Diet Cig is the pop punk duo out of New Paltz, NY consisting of “two homies just making tunes and eggs on the regs,” which is self-described via Bandcamp and also accurate. Born out of house show basements and bred writing songs over eggs, Diet Cig — Alex Luciano, 23, lead singer and guitarist, standing at five and change with a crisp singing voice and a spring-loaded high-kick, and Noah Bowman, 25, the taller drummer and older, more band-experienced one of the pair (he’s been in bands since he was 13 and his dad runs the drum shop CHBO Drums) — deliver earnest, energetic slop pop (their term) that’s playful, infectious, brutally honest and often intimate.
With some strummy guitar, joyful percussion and boppy songwriting — that at times recall the Stooges and the Pixies, others the bedroom shoegaze and typically male-fronted “emo” of the 00s, but always the sharp, genre wunderkinds they currently are — Diet Cig bubbles with youthful boredom and anxiety. All the while exuding a growing confidence that increasingly earns them role model status with the younger set, and authentic connection with an evolving scene at large.
Called a “sort of reverse White Stripes,” today the band is nearing the end of a well-received cross-country tour, which will conclude here in the Northeast in the coming days. But at the time of this interview, Luciano is answering emails in Richmond, Va., where she had moved from Brooklyn (with Bowman, who also moved to Richmond) about six months prior. In the bit of downtime before their run, Luciano took a few minutes to talk to me about Diet Cig’s origins, a year in transit and why it can be hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt.
What’s New Paltz like?
New Paltz is really cool. It’s just like a college town, but it’s so much more than that. It’s really close to New York City, so you get a lot of city folk, and I think that showed in the staff in the town. There are all these new places to eat, lots of interesting people. Becoming a band there was really fun because there was a really strong house-show scene and there were a lot of amazing touring bands coming through that were inspiring for us, to start a band. It’s cool because it’s constantly changing. Every four years, there’s new people. And it’s been interesting since we’ve left to see and how it’s grown. Every time I go back there, it’s always something different, which is really cool.
In a little more than a week, you’ll be heading out on a month-long national tour, with about a month’s worth of dates, for your debut full length, Swear I’m Good at This. It starts in upstate Buffalo, NY, over to the mid and the far west, to Canada, and back here to the Northeast. Thinking back on past tours and travels, what cities offer the best egg dishes?
Ooh, that’s a good question! Speaking of New Paltz, the Main St. Bistro, “the” restaurant in New Paltz, has the best eggs. They have a breakfast special for a $1.95 — two eggs, hash browns and toast — and it is unbeatable. We have traveled the whole country in search of a deal in quality better than the Bistro, but seriously, they have the best eggs. So none other beat them.
But I think the entire South has incredible breakfast in general. Like Texas, I think, is my favorite because you can get breakfast tacos, like, anywhere, anytime. And I love a taco filled with eggs — that’s my two favorite foods colliding into one superfood.
2015’s Over Easy EP is the result of getting eggs at that same joint (the Main St. Bistro) the entire summer that you wrote it, and a partnership with the label Father/Daughter. How did you connect?
We had some mutual friends. Our friend Dean from the band Quarterbacks had known Jessi [Frick] from Father/Daughter and sent her our EP via email before we released it, because he thought it was cool. And basically, Jessi hit us up and it was like, “Hey, do you want to release this?” and she was like, “Hell yeah! Let’s do it.” It was kind of an immediate connection of like, she was just as excited about the EP as we were. Things really clicked from that moment on. Now, Jessi who runs Father/Daughter; they manage us. It just kind of snowballed from there. It’s like this beautiful, quirky friendship. It was a meant-to-be, astral connection I think. She’s a Leo, I am also a Leo…
The Over Easy EP album art has a similar embroidery style to the new album, Swear I’m Good at This: Was that also done by Kelly Ryan?
Actually, that was done by a woman named Sam Gloffke, she is the wife of our sound engineer [Chris Daly], who records all of our music. We were kind of scrambling and she said she would, which is super cool of her to do. None of us thought the EP was going to go anywhere. So it really exciting to be able to share that art, as well. We actually have the original piece, the embroidery, framed in our house.
You know that Arthur embroidery meme, where it’s like, “When you remember that historically, embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s ‘women’s work’?
Oh my god, yes! I know exactly the one you are talking about. The girl, her page is called Hanecdote. I’d been following since the Tumblr days; I’m obsessed with her.
So the new album is called Swear I’m Good at This, which sounds like a cheeky, self-deprecating nod to your DIY sensibility. The first time I heard the song “Tummyache” it was on Sirius XM, which is pretty cool. But in recent years, the music scene has changed in the ways it measures success and brand affinity. What are some of the moments that you as a performer or even as a consumer of music recognize, like, “Wow, this is big.”
There’s a lot of press surrounding bands, like a big feature in a magazine that you really respect, that can be validating in a short-list kind of way. But honestly, the most truly validating thing, like, “Woah, this is crazy,” is when we play a venue and it’s sold out and everyone there is so excited. Nothing feels better in the whole world than playing a show full of people who are happy to be there. It could literally even just be a show of seven people, but if they’re all rocking out and having the best time, it makes me so much more excited about the art I make than, say, getting a lot of streams on Spotify.
I measure our success on what our live shows are like — like, these are real fans. And I’ll see other bands, sell out big venues, and think “That’s awesome!” That’s the dream, you know? To have 500 people singing back at you. When we played Bowery Ballroom, that was a huge moment for us. To have a headlining, sold out show at a venue that Noah used to go to as a kid. So I think above all else, playing show where people are actually present and sharing that excitement, there’s nothing like it.
Last year had quite a few of those big moments. You played with Taking Back Sunday at Starland Ballroom — which is sort of New Jersey mainstay — and did an NPR Tiny Desk; if you would, tell us about those experiences.
Playing with Taking Back Sunday was so fun. It was our last show of the year, so we were really excited to go out with this bang. That’s a band that Noah really loves and grew up with. It was really cute because the band’s kids were all there, because it was a Christmas show, and the kids were all in the photo pit dancing between the stage and barrier, like, rocking out to our set. That was one of my favorite parts; just these kids with their giant ear protecting headphones on just rocking out to our songs. They were amazing. Taking Back Sunday was also amazing.
But the Tiny Desk we did was so much fun. It was the most exciting, nervous thing I had ever done. I’d watch Tiny Desk in middle school; I loved them, like way before I ever thought I could ever be in a band. So it was such a special moment to actually be up there [on the desk], and be like, “I am actually doing this.” I was so nervous because I just wanted it to be good, I love these sessions. And the second before we’re about to go behind the desk to start, Bob Boilen [creator of NPR Tiny Desk and All Songs Considered] was like, “You know, no one’s ever messed up — we’ve never had to start over on this thing.”
And I was like, “Oh my God! Why would you say that?” And he was definitely just trying to tease us a little bit. But once I got up there, it was like, “Oh, we got this, we can play our songs, no problem.” Everyone was so nice and so happy, the NPR employees were getting into it, it was actually so much fun. But I just left like I totally disassociated during it, and then it was done, and I couldn’t even remember any of it. Like, was it good? But after I got back with it, it was like a runner’s high.
And now people will reach out and say, “I found you because of your Tiny Desk,” which is just so cool. It’s such an amazing tool of discovery for us and our fans. I think it’s amazing, to been able to have done that.
That first song off the full length, “Sixteen,” I think is a knockout. It sets the pace of the record with how personal and energetic and powerful it is. But the lyric detail “It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my own name/While trying to fuck,” just sets it off. Why do you think those details have such an impact in songwriting?
It makes things relatable. There’s something really special that I admire in other people’s songwriting, taking an extremely specific thing to their lives and using it as a lens to look at a more relatable situation. I was really inspired by Radiator Hospital and Frankie Cosmos, where they take a hyper-specific detail of their life and use it to examine a bigger idea. That resonates with me a lot because it takes the bigger ideas of like, everyone goes through that, and makes it feel important and real. And I think that really comes through in our songs.
I think being honest with my songwriting is the only way I know how to write songs, so I try to take these things from my life and reclaim them and turn them into something that’s fun and relatable, and it’s a really cathartic way to deal with those.
“The personal is political” was the slogan of the ‘60s lib. movement, which can very much be applied today. But as it relates to artistry, can sharing get exhausting?
Yeah, definitely. Especially on tour, because I’m sharing so much on stage and with social media. And we hang out after every show and talk to all our fans. And we love it, it’s the ultimate privilege to meet everyone. But at the same time, sometimes people think that we have a personal friendship. Like they know me in this personal way that kind of can be jarring sometimes, when someone comes up to you and it’s like, “Hey! This thing that you posted on Twitter like three months ago, about your life. What’s up with that?” And I’m like, “What? I forgot that I said that.” Like, real people.
And the fact that people know I dated a guy named Alex and it didn’t work out. It’s really bizarre to kind of meet everyone that knows all these personal details, like, “I know all these things about your life.” But it’s fun, because it’s a way to connect with other people like, “Yeah, I had this situation happen to me, too,” connecting on this common ground that I don’t think I would have shared otherwise.
You are quoted in an article saying, “It’s punk as fuck to take care of each other.” If you would, tell us a bit about the situation at Messiah College last November and how you handled that.
That was kind of a startling thing to deal with. We had a show booked at Messiah College [in PA]; we play a lot of college shows, didn’t think anything of it. And our friends who were playing the show with us read the contract, saying that like, if you swear or speak on the college in a way that we haven’t talked to you about, that’s grounds for us to not pay you. So we were like, “That’s really a weird thing. Like, why would you book us? We talk about sex freely. That’s really bizarre.” So that was the first red flag.
Then someone on Twitter sent us screenshots of the student handbook, which explained that students were not allow to engage in same sex intimacy whatsoever, hand-holding or anything. It was this really toxic, homophobic document that kind of detailed how students weren’t allowed to be gay, basically. And we were just like, what the fuck? We didn’t want to profit off an institution that suppresses people, so we we’re going to cancel the show. We thought about maybe playing the show then donating the money, but that clause about speaking out against the school about anything they don’t align with was worrisome.
So we did cancel the show, people were stoked, and kids were like, “I don’t even go to this school, but I had to do research in the university library once, and I’m visibly queer, and they treated me like shit because of it,” which is horrible. And then another venue hit us up about playing at their space, like, “We stand in solidarity with you canceling that show. We support LBGT folks.” And that was like the day before the show, and we were like, “This is great!”
But then someone else on Twitter was like, “I would love to see you at this venue but they have a known sexual predator among their employees, and I just don’t feel comfortable going there.” And we addressed it with the venue and they got super defensive and hostile and threatened legal action against us for canceling.
We didn’t play that show either and it was just a really stark reminder of why survivors of assault don’t come forward because of the steps people take to silence them and just the threatening attitude. Even as us, a band, trying to cancel in an extremely, like… “We’re not trying to expose you, but we’re not playing here. We’re not putting our fans in an unsafe environment.” It was just a really intense week of, “Why is everyone so awful?!” Our priority is the safety of our fans and touring members, it was just a no-brainer.
Wow. People can be pretty shitty.
It was definitely an eye-opener and a reminder that it is never easy for a survivor to come forward. When people say, “They’re just doing this to ruin someone’s career,” it’s like, no. It’s so hard to come forward about that. That situation was just a very stark reminder.
An excerpt from the new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic “Where the Girls Aren’t” from Jessica Hopper, talks about how hardcore and political punk one time gave women names and details, but as they slid into “emo” and other “post—” types, eventually they just became other like genres (like a good deal of rock ‘n’ roll, really) that lock women out from — not only the narrative — but the music on both sides of the mic. How do you think the Internet has let more voices be heard, both behind and in front of the mic?
I think the Internet has been an incredible tool for all marginalized folks in music. Before the Internet, everyone was at the mercy of the big record labels who were run by men and had a specific taste that they wanted. And you didn’t have an angle you could pull as a woman or marginalized person — they didn’t really care about you. The Internet has made it so accessible for all kinds of musicians that maybe wouldn’t have gotten a chance from large music executives. But now we’re in the age of Bandcamp and DIY through the Internet; it’s been so incredible to see how many amazing people have been picked up by a huge label just by putting out music on the internet. It’s been game changing.
And the community you build on the Internet, as well, can be life changing, when you start making music. When you can engage and find musicians who are cool artists, who aren’t just white men, it’s really exciting and inspiring to just do your thing. I think without the Internet, I would be making music, and a lot of other artists, marginalized folks, would be, too. But I think it’s made everything that much more accessible. And I’m grateful to be living in a time where I can be inspired by voices that might not have been picked up but are equally, if not more, incredible and inspiring.
To those starting out, just because you don’t have experience, it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to make music or have a space in the music community. The one thing I’ve learned from this band that I truly take away is that…She Shreds Magazine is a magazine for women and non-binary guitar and bass players, and their whole philosophy is, like, shredding is not defined by your technical ability to play an instrument. It’s about the emotion you evoke while you play your instrument.
That’s something I have found really inspiring as I learned to play guitar, as I’ve been in a band: Realize that you don’t have to be a pro to play music. You don’t have to be someone else’s idea of what a guitarist or a vocalist or a bass player has to be. It’s exciting to realize that everyone can make music. Rock ‘n’ roll is for everybody.
Diet Cig performs March 1 at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, and March 3 at First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. For more information, please visit dietcig.com.