Alex Luciano, the singer, songwriter and guitarist for Diet Cig, which headlines at Lost Lake Lounge on Wednesday, February 7, didn't set out to be an inspiration to young women who wanted to rock. It just sort of happened, like her entire career in music, as Luciano explains in the wide-ranging interview below.
When Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman formed Diet Cig a few years back, she had never been in a band, and her early ventures into composition were at the germinal stage; in fact, she reveals that the first tune the two of them put together was about a fish named Brad.
But Luciano turned out to be the quickest of studies, and Over Easy, an EP released in February 2015 on the Father/Daughter imprint, started a buzz amplified by last year's Swear I'm Good at This, a full-length that was funny and sad and angry and outspoken, often all at the same time, while also being catchy as hell. The album is book-ended by "Sixteen," about Luciano dating a guy also named Alex and feeling weird calling out their shared name during sex, and "Tummy Ache," which has become something of a DIY motivational anthem.
In conversation, Luciano reveals how she was nurtured by a bad-ass mom who dug Phish but was eager to tag along on her daughter's musical journey, which included side trips with NSYNC and Avril Lavigne. She also talks about her surprise at discovering her own songwriting power, getting comfortable with a career in front of the scenes instead of behind them, the relative importance of media attention as compared to sold-out shows, the decision to beef up the combo's live lineup with two additional players (bassist Anna Cory from the Spook School and Plush keyboardist Karli Helm), and turning a hot, sweaty venue into a safe space.
Relax and read on. You're in good hands.
Westword: I haven't seen much written about your background. Where are you from originally?
Alex Luciano: I'm from upstate New York. Actually, so is Noah. I grew up in Albany and went to college in New Paltz [State University of New York at New Paltz], which is where I met Noah. And I grew up around the New Paltz area as well.
What do your parents do for a living?
My mom is an athletic director at the Albany College of Pharmacy and my dad works for the state — I think? We're not as close. But my mom, I grew up with her, and she was my soccer coach forever. I think ten years ago she started working that job. And Noah's dad actually runs a drum shop in New Paltz [CHBO Drums], which is really cool. You should definitely check it out if you're a drummer.
What position did you play in soccer? And did you play all through school?
I did play all through school. Basically, all through school I played soccer in travel leagues all year round. I played center mid and it was really fun. I stopped playing when I went to college, which I think is a good thing. But it was a huge part of growing up for me.
Was there a lot of music around the house when you were a kid? And if so, what kind?
Definitely. My mom loves music. She really loves jam bands. Her favorite band is Phish. So there was a lot of Phish, there was a lot of ’70s kind of oldies. All sorts of music, honestly. I'd be like, "I love pop punk." And my mom would be, "Great! Let's go see a pop-punk show." She was so open and fostering of the musical environment in our house growing up. But my whole childhood was filled with things like the ’70s greatest hits.
I do. I have an older brother and two younger siblings, my sister and my brother. My sister's fourteen and my younger brother is eleven, so they're pretty young still. I grew up in the house with them. I didn't really grow up with my older brother, so growing up with my younger siblings, I always kind of felt like the oldest, even though I wasn't, actually.
With your mom being open to so many different kinds of music, how did you connect with the pop-punk bands you mentioned?
My first favorite rock artist in general was Avril Lavigne. On my twelth birthday, I went to my first real concert ever, an Avril Lavigne concert, and I was like, "This is amazing."
Were you loving "Sk8ter Boi"?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. After that, I'd heard Fall Out Boy on the radio, and then I went from sort of radio pop-punk bands to other lesser-known artists. I would buy all their CDs, and eventually, when I got an iPod, I would illegally download all the songs. When you're twelve, you're like, "This is okay, right?" So it all came kind of organically.
Were other friends of yours into rock and punk rock? Or were they all into pop and hip-hop?
I had some friends when I was younger who were into rock, but no one was really into the kind of alternative, punky music that I liked growing up. When I went to college, I found a group of friends who liked the same kind of DIY punk music that I really enjoyed. But I wasn't a part of any music scene. I didn't really know any smaller artists or have friends who wanted to go to shows. It wasn't until I went to college and met people who were like, "Punk rock is cool!" But growing up, it was more like, "Let's all dance to Smash Hits: Let's Party."
Or That's What They Call Music 640?
Definitely — and I still love that music.
On the new album, you name-check an NSYNC cassette — so you're not exactly hiding that part of your musical past.
No. I totally still listen to it. I love NSYNC. I love Top 40. I love early-2000s pop. I honestly feel like that music influences our music now as much as anything. But I didn't grow up with people who also enjoyed alternative music. That's why I felt like I had an awakening when I went to college. I was like, "Whoa! There are so many people who like the same music I do." I think I really got to expand my taste meeting folks who loved that kind of music.
Was there a song or an artist who inspired you to want to pick up the guitar and make music yourself?
Honesty, I didn't feel like music was a place where I could express myself until college. I never really realized I could be in a band or that it was something accessible to me. So when I was in college, I started going to DIY house shows and got a chance to see other artists perform, and it felt more like watching real people play music.
Frankie Cosmos played a house around my college, and Radiator Hospital played, and I watched them. And I was like, "Oh, my God! I could do that!" It was a whoa moment for me. It was like, "I could do that, too. I could write short, sweet, poignant songs about my life. Music that people might like, because I like that kind of music." So seeing those DIY artists really inspired me to write my own songs.
How long did it take you to master the guitar in order to be able to write your own songs?
I definitely haven't mastered it yet! I realized that you could write songs with only three chords, and I knew a couple of chords from trying to learn how to play guitar in high school. I just put those to some lyrics and hoped for the best. I was always inspired by the idea that I didn't have to be a master at my instrument in order to write songs.
Do you remember what the first one was about?
The first song I ever wrote was "Harvard" [on the 2015 EP Over Easy].
Yeah. That was the first time that I wrote a full, finished song. I'd written a couple of others, and then I met Noah, and he was like, "I know you've been writing some songs," and he wanted to try and do them as a band. He was like, "I can play drums and we can try it out." And I said, "That sounds kind of cool. Whatever." They were just these dumb songs that I wrote, which is funny because of what they've become now.
So you don't have dozens of songs from when you were learning to write that you're totally embarrassed about now?
I would learn to cover songs that I'd like, and I think that's how I found the confidence to write my own songs. I'd learn to play songs that I loved and cover them to learn how a song is even built. But the first real song I ever wrote was "Harvard" — although, actually, there was a song Noah and I wrote together, for fun, where Noah played guitar and I sang. It was called "Brad," and it was about a fish that we'd won at the county fair, and it died the next day. The first was named Brad, and he died! That was when I'd first met Noah. He played guitar and I just sang some lyrics about Brad.
When you recorded your first EP, you'd only played a handful of shows, but you got so much attention right off the bat. How surprised were you by the reaction?
We were beyond surprised. I truly didn't think anyone would care to listen to these songs. I think the moment I realized that people might like them was when we were in the studio recording them. We were doing vocal takes, and our friend Chris [Daly, who produced Over Easy] was like, "This is actually good! You guys should send this around to labels before you just put it out." And I was like, "What? A label?" And Noah was the same way. He didn't really even know the lyrics until they were recorded, so they were both like, "This really ties the songs together. We should do something with this."
Even then, I was like, "Are you sure?" But it was really exciting to get that reaction from my friend and my bandmate. And to get to see how many people the songs resonate with? It's still surreal. I can't believe this is what I get to do now. I'm like, "People like my songs?" I don't think I'm ever going to get over it.
From what I understand, you weren't really thinking about music as a career. I know you'd been studying digital media production. What did you think you'd be doing for a job now?
I thought I'd be doing digital media production. The ideal thing would have been to move to the city and work for a big media company that I liked, or a publication I was into. My dream was like, "I want to do video editing at Rolling Stone." Which is really cool, and I see a lot of my friends who were in that major doing that kind of stuff with big companies.
I also think I wanted to be the person people were writing the stories about and not the person who was writing about all the cool stuff other people were doing. But I didn't really know how to do that. So it was kind of by chance that I got to be in a band. I never thought this was something I'd be doing, but I'm definitely happy that I get to do this instead of editing video all day. That's also cool, and I do enjoy that, but I'm super-grateful I'm getting to do what I'm doing now.
Even before the new album came out, there was a huge buzz around you guys, and you were being interviewed by publications like the New York Times. I've got to imagine that was weird, too, to find yourself in articles at places where you thought you might be working as a video editor.
It was definitely surreal, and I think things like that are the markers for a lot of folks — like, "This band is successful because they're being interviewed by the New York Times," which is a publication our grandmothers know about.
Have you actually ever read a physical New York Times — the kind that's on newsprint?
I used to read them when I was living in New York. My roommates would get them, and they were good — and extremely dense! But the media and the big press hits, people treat them like benchmarks. Like, my mom will call me and say, "I saw that! It was great!" But honestly, the big stepping stones in our career for me are like when we got to play the Bowery Ballroom to a sold-out crowd this past fall. Things like that, where we get a chance to interact with our fans and get to feel the energy of the fans. Those moments are the ones that make me think, "Wow. What we're doing is wild." The press has been amazing and it blows my mind, but it's even better to get to spend time with people who've supported you through it all. Those are the moments that are the most meaningful — like, "I can't believe I get to play music and do this." It's so crazy.
The other side of the coin is that you guys became so successful so quickly that it revved up the haters. One example is the Pitchfork review of your album. Given the size of the scene right now, does it seem strange to you that it can sometimes break down into opposing cliques that spend all their time sniping at each other instead of rooting for each other to succeed?
I don't think it's strange at all. There are always going to be cliques and groups and people who don't really care for each other. But when it really comes down to it, the community that surrounds DIY isn't really as toxic as it sometimes may seem. There are definitely folks who you maybe don't like or agree with. That's definitely super-real, and it's not always the most inclusive place. But at the same time, my experience has been that it's such an amazing community where most people come together and support each other. That truly overshadows any negativity that comes with having such a small, tight-knit scene. I just think the artist-to-artist support is amazing. I've made so many friends through the community — people I know I can count on and who we all give mutual support. The bad parts and the negativity are definitely there, but they're completely overshadowed by the amazing sense of community I feel.
On the new album, you cover a lot of emotional ground. You start out with "Sixteen," which is hilarious, but then you go into "Link in Bio," where you sing, "Well, I'm done/Can't always be so fun." Is it important to you to express a wide range of feelings and not act as if some are more important than others?
I think women, especially, are told all the time that they can only express certain emotions, because other emotions make people uncomfortable or aren't as digestible. So I think it was important to not hold back on any of my feelings — to let them all show, and show that I'm a nuanced person. I'm just as valid when I'm super-happy and excited as I am when I'm pissed off and angry and sad and the worst version of myself.
On this record, I really got a chance to explore all the emotions I have and was able to fight against the idea that women are only supposed to have certain emotions. I'm like, fuck that. These are all my emotions. I want to put them all out for everyone and not hold back on any of them.
The album also proves that you can write a great song about anything — like "Blob Zombie," which is about wanting to sleep in. Is that one of the things you've learned about songwriting?
Yeah, definitely. Even some of the most mundane stuff can be the most relatable. I've tried to sit down and write songs about ideas that are super-metaphorical — really dense and intellectual. But a lot of the songs I most enjoy playing are really straightforward. They're songs about the shit I go through in my day-to-day, and that a lot of other people probably go through. I think it's easiest to write about things I know, and you can write a good song about anything.
You can also make a song seem super-fun when it's actually about something that's sad and upsetting. Like "Maid of the Mist" is a song about having a hard time in relationships, but it feels like a really fun, upbeat song because of the way we wrote it. So it's fun to play with that stuff — take the sad stuff and transforming it into these fun bursts of energy.
The album ends with "Tummy Ache," which has become an inspirational song for young women getting into music. When you sat down to write it, were you thinking about wanting to encourage them to pick up a guitar and do the same things you're doing?
It was more that I was getting it off my chest. That was one of the first songs we wrote for the record, and I don't think I realized how it would reach other people who wanted to get into music. I was just talking about my experience, and when the song was finished, I realized, "This feeling is not unique. This is a feeling that resonates with a lot of people."
It's kind of messed up that it resonates with so many people, since it's about feeling bad about yourself as a woman or a person in the scene before it's like, "Fuck you. I'm going to do this." I didn't realize when I wrote it how impactful it would be. And then after we recorded it, I realized that it was going to resonate with a lot of people. Because that experience isn't unique. A lot of people experience sexism in any industry.
Are you okay with the idea of being seen as a role model?
I think so. I don't think anyone should put their favorite artist on a pedestal, because that can lead to disappointment. But it is really exciting to feel like I'm inspiring young musicians to pick up a guitar or whatever instrument they have, even if they're not necessarily a pro at it. I think one of the biggest messages I could send through our music isn't even through the lyrics, but through the fact that when I started this band with Noah, I only knew three or four chords. I didn't know how to sing at all. I'd never been in a band, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I just did it because it was fun. And we were really bad at first! I didn't know what I was doing. But it was okay. We just kept doing it, and hopefully that can inspire other aspiring musicians to pick up their instrument and do it even if they can't totally shred from the start. I'm still learning now, so I hope I can inspire folks to do it, too.
On your current tour, you're supplementing your show with two additional musicians, even though the sound on your album is very full with just the two of you. What was the idea behind that?
The album itself has synth and bass and a lot of auxiliary percussion and other things on it. While it stayed true to our sound, there's more bulk on the record that we don't get to play around with live. We spent all of 2017 touring our record, and it got to the point where it was like, we need to do more touring for the record, and here are all the places we didn't get to hit — but we want to do something extra-special and add these elements that are on the record but don't get to shine as much live.
We've been playing these songs for a year, and if we don't do something new to challenge ourselves, we're going to go crazy. We were like, "We love these songs, but we need to do something new to switch things up and do something new for ourselves and everyone else." And we're so excited to bulk up our live show and challenge ourselves to play with other musicians, which is a little out of our comfort zone — just see how full we can make our sound.
Of course, we're in a crazy world right now. How nice is it for you to be able to go out on a stage and say exactly what you think and have the crowd say it right back to you?
It's an extreme honor to play for people every night on tour and just create a kind of safe space where people can come to our shows and feel valid and heard. No space is ever going to be completely safe, but we really try to foster an environment of care. We have a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of assault or harassment. We will literally stop in the middle of a song if something happens and someone is feeling uncomfortable in the audience. I think our fans know that they can come to our shows and experience it in a fun, safe environment where they can be themselves and forget about the bullshit for a couple of hours.
I think that's a really radical thing in this time. It's so important to be present in all the bullshit right now. But we also need to engage in self-care and go to an event where you can be yourself and have fun with your friends and feel like it's a space for you.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.