Cigarettes After Sex feel like an overnight success story. The group’s mix of evocative lyrics, androgynous vocals, and gentle ambient drone seemed to have materialized out of the ether. The self-titled debut from the El Paso, Texas group was well received by critics, their songs are racking up millions of hits on Spotify and Youtube, and their 2012 track “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” appeared in three of the hottest television shows of 2017 (The Handmaid’s Tale, Shameless, and The Sinner).
Despite this seemingly sudden ascent, the band has been toiling away since 2008. I got a chance to pick the brain of lead singer Greg Gonzalez’s about the band’s newfound success, his songwriting process, and his expansive list of influences.
Houston Wiltsey: You guys have been around in some capacity for a decade yet you really didn’t start to gain a following outside of El Paso until recently. Is it weird to be considered an up-and-coming band at this point in your lives since you guys are, relative to most bands with that moniker, a little older?
Greg Gonzalez: It is a bit yes, especially since it’s the 10th anniversary of the band this year. It took quite a while for me to find the right musical identity of the band and myself though. I recorded many singles and EPs during those first four years, but would always tire of them and take them down. It wasn’t until the 2012 EP, I., that I felt like something special had finally been created and that it was worth developing.
HW: I’ve tried to keep tabs on every influence you mention in interviews: Francoise Hardy, Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Madonna, New Order, The Cocteau Twins, Joy Division. Are there any other influences, either major or subtle, that you wish more people would pick up on?
GG: I’m very happy that our fans really seem to be able to spot the influences like some of the ones above. I take pride in that honestly. I could definitely go on and on about influences, but maybe some big ones that don’t seem immediately apparent are the Doors songs “The Crystal Ship,” “You’re Lost Little Girl,” or “Indian Summer.” They had such a sensual sound with a raw, wild element always present underneath it all. Also some of the work of Bill Frisell, especially his album Gone, Just Like a Train. It has such a simple, laid-back and natural beauty that I feel I took a lot from, especially in my guitar playing.
HW: With all these influences thrown around, I’m wondering how important you think originality is. Is it more important to try to do something new or do something that has already been done, but do it really well?
GG: Originality and doing things really well seem to actually coexist for me. But I really do feel like I’m just copying the things I love or have given me the deepest feelings and am just reinterpreting them in my own way, for better or worse. I’m not trying to be original ever really.
HW: I noticed that there is not a whole lot of variation on the album in terms of instrumentation, which isn’t a knock because I think it helps to maintain a serene mood throughout the record. That being said, did you want every song to be able to stand on its own, or was it more important to maintain a certain feeling throughout the record?
GG: I wanted every song to stand on its own as if the album was a collection of singles, but I also wanted it to feel as cohesive as possible thinking about records like Nebraska or Kind of Blue. Every song on those albums seems essential, yet each of their moods are completely their own.
HW: I think what I found most interesting about the record is the variety of romantic relationships explored. Some seem passionate, some casual, some intimate. Was it your intention explore all these variations?
GG: Yes, that all has to do with just speaking honestly about different relationships I’ve had over the years. There are deep love affairs that lasted years and also passionate weekends that got swept away, but they all left a lasting impact on me. They were all meaningful in different ways and I cherish them all above most things.
HW: What I don’t think you get enough credit for is how personal your songwriting is. Do you ever find it strange performing these songs live considering how in-depth you’re going into your own love life?
GG: I feel like the first time I showed the songs to the band before we recorded them I felt a bit exposed, but it’s never happened with an audience. I guess I just feel it’s the nature of performance and writing, and I only let songs slip through that I really believe in. Then again, if I change my mind about liking a song later I’m also not precious. I figure I can just write a new one.
HW: I was reading that melodies come easily to you but the lyrics take multiple drafts. How many drafts do you think you go through on average for a song?
GG: Usually about 200. There’s a lot of wasted pages though.
HW: “Built an opera house for you in the deepest jungle / and I walked across singing with my eyes closed.” I usually don’t like asking for the meaning of lyrics, but I find the line strangely engaging despite the fact that I have no idea what it means. Can you talk me through it?
GG: It’s a bit of layered reference. I was deeply influenced by a documentary called Burden of Dreams, which is actually about the making of the movie Fitzcarraldo. In that film, the main character is trying to build an opera house in the Amazon rainforest. I just loved the image and related it back to my own life, a painful time in a relationship, and of course my life as a singer.
HW: Can fans expect you guys to play any new material on this tour? If so, what kind of stuff are you experimenting with and how does it differ from the first record?
GG: I don’t like to play songs we haven’t released. I just feel there’s a greater impact to doing it that way and also because I’m very critical about what songs come out or get shelved. Once a song is actually out then I know it’s passed the test.
HW: Are there any plans to record a follow-up to your debut in the near future?
GG: We’ve tracked a lot of songs over the last year that will most likely make up our second LP. I’ll spend any time I have off tour working on it. I would love to have it out next year sometime.
HW: Finally, you guys gained some notoriety for having “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” in a number of television episodes over the last year. I’ve read that you’re a big film buff and were an avid VHS collector as a kid. If you could score one past movie or television show what would it be?
GG: I would definitely score an episode of the Twilight Zone. The greats like Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith did music for episodes. My favorite episode and score from the show is “The Lonely.” If they could go back in time and get Rod Serling to write a new episode for me to score that would be ideal.
Cigarettes After Sex will be at the Waiting Room on April 17. Tickets are available for $20 on Etix