Some musicians might be offended to hear that their music sends people to sleep, but not Greg Gonzalez of Cigarettes After Sex. He takes pride in his music’s ability to soothe listeners, and uses his favorite artists for that very purpose. “I’ve never taken drugs to sleep or anything, it’s always just been music,” Gonzalez explains. “I have my medicine cabinet of records that I know will do it for me.”
When Gonzalez recently spoke to Interview he was in Sitges, Spain, not only in the middle of a world tour, but in the middle of writing a song. In spite of his surprise to receive our call, he was characteristically relaxed, engaged, and kind. This spirit of pensive tranquility is very much alive in Cigarettes After Sex’s eponymous debut album, which is out tomorrow via Partisan Records. Its already released (and acclaimed) songs like “K.” and “Each Time You Fall in Love” are as easily danced to as they are serenaded, analyzed as poetry and, yes, slept to.
The new record is also cinematic, which is fitting, seeing as Gonzalez used to run a movie theater on the Upper West Side. The name of his band alone evokes the gauzy smoke, smudged eyeliner, and crumpled bed sheets of a French New Wave film, and the LP’s striking black-and-white album art could easily moonlight as a movie poster. The songs themselves are dreamy, scene-setting compositions, in which Gonzalez suspends his memories in time and invites you to look around.
ELOISE BLONDIAU: You formed Cigarettes After Sex in 2008. How has the band changed since then?
GREG GONZALEZ: The band went through a series of drafts. When I first started the group it was a solo project, and I was trying to emulate the sounds of Madonna‘s ’80s singles and Erasure and New Order. Next I got really obsessed with the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The sound got more of a New Wave, dense, dark edge to it. Then once again I got sick of that and tore it down.
Finally, in 2012, I got a band together, and we did the EP [I.], and that’s the one that stuck. That was the first album for me that felt like, “Okay, this is something that feels like it endures,” versus something that I wanted to tear down. That was the big change in 2012.
BLONDIAU: Somewhere along the way you moved from Texas to Brooklyn, New York. Did the move change your sound?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I think it did. For one, it introduced me to new players that are now in the band [which gave] the band its even more stripped-down sound. Just getting Jacob Tomsky on drums and Randy Miller on bass, who I met in Brooklyn, that was the basic change.
As far as the landscapes of the city, though, it was a lot more brutal living in New York and dealing with the snow. It definitely brought up some writing qualities in me just based on the weather, honestly. There’s a song called “K.” on the new record, which takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so the settings changed and things like that.
BLONDIAU: Your music feels very cinematic.
GONZALEZ: Oh yes, for sure. I’ve been obsessed with film since I was a little kid. As a kid I had this closet full of VHS tapes because my dad was working as a video retailer, so we’d get all these free demo tapes of a bunch of films. I had this huge library of films and I would obsess over them as a kid. I didn’t really go into film. I was more natural in music. But film is very, very close up there with how passionate I am about music. It’s almost neck-and-neck.
I wanted to transmit whatever feelings that I was getting from my favorite films and whatever moods I really liked and somehow get that across in the music since I wasn’t a filmmaker. I thought, “Okay, let me take the mood of the film,” like The Night of the Hunter or The Red Shoes, and get all the drama and all the mood, feelings, and emotion that I like out of those films—[taking] what they do and finding a way to put that into music.
BLONDIAU: You’ve said that you when you are writing music you draw upon specific memories. Are they visual as well as sensory and emotional?
GONZALEZ: Yes, exactly. I think the main thing is I really need to go back to that memory if I’m writing about it and totally visualize what it looks like. Even a song like “Sunsetz” on the new record is coming from a really specific memory, where I was literally driving down a street from my ex-girlfriend’s house and watching her wave at me in a rear view mirror and stuff like that. Even on stage now when we’re playing the songs, I can close my eyes and always go back into those memories, which is kind of nice to revisit.
BLONDIAU: Does there ever become a point where your performance of a song on tour affects your original memories?
GONZALEZ: It does. It’s strange because [my memories] just start to become layered. I can always go back to the heart of the original song because most of the songs are in a memoir style, where every detail is a true detail of something that happened. For instance, if we’re playing a song like “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” I have the initial memory, but now I have these other memories of seeing people in the crowds being very moved emotionally by the song, and I think of that as well, which makes me pretty emotional. Just the way an audience reacts—it’s very touching to see someone be moved to tears by a song. It’s almost difficult to sing when you see someone reacting that way, so that’s one thing that now factors into that song.
BLONDIAU: How does being on tour change the writing process?
GONZALEZ: I feel like it’s made me less productive because it’s so distracting. Before I would come home after working at the movie theater and have time to write. I would have songs that would gather over months and months, but now it’s so hard to do that. I have to go into a more focused mode.
The main thing I think that I’ve learned is that I’ve seen everyone react this way about the songs where I was just being genuine, I hope, and just being honest. So it just makes me want to do that even more and always stay true to whatever instincts I have for writing. The last thing I want to do is to start trying to give someone that again and say, “Oh, well this worked, I’ll do that.”
BLONDIAU: I think the reason your songs connect with people is because they’re very thoughtful and tender but not cynical, and they’re not saccharine either. How do you achieve that balance?
GONZALEZ: I think for me the melodies are the easiest thing, because I feel like I’ve been writing so long—since I was like 10 years old—melodies after melodies. I can put those together very quickly and it’s the most natural thing. But the lyrics take quite a lot of editing. I do draft after draft, and I want every line to feel like it’s totally bold and strong. I want the lyrics to feel like if you read them aloud, they actually sound good. I want them to be in a kind of narrative style as well, and not to be throwaway lines. I want to write positive songs because it’s that positivity that helps you get out of intense sadness and [helps with] perseverance. I wanted that to come across because it’s a dear concept to me.
BLONDIAU: Is there a particular song that has helped you?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, there’s one that is probably my favorite song and also was al one of my first experiences with putting on music that would help me sleep when I was having tough times and things like that, and it’s actually a piece by Chopin called “Romance (Larghetto).” That song is the most beautiful song I can think of, and it has this serene quality where you can really go into the cosmos with it or something, you know? That’s the main one.
BLONDIAU: Do you think that music has that function because it kind of forces meditation in some way?
GONZALEZ: I think so. You’ll hear a song and it’ll get different thoughts happening that are away from what’s bothering you. You’ll get into this feeling of the song and that will transform your thoughts. The serenity of whatever the song is projecting takes your thoughts and puts them in a different direction. That’s pretty much the same as meditation where you’re saying, “Okay, let’s have a mantra that’s repeated.” I really believe in musical therapy and things like that, and I think there’s something to the vibrations of it.
I think if it’s good music then it applies to different situations. We’ll play shows and the whole crowd is singing like a big sing-a-long—which is awesome—or the crowd is just in this dreamy trance-like state, or people are dancing. I like that the music can fit into all those categories, that it can provide all these different outlets of expression for the listener. It can help somebody sleep or they can sing or they can dance to it. I think that’s great.