The front man of Cigarettes After Sex roams along the edge of an El Paso stage, doing the rock star box step: take a few steps forward to tease the fans reaching for him, sway the neck of his guitar toward the crowd, take two steps back, retreat to center stage. Dressed in an AllSaints leather jacket and his signature black Tecovas, 41-year-old Greg Gonzalez seems comfortable in front of a crowd made up largely of teenagers. The fans, who have heard fifteen-second clips of his songs via viral TikToks or followed him here from Tumblr, adore Greg for his lover boy persona. They know that he favors old black and white films and that his favorite musician is French singer-songwriter Françoise Hardy. They know, from lyrics such as “feeling so lonely, ’cause it’s not enough,” that Greg hasn’t lost his sense for high school–level heartbreak. Every one of his songs feels this way: dreamy, heavy, nostalgic. The Sun City crowd might have more faith in Greg than he has in himself; for this show, Cigarettes After Sex’s first hometown performance since 2016, the band’s management team was set on playing the Don Haskins Center, capacity 12,567. Greg wanted to shoot lower, for the 2,050-seat Plaza Theatre. He didn’t win that fight, and the Haskins Center sold out in an hour. 

Greg’s face is taut in concentration, strumming his Parker Nitefly electric guitar as the spotlight follows his every move like a sunbeam through a stained glass church window. Everything about the concert experience is curated by him—from the welcome soundtrack (some Bob Dylan, some Aretha Franklin) to the lighting to his backing video, which includes a rose aflame, a lightning storm, and clips from Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 film Summer With Monika. The set list is meant to mimic the progression of sex, Greg tells me with complete sincerity, starting with the slow rhythms of “Cry” and peaking at “Dreaming of You” with thunderstorm visuals and heavy guitar. Friends are crying on each other’s shoulders; couples sway as one. The mood is euphoric but heavy, and I leave the show with the sort of lightness that comes after a good long cry. 

This week, the band dropped the first single off the forthcoming LP X’s (Partisan Records, July 12). Titled “Tejano Blue,” it represents the first time Greg has nodded to his Texas upbringing so explicitly (no accordions or trumpets to be heard, but there is the lyric “And when you drag me on the floor and the blue tejano’s on”). In a few months, Cigarettes After Sex will embark on its X’s World Tour, playing its biggest venues yet on a 51-date world tour that includes stops in New York City’s Madison Square Garden and London’s O2 arena. There are shows set for the arenas of Austin, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, but nothing scheduled in El Paso. Greg’s hometown no longer has an auditorium big enough to hold him.

Fame is new to Cigarettes After Sex, but Cigarettes After Sex is not a new band. The three-man group—Greg on vocals and electric guitar, Jacob Tomsky on drums, and Randall Miller on bass—has been together since 2013, though Greg has been writing music as Cigarettes After Sex for even longer. Over the last decade-plus, the band has garnered more than 23 million monthly listeners on Spotify, including 4 million since I began working on this story last summer. “Apocalypse,” the biggest hit off its first studio album, recently passed the one billion streams mark. Within the past few years, TikTok has pushed Cigs (the band’s fans say “CAS” for short, but the guys themselves opt for Cigs) into a new plane of popularity. Cigs’ songs are regularly featured in fan edits with aesthetically pleasing TV clips, or in videos of users basking in the gentle lyrics. The TikTok success effectively refreshed the demographic the band reached from fans in their early to mid-twenties to those between the ages of 15 and 21 years old, the songs serving as growing-pain lullabies and breakup anthems for the younger generation. The group is most famous outside of the States, and its top three songs (“Apocalypse,” “Cry,” and “K.”), as well as its first album, rank in the Top 30 charts in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Mongolia. Cigs occupies a gray area of fame: in the days I spent with the band, I watched friends, family, and women form discrete lines to talk to Greg in dive bars, at aftershow events, and even in his own hotel suite, but he’s still anonymous enough for privacy in grocery stores and shopping malls. He rolls his eyes when I call him a rock star, but I barely saw him without his Ray-Bans.

In classic Greg fashion, he has found a way to romanticize this slow burn of discoverability. “[TikTok] really seemed to change our status in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s kind of like a nice little classic rock story.” He likens himself to David Bowie, who was ten years into his career before he broke in the States. “There’s a romantic, classic thing to that.” 

Greg, who is a multi-instrumentalist, began taking guitar lessons at a small El Paso music shop at age ten. He says he’s not much of a student: he learned how to conquer the guitar by ear instead, playing along with albums—Metallica was his specialty. He was in his high school’s band, and he would often join makeshift bands, spanning genres from jazz to metal to rock, on the side. “Everyone thinks he’s doing this romantic s—, but they don’t know that he knows death metal,” says Omar Rodriguez, a friend and former high school bandmate. The very name Cigarettes After Sex has a lovestruck high school student quality; you can almost envision the sophomores giggling over it in the back of the band room. It belongs more to the realm of Greg’s beloved black and white movies than it does to reality (who smokes inside anymore?). But it speaks to a casual intimacy, genuine or just yearned for, that has become the hallmark of his music. The name came to him in an extremely literal postcoital moment of clarity he experienced while, yes, smoking a cigarette. “It felt like the whole universe just slowed down to as slow as it can be,” he explains. He wanted to capture that feeling in his music from there on out. “It was this moment of intense peace.”

His approach to songwriting prioritizes that kind of no-holds-barred autobiographical storytelling. Most of the lyrics stem from real-life experiences with “the deep loves of my life,” he says. What’s most painful is performing a certain vulnerable song to a crowd of thousands and knowing that that specific ex-girlfriend is in the crowd somewhere, which has happened more than once. Songs such as “John Wayne” (“He’s got so much love for her / But he doesn’t know what to do”) make you feel like your heart is being squeezed. That song, and most in the Cigs’ catalog, belongs in one of those stereotypical prom moments when you’re awkwardly two-stepping under a disco ball, heart beating out of your chest, trying to will your hands to stop sweating. 

The feelings of love, longing, and heartbreak are the holy trinity of Cigs. When he isn’t writing confessionals from experience, Greg will often “use the feeling of a particular relationship to write something that ends up being a little more fictional” (there was never actually a woman “drinking a Slurpee / In a peach baseball cap,” as in “Kiss It Off Me”). If he’s not in the throes of active heartbreak, he returns to old memories to re-create a new story. If time starts to heal a wound, he’ll just scratch it open again. “The feeling of heartbreak can be just as emotional as ever, if not more emotional, as time goes on,” he tells me. 

A common Cigs misconception is that the lead singer is a woman, because of the softness in Greg’s “bedroom voice.” The singer views the sentiment as an incredible compliment. “That’s what this music is supposed to be,” he explains. “It’s like [I am] talking directly to someone that I love, or that I’ve loved, and I talk to them in the way that we interacted at our sweetest, or at our most intimate, at our most vulnerable, where it was this really soft, beautiful thing.” That’s the other thing—his lyrics are incredibly dirty, however honest they may be. Although Greg comes off as a shy guy, his lyrics aren’t. (“Truly / Know that you really don’t need to be in love to make love to me” is one of the more printable options.) 

Much of the same could be expected for Cigs’ forthcoming X’s, which Greg tells me is “obviously dirty” but more “upbeat and groovy.” Though there isn’t anything particularly Texan-feeling about “Tejano Blue,” Greg seems ready to claim his roots. (The lyric “So get in the waves, swim in your leather” doesn’t seem like something anyone would do on the Gulf Coast—but if there’s one person who would, it’s Greg.) “My parents weren’t super into cumbia . . . or mariachi music,” he says. “I had to kind of acquire that as time went on. I think it’s because that music was in the air when I was growing up, so things I had to reject back then, because I was putting on a voice, now feel really special.” 

Cigarettes After Sex Returns to El Paso
Cigarettes After Sex performs live at the Don Haskins Center, in El Paso, on October 13.Lauren Castro

Most of Greg’s hometown friends from El Paso know him as the musically talented kid with the shaved head—minus a devilock (as invented by Misfits bassist Jerry Only: bangs combed into a point, hanging straight down over the face)—and black-painted fingernails. His friends aren’t surprised that Greg has found such success. “[The city] underappreciates him,” a childhood friend tells me as we watch him socialize around us. We’re all at the Palomino Tavern, just off the University of Texas at El Paso campus, getting a drink after the Haskins Center show. The bar is mostly empty by 1 a.m., but the energy buzzing from the group of old and new friends is enough to keep the shots of tequila flowing. Patrons sitting at the bar keep an eye on Greg—less because they recognize him, I’d wager, and more because he seems out of place. He’s decked out in all-black clothing, his Ray-Bans sitting on his face. 

The first thing you notice when you meet Greg is his voice: honeyed, measured, and not much like a Texan’s at all. Once, I asked him point-blank if he had maybe picked up an accent from overseas. It’s probably an El Paso thing, he tells me, attributing it to the Spanish cadence he heard growing up, though he doesn’t speak the language himself. “I know I talk really fast.” He’s proud of where he comes from and looks forward to visiting El Paso when he gets to. Although Texas isn’t a huge part of his identity, the occasional Selena song makes him feel right at home. Greg left Texas behind for New York City at age 29, even though he was comfortable and making money gigging around town. “As I hit a ceiling, I recall a distinct moment in El Paso thinking, like, ‘If I don’t leave now, life is about to go in a circle,’ ” he says.

As with many, many artists before him, Greg’s NYC fantasies clashed with the reality of the place. “I thought New York had the greatest writers. It was Dylan. It was Paul Simon. It was Leonard Cohen and Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed. You had filmmakers there like Scorsese and stuff. I just thought New York was the place to go. The greatest city for art,” he says. “It felt like my life just turned upside down for sure. Where before I just kind of played gigs in restaurants and venues in El Paso, suddenly, I was walking miles through the snow to a train to commute two hours to work at a movie theater.”

He started to find his footing in 2013, when he met Tomsky and Miller, who went to high school together in North Carolina and found themselves in a country band before jumping ship. Tomsky, who once wrote a best-selling memoir about the hotel industry, rolls his own cigarettes with impressive speed and is the most active member of the trio on social media. His X (formerly Twitter) profile is filled with shitposts, raw and maybe too truthful (“the music press doesn’t say s— about our band and we are f—ing huge and we are the f—ing future”). He’s kidding, slightly. Above all else, he’s Greg’s number one champion. Miller used to be in the graphic design industry, and he often helps with the cover art for EPs and singles. He’s not much of a partier, unlike Greg and Tomsky, and would much rather retreat to his hotel room to sketch Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Because of that, Greg and Tomsky spend more time together outside of shows and other band obligations. The two move together like a well-oiled machine: Tomsky looks out for his leading man with an almost security guard–like quality, while Greg relies on his drummer for familiarity and comfort. In the days I spent with the guys, neither of them could stop complimenting the other.

With the 2015 release of the EP Affection, things started moving. “That’s kind of when everything totally changed,” Greg says. The band’s songs “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” from the first EP;  “Affection”; and “Keep On Loving You” went viral on YouTube. By 2018, Cigs was playing around the world, but it hadn’t boomeranged back to Sun City until this tour.

Greg’s family, including his parents, Debbie and Michael, still lives in El Paso; the homecoming show in October rose to the level of a major Gonzalez family holiday. Preparation for the show was more particular than usual: guest list maintenance, an after-party at the venue for friends and family with food and an open bar, the inclusion of a “Neon Moon” cover on the set list, and careful attention to stage theatrics. In the days beforehand, Greg joked that it felt like planning his wedding. 

On show night, sound check crawls at a slow pace; Tomsky notes a problem with his drum set. As the tour manager sorts it out, Greg takes a step back from the mic to pull out his phone. Relatives and friends have been texting well wishes and requests nonstop. The guest list has grown by a hundred people within the week. 

His first EP, I., released in 2012, was recorded in the stairwell of UT–El Paso, where he was once a student, though he never graduated. “There’s something special about this song tonight because it was recorded on this street right here,” he tells the crowd, before screams cue the beginning of “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby.” He has talked more on this one night onstage than in the previous few combined—and, according to Tomsky, maybe even ever. He bows, and when his face comes back into view, he dons the biggest (for him) smile as the ear-splitting screams of the fans on the barricade pierce the crowd. 

The one time the band’s world stilled, for just a moment, was in the presidential suite of the Hotel Paso del Norte many hours later. Through the large arched windows, the sun began to rise over the blue-tinged Franklin Mountains. Warmth flooded the room in waves and did nothing to snap Greg, Tomsky, or me out of a dreamlike state. We’d been out all night, and we sat in one another’s company once the last friend had left. Greg is different around his friends from home: relaxed, talkative, and honest. He tells me how he likes to have the Crossfade function on Spotify set at seven, how El Pasoan the decor is in the suite, how to measure out a proper ranch water.

The morning glow casts a natural spotlight into the room, where he sits at a Yamaha baby grand piano. Even on an out-of-tune instrument, his talent is unmistakable. Greg used to play in this very hotel when he was younger, for $100 a set. Now he passes through the doors in under 24 hours, after which he’s off to continue the tour, to Austin, Milan, Zurich, Cologne. He starts playing “Apocalypse,” originally written on the piano during a New York snowstorm, then he begins to riff, humming along to whatever rhythm is floating around in his head, shaking it and voicing a soft “no” when something seems off. He apologizes to his intimate audience of two when a finger hits a key wrong or doesn’t sound the way he wants. “Write a song, Greg,” Tomsky directs him. Greg obliges, presses “Record” on his phone, and takes a sip from his vodka (neat) before continuing. After a few moments of messing around, singing what he calls “dummy lyrics,” the only dry eye in the room is Greg’s. The cadence is soft and soothing—the rasp in his voice a telltale sign of a celebration well spent. I grab his film camera from the side table. “Wait,” he says. He plunges his hand into his leather jacket pocket and searches for his Ray-Bans.