Making Words Count: Diet Cig interview
Ahead of the release of their debut album, we talk to Diet Cig about cats, dogs, learning guitar and what constitutes 'being punk'
When The Skinny catches up with New York duo Diet Cig, singer/guitarist Alex Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman are slogging through a busy day of interviews ahead of a late flight to San Francisco. The pair will soon play at the city’s Noise Pop festival and are flying to California a few days early to hang out with their manager, Jessi, who has offered them a place to stay. Luciano is particularly looking forward to staying with Jessi’s three "hilarious" feline housemates, declaring herself to be more of a cat person.
“They’re so soft and so clean!” Luciano enthuses. “They just clean themselves all day. We have a dog and a cat on our bed right now as we speak, and this dog is so stinky and the cat is a perfect clean little ball of magic.”
“I don’t know,” Bowman replies reassuringly. “I like the dirty dawg.” He laughs and we can imagine him patting the nonplussed pet on the other end of the phone line.
It’s hard not to take an immediate liking to Diet Cig, whose amiably rickety pop-punk and raucous live presence has brought them much acclaim and hype ahead of the release of their debut album, Swear I’m Good at This. It’s a big reputation for a band that had previously only released a mere seven songs – an EP, Over Easy, in 2015 and a 7'' single a few months later – and formed despite Luciano never having played guitar before, after she interrupted Bowman during a house show to ask for a lighter. We ask how it feels for them to have attracted such attention on such a small back catalogue.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling, I have to say,” says Bowman.
“And a lot of pressure from the seven songs that we just kind of wrote on the fly,” Luciano adds. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god! People like to listen to this?’ But it’s cool. We’re super-grateful.”
Luciano expresses her excitement at Swear I’m Good at This’ forthcoming release, relieved that Diet Cig can make their debut “as a band with a plan.” Did the pair not feel that they had a plan before starting work on their first full-length?
“No,” Bowman laughs. “Going into this new record we definitely had a better idea of what we were doing. Everything was a little more intentional. Over Easy and the 7’’ were a little bit more, ‘we’re recording these songs just ‘cause we have them', but with this record it was a little bit more thought-out. I feel like we had more fun with this one because we were able to try a lot of new things and just have fun in the process."
“Yeah, I think it was better recording this time,” Luciano agrees. “We were in the studio and we were like, ‘Yo! Time to shred!’ When we first recorded I didn’t even know how to play guitar! And now I can play guitar pretty well so that was a good feeling.”
That enthusiasm certainly carries over into Swear I’m Good at This, which enhances Diet Cig’s sound of quickly strummed chords and crashing drums with additions such as tinkling keys in the two-chord racer Blob Zombie, or chiming bells on the explosive Bath Bomb. Meanwhile Luciano’s lyrics remain instantly relatable, covering a range of 20-something, old-enough-to-know-better-but-still-young-enough-to mess-up scenarios: painful romantic fumbles (opener Sixteen), terrible diets on the road (Road Trip), harbouring burning ambition when you barely have the motivation to get out of bed (Blob Zombie again)...
From Swear I’m Good at This’ title – half self-determination, half saving face – and the LP’s overall effect, there’s a sense of Diet Cig convincing themselves that it’s OK to be uncertain and imperfect, and of them passing that reassurance onto other people. It’s likely one of the reasons that the duo have already built a cult following.
“I like to think that the music is trying to make people feel like they’re not alone, that someone is in it with them and putting music to feelings that everyone has,” Luciano says. “Our music is super-vulnerable, super-honest, and I was never really a person who wore their heart on their sleeve. Through this music I’ve taught myself how to learn to become more vulnerable and I hope other people can get that feeling too.”
While explaining her point Luciano uses the phrase ‘radical softness’, a phrase that she's used in other interviews recently, and the potential for vulnerability to be a tool for change. Does ‘radical softness’, then, place a new emphasis on participation and understanding, making people feel like that they can belong, compared to the antagonistic approach of old-school punk?
“Right!” Luciano replies. “We like to think that it’s punk as hell to make sure everyone’s safe at a show, and it’s really punk to look out for your friends who are marginalised. I think caring about people and saying how you feel and being empathetic is way more punk than being aggressive. If you’re like, ‘fuck the establishment’, the establishment is so aggressive and wants you to bottle up your feelings and not care about other people. It’s so much harder to be empathetic and be there for people and I think that is a really strong thing.”
Speaking of the establishment, it’s difficult to ignore some of the lyrics on Swear I’m Good at This in the U.S.'s current pussy-grabbing political context, where womanhood is suddenly far more politicised than before. Maid of the Mist sees Luciano warning a would-be groper to respect consent, while on the album’s sexism-tackling closer Tummy Ache, she resolves to 'make my words count in a way I haven’t quite figured out'.
With Luciano saying that she felt empowered to get involved by the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Frances Quinlan – the throat-and-guitar-shredding songwriter of Philadelphian band Hop Along – she expresses her hope that Diet Cig’s music contributes to a wider wave of encouragement for women to be heard, along with other marginalised voices such as trans- and non-binary people, particularly within the DIY scene.
“You don’t have to know what you’re doing but as long as you’re doing it from the right place, you’re trying and it’s good,” Luciano offers in a summary of Diet Cig’s ethic. “I didn’t know how to play guitar when we started this band but it didn’t matter because it was fun, it felt good and I was empowered by other women musicians that I had seen. I just hope that our band can be that for someone else, like, ‘You can do this too.' It doesn’t matter if you think you’re not good enough. You are good enough and you have something to say.”
Perhaps Diet Cig’s most effective way of inspiring new musicians is their irresistible live show – due to return to the UK this summer and guaranteed to evoke excitable group sing-alongs. The duo’s last visit to Skinny territory was a chaotic whizz of a late set at Dot to Dot Festival in Manchester, which saw Luciano jumping and high-kicking her way tirelessly across the stage, accidentally unplugging half her equipment in the process. As it turns out, she has a similar anecdote about their final show of last year.
“I must have not had enough bad stuff happen to me on stage throughout the year and so the universe just wanted to pack it all into one punch,” Luciano says excitedly. “I had a nosebleed in the middle of the set; I did a kick and my shoelaces got stuck in my tuning thing … I was like, ‘This is it, man! I’m going to just get abducted by aliens or something because this is just too much!’”
Afterwards, Bowman explains that some of his favourite shows are the ones that fall apart, where despite their struggles the duo have remained persistent in carrying on. “Yeah, you just make it work,” Luciano adds, laughing. “And hope you have a friend to run on stage and untie your shoelaces!”
Swear I'm Good at This is released on 7 Apr via Frenchkiss Records