Among my range of hard-hitting interview questions, I don’t think I’ve previously been cheeky enough to ask someone if they’ve ever had sex while listening to their own music, but Greg Gonzalez does rather invite the enquiry.
The Texan musician called his band Cigarettes After Sex, then set about making two albums of foggy, post-coital indie guitar songs that sound exactly like that memorable moniker. The lyrics, meanwhile, favour shagging over smoking. Leaving aside artistic licence for a moment, he appears to be at it constantly.
“I haven’t put it on myself but I have heard my music in bed,” he admits. “There was a time when girlfriends I had would put on my songs. They would say, ‘Can we put Cigarettes on right now?’ and I would say, ‘I guess so. That’s what it was meant for!’ It is kind of bedroom music. I was never bashful about it. It’s fine.”
He’s surely not the only one. His two albums – a self-titled debut from 2017 and last month’s follow-up Cry – have been accused of being one trick ponies, but as mood-setters, they hit a very specific spot. There are no overly catchy bids for a hit single, no heavy or energetic ones to vary the tone. It’s all sleepy drums, reverb-heavy guitar and Gonzalez’s high, soft, feminine vocals. If you have a heart-shaped bed, leopard-print sheets and mirrors on your ceiling, it’s for you.
The 37-year-old from El Paso, on the border with Mexico, is fully on-brand when we meet in a Barcelona hotel lobby – the latest stop on an 18-date European tour that takes his tally of 2019 gigs to around 80. He’s all in black – heavy boots, leather jacket, lustrous beard, with a surprisingly fast and deep speaking voice compared to the way he sings. “Yeah, I’m like two different people,” he says. “I love low singers, like Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, and I’ve sung in every kind of style, but I found as time went on that I was more and more influenced by the female voice – Françoise Hardy, Hope Sandoval, Chan [Cat Power] Marshall. If you’re intimate with someone, you wouldn’t be speaking in the voice I am now. It would be quiet and gentle and mellow. That’s the voice of Cigarettes.”
His rise to leading a band that plays sizeable shows all over the world – two London gigs in the coming months, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Hammersmith Apollo, follow Brixton Academy last year – has been as slow as his songs. His first single, Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby, was posted online in 2012 and eventually went viral on YouTube in early 2016, despite the fact that it wasn’t a video – just a still black-and-white image of a body apparently in ecstasy. “It does feel like lightning struck or something. There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he says. “We probably got lucky at that point with the name being provocative.”
He used to earn his keep as a jazz bassist, playing in covers bands around El Paso, while making his own music on the side. He always called it Cigarettes After Sex, but the sonic style and his bandmates have changed plenty of times. First he made retro electropop, influenced by Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and New Order. “It was like writing drafts. You finish something, crumple it up and throw it over your shoulder, but you keep what was good about it.”
What clicked first, he says, were the words. “I started writing more confessional lyrics, where I would just say honestly how I felt about something. It started getting more explicit. I wanted to tell stories about things I’d been through, or to use feelings as a vehicle for a kind of fantasy. I always loved Chelsea Hotel and Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen,” he says.
Cohen’s 1974 ballad Chelsea Hotel #2 is, notoriously, widely known to be about a liason with Janis Joplin in a New York guest house. It’s the one that goes: “Givin’ me head on the unmade bed
/While the limousines wait in the street,” and concludes: “I don’t think of you that often.” Gonzalez also namechecks Prince’s Dirty Mind as an inspiration, while his sound is closer to the blurry, atmospheric indie that was once known as “shoegaze” and can now be found on Spotify playlists under “dreampop”.
“I liked all that stuff, like Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, but the lyrics are indecipherable with those bands. I love that they did that, but I thought, ‘Can I do that and also tell a story like Dylan did, or Cohen?’ So I tried to put those together, and to tell an honest story about love, it had to include sex as well. To leave out those details would be kind of dishonest.”
Now, a poetic giant Cohen may have been, but he subsequently apologised for being so indiscreet about the Chelsea Hotel, and 2019 is definitely a stranger time for a white guy in a position of power to be bragging about his conquests. Gonzalez’s lyrics are concise and don’t leave much room for nuance or for the women in his stories to acquire three dimensions. On Kiss It Off Me, it takes just five lines for him to get some head of his own from someone “drinkin’ a Slurpee in a peach baseball cap”. You’re the Only Good Thing in My Life begins: “You only fuck for love/Told me you could never get enough/Posing as a Playboy centrefold/You could be my Penthouse Pet, I know.” An unimpressed Pitchfork review of his new album gave it 4/10 and accused him of operating “within a space of midcentury sexual anachronism.”
He defends his tales as fantasy, to an extent, with the Playboy thing. “Some songs would use like a muse, someone I was seeing at the time, and tell a story that was a little more surreal around them. People think it’s confessional songwriting. It is and it isn’t at times. There’s a balance between what’s real and what’s more dreamlike.” But it’s also explicit honesty, he says, as with Hentai, a song in which he describes to his girlfriend some Japanese anime porn that he watched. “That was a real story, me talking about this bizarrely imaginative hentai film that I’d seen. The way we fell in love was that we were able to go to these intimate places that I couldn’t really go to with other people. You sometimes find these friendships or loves where you can speak about things that you never thought you could. And the song is more about that than the pornography part.”
He’s been in a serious relationship for the past year – his girlfriend is out on tour with him – which may change his subject matter and even his sound going forward. He sounds a bit dismissive of his latest album, calling it “a minor work”.
“It was something that was necessary to do but to me it doesn’t feel as substantial as what went before. It’s a stepping stone,” he says.
I ask about the pros and cons about giving the band that name. Under pros, he does credit it with helping his music to stand apart from the general dreampop mush. “I think it enticed people.” On the other hand, it sounds like he’s starting to notice the restrictions. “Maybe the name will be too limiting, and I’ll have done as much erotica romance music as I can do. If I need to reinvent things I’d probably leave the name behind.”
If he does, he leaves a singular legacy. And 90 minutes, two albums, of his beautiful, dirty music is probably plenty for most people.
Cry is out now on Partisan. Nov 28, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk); Mar 24, Eventim Apollo, W6 (eventimapollo.com)