It all started with the name. In 2008, Greg Gonzalez was a fledgling musician. He played bass in a jazz covers band around his hometown of El Paso, Texas, when he eventually made the the decision to call his band Cigarettes After Sex. The name came at a time long before he knew what they would sound like, but it strangely set him unwaveringly on a path to confessional and often explicit lyrics.
“I think the music had to catch up with the name, almost,” he told iNews in 2019. “The name was based off a moment where I was, you know… having what the name says. It was autobiographical, like a lot of the songs. I found that the more I thought about the name, the more the sound of the songs started to match it. I started writing more confessional lyrics, where I would just say honestly how I felt about something. It started getting more explicit. I wanted to tell stories about things I’d been through, or to use feelings as a vehicle for a kind of fantasy. The music became this kind of soothing comedown, but also a kind of euphoria."
The sound he landed on for his band is slow and ethereal, with sparse, minimal arrangements caressing his androgynous vocal. Musically, it is indebted to the likes of Mazzy Star, Cowboy Junkies and Beach House, while lyrically there is also a nod to the poetry of Richard Brautigan.
“I took a lot from Brautigan,” he says. “He was able to talk about sexuality in a very sweet way and also be very funny about it. Leonard Cohen was great at that, too. The storytelling that he achieves on ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ and ‘Chelsea Hotel’ is what I aspire to as a writer. All the details in there are great and there are so many knockout lines. Also, he was kind of dirty on ‘Chelsea Hotel’ and in some of his other stuff as well.”
After all those early years spent experimenting with different styles – including a New Order phase and an electro-punk phase – Gonzalez finally nailed the Cigarettes After Sex sound in a secluded four-floor stairwell at his alma mater, the University of Texas. It was in that unlikely space that he and his bandmates recorded their first EP, I., including their eventual breakthrough hit.
But first, a move to New York was next, where the band laid down their debut single "Affection" and its b-side, a cover of REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Lovin' You". Jump to 2015, their single is released and Gonzalez' now gauzy and moody minimalist band isn't discovered and broken by savvy A&R suit, but instead an accidental YouTube algorithm which seemed to favourably place another of their songs called "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby" on rotation - four years after its initial release - following a Radiohead video. It quickly stacked up beyond 90-odd million views, ironically without a music video.
“It does feel like lightning struck or something. There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he says. “We probably got lucky at that point with the name being provocative.”
While the sudden public consciousness arriving so belatedly doesn't make much sense, the band's rise to playing sizeable rooms has also been as slow as their songs. They gathered enough traction leading to live shows across Europe, Asia and the United States and recorded their eponymous full-length record in a tiny rehearsal space in Brooklyn in the middle of winter, surrounded by banks of snow. The weather gave Gonzalez a taste for atmospheric environments, arriving at the foggy post-coital indie guitar songs that sound exactly like his memorable moniker. Meanwhile, the lyrics seem to prioritise shagging over smoking.
"I've never been bashful about writing bedroom music," he told Evening Standard. "Plus I love low singers, like Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, and I’ve sung in every kind of style, but I found as time went on that I was more and more influenced by the female voice — Françoise Hardy, Hope Sandoval, Chan Marshall ."
Gonzalez also name checks Prince’s Dirty Mind as an inspiration, while sounding nothing like it - it's closer to the blurry, atmospheric indie that was once known as “shoe gazing” and can now be found on Spotify playlists under “dream pop”. They should really sound like stragglers emerging when they did and arriving late to the dream-pop party, however, they ended up producing one of the finest albums of the chilled sub-genre.
“I liked all that stuff, like Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, but the lyrics are indecipherable. I love that they did that, but I thought, ‘Can I do that and also tell a story like Dylan did, or Cohen?’ So I tried to put those together, and to tell an honest story about love, it had to include sex as well. To leave out those details would be kind of dishonest.”
What's striking about the album's production is that his voice isn't drenched in reverb and buried in the mix like their dream-pop contemporaries, nor is there any bid for a catchy hit single. It’s all sleepy drums, reverb-heavy guitar and Gonzalez’s high, soft, feminine vocals. That voice sits atop downbeat, cinematic dream pop, a vehicle to express his melancholic themes throughout. It could very well be your navigation guidebook to the world of modern love affairs or a depressing diary entry from a contemporary Don Juan-type. It feels like smoke-filled darkness, for those with a heart-shaped bed, mirrors on the ceiling or satin sheets. Gonzalez's late night, meditative heartbreakers are powerful in their restraint with classic chords and nay a bad song in sight. But one thing is for sure about Cigarettes After Sex - never has a band been more appropriately named.
CIGARETTES AFTER SEX'S EPONYMOUS DEBUT ALBUM
IS THE JUNE 2022 RECORD OF THE MONTH
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
"As the band’s name suggests, it’s reminiscent of lying in bed, but its ambient qualities don’t prevent it from being music you can dance to." - NOISEY. “... one of those restrained, low-boil albums where tempo, repetition, and muted composition construct an entire story within the pauses between the notes and the ideas between the lines. It’s a feat to produce, mix, and compile them in a way that their similarities become their strengths, gradually setting an unshakable mood.
"... one of those debut albums that seems to have arrived fully formed, not a hair out of place - among 2017's best." - The Guardian. "... one, long, scintillating affair" - The Revue. "... it’s impossible to imagine someone hearing this record and not being transported by at least one of the band’s intimate anecdotes. - The Line Of Best Fit. "... some of the most compelling dream pop." - The Indiependent.