“I love being rejected,” Cigarettes After Sex frontman Greg Gonzalez tells me as he sips his third martini in a dark, empty Brooklyn bar. We’re caught in that dangerously luring New York happy hour with buy one, get one free tokens accumulating at a frightening rate. If this sounds strangely familiar, it might be because Gonzalez seems to have a penchant for happy hour drinks with writers. He’s discussing The Guardian‘s recent lambasting of his lyrics as “faux-naive” and “creepy.”
Cigarettes After Sex lyrics represent a departure from the more contemplative verse long associated with shoegaze. Gonzalez’s brusque and catchy lyrics about sex and love are a clear shift away from the elegiac text associated with dark, meditative music that bands like them are known for.
CAS exists in a space between 70s pop and a harrowing incarnation of shoegaze. Fetching hooks, Gonzalez’s voice – most often described as androgynous – and a minimalist rhythm section make up what is currently the freshest iteration of the ethereal style. Just as the grace of the sparse guitar riffs start taking over, Gonzalez sings about a woman whom he refers to as “the patron saint of sucking cock,” which critics, like those in The Guardian, haven’t been afraid to confront online.
“It’s music that’s meant to be sang along to. You don’t get that from Slowdive or Cocteau Twins,” Gonzalez says. He takes pride in making accessible music, saying CAS are often compared to bands who aren’t always accessible throughout a whole album. Gonzalez modeled the self-titled project after singles compilations like The Smiths’ Singles and Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. This unexpected fusion of highbrow songwriting paired with unabashed pop vulgarity hasn’t just brought him criticism, it’s also earned adulation and co-signs from venerated artists.
In 2015, the band’s music found its way (via YouTube) to Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, who spent her first few days as a CAS devotee gushing about them on her Facebook page. She then invited them on tour. ”The first words she said to me were, ‘I fucking love you,’ so that was kind of a shock,” Gonzalez says, his face still twisted in an incredulous grin. And on their current world tour, Françoise Hardy – who Gonzalez often cites as his idol in interviews – asked the band to dinner in Paris. “I thought maybe someone told her about our interviews mentioning her. Turns out she had no idea, but was a fan of ours. She was actually nervous about meeting us. I was nervous, and it turns out she doesn’t really like her early work, which is what most people want to talk about [with her]. That’s why when I told her my favorite song is ‘La Question’ we clicked. She made me a mix CD of her favorite songs [of hers] and we might even work together.” Hardy’s affection for the band is so deep, she recently wrote a blunt op-ed on the band.
Gonzalez spent the better part of his life living comfortably in El Paso, Texas, making music for video games, writing for Nashville-based singers, and perhaps most surprisingly, playing in a band called Inex Truence – a sort of Mr. Bungle-leaning jazz-metal outfit that showcased his prolific songwriting and prodigious musicianship, and earned him a respectable local following. “The emotions I was interested in then, were…not as deep for me. Now this music drives me and I’m passionate and…I hadn’t been in love or had friends pass. I didn’t need music as salvation then. [Inex Truence] was intriguing, but it wasn’t music that was medicine.” A change came in 2008, when he started Cigarettes After Sex, eventually enlisting one of his closest friends, Phillip Tubbs, as the keyboardist.
At a CAS show in 2011 at now defunct El Paso venue Black Market, roving bar patrons filled the room with more noise and laughter than the subdued band could compete with – a common scenario for them. “We couldn’t be a band that was discovered in a bar. We had to be discovered in intimate settings across the world where people had it on on YouTube at midnight,” says Gonzalez, referring to their ascension in 2015, when their then-three-year-old song “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” organically blew up online. “You think about a lot of great scenes like CBGB’s. It seems like they all helped each other. I never had that experience, for better or worse.”
“We couldn’t be a band that was discovered in a bar.”
By the time their YouTube fame blossomed, Gonzalez and Tubbs had moved to New York City. In their mid- and late 30s, the duo realized they either had to work on their music in New York, or grow old playing at the same El Paso venues to little fanfare. But even in New York, the rejection was unrelenting. “It was looking bleak. Philip missed home and moved back to El Paso right before we started getting attention.”
Gonzalez seems genuinely surprised things aligned after a near decade of a lukewarm following. “Part of the reason we weren’t successful [in El Paso] is that the [live] show wouldn’t really sound like the record. At some point, I figured out the need to be cohesive,” says Gonzalez. To achieve that, CAS set out to strip down their sound to a bare minimum. Their self-titled debut is a 10-track, 46-minute exercise in restraint. The album is A.M. Gold sans the inflated, Phil Spector-like arrangements. CAS has pulled back layers, revealing the basal essence of pop songwriting. This cohesive simplicity extends beyond just the music. They’ve even stripped their image down another level – from Man Ray cover art on their previous releases, to a plain black background with a simple white font reading “Cigarettes After Sex.”
Gonzalez’s influences are highlighted on the album in an unapologetic way. We talk about some of the more obvious inspirations, which include driving around listening to Red House Painter’s “Katy Song” on repeat, or how Radiohead’s “No Surprises” can be considered a philosophical template for the album. But when I ask about Jeanette, the British-born, Spanish pop singer who might not immediately come to mind, he takes it one step further. “I love her. Have you heard her 60’s band, Pic-Nic?” But what perhaps few people have noticed, is how much Gonzalez’s music – and identity as an artist – is intertwined with Tubbs.
Boisterous audiences overlooked Cigarettes After Sex as they fractured what it meant to be a shoegaze band.
Tubbs is a long time veteran of shoegaze music going back to the 90’s, with bands like Sidkister, Casket Vs Carriage, and finally Boxcutter (with Gonzalez on guitar). Gonzalez admires Tubbs, and the two have had a longstanding friendship, playing in each other’s projects and supporting the other in any way possible. But while Gonzalez’s wanderlust keeps him exploring New York during their week-long sojourn (at one point, we make plans to explore uptown Manhattan, my stomping grounds), Tubbs was on the first flight back to El Paso the morning after their impromptu Brooklyn homecoming show the night before our interview. “Philip really wanted to be here,” Gonzalez laments as we discuss Tubb’s influence on him, which even includes his use of a specific type of delay pedal.
If the tours with alterna-icons and dinners with fabled French pop stars aren’t enough to convince Gonzalez that the rejection he grew accustomed to is far behind him, the demand that will keep them away from home until the holidays might, bringing us back to their week-long recess from the road and the martinis. “I try not to drink much on tour because you have to feel well to perform. When I’m home, I try to catch up with everyone and have fun.”
The possibilities are endless when the world won’t listen. Left alone to tinker with his music in university stairwells and empty Upper East Side movie theaters, Gonzalez crafted an instantly gratifying sound with genre-defying implications. Boisterous audiences overlooked Cigarettes After Sex as they fractured what it meant to be a shoegaze band in a sea of revivalists. Their boorish prose could be the one to drag the mainstream down into a pit of narcissistic melancholia. That is, as long as people can quiet down long enough to listen.
Cigarettes After Sex’s self-titled debut is out now on Partisan Records.