How Cigarettes After Sex Are Crafting The Setlist For Their Biggest Tour Yet

When Greg Gonzalez, the man behind Cigarettes After Sex, began imagining the aesthetics for his upcoming X’s Tour, he took influence from an unexpected place. Heading to arenas and stadiums across the US and Europe for the very first time, he recalled his childhood, obsessing over Metallica’s A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica and their Black Album tour. Listening to the smooth, mysterious pop concoctions of X’s and earlier releases may draw few parallels to the speed-fueled metal of Metallica, but Gonzalez is ready to put on a capital s-Show, and who better to base your biggest gigs to date off of than the LA icons?

With X’s, Gonzalez presents his most polished songwriting to date, turning in some of his DIY tendencies for lush production and an emphasis on cohesion. Gonzalez is a showman, taking shape both on record and in the live setting. Rather than boost his band’s setlist with new material, he aims to sprinkle a few fresh tunes into each set, bulking out the rest of the show with hits from his back catalog. “I like hearing bands play new songs live, but if I put myself in the audience, I probably wouldn’t be that excited to hear a new song live for the first time. I wouldn’t be able to get what it was,” he explains. A recent show at Bonnaroo marked the first time they played new single “Tejano Blue” live. Cigarettes After Sex are promoting a new album, but they’re putting on a show for the fans, an important distinction in Gonzalez’s mind.

While the venues may be bigger, fans can still expect the signature Cigarettes After Sex set on this upcoming run. There will be bigger production values afforded to them with the upgrade in ticket sales, but above all, the X’s Tour will be a rock show. Cinematic influences will abound, but for Gonzalez, it’s still all about the music. He says the new set will land somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Metallica, a middle ground that makes him chuckle but does a good job illustrating the blend of classiness and absurdity that informs their best work. X’s is playful but deeply serious, sensual yet vulgar. While fresh fans may have missed their chance to catch Cigarettes After Sex in a small club, this may be the last chance to see a show before things get really turned up a notch: “Music has to be the main thing, but I think our style lends itself well to lighting and shadow and fog,” Gonzalez says, before adding with a laugh: “potentially someday with pyrotechnics and fire, too.”

How long was the writing and recording process from first idea to mastering?

This actually took longer than usual for us. I think we started doing stuff at the end of 2020. We started writing some of the earlier songs on the record, trying out ideas. It was totally finished with vocals and everything last summer, about a year ago. It was a three year process. Usually we’d do things a little more quickly, but this record was supposed to be a little different. I was trying to get a different groove going on. It was a little more produced than the previous stuff in that sense.

When you record, are you thinking about the live setting, using instruments that can or can’t translate to the live show? Things like that?

I’m definitely mindful of how we would do it live because I want us to have a purity as far as not having to bring in too many backing tracks or things like that. For the longest time we never even played with a click. This is our first record with a click track. That was done to get the groove in a certain place. I found that the click works well in a live setting to make things more consistent, but I don’t like to fly in things to the mix. I like it more old-fashioned, where we’re just playing it live on stage.

Will you be using a click on this tour throughout?

Yeah we definitely will for this. We’ve been using a click for the last while now on the road.

Does that take getting used to on stage?

Yeah, it took a lot of practice for us. We’d all played with clicks and everything, but this music is really supposed to ebb and flow. I didn’t necessarily even realize that pretty much all the old records we’ve done, they all speed up quite a bit. There are songs that actually speed up like 5 BPM throughout the song. It’s not something you would ever think of. A song like “Sweet” from our first record speeds up, so when we played it live with a click, it didn’t feel right. It just felt kind of dead. So we actually went in and programmed the click to increase BPMs on certain songs.

Setlist vs tracklist for this new record… Do they flow the same way to you in terms of creating an atmosphere?

This has become more of a thing lately, and I don’t want to knock anybody, I think it’s great if people enjoy it, but a lot of bands and artists will do one record straight through live. For us, we could never do that because it feels like a live show has to function in a much, much different way than the way a record functions. A lot of the best records to me also start off brighter on side A, before side B gets darker. You think of OK Computer or Rumours or Remain In Light. They have this really upbeat first half, and the second half gets on the darker side, which our new record does the same thing. The more upbeat stuff is on side A and it winds down at the end with the darker songs. Since records kind of do that, that doesn’t seem like the best thing live. Live is supposed to build up to the biggest hits at the end. I’m pretty old fashioned the way I think about it. I wanna save all the biggest songs and put them all at the end. I think that’s fun. That’s the dynamics of what I wanna do for us.

Some artists get a little jaded abut playing their biggest songs. Have you ever wrestled with that? Some of your biggest songs are on the self-titled record, but now you’re in a bigger place in your career. Is it always easy revisiting those hits in this context of a new era?

If the crowd wants to hear it I definitely wanna play it. I guess it was a happy accident but my philosophy is kind of, ‘Don’t write a song if you won’t want to play it live a gazillion times.’ I wouldn’t want to put anything out that seems frivolous. Luckily for me, I haven’t gotten tired of these songs because they’re real memories that I’ve had. A song like “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” which is the song that first took off for us in 2015, it actually becomes more profound as the years go on to play that song because it feels like there’s more distance between the person I was when I wrote that song. That’s a true story. It’s full of imagery of the relationship I was in at that time. If I think about that on stage, it feels like there’s this profound gap between time between who I was then and who I am now. It feels really overwhelming in this really beautiful way.

Does that feeling work its way into the way you play it live?

It definitely does. I’m reminiscing when I’m playing that song. I can see artists who wrote songs that were creatively interesting but not really personal, maybe that’s where it gets, ‘Oh, we’ve played this song a million times and there’s no emotional core to it.’ Even if the audience would really enjoy it, it’s still not that personal to them, right? Or the song is meant to be humorous. I heard that Pavement didn’t want to play “Cut Your Hair” back in the day because they were played out on the song. It’s valid, but for me, I’m writing these songs to be performed after I’m gone, even. Someone else should be playing and singing these songs at gigs. That’s kind of my safeguard against feeling that way, jaded or sick of a song. If I did that I wouldn’t be a good writer or wouldn’t have anything worth expressing.

What’s the point of writing and releasing music if it’s not meant to last?

For me, yeah. Exactly. That’s the way I get fulfilled by writing. Other artists who may write quite a bit of music may be fulfilled by releasing a bunch of stuff and that’s fulfilling for them. That’s valid as well. For me, if I didn’t live through it and it’s not really personal, if it doesn’t feel deeply emotional, I won’t put it out. If I’m playing these songs on stage, I’m reliving a beautiful memory I had with someone. If the audience is enjoying it too, that could be really emotional. Often times I’ll see the look on someone’s face in the crowd and if they’re crying or something, it’s kind of hard to look at them because it’ll make me choked up and I won’t be able to sing anymore [laughs]. That happens pretty often.

That must be such a unique feeling.

That’s something I never anticipated. Just the look on someone’s face will tell me an entire story, or can give me something I can imagine, something they’ve been through. That’s very intense, to see someone reacting to that story I have. I can picture rooms where these moments happened in with somebody, and it’s interesting that someone has their own story I don’t know about that I can see in their face.

Was Bonnaroo the first concert of this new era for the band?

It was. We played “Tejano Blue” for the first time.

What’s your general philosophy on playing new songs before the album comes out?

We actually never do it. There was a time we had to do it, when the band took off in 2016 and we had a total of six songs to play. We were on tour in Europe and the US and we figured we should play more than six songs [laughs]. We were playing “John Wayne” and “Apocalypse” and songs from our first record before it came out. That was the exception. Usually, I don’t want to play a song before it’s out. I like when bands debut songs live, but I don’t want to give anything away. Once it’s out it’s out and it makes more sense to me. Philosophically, I like hearing bands play new songs live, but if I put myself in the audience, I probably wouldn’t be that excited to hear a new song live for the first time. I wouldn’t be able to get what it was. The danger of that, too, is hearing the live version first and it’s great, but then you hear the recorded version and it’s not as good. I really want to avoid that as well [laughs].

Is there a difference for you outside of duration for a headlining set versus a festival set? Some people may not be at these festival sets to specifically see Cigarettes After Sex.

It’s a bit of an exception. Usually, I like to start the show smaller than we did at Bonnaroo. I’m not trying to get too perverted here, but it’s kind of like foreplay. A set for us starts with caresses and then it moves into these more intense feelings. It should really ramp up dynamically. For Bonnaroo, we decided to start with something everybody knows.

Did you like that feeling of people reacting to a bigger song first?

It was cool. It didn’t actually seem like it made the biggest splash, and I like the philosophy I just explained more. There is a kind of, ‘we arrived’ moment. We played “Sunsetz” first, which feels like a nice opener.

“Crush” and “Affection” were show openers for a long time. What do you think made those two songs in particular good show starters?

I like that those start with just the guitar first, and then the drums and bass join in. There’s a moment where everyone cheers for the intro, and then when the other parts come in there’s another cheer. It compounds and there’s an excitement that things are building. Those songs have a nice relaxed feeling to them. They’re both very versatile songs and I like the way they move. They’re both standalone singles, too.

Are you generally into playing the hits at the end?

Absolutely. It’s always been that way, too, even during our first shows. We pretty much always end with “Apocalypse” before the encore. It just feels like the way you’re supposed to do it. I’ll see bands play one of their biggest hits third, and it feels so random to me, to play the biggest song that early.

But the band is at the point now where you have at least a handful of songs that have a wide swath of fanbase claiming it as their favorite. For someone, their favorite song will be played third.

That’s a good point, but I guess I meant other bands who only have one big song and they play it third [laughs]. If something overtakes “Apocalypse” someday, maybe we’ll play that last. What’s cool is we can play the encore and do some interesting stuff there. I’d never wanna play “Apocalypse” during the encore. People might miss it or something.

You’ve been doing “Opera House” a lot as an encore. What makes that a good finale?

I like the idea of ending with a really emotional song, a really sweet, desperate place. It’s like a movie with a sad ending. It’s brutal. I want that feeling. We get to have this big moment with “Apocalypse” and everyone’s happy. It’s triumphant and magical, and then we go in a totally different direction by playing a song that’s a heartbroken sweet song. I like ending on that exact moment.

Does it ever get tougher for you to revisit some of these harder experiences from your adult life? At this point are you able to separate the performance from the thing that informed the song?

I usually can’t. There are times I’ll feel it more and feel it less, but I’m writing for it to be that. If I’m more confrontational with things I’ve been through, even if they are amazing moments, that gives me what I need from music more than saying, ‘Oh, this is too difficult for me to play.’ You want to face things head on. When I’ve done that, it gives me a lot. It’s really rewarding to do that. If I feel really emotional at a show, I’ll go with it and just try to face it and feel that again. That feels like the best thing, rather than try to ignore something. The songs themselves are trying to confront that stuff. I don’t write songs that are bitter, but there is joy and pain in these songs. A lot of it is sad because it was a sweet moment I had with somebody or a really deep, romantic memory that I had with somebody. The fact that it’s sad is that it’s gone, but it was beautiful when I had it. It wasn’t sad. The distance of time between playing a song on stage and when it was written feels very profound, emotional but never heavy.

Have you ruminated a bit on which songs from the new album will be the best in a live setting?

The music is meant to be cohesive. A lot of it might sound similar, but I love artists whose songs sound very distinctively like them. It is cool when I write a song that would be good in a set, just to shake things up dynamically. The newest single, “Baby Blue Movie,” feels pretty good towards the end of a set because it’s pretty upbeat and thrilling in a live way. Before that, I thought “Heavenly” would be pretty good live. I don’t want to play too many new songs, maybe four at the max. That seems like a lot, even. It’s the same kind of thing. If I see an artist, it’s nice to get a few new songs but you mostly want those old songs. As time goes on and the songs are known more, we can add more of them to the set, but I don’t want to do too many on the new tour and spam the audience with all this new stuff.

Bands play 75% of a new album a lot. You can still be proud of your new work and want to cater to the audience’s desire to hear old stuff. That’s a hard balance.

It’s such a weird thing and something I thought a lot about, too. Think about The Beatles in the ‘60s on tour. They had “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” and all these massive songs, but by the time they play Shea Stadium in 1965, they’re not playing any of those songs. It’s all new. Everything was new then, playing “Paperback Writer.” It’s a cool way to do it. Dylan would always debut a ton of new stuff. Cat Power was doing that when I saw her years ago. It signals a new era of music, which is a cool way to do it. Like, ‘If you like us, here’s our new era.’ The way I’m thinking about it is in the way I enjoy shows, which is comprehensive. I’m saying, ‘This is all one vision, so it should all be in the set.’ All these songs relate to each other so much. My songs have recurring characters. It’s this little universe that all ties together and I want that full spread in a setlist. I also want people to enjoy themselves and hear songs they know and not be disappointed because we don’t play our biggest songs for some reason. I do respect artists that do have that style, too.

You mentioned Dylan, Cat Power, and the ‘60s Beatles. Who are some of your other live inspirations?

This is an odd one to say, but growing up I used to watch A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica religiously. Metallica, especially when they did the Black Album tour, from ‘91 to ‘93 or something, the entire vibe was awesome. They would be silly on stage sometimes, with jokes and guitar solos and drum solos, but they were still so stripped down. They were playing really comprehensive setlist. That was a big influence. I also loved the all-black aesthetic. That vibe goes a long way. Leonard Cohen, too. I was able to see him in 2009, I think, at Red Rocks Amphitheater. He was a class act. The band was all dressed in suits and he was playing a nylon string acoustic guitar. He was doing all the songs you wanted to hear. That was really special. That’s a good mix, Leonard Cohen and Metallica [laughs].

Are you a banter guy on stage, or no talking on stage between songs?

I tend to not want to talk too much. I want to say some things. When bands don’t say anything, it’s kind of cool, but I feel like I have to say something. I’ll intro songs and sometimes I’ll say a little bit more. If I see Paul McCartney and he’s telling stories, that’s awesome to see and I don’t mind it. Other artists I’ve seen and they wanna keep talking forever, and it starts to feel a little odd to me. I’m trying to make it very minimal. If I have more to say I will. I’m still very shy on stage. I don’t feel very good about public speaking. I also don’t want to take them out of the experience too much, it should be mostly music-based. If I have something important to say, of course I will, but it doesn’t feel like the show is about me talking. I haven’t heard anyone really complain in a while, though once in a while we’ll get, ‘He didn’t really say anything’ [laughs].

You guys play cover songs you’ve recorded on record, but not really any standalone covers not in your discography. What’s your philosophy on that?

We would only play a cover we’ve actually put out. Those early tours, we would play “Keep On Loving You” quite a bit, but that song did really well when that came out. It’s fallen a bit by the wayside with our fans, when we play it it doesn’t really seem to do much for them [laughs]. There was a time that we played that song at every show. “Neon Moon” was a song I kept getting asked about so we would play it on the last tour. More recently we’ve been doing “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which we’ll probably play on this tour quite a bit. We only play those because they’re songs I’ve adapted.

You wouldn’t ever play cover songs you haven’t adapted?

I wouldn’t play a cover song at a show just to play it. I kind of reject that philosophy for us. I’ve seen bands do it, but I like to have a reason for covering something. If you know us, you will know our cover songs. A lot of people thought we wrote those songs, too. People thought I wrote “Keep On Loving You” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” [laughs].

Those covers were all taken from the same session, too. I just staggered their release dates because I didn’t want to drop all these covers at once. It felt kind of weird to release a whole bunch of covers at once. I won’t say anything about it either, I’ll just drop it, regardless of if we recorded it years earlier. It doesn’t need to be clarified that it’s from the vaults.

You’re playing arenas! That’s crazy. What’s it like getting ready to play the biggest venues you’ve ever stepped foot in?

It’s wild. This was always the wish, going back to what I said about Metallica. I was watching their live videos religiously and thinking, ‘They’re playing these huge arenas. I wanna do that someday.’ I want my music to be in that same breath. It’s cool to see it happening in that way. It was a long road to get there but it’s arriving now, which is amazing. Now it gives us a little more of a chance to mess with production values and try cool things out. The way I think of the Cigarettes live experience is that you should feel like you’re in a movie, but it still has to be a rock show. I don’t want it to feel too theatrical. I want it to feel intensely cinematic and have really interesting moments that feel really striking visually and musically, but in the end it shouldn’t be too heavy on that. It should be a stripped-down rock show with us on stage, with almost no production at times, too. I like both extremes of that in the same show. It’s music forward, music first. Music has to be the main thing, but I think our style lends itself well to lighting and shadow and fog, potentially someday with pyrotechnics and fire, too [laughs].