Words by Erin Lyndal Martin
Let’s face it, YouTube is full of pet raccoons and makeup tutorials. It’s not the sort of landscape where you’d expect a band steeped in ambient music, earnest love stories, and androgynous vocals to take off.
But that’s what happened for Cigarettes After Sex, and their frontman Greg Gonzalez can’t say why, either. He can’t tell himself why it worked, and he certainly can’t tell other artists who ask for advice. “When we first got known, people were asking like, ‘Oh, did you promote it on YouTube? And how much did you pay?’ I was like, I wouldn’t even know how to how to do that. First of all, I don’t have any money to do that,” says Gonzalez from his Brooklyn apartment. The YouTube platform did a lot to bolster the band’s eponymous 2017 album, and their official YouTube channel now has over 400,000 subscribers.
While Cigarettes After Sex has all the feel of an overnight sensation, the band is part of Gonzalez’ long musical evolution spanning many genres and vocal stylings. “I was playing jazz bands in top 40 bands doing covers at dance clubs. Then I was playing at restaurants, like playing acoustic guitar and singing,” Gonzalez recounts.
But Gonzalez always held certain albums close. He remembers being 12 and hearing Mazzy Star for the first time, or later when Brian Eno albums got him through insomnia. Gonzalez often looks to Nebraska for the deft way in which Springsteen permits themes to return. And Gonzalez has always gravitated toward female vocalists. “There’s more emotion and more pain and more struggle and it was more otherworldly. I think I just really wanted to sound like all my favorite female singers,” he says, agreeing with critics who call his vocals “androgynous.” He brought all these tastes and experiences to Cigarettes After Sex, also remembering his love for albums with cohesive sounds. “When I really narrowed it down to records that I love the most, they just really nailed this one mode. It’s almost like you’re reaching for like a drug or something. When you put on this record, it’s going to give you this one feeling that you ride out. Let’s just go really deep into the sound and also make the songs tie in together.”
In equal parts by design and happy accident, the lyrical themes of the album weave in and out of each other, revisiting the same stories with shifts in perspective. Gonzalez’ love stories are about the small moments and big feelings everybody knows. And it’s the love songs that are the heart of the band (fter all, this is a band who partly owes their rise in fame to a heartfelt cover of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.”).
“It’s very much like a pop band, but I really see it as classic love songs,” says Gonzalez, offering Elvis’ “Blue Moon” as inspiration. The love stories in Cigarettes After Sex songs aren’t particularly perverse or deviant. But something in their details is almost uncomfortable.
Sharing one’s heartbreak on albums and in concert sounds like the very definition of masochism. For Gonzalez, though, it’s exhilarating to relive the happy memories while also reminding himself of the geographical and temporal distance between his present and his past. “I get to go back to those really great moments or really intense moments every night on stage and just relive them,” he says of perfoming. “And honestly it just doesn’t get old for me. I’m onstage in Bangkok or Moscow and then the realization that I’m playing a show in that city and the memory that I’m singing about is so far away.”
The band is at work on their follow-up album, and Gonzalez is looking forward to some down time in which he can write. After all, he has a lot more true stories to tell.
Cigarettes After Sex appears Sunday on Treasure Island’s City stage.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer whose music journalism has appeared in Salon, Bandcamp, The Week, No Depression, and elsewhere.