One of the more delightful sets at Life Is Beautiful belonged to Superorganism, a goofy-hip video-art collective nominally from London whose signature song is “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.” Fronted by the performatively blase Orono Noguchi, Superorganism has existed for less than two years, a YouTube sensation whose stage presence is more irresistible than polished.
Counting views as some kind of yardstick of aesthetic quality is generally foolish, but fellow YouTube stars Cigarettes After Sex have almost 10 times as many as Superorganism — and the Brooklyn-by-way-of-El-Paso shoegaze trio admits to feeling a little mystified as to how exactly that happened, nearly a decade after their founding. It’s as if they make dream-pop that simultaneously contracts and dilates time.
“It’s one of those things where it’s in progress for so long and then it exploded,” frontman Greg Gonzalez tells SF Weekly. “It really did take years and years to happen.”
He speaks in a gravelly register that belies the impossibly soft falsetto that characterizes Cigarettes After Sex’s vocals, from the 2012 EP I. to the 2017 full-length debut, also called Cigarettes After Sex. (Gonzalez deliberately destroyed everything that came before.) A direct descendant of Slowdive, the band shares a similar vibe with Beach House — itself a band whose female lead singer is often mistaken for being of a different gender.
“I’ve been singing since I was little and I adopt a singing style based on who I was listening to, but I think since I mostly loved female singers, I started with their voices more often — like [Mazzy Star’s] Hope Sandoval or Francoise Hardy,” Gonzalez says. “I kind of started taking that tone and my voice developed to where it is now.”
Hardy is a fan, having taken the band out to dinner twice in Paris, experiences Gonzalez remembers as “surreal.” He’s also undertaken some sleuthing to ascertain exactly where Cigarettes After Sex’s virality came from after years of getting one random email a month from a fan in Brazil or Canada.
“I moved to New York in 2013, and two years later, for some reason, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’ and a new single, ‘Affection,’ seemed to go viral at the same time, and it felt like there was this word-of-mouth thing going on,” Gonzalez says. “We got some kind of feedback loop on YouTube and it just went on from there. I even talked to YouTube, and they didn’t know what happened, either.”
He determined that their music was on the YouTube homepage in Poland for a while, but otherwise, the randomness of the internet seems to be the ultimate explanation. It’s fitting, given the band’s mysterious, ghost-in-the-machine aura. Lyrically, the candor about sex and the apocalypse intermingle with more poetic allusions, such as the reference to “Brautigan” on the song “Sunsetz.” Gonzalez confirms that that is in fact Richard Brautigan, the prolific poet and sometime member of the Diggers who took his own life in Bolinas, Calif., in 1984.
“He found a way to be kind of overtly sexual but still make it kind of sweet, I thought,” Gonzalez says. “He wrote about sex in an open way that was also very humorous.”
Cigarettes After Sex is more than just a musical project, as the band’s cover art (and Instagram page) consist of spectral, black-and-white photography that Gonzalez began adapting from other artists’ work once he discovered the 1920s high Modernist Man Ray. He was after something iconic the way Belle and Sebastian records are immediately recognizable, he says (same goes for a Richard Brautigan book cover).
“It felt perfect with everything that I was looking for, a kind of sensual, erotic feel and also kind of surreal,” he says. “The whole black-and-white thing gives it this nostalgic quality that I thought was really important. … I just looked for other photographers that bore similarities to Man Ray and reached out to them.”
At Treasure Island, Cigarettes After Sex has the cusp-of-sunset time slot, which works to their advantage, since they’re arguably better-suited to contemplative (or postcoital) bedroom listening than a boisterous mid-afternoon set. In spite of his deliberate nature, Gonzalez is unfazed.
“The live shows are very much like what you hear on the record, because we just present what we do in a very sure way,” he says.
It’s strange being up against a pulsing EDM act, he adds, but Cigarettes After Sex can exert a peculiar power over its audiences.
“The music is very somber in a lot of ways, but we’ve dealt with crowds who treat it like it’s very rowdy or something. They’re excited and pumped up,” Gonzalez says. “It felt like we’re bringing that spirit out of people — which is great, because it’s still pop music. It’s written as pop music, but with a different coat of paint on it.”
Cigarettes After Sex, Sunday, Oct. 14, 5:55-6:40 p.m. on the City Stage.
See more from SF Weekly’s Treasure Island Music Festival issue:
Soccer Mommy Embraces ‘Chill but Kinda Sad’ Vibes
Clean follows the 21-year-old’s ‘very depressing and cool’ experience of moving to New York for college in indie heartbreak-style.
Serpentwithfeet Is No Performance Artist
Blended with soul and R&B, the traditions of the Black gospel churches that serpent grew up in flourish on his debut album, soil.
Courtney Barnett Is a Millennial Courtney Love
The Australian singer-songwriter speaks to the stereotype of the lazy, navel-gazing generation — and in doing so, sees rampant success.
Pusha T, Perfectionist
He’s back from Wyoming with a clear perspective of his place in hip-hop.
George FitzGerald, Mr. Burns
An early-afternoon set rather suits a Londoner who finds himself at the center of the underground music scene.