It’s Sunday night at Baby’s All Right and the little venue is packed with people sitting cross-legged on the floor under the pink and blue lights. Suddenly, the stage door swings open and four men walk calmly to the stage. The audience stands up in a wave, wide-eyed and attentive, but no one cheers. The singer takes the microphone and begins his set. Between songs, he repeats the gratuitous sentiment: “Thank you all for coming out tonight…,” a tell that he’s nervous, but the crowd doesn’t seem to notice. They stand transfixed.
The band is Cigarettes After Sex, and the singer is Greg Gonzalez, a recent Brooklyn transplant from El Paso, Texas. He’s had this band since 2008, but after several metamorphoses in style, reaching what they currently describe as “ambient-pop,” the band released its first EP, I., in 2012, where it lay dormant until just a few months ago when it suddenly blew up online. This show at Baby’s is the first he’s played since amassing millions of views online, as well as being the first sold-out show he’s ever played.
“It was surreal,” Gonzalez tells me later. “Mostly it was a big blur. But I was really happy with it. It was fun, the way the songs are built, too, because I get to speak to people, or relive memories with each song. Which is what I think about when I play a show—you get to be in that world with the song for a little while. And since they’re all genuine memories, I just go back to that. It’s all really nostalgic, you know?”
Nostalgia may be undergoing a resurgence in pop music. After Adele’s “Someone Like You” exploded in 2011, (which was composed specifically to trigger feelings of nostalgia), many artists have capitalized on the romanticization of heartbreak. Take Lana Del Rey, whose teenage fans find her music relateable even if they themselves haven’t yet experienced the heartbreak she so often sings about. I ask Gonzalez about this common reaction in which people claim the music makes them feel “nostalgic for things that haven’t happened,” now that it’s being applied to his own work.
“Maybe it’s a sense of place, which is what I wanted from the records,” he offers. “Going back to my influences, like on Aphex Twins’ Ambient Works II, it feels like you’re in a space, like you’re actually in a landscape, and I wanted that sense too—it makes you feel like you’re somewhere, like there’s this depth of place in the songs.”
Cigarettes After Sex’s sound is elemental, hazy, and romantic, but with a noir edge underneath Gonzalez’s androgynous voice. 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. This aesthetic is tied together with black and white images by the surrealist photographer Man Ray, with I. using the shot “Anatomies” of a woman’s upper chest, her head thrown back, while their latest single “Affection” is covered by “Rayograph,” an image of a feather. It’s delicate and otherworldly.
“My favorite thing that people say is that the music helps them, if they have sleep anxiety. It’s like music therapy,” says Gonzalez. “That’s basically the greatest compliment I could ever receive. Because if I’ve had really rough times, in the same way, I’ll use music for that purpose, to get all the noise out of your head. It’s like the best thing I want to hear. Just that it’s helping people in some way.”
His influences are widespread: he cites French pop icon Francoise Hardy as his favorite singer (“La Question is just so perfect, I wanted that kind of beauty”) and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as having a great impact (“It’s the midnight sound I wanted”) before admitting to having gone through a metal phase: “I feel like I’ve been into every style and I still listen to every style. It seems like people are surprised about that, because they hear Cigarettes and they think, ‘You must only listen to The Cocteau Twins and Joy Division!’” laughs Gonzalez. “No, it’s just that I’m choosing to present these songs in that kind of manner, but to get that, and to make it three-dimensional, you’re bringing all these different things to it. I’m not using all those colors in this music, but it’s definitely all there—all the cheesy pop music I love is all in there for sure.”
While Davis’ magnum opus might not be an obvious connection, Gonzalez used a similarly improvisatorial approach to writing and executing I., which he recorded in a four-story stairway at his alma mater, the University of Texas at El Paso, calling the process “basically an accident; kind of an experiment.” One of the four songs, “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” was written a mere few hours before the session; “I like to make arrangements on the fly,” he says.
The group’s most recent release, a single entitled “Affection,” moves away from that open, spacious feel to a tighter, cleaner sound, which Gonzalez says is a good preview to their full-length album, debuting sometimes this year. But the central theme of romance, as seen in I., will remain: “I don’t want to deviate from it right now. I want to make a really good record about romance. I want more albums like that, where you just put it on and it’s like medicine, where you have it for one specific time, where you need to go really deep into that feeling. I’d rather do that than try to be eclectic.”
Inspired in part by Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” he uses people as catalysts for his songwriting process, each song written as a letter to a friend or a past lover. The minimalist instrumentals serve as the perfect backdrop for this kind of storytelling; Gonzalez calls the work “like a memoir,” insisting the songs are honest, unaltered representations of his relationships. “I just dig in to whatever vivid memory I have and then extract a song from it,” he says. “It feels really easy to write that way, because you’re just mining what was already emotional in the first place.”
The songs are sweet and sentimental, the lyrics kept simple to match the music; “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” is a grown-up lullaby, with the tender refrain “Nothing’s gonna hurt you baby / As long as you’re with me you’ll be just fine.” But Gonzalez does experiment with lyricism, the track “I’m a Firefighter” is undoubtedly his most poetic: “Baby, I’m a firefighter trapped in a burning house in a silent picture / And there is no way out except to watch the love between us die.”
As for the reactions of the people he’s written about, Gonzalez says the songs are more of a cathartic experience for himself rather than one seeking a response, like writing a letter and putting it in a drawer. “You kind of want to know the response, secretly, but in the end, you just do it for yourself,” he says. “It’s about your own feelings, just taking a good memory and crystalizing it. Saying, ‘Things might have ended badly, but in this photograph, they were great,’ there’s something cool to that. Trying to make things more positive than they ended, not get sour because it all went sour.”
Through all the broken relationships, Gonzalez has remained a diehard romantic, and wants to keep creating music that reflects that: “I wanted it to have this love-glow to it, this love-buzz, which I hope it has,” he says. “A little love feeling you get, like when you’re falling for somebody, that little buzz you have. That’s the kind of sound I want to put out there. It’s weird to ask for that, but that’s definitely the feeling I’d like.”
Christina Cacouris is on Twitter - @christinam4ria