Donning black, speaking quietly, but brimming with passion and creativity is how I meet Greg Gonzalez, the leading man of the band Cigarettes After Sex.
This isn't unlike the aesthetic of the band's debut, self-titled album. Before the group performed last weekend at the Park Church Co-Op in Brooklyn, I sat down and chatted with Gonzalez about the new album, the songwriting process, and what the band is most looking forward to going to when they hit the road for tour.
You guys just released your debut, full-length album. What was the recording process for that like?
We got into a small room in Bushwick in the dead of winter and just did three nights in a row. There was one song we did in a stairway maybe five months later, but the bulk of it was done just in Bushwick in a little rehearsal space.
That's interesting you did one in a stairway, because I read that when you were first doing your EP you were also doing it in stairways in Texas?
Yeah, exactly. There's just a special sound. Stairways have this really crazy ambiance to them.
And when you first recorded your EP in Texas, it was just you, but now…
Yeah, the members have changed. It was actually Phillip [Tubbs, the keyboard and electric guitar player] and I on that first EP, and then I moved to New York. Phillip and I actually both moved, and we found Jake [Tomsky] on drums and Randy [Miller] on bass, and the band solidified.
How do you think the sound has changed for you and some of the songwriting has changed because now you have all of these people?
It's strange. I feel like I kind of found more of an identity on that first EP than I had before, and so I really kind of just wanted to follow that through and just refine that, so I think I got the general idea of what I was doing there, and now it's like going in slightly different directions with it. But it's pretty similar, the LP, I think, to what the first EP was.
On the LP, a lot of the songs were singles first.
How did it feel putting them in this bigger body of work all together?
It felt like it made sense. That was what I was worried about because honestly, when I think of records, it's hard for me to think of records that are just flawless the whole way through, which is what we were aiming to get, that this would be like a perfect record. So that was kind of tough. And also, we wanted the songs to be single-y, too, like bands where I love their singles, like The Smiths. So, it was tough to make those worlds collide. But I think we got a cohesive thing and the songs do feel like singles at the same time. I think we kind of did something with all of that.
Do you think your feelings toward them, or the way you listen and view these songs, changes now, knowing that they're part of an album? Because it's different having a single song and releasing it as opposed to having it be —
Part of the album?
Yeah, I think it does do that, versus something like, we did "Affection" and a cover of "Keep On Lovin' You" and those songs feel different to me because they're kind of isolated in a little chunk versus the LP stuff. It does feel like that, though, that these are part of a collection.
I forgot about that, that you guys had that cover, and that was crazy [it has 17+ million views on Youtube].
Yeah, it was cool.
Why did you decide to cover that song?
That one, honestly, I grew up and that song had no impact on me, and then I moved to New York and for some reason, I don't know if this ever happens to you, but a young from your youth or something will just come back and hit you, and you will be in love with it out of nowhere. So, I got into that song. I started to love it. And then I noticed it was really a sad song at its core, but that didn't really come across in the REO Speedwagon version. It was kind of like this triumphant thing. But I felt like when I sang it myself, even the line "I don't want to sleep / I just want to keep on lovin' you." That line felt really desperate to me. When I played it myself, I was like, "Wow, this song is actually really sad."
Your cover of it is very sad. Listening to it, I'm like, "Wow…"
In that version you're kind of trapped loving someone or something, is what it feels like to me.
And it feels appropriate, too, because all of your songs are about romantic relationships and love.
Yeah, for sure.
It's kind of funny, because when your record came out, my friends and I said, "This is the record millennials need right now," in terms of talking about relationships."
Oh, nice. *laughs*
So, what are the difficulties of covering that topic and writing about it?
I guess the main thing is it has to be authentic, and I had to actually live through all of these things to get the songs, because I didn't manufacture anything. For the most part, a song like "K." or "Truly" or all of these songs, really, are based on real things that just happened and are totally told for a narrative point of view, like a memoir style. There's other stuff like "Flash" that's a little more surreal and kind of plays with things, but that's based on still a real relationship and a real, genuine feeling from a relationship. Maybe that's the hardest part, just living through all of this stuff. You have to have something to write about.
Do you mind writing about people that are in and out of your life like that?
No, it's actually kind of empowering. I think it's a good thing, and it's really cathartic, especially if you write about someone who you're no longer in contact with. There are a few songs on this record that are about someone who I no longer talk to anymore, and you can kind of talk to them through the song. It's kind of strange how you can do that. So I think that's kind of interesting. And that person would know just by reading the lyrics that it's written for them. There's little inside jokes or inside stories in there that only one person would get.
It's kind of beautiful, because then, even as listeners, we don't get it, but we can kind of feel that, I think.
That's nice. I'm glad it comes across.
Your sound is also described as "ambient pop" a lot, and I wondered how you felt about that label and how you would describe it.
It's always the toughest thing, genre names and things that. Ambient pop makes sense because it is pop music and it is ambient, so why not? We've also gotten "dream pop" and "shoegaze," and there's influences of all these styles in there. Mostly, when someone asks, I just say it's really hazy, romantic ballads. That's how I think about it, in the same way I think of ballads from the early '60s and late '50s where it's slow dance, sweet music. I put it in that category more than shoegaze or something, personally, but we do owe a lot to those styles so I take it as a compliment when someone says something like that.
The '50s and '60s music comparison is interesting because I've been listening to The Beach Boys a lot, where they're simply putting something but there's so much there. And ambient feels like a wrong label for your band to me because ambient implies emptiness or space.
Yeah, just like a lot of space. We're just trying to use an atmosphere, so maybe "atmospheric" would be a good way to describe it.
What are some of your favorite tracks on the album, and have they changed as they've gone from singles to works on the album, to something you're playing live now?
That always changes, for sure, because some of these songs are fairly old. I wrote them a long time ago and then we finally figured it out. I think I end up liking the newer songs the best. "Young and Dumb" isn't that new, but that song kind of does what I wanted it to do, lyrically and musically, and it's kind of vulgar and sweet, in my mind, at least. So that one's a favorite. And also, one of the newer songs is a song called "Truly," and I like that one, too, because that is writing about when touring started and about someone I was dating very briefly in that period where we were traveling the world. That's a newer story, so I like that.
It's funny that you use the description of something being sweet but vulgar, because tonight you're going to be playing in a church.
Oh, that's true. *laughs*
I was talking to some of your bandmates and they were talking about playing some of these songs in churches. How do you feel about that?
I mean, I think it's fine. It's maybe not polite or something, but we've done it before. We were playing this church in Germany and playing "Sunsetz" and "Young and Dumb" and all these songs that have the lyrics that are a bit pornographic. If they'll have us, we'll do it.
So, you guys are heading on the road again now that you've released the record. What are you looking forward to with that?
The whole touring thing is kind of mind blowing. It's just an overwhelming, positive experience for me because all we do is meet fans that are deeply moved by the music and crowds that are extremely kind and people that have all of these amazing stories to tell us about how the music has changed their life. It's just fun and adventure, everything you would want. I love it. I'm excited to go to Russia, so we're announcing that. We have a few things we have to figure out but we're pretty much going to go to Russia and Indonesia. And we've never been there. So those are now places. This year will be when the band went everywhere. We might even do Australia. It's fun.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Follow her on Twitter.