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Exclusive: The story behind Cigarettes After Sex’s ‘Apocalypse’ and more

Greg Gonzalez, the lead singer on the band’s songwriting process and their next chapter. 

Cigarettes After Sex has earned a top-tier spot in our music playlists since their first EP in 2012. Sensual, calming and sometimes erotic, their music is practically addictive. You can’t listen to one song, just one time. Right when you hit play on K for the fifth time, you know you are down a rabbit hole thinking about the one that got away. Their tender pop beats and charming lyrics, that aren’t rooted in some unachievable fantasy but are inspired by frontrunner Greg Gonzalez’s (lead singer and founder of Cigarettes After Sex) memories, make this band the whole package.

Ahead of their 2023 performance at Lollapalooza India, which is being promoted and co-produced by BookMyShow, Gonzalez spoke to Cosmopolitan India. He let us in on the story behind Apocalypse, what his songwriting process is, and much more. Read on!

Cosmopolitan India: In a previous interview you described your musical aesthetic as an ‘erotic lullaby’ of sorts. How do you think your sound has evolved in recent years?

Cigarettes After Sex: I think I’ll stand by the music we’ve done. Maybe our latest songs are a little different but a lot of the music is romance-based. It is music that seems like it really helps people with their anxiety, and to kind of relax. I think in the next chapter I’d want it to get a little more upbeat. I’m trying to figure out a way through which we can keep that gentle feeling, but the music makes you want to move a little more. We will see how it goes.

Cosmopolitan India: Can you walk us through your songwriting process? Is it cathartic and therapeutic to write about experiences and memories that are so strong and powerful for you?

Cigarettes After Sex: I feel that’s I write because I feel sort of repressed in daily life. It’s hard for me to express my emotions, and I feel that I have to write down these very intense feelings and memories that I have, and put them into a song to really understand what I was feeling at that time or else I can’t really figure it out at all. I usually start playing my guitar or keyboard and start singing, and the melody and the chords reveal themselves—usually, pretty quickly. I write dummy lyrics, and then maybe a word or two will appear that feels genuine and I’ll hook onto it. For instance, for K. when I started playing the song, I sang ‘Kristen’, and I thought, I’m singing this person’s name, so let me see if I can tell the story of the great time we have had together. So, I’ll have the melody, I’ll have the chords, maybe a few lines to go off lyrically, and then I’ll sit down on a computer and start perfecting the lyrics, line by line. I begin to figure out the story I’m telling and how I want to tell it. It could, more often than not, take about 100 drafts to get the lyrics right. I want every line to feel like it fits perfectly and nothing seems generic. Once I have that, then the song is done and we go record it. That’s where my songwriting process ends. It’s just like get the melody, get the chords, I’ll sit down and do 100 drafts of the lyrics, maybe sometimes it’s easier and I get them really quickly but it’s usually like that. 

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Cosmopolitan India: Could you tell us the story behind ‘Apocalypse’?

Cigarettes After Sex: It’s a bit strange because it’s not based on a specific memory or to do with somebody. The imagery is surreal and it’s not something that could have happened. But, the way I think about that song is, before I left my hometown, it was me and two different girls I’d dated and then kind of become friends with. It felt that we were like beautiful losers—stuck in our hometown with these big ambitions. At that time, it felt like it was impossible to get out of

the city, and so when I left and moved to New York, I thought about them again. I was pursuing my dreams and I was going somewhere and they wanted to be screenwriters, painters and actors. But they were still in my hometown, kind of like the song says, ‘sort of trapped there’. They couldn’t help but be trapped there. Something was strange. I wrote the song thinking about them and helping them get out of the city somehow. Thus, the song at the end is really about being there for people, when you’re all alone. It was like a little affectionate statement to them. It’s surreal. It’s hard to explain.

Cosmopolitan India: Apart from music, another thing that has always fascinated your fans is your artwork and your imagery. What goes behind choosing the minimalistic, monochromatic artwork that you’ll always have?

Cigarettes After Sex: Honestly, I am a huge fan of The Smiths. There’s something about The Smiths’ artwork that felt really special and it turns out that, Morrissey, the lead singer was just picking photographs from his personal collection and using it for their album covers, which felt really personal. And I was thinking, could I make Cigarettes feel like that? Everything feels really unified. You pick up a Cigarettes After Sex album and you can tell it’s us right away. It’s distinctive. How do I do that? At first, I was going to use photographs of actors like The Smiths but then I decided that the music sounded darker to me. It sounded like it was more like the film noir stuff I liked, like the French New Wave stuff I liked. It was all black and white and then I found this great photograph by Man Ray, a French photographer, which we used for the first EP—the girl with her head tilted back—and I thought that should be the feel of all the artwork: kind of really dark but dreamy, romantic, a little sensual, a little surreal, too. Since then, I look at different photographers' work and sift through thousands of photographs, and I’ll just know when one is right. And when I find it, I approach the photographer and ask if we could use the photo and license it. I pick out all the photos myself. 

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Cosmopolitan India: You’ll sing a lot about love and sex, is there a particular song that has helped you through tougher times?

Cigarettes After Sex: Yes, there are many. I can’t think of a recent one but a really old one that comes to my mind is, called What’ll I Do by Johnny Mathis… I don’t know why but this song made me cry for some reason. The song just feels so desperate, so sad to me—you know how when you’re in love with somebody and they’ve moved on. What are you supposed to do with your life without them?

As far as a song from our work that has helped me is, the love song called ‘Pistol’. It made me really emotional and I cried, pretty much every time I listened to it...It helped me process a bunch of feelings I went through last year.

Cosmopolitan India: How do keep up with the pressures of continuously having to perform and the pressures of touring?

Cigarettes After Sex: I love touring. But it really disrupts my writing and recording process. So I have to balance between wanting to go on tour and wanting to make new songs. On tour, I’m just taking in the experience being in the moment. I find it difficult to write. We have a lot of fun on tours—we get to see great cities and we really have the greatest fans. However, it’s tough because I really love to write and the rest of us in the band also really love touring as well and all the experiences we have on tour. It’s what we enjoy. 

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Cosmopolitan India: Is there a country or a city you want to perform in but haven’t gotten the chance to as of yet or are looking forward to?

Cigarettes After Sex: We’ve been lucky to go to so many great places that a lot of bands haven’t been to or don’t seem like they’ll ever go to and we love that we’ve done that first. We’ve gone to Cairo, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and so on. We would love to tour India and go to different cities, obviously, Mumbai included. We have been asked about it many times, too. We’d try to tour all of India; visit five cities or something. It’s still in the works; we’ve been trying to do it forever. We have been to Pune but it would be good to see more of the country. I love Mumbai.