it was.
The strange thing about this one is that it was written over the course of 5 years, because there were songs that I had back in El Paso that we tried to record as a band but it didn’t work well. Then we did it again year later and we finally found the right version, like a song like “Flash” which is a very old song. And then there’s stuff that is brand new. “K” was a newer song, it was written right before we went into recording. A song like “Truly” is more recent too. The thing about that is that it’s strange that it covers a 5 year period of my life autobiographically and so that’s a long period of time and all written in very different times. Some songs were written in El Paso, some were written in Brooklyn and some were written last year when I was on tour like in Paris or Prague. I like that it is a little random. [laughs]
“I just try to live the fullest that I can daily and if I’m romantic with somebody I like it to be memorable.”
Your EP I was recorded in a four-story stairway at your alma mater, the University of Texas at El Paso. I read the track “Each Time You Fall in Love” was recorded in a stairway as well. How was it like to record your debut album?
The thing with that is that I love the idea of doing records in strange locations and the stairway was the first one and then we went in and just did on a kind of normal rehearsal space for “Affection” on the EP. I had access to a stairway that was in the movie theatre that I was working on at the time and I just thought, “Let’s get in there to try some songs out and see how they sound” and luckily “Each Time You Fall In Love” came out good and we thought that we should use that. It was very much just like if I find a nice location, we’ll just try out some songs. Just using the location as a kind of characteristic of the style of the recording.
Was there any other song of the album that was recorded in a different location that wasn’t the studio?
No, it was just that one. “Each Time You Fall In Love” was recorded in a stairway and the rest was done over the course of 3 days in Brooklyn in a rehearsal space, the same we did “Affection”. I thought that “Affection” came out so good that it was kind of the template to the album basically. I thought, “This song sounds great, so let’s just try to do the whole record there,” which is why we went back because it made sense to do it there.
You are very personal and in-depth with your lyrics. There’s always this romantic and nostalgic vibe to it. How usually goes the process to write your lyrics?
For me, I just try to live the fullest that I can daily and if I’m romantic with somebody I like it to be memorable. [laughs] I just have that and how my life kind of goes and so when I sit down and just draw upon anything that happened to me that had any kind of impact. I just have to dig back the memories for the most part and think about a time I was with somebody and had a great time and now it’s gone. I think the sadness comes from the fact that you have a good and beautiful memory in the past, but there’s this kind of sadness about it that it’s gone now, it’s far away even if it’s a good memory. Many of the songs are actually very sweet songs if you think about it, but they’re still sad because the memories are from the past and the joy is gone and you’re just on the present. I think that’s what kind of makes the music sad. It’s not necessarily always sad – sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not – but they are very sweet songs.
The opening track “K” is such a mesmerizing and engaging song. Can you tell me about the background story of it?
I was seeing this girl. I was in New York and she was in El Paso. We just had this really intense thing going and it was a long distance relationship. I wrote the song “Affection” about her because… If you listen to the second verse of “Affection”, it says “We love to talk about how you’ll come up to visit me/And we’ll rent a car and we’ll drive upstate”, so that was a song for her before she visited. And then “K” is actually when she comes visit. It’s kind of a sequel of “Affection” basically. “K” is about when she came to New York and we had a great week together, but when it ends we left seeing each other and it’s a bit painful. “K” is the end.
Is it hard for you to express those feelings and play them on your songs over and over again? How do you feel about that?
I feel lucky that the songs were written about real things and I think that always makes me emotional when I’m on stage. If we’re playing a song like “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” or “K”, all I have to do is close my eyes and I can see that memory. I can be back alongside with that girl, I can be back dancing in the living room with my girlfriend… Also the crowd makes me emotional because I can see the music has meant something to them by looking at their faces. I’m happy that I don’t have to try very hard, it’s just a natural thing to have these deep feelings and that they didn’t fade.
As a whole, your debut album feels like a retro-romantic film soundtrack, that holds you throughout the whole time. If Cigarettes After Sex were a film soundtrack, which one would it be?
It’s a tough one. I change my answer a lot, but I think it would have to be the soundtrack from my favorite film, which is The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, just because that film is about an intense romance and it’s just a gorgeous film. I would be really flatter to somehow the music in that film have the same intensity. I will probably change my answer daily. [laughs]