Greg Gonzalez of Cigarettes After Sex is no stranger to sensuality’s more surrealist extremes. “I grew up in a sex-positve household. My dad was a video retailer in El Paso and we had so many tapes lying around the house…European and art house cinema mixed with B-horror movies and softcore pornography,” he says an hour or so before his band plays to a sold-out crowd at New York’s recently-refurbished Webster Hall.
The smoky mystique of these vintage sex tapes made a deep impression on a young Gonzalez, who later channeled that imagery into the ethereal dream pop that has garnered the band praise from Garbage’s Shirley Manson, as well as legendary French yé-yé chanteuse – and Gonzalez’s personal hero – Francoise Hardy, who says their music is what she has been looking for all her life.
There’s a lush, melancholic sense of longing in everything that Cigarettes After Sex puts out. Sophomore effort Cry doesn’t diverge too far from this territory, with the group still inhabiting an enveloping soundscape of reverberated guitar with sparse drums and bass, dominated by the gentle tremor of Gonzalez’s voice. That said, the overall vibe of minimalism does not come without its disruptions – the quick-paced chugging bass that opens “Heavenly,” the insertion of something as controversial as hentai into a serene moment of lovemaking, the active urgency of falling in laps and thirsting after a lover in Tejano-inspired “Kiss It Off Me.”
“I grew up with Selena and her story is very tragic,” says Gonzalez. “When I moved to New York, I rediscovered her music and started to really love it. The demo version of “Kiss It Off Me” had a Tejano beat behind it, but it didn’t feel right so we changed it to what we usually do. I wondered how I could write a song like “Como la Flor,” but more geared toward what we do, and this was the result.” Alongside The Queen herself, Gonzalez had cumbia mainstays Los Angeles Azules and vaporwave music on rotation during the making of Cry.
The record is colored less by what the group was listening to and more by the immediacy of emotion —”Falling in Love” took two years to write, after Gonzalez met his current girlfriend. “I wrote the chorus in the middle of a bunch of tours, very far from love or real relationships, and trying to write that song would’ve felt dishonest. By the time we got into the studio, I was seeing my current girlfriend and wrote from a real perspective,” Gonzalez pauses before continuing. “It felt very strange, in a way, to finally have that.”
Cry was largely recorded in a house in Mallorca, imbuing the record with the calm of a summer night with palm trees swaying to ocean breeze, while album opener “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Touch” were recorded in a cathedral in Germany. “I had a eureka moment where I knew this project should always record in a location instead of a studio. Knowing we’d be in Europe all summer, we picked a beautiful isolated house surrounded by trees in the desert ten minutes from the beach and camped out there a week recording what we could.” Gonzalez tells me just how much of a far cry these exotic locales were from the band’s beginnings, noting the dingy Brooklyn practice space that yielded their debut and the stairwells of movie theaters and universities where Cigarettes After Sex recorded their first EP. “We were reacting to how peaceful and beautiful it was. Songs like “Heavenly” you can play where swimsuits can be worn and summer is in the air.”
The real euphoria of Cigarettes After Sex lies in this imagery. The very image of a cigarette after sex, a moment to oneself after deep connection with another person, invokes tranquility. Cigarettes After Sex exists within the margins created by this solitude, a thin and lovelorn space that can only exist if one is present enough to truly revel in it. After fleeting passion comes an ennui that can last an eternity, but Cigarettes After Sex’s music seeks to provide a balm as immediate as these darker feelings by creating the kind of music these emotions cannot harm.
“I’d say we’re trying to channel a feeling of truly living in the moment and being grateful for all the good things,” says Gonzalez. “Even in heartbreak, one should be grateful because they can feel something. Your life is more special for having gone through these things. You become a greater person by going through heartbreak, by losing people.” I’ve been lucky enough to see Cigarettes After Sex in a couple of venues over the years, from an intimate show at the Park Church Co-Op in Brooklyn, to a sprawling arena in Buenos Aires, always feeling the bigger spaces unfit for music with such a hushed, mellow energy; I ask Gonzalez about the show he’s about to play. “Some shows feel like quiet classical shows and then we’ll play in, say, Guadalajara and people will be cheering and yelling like we’re Metallica or One Direction. Since the music is so mellow, I kind of like when the crowd is a little rowdy.”
That night, ending their set with “Apocalypse,” a popular cut from their debut, a bright light hits the disco ball above the crowd as the jangling guitar plays the closing bridge. You hear screams, but it’s not quite for a band like Metallica. There’s something more hushed, a quietly tremulous excitement one might feel when coming in contact with the sacred. It takes me back to the show in the church, a comparatively stripped-back affair. I can still remember how the room shone purple from the stained-glass windows behind the stage, how the pews were filled as if for an Easter service, and how those in the room watched in awe, and up close, as Cigarettes After Sex serenaded everyone into rapture.
Cigarettes After Sex’s ‘Cry’ is out now on Partisan Records.