Cigarettes After Sex bring their musical snapshots to Tel Aviv

When Greg Gonzalez answers the phone in his Brooklyn apartment, I find myself wondering how a smalltown El Paso boy ends up in Brooklyn with a hit album (2017’s Cigarettes After Sex), a spotlight on hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and massive world tours.

“I more than ‘grew up’ in El Paso,” Gonzalez says. “I was there for almost 30 years. As a late bloomer, I knew that I would eventually move to New York, but it took me a long time to build up the strength to actually commit.”

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Gonzalez describes his hometown as “sweet, mellow, very relaxed” – a rather accurate personification of the singer- songwriter himself, who will be bringing his band to Israel for the first time this week for two shows at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, on May 11 and 12.

El Paso also served as his ideal setting to record Cigarette After Sex’s first EP in 2012, released four years after he started performing under the moniker with a rolling cast of musicians.

“I got the idea from my all-time favorite album, [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue. Besides serving as my medicine during nightly anxiety breakdowns in high school, lulling me into a different mood, I was inspired by its origins: the album was a snapshot, capturing this particular moment that could only have happened in that room on that day.”

So Gonzalez assembled his band of El Paso natives, brought them to the stairway of his alma mater, and handed them material they had never seen before.

“There was this electricity and spontaneity to the resulting sound that escapes your imagination entirely. The record sounds so effortless – it became very big in the Cigarettes’ philosophy, along with our invented dream world.”

Despite his dreamy, carefully calculated lyrics, which he scrutinizes to ensure that “every line of the story is able to stand on its own,” Gonzalez doesn’t stress the need for listeners to “rescue” his lyrics from the band’s sea of dreamy instrumentals.

“It’s all a part of listening,” he says. “For me, listeners should simply like the song. If they want to dig into the lyrics, and the lyrics can actually do something for them, then by all means. On the surface, though, they should enjoy the song for what it is and let the lyrics set the mood.”

Gonzalez started off as an electric jazz bassist to “actually make some money,” and his 40-odd rotating crew of musicians wore many masks – like their 2008 electro-pop phase, which included rediscovering Madonna’s ‘80s singles – before solidifying their sound and lineup. But one thing remained constant: Gonzalez’s ultra-confessional lyrics.

“I was talking about things that I knew might get me into trouble,” he says, with an awkward giggle. “It’s the same now; when you’re writing a song about somebody and you’re being very open about it, they might come back to bite you.”

Thankfully, Gonzalez has yet to deal with such a situation. He attributes his luck to his gently deceptive lyrics – sweet enough to ward off any potential disgruntlement among past lovers.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying the autobiographical essence stitched into the band’s first album, released last June.

“These are all true stories,” Gonzalez confirms. For instance, “Apocalypse” is extremely surreal in its imagery, yet the premise is based on a few girls he was seeing back in El Paso.

“They were aimless and couldn’t get out of the city despite their creative dreams,” he says. According to Gonzalez, the song’s “crumbling bridges” and “hollowed out pianos left in the dark” are based on these girls.

While the girls of “Apocalypse” represent younger, lighter relationships, many songs reveal more dangerous liaisons, and alongside his more serious songs comes the recurring motif of running away – from the woman in “Sunsetz” disappearing into his rearview mirror to begging Kristen not to leave in “K.”

“When I’m in love, I find it painfully hard to make it last. That’s always in the back of my mind – whether it’s relatively new or quite serious,” he confesses. “It’s hard for me to deal with the concept of forever.”

Perhaps that is why Gonzalez strives to capture each of these fleeting women in his cinematic songs, especially in the video of one lover “lying in [her] red lingerie” in “Sweet.”

“Film is such a big influence for me, so I wanted that mood in there of being captured on camera. Plus, in the case of ‘Sweet,’ I had actually received those videos. They kept me in touch. Kept things tangible.”

An EP and an album deep, love has become the stubborn string keeping this fanciful kite from flying too far off.

“I like to think of myself as a romantic poet trying to find a way to deal with romance in an exciting way. Love is messy – it contains dark and painful elements in juxtaposition with sweeter elements. I want to showcase that.”

This sweet yet scary lullaby lent itself perfectly to the totalitarian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, which featured “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” by Cigarettes After Sex in its first season.

One has to wonder if the starry-eyed poet will ever tire of love sonnets.

“I’m sure I’ll venture from it naturally, but for some reason right now, all I want to talk about is love. It’s hard to find a record that is exclusively about love; even great albums like Rumours by Fleetwood Mac contain at least one song that doesn’t talk about it.”

Well then, it appears that Gonzalez has accomplished his mission.