How Cigarettes After Sex Built a Dreamworld

Cigarettes After Sex. And maybe smoke one before settling on this as your band name.
Cigarettes After Sex. And maybe smoke one before settling on this as your band name. Ebru Yildiz
Cigarettes After Sex’s influences are a lot like the band’s lyrics: worn right on their sleeve.

The group’s skeletal arrangements and intimate production make you feel like you’re in the room with them while they’re playing. It’s the kind of vibe that The Cowboy Junkies perfected on their classic The Trinity Session LP. You can also hear traces of other slowcore and dream pop icons Mazzy Star, Low, and Cocteau Twins in gorgeous guitar licks and hushed vocals. But one major influence on the Brooklyn ambient pop group’s sound isn’t so obvious: They’re huge fans of Aphex Twin.

For Cigarettes After Sex founder and songwriter Greg Gonzalez, Aphex Twin’s 1994 masterpiece Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is an important touchstone for his band’s sound.

“I hear those songs, and they really convey a sense of place to me,” Gonzalez says. “A place that I’ve never been to, a place that you may have dreamt about. I wanted our music to always have that sense of place to it … to give you this feeling of deja vu.”

Cigarettes After Sex are a band who care deeply about creating a sense of space and place in music. Eschewing the studio, most of the band’s recordings have been done live. They recorded their debut EP, I, in a stairway at the University of Texas.

“It made everybody play different,” Gonzalez says, reflecting on that first EP. “We’re in this huge, echoey stairway, and we had to play a lot slower or else anything you’d play would come out messy and you couldn’t understand it. It basically forced us to play slow.”

That slowness is the band’s signature. Anchored by a steady yet subtle rhythm section, Gonzalez’s androgynous voice purrs in your ear while plangent guitars, keyboards, and tambourines drop in and out of the mix.
Most of Gonzalez’s songs revolve around love and sex, music’s two most inexhaustible muses.

The singer has been open about the fact that most of his songs are about actual relationships he’s been in. “The girls I’ve written about know that the songs are about them,” Gonzalez says. “We might have been lovers at some point, but we broke up and remained friends with no bad feelings, so they usually know.”

When it comes to writing about such sensitive subjects, Gonzalez looks to the work of author and poet Richard Brautigan. “Brautigan had a way of writing about things that were raunchy and sexual, but he did it in a sweet way,” Gonzalez says of the Trout Fishing in America author. “He could say something raunchy but make it sound romantic, too.” Books like Brautigan’s The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster showed Gonzalez a way to write about sexuality in “a very open and sweet way.”

The soft-spoken singer also finds inspiration in cinema.

“I think of songs like they’re scenes in a screenplay,” Gonzalez says. The song “Opera House,” off the band’s 2017 self-titled full-length, pays tribute to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Gonzalez sings, “Built an opera house for you in the deepest jungle.”

The story of an obsessed man dragging an opera house through a jungle (Herzog, mirroring his film’s hero, actually dragged an opera house through the jungle while filming the movie), it’s a tale of maniacal drive and focus that parallels the band’s own dedication to their craft. They’ve spent the better part of the last two years on the road and have already written their next album. They recorded the songs in Spain last summer.

“Most of it is done,” Gonzalez says with a weary chuckle. “I just have to find the time to edit them and mix it all together.”

Cigarettes After Sex are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, May 1, at The Van Buren. Tickets are $19.99.

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Ashley Naftule