Greg Gonzales fronts the Brooklyn-based ambient pop collective Cigarettes After Sex. The name sets the tone for the band’s melancholic tributes to the dire beauty of love. Matched with surrealist cover art and Gonzales’s captivatingly earnest croons, the cinematic band has taken a cult following to whole new levels. To get a glimpse of the man behind the music, just ahead of their long anticipated debut album, we spoke frankly to Gonzales about the art that inspires him, his thoughts on romance and how music can save you.
How did you begin exploring music?
I’d say I started exploring music when I was about 10 years old. I was playing guitar, and songwriting came into my life at the same time. Since then, it has been compulsive.
I just kind of write all the time. I started with the classics, Nirvana, Metallica, and later explored stranger music, avant-garde music, new wave bands. That’s pretty much it; it was just a long education.
Was it just a natural progression that came through your interests? Were you going to record stores, talking to people about music?
Yeah, a little bit. I found most of it online, reading reviews on websites like All Music. I would be like: “Oh, this band seems good, here’s a related genre…” you just keep going on different paths to find bands that were exciting and inspiring. So I just did that, forever.
They say that art can sometimes enable you to say things that words alone can’t. Is that something you’ve experienced while making music?
Definitely. It’s one thing I kind of need to express myself, in a certain way, that I can’t do just by talking to somebody. I guess it’s because you can, what is it, “in art you can make things perfect”; while in real life that’s really tough to do. You can boil down the words you really want to say, in a moment, in a song, and make them as good as possible.
Does it let you touch on the intangible?
Yeah. A lot of times, you’ll write a song you want to write, and you’ll find yourself having feelings you weren’t aware of. Only when you get down to it, do they present themselves. It’s amazing. It sheds light on things that are very, very deep within you.
In previous interviews, you’ve described singing as a cathartic experience. Is it a way to let go of things, or is it capturing them in order to hold on?
I think it could be both. I feel I had to write certain songs, to let go of certain things. Like ‘Nothings Gonna Hurt You Baby’. It was written because I was letting go of a relationship I had for a long time. I felt that I had to say what was best about it, and kind of take a snapshot of that relationship. By doing that, I was able to say to myself, “this was great, and now it’s done.” And let go.
Letting go, in a way, worships the relationships that I’ve had; the memories are always going to be a part of me.
You’ve also spoken about songs being crystallizations of moments that allow you to go back to memories, like three-dimensional spaces. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
For me, those memories are like rooms. When I think of songs, I think of rooms, the atmosphere, the setting of it. So, that is why I can go back to the moment. With most of our songs, when I play them live, I can picture the scene, return to the room, and it can just overwhelm me.
You’re known to close your eyes on stage sometimes, I guess that is returning back to the moment?
Yeah, for sure.
Is that more like disconnecting from the stage then, or is it a way of inviting people into the room in your mind?
Yeah, I think so. I want to be there, but when I close my eyes the audience is more of a feeling. There are certain songs where I really want to go back to, alone. And it just feels like a sweet gesture.
How does it feel to know that your music touches so many people?
It can be kind of difficult. When I see it, at the shows for example, it can be really moving. We were playing ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’ in Manchester recently and there was this girl sobbing, really heavily. Just the expression on her face, I was getting really choked up watching it. It was hard for me to finish the song. That happens pretty often.
It’s been the same for me. If it wasn’t for a lot of music, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. It’s nice to have that circular motion, where you get into music and it saves you, and then it turns around and you help somebody else. I think that that’s what it’s all about.
Your show at the Tolhuistuin in April featured projections of the art house film The Double Life Of Veronique. Talking about how art can touch on certain feelings, that film really touches on a lingering emotion; of being incomplete, of wanting to belong. How does that movie relate to your music?
It’s one of my favourites. Whenever I’m asked to pick a few films that could be companion pieces to my music, that is always one of them. There’s just something about it. It’s got all the elements I like in art – there’s an eroticism to it and it has surreal moments. Mostly, it’s just amazingly beautiful. The setting has this autumnal beauty. It blew me away when I first saw it. The song ‘Affection’ was really influenced by that feeling, and we extended that to make an LP of that same feeling, that same sound.
You’ve spoken a lot about movies, but also how movie soundtracks have influenced you. I read that The Truman Show had a big impact on you. What was it that got your attention?
That was a huge soundtrack for me, just because it introduced me to Philip Glass. I didn’t know of minimalism before that soundtrack. All these things came from that; like the realization that you can have soothing music that you can sleep to.
That cinematic element of soundtracks is one thing that I want to bring to Cigarettes After Sex. It seems like most people get that, which is great. It’s a big deal to me. I love music that makes your mind’s eye picture things and associate images with sound, opens your mind. That’s one thing film soundtracks helped me understand how to do.
Would you be interested in making soundtracks yourself?
I thought I was going to make soundtracks, at some point. I was studying composition in college for a while, but I thought I would be best suited to be a film composer. Maybe I still will one day.
It seems like a lot of pop artists wait to become great film composers. Like Mark Mothersbaugh, who has done most of the Wes Anderson movies, we was in Devo!
You’ve described Cigarettes After Sex as a collective, working with different people at different times. Do you talk them through your experiences when songwriting or developing a composition?
Usually, I only play with people I’m close with, that I can hang out with and share real and intimate moments with. So, they will kind of have an idea of what’s been going on with me. I wouldn’t want to prime anyone; I want the music to speak for itself. I really need it to be instinctual. Like the way we record, it’s really spontaneous. We usually do a song in two takes. They may have never heard the song before that, even. I think that gives the music a spark.
It’s funny, I’ve had band members tell me they didn’t realize what the lyrics were until we were playing the songs live. The lyrics are a hidden thing – you can’t really get them the first time anyway. So they’re just thinking about the feeling that we’re creating collectively.
You explore romance with your music. Has your understanding of romance changed through these explorations?
I don’t think it’s changed. It seems like a rare thing to find true romance. I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to find a handful or something, but I don’t know. I have different ways of thinking about it. I’ve had loves that were really deep and really long and I’ve had encounters that were passionate and really short that were just as meaningful. It’s strange.
I don’t want to put boundaries on it. I’m just open to the experiences, whatever I’m driven by, passionately. I trust my instincts, even when they lead me to get hurt or hurt somebody else, it feels like it’s always the right thing to do. It’s always a positive experience.
If I’m presented with a long love affair, it just kind of happens. When I’m not, I’m having passionate encounters anyway, and it’s just worth living for.
Do you think that curiosity is intrinsic to who you are? It takes strength to be vulnerable, which is something people struggle with a lot.
For me, falling in love is just the most intense feeling I’ve ever had. That, and heartbreak over someone’s love. So it’s just a reaction to those experiences: knowing “Wow. This is the most alive I’ve ever felt” and it always revolved around love.
It feels like I know the depth of it, I know the joy of it, and I know that it’s the thing that brings the most out in me, as an artist.
Do you ever read about love?
I haven’t read many philosophers on it. I’d love to. I feel like I’ve kind of gotten it more from songs and films, and then novels and poetry in lesser extents.
I’ve read some great love poems, but I wouldn’t say that I was immersed in that. Richard Brautigan was the poet I always liked a lot. His stuff was kind of romantic, but also kind of sleazy, which feels like the approach I’ve taken with Cigarettes After Sex. He has this way of writing about things that are sexual, sweetly. I always really liked his poem Map Shower.
Talking about sleazy and sweet, I picked up on the phrase “more vulgar” when talking about your upcoming album. Is there a reason why you’re going there now with Cigarettes After Sex?
The funny thing is that when I started Cigarettes, the music was even more vulgar than it is now. I was trying to be really frank about my life at the time, and it was a lot more adult. I think it went a little overboard though.
My writing took that turn almost ten years ago, when I got into writers like Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins, the novelist, who were using sex in a really frank way. That was a big leap for me. It became part of my style. I guess what I’m saying is it’s been part of my writing forever, it just comes out stronger sometimes. The first EP it doesn’t really. The sexiest thing is a shower scene. This collection of songs has some more adult moments.
It is a big part of the relationships you’re talking about.
Yeah, it’s just about being frank about relationships. Sex is such a big part of a relationship; you can’t really just leave it out.
Why did you wait so long to release your first album?
Yeah that took quite a while [laughs]. For me, it was just a combination of being picky about things and then the whole past year has been so life altering – touring and the band becoming kind of successful – it was hard to think about putting out a record.
Technically, we finished the record at the end of 2015. It just didn’t seem like the right time to release it. There were a lot of distractions. It took me a while to realize it was good enough, or even really good, for whatever reason. But now it feels like the perfect time to put it out.
What’s it like, becoming increasingly less anonymous?
It’s fun actually, because I think I’ve spent my whole life being anonymous. So it’s like a different thing. And we have the sweetest fans. Anyone I’ve ever met, I’ve had a great conversation with them. I like hearing about what the music means to them, in their life, and they’ll be really personal sometimes about what they went through – that they lost somebody and the music helped them. That is really rewarding.