In the summer of 2012, Cigarettes After Sex released a slender, four song EP titled I. Alongside a gauzy rendition of Roky Erickson's "Starry Eyes," these songs—somnambulant and spare, topped with an androgynous, narcotized vocal delivering melancholy scenes of romance—seduced the listener with their stillness. For Greg Gonzalez, the force behind the moniker, the EP gestated during the darkest period of his life: he was breaking up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend of seven years, and then, suddenly and tragically, he lost a close a friend. The Roky Erickson song is dedicated to her. Not long after recording, another friend died. "Having that together, it was brutal," says Gonzalez, speaking haltingly. "I was still feeling really emotional and fucked up at that time. The songs really came out of getting totally devastated all at once."
Since founding the band in El Paso, Texas in 2008, Gonzalez had been flitting between sounds, releasing a couple records including the only-to-be-found on YouTube LP, Romans 13:9, which meanders between 90s lo-fi indie and the sun-dappled haziness of 80s shoegaze. Each time he put out a record, he'd delete the old one, and wipe his catalogue clean. "I was used to everyone hating it," he shrugs. But I. was different: For Gonzalez the EP offered catharsis, but it was also a creative landmark. "I was like, this feels better than anything I've done as an artist before," he explains. "I felt like it defined me."
Even in their hometown CAS shows "were dead," but nevertheless, post-release Gonzalez was excited to road-test this newly minted iteration of his music with a live audience. "We showed up to this show in LA, and it was totally packed—there were maybe 50 people in the room, which was significant at the time—and we thought, 'this is going to be a great show, everyone's here,'" he recalls. "We start playing and the whole room clears. There was one person left, literally. It was horrible. I felt bad for everyone involved because the expectations were so high and they were dashed so quickly."
Many would have given up the ghost, uncrossed their fingers, and applied for a job with a decent 401k. Not Greg Gonzalez. Somehow, despite public disinterest and throughout his own paralyzing perfectionism, he kept the faith. In the intervening years after 2012, most people who stumbled across the fan uploaded YouTube of "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby" assumed CAS had split. Occasionally he'd receive a fanmail confessing that the EP had eased them through a tough time, or assuaged a bruised heart. His songs are both a balm and a boon, or as Shirley Manson, who handpicked CAS to open for Garbage last year, tells me: "All I know is I listen to Cigarettes After Sex and suddenly my sadness or my heartbreak or my anger lifts and I find I am filled with euphoria. So of course I am grateful for this and love them madly for it."
In the wake of I. Gonzalez didn't release another note till October 2015 when he dropped "Affection," the perfect sad-swoon follow-up. At this point he didn't have a manager, label, lawyer, nothing, but the song took off, slowly at first, and then over one weekend in the frosty first month of 2016, Cigarettes After Sex became an eight-years-in-the-making internet sensation. To date "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby" has clocked in over 100 million plays. "Everyone I talk to is like how did it happen? They want the inside track on how we did it," says Gonzalez, still mystified. "People thought we'd paid for it, it's like I don't have any fucking money! I literally didn't do anything."
I meet Gonzalez one gray afternoon in early summer at longstanding New York City dive The Library, in the East Village. We drink happy hour red wine, and sit too close to the jukebox blasting out Nirvana's "School," "Road to Nowhere" by the Talking Heads, and "I'm Waiting for My Man," among other classics. He chose this bar because it was a spot he'd occasionally frequent with a long-distance love called Kristen. She would travel from Texas to NYC, and together they'd run around the city. Their romance is detailed with aching clarity in the songs "K." and "Affection," how they would talk all night and plan road trips upstate. When he sings about taking pictures of her with flowers on the wall, that moment actually happened—in the now defunct Elvis Guesthouse on Avenue A, just up the road from where we sit today.
Now in his mid-30s, Gonzalez is dressed head-to-toe black denim. His gently drooping mustache makes him appear resolutely forlorn, while the permanently raised right eyebrow adds an air of amusement and skepticism. The singer is savvy and wry, he talks quickly, words rippling into one another, occupying the same tonal range as Butt-Head—although our conversation is notably lacking wisecracks about boobs and boners. Like countless before him and many more to come, Gonzalez was drawn to New York by storied, diverse legacies: Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, Martin Scorsese, Miles Davis. "All these amazing people were at their pinnacle when they were in New York," he says. "It was an influential city for all of them and I wanted to be part of that tradition of artists I thought were the greatest."
He knew that his fate lay here as far back as his early 20s, but it would take him ten years to uproot himself from the easy artsy life he'd established in El Paso. Rent was cheap, the vibe was mellow, and the sunsets, well, they were calmly glorious. Gonzalez made a living playing in jazz bands four times a week, or performing solo acoustic gigs at restaurants and wineries. He spent most of his 20s in and out of college, dropping classes, switching majors—from music composition, with the view to becoming a film composer, to philosophy—before quitting entirely in 2010. "I couldn't really get through it," he says, adding drolly, "I started early, straight out of high school, but I took my sweet time."
He might have walked away without a degree, but his time at university allowed him access to a stairwell in the music building where, after persuading a professor to let him in after hours, Gonzalez and his assembled players recorded I. "Everyone thought it was going to be a total waste of time—they wanted to go home," he says. Playing bass and singing, Gonzalez was on one level of the stairs, the next level up was the guitarist, and the next level up from that, the drums. Shouting into the abyss to communicate, they recorded two takes of per song. The majority were improvised on the spot, which was quite the gamble: his songs are so spartan there's absolutely no room for fuck ups.
When Gonzalez finally moved to New York in 2013 he knew just one other person from El Paso. That guy introduced him to a bartender, who introduced him to the guys he plays with in CAS to this day: bassist Randy Miller, drummer Jacob Tomsky, and Phillip Tubbs on keyboards. Back then playing Williamsburg's 280-capacity venue Baby's All Right was the end goal, Gonzalez was held down a job at Upper East Side arthouse movie joint, The Beekman Theatre. It was his first and last regular job, he moved up quickly from the box office to manager. It was in the stairwell next to the theater that he recorded more demos (including the version of "Each Time You Fall In Love").
"The Beekman is really laidback, so I was able to take a lot of liberties, no one's really watching it too much," he recalls. "After hours I could have people over to watch movies—ten people in a 400 seater space. We'd watch Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, Back to the Future, Night of the Hunter, which is one of my favorites." His music may be his first love (everything from The Paris Sisters, to Erasure, to Michael Jackson, to The Red House Painters), but Gonzalez's appreciation for film comes in a close and nerdy second. He pours over best of lists, studiously ticking off the classics, but it's Antonioni's L'Avventura from 1960, a flick about a group of vacationing friends when one goes missing, which Gonzalez returns to again and again. If his eponymous record was a film, it would be this one. "It has this mysterious element, but it's also pretty sexual and very erotic, just strikingly visual, but contained—the cinematography is amazing," he says enthusiastically. "I can think of so many sequences in the film that are stuck in my mind, but it's also hard to pin down. I like that about it, that it's hard to explain."
There's nothing particularly tough to decipher when it comes to Gonzalez's self-titled album, which finally came out last month on Partisan Records. Almost every verse hangs on a measured bass line, a brushed-out beat keeps unhurried time, and at some point a reverbed guitar adds a painterly wash to proceedings. Against this backdrop Gonzalez's lyrics stand spot-lit, naked, his words conjuring a clear scene. "Ooh, you're on the sheets like it's a dirty magazine," he sings on "Truly." Sometimes he murmurs a delightfully vulgar exchange like it's an intimate sweet nothing ("See you open your dress and show me your tits / On the swing set at the old playground"). But then on the next line he holds himself up for dissection—"I will gladly break my heart for you," he submits on "Sweet." His vulnerability is actually pretty ballsy.
"I really love clear writing," he says, namechecking the directness of Leonard Coen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" or "Chelsea Hotel." "You can tell someone how you feel directly, and in a song. You can use details and it's not cryptic, it's not this musing on philosophy, it's conversational almost. When I write lyrics, I read them aloud to make sure they sound great."
Although Gonzalez has resolutely refused to make any music videos—remarkable given CAS's popularity on YouTube—the filmic quality of his music hasn't been lost on discerning ears. In recent months "Nothing's Going to Hurt You Baby" has been found soundtracking critical moments of tension in Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale and Netflix's Naomi Watts-staring psycho-sexual thriller Gypsy. It seems only a matter of time before this album is pillaged by music supervisors looking to add emotional oomph.
Cigarettes After Sex will spend the rest of the year promoting music the old-fashioned way: on an endless tour where Gonzalez will sing his tender, sad, smutty love songs to sold out crowds. Tender like your lover's hand wrapped around your ankle as he naps next to you on the couch; sad like that last fuck when you both know it's over; smutty because the private language between two is a code that keeps outsiders in the dark. He'll sing these songs quietly, and the audiences will sing warmly and drown him out, sharing in a communion all their own. The band will perform in places as far-flung as Indonesia, Singapore, and Estonia, kicking off their North American leg come September, but eventually, after another lap around Europe, he'll return to New York for the holiday season because even though he misses the gentle sunsets of El Paso, this city his new muse.
"You walk out the door and there's so much energy, it's crazy," he says, with a little wonder in his tone. "The cityscape is amazing, inspiring. It's always a big thrill to ride over the into the city and ride out of it. It knocks you out."
Kim Taylor Bennett is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.