Diet Cig Aren't Kids Anymore

When Diet Cig released their first EP, Over Easy, in 2015, Alex Luciano (26) and Noah Bowman (28) still saw their band as a fun, short-term side project. Six years and three records later, the self-described “slop pop” duo is still going strong, and gearing up for their first tour since before the pandemic. The band’s most recent album, Do You Wonder About Me? (May 2020), finds the pair putting a more mature, confident spin on their energetic, DIY pop-punk sound. In November, I got to catch up with them and witness their trademark infectious energy for myself. We talked growing up (“I’m old now! My back hurts all the time! At 26!,” says Alex), dropping a quarantine album, the side hustle lifestyle—and much more.

Tamar Sarig: When you go on tour in January, is that your first time on tour since Swear I’m Good at This [the band’s first LP], pre-Covid?

Noah Bowman: Yeah, which was just so long ago. [laughing]

Alex Luciano: Yeah, which is crazy because we literally took 2019 off of touring to write Do You Wonder About Me?, and to also just take a little bit of a break from relentless touring. Which is so ironic, because since then we’ve definitely gotten a break from touring! [laughing]

What are you most excited for?

NB: Traveling, honestly, is the biggest thing. I think that’s honestly one of my favorite things about touring, is just waking up in a different place, and just being somewhere else, and playing to a whole new crowd every single night. I miss it. I feel like I’ve only seen the same 10 people for the last two years.

AL: I mean, I’m excited for the crowd, to see our fans IRL, to experience that connection. You know, everyone’s been so supportive online and so sweet, but it’s so different when you’re actually in the same room as everyone and you’re like, “we are having an experience together.” It’s so affirming. Especially, our songs are so personal, and to get to sing out all of these personal things and have other people physically there being like, “I resonate with this!” - it feels very validating and makes my heart warm, and I miss our fans.

I wanted to pick out something you just said about your songs being so personal. Does anything feel like it's off limits? And how are you able to bring that to a crowd of strangers? Is it ever hard to perform that stuff?

AL: When we started, nothing was off limits, because I didn't really think anyone was gonna be listening. And since we put out “Swear I'm Good at This,” I've decided to stop naming names in songs. [laughs] Because that just caused a little unnecessary drama in my life. I feel like it's really easy for me to speak on past relationships and past occurrences now, and I definitely think I used to write from a place of immediate feeling. Like, I'm feeling this thing right now? I'm writing about it. There's not much reflection - it's just cathartic. Like, this is what I'm feeling and here's the song about it.

And I think as I've evolved as a songwriter, it's turned into a little more reflective songwriting, like I have a harder time writing about something that's actually happening to me. And I am often falling back on, Oh, these things already happened, it's over, it's done with it, it feels a little safer. And I feel like I kind of do that to almost protect my own mental well being, because I've realized just writing about how I'm feeling in the moment, and then sending it out to everyone to listen to, is very vulnerable. And as we began to have more of a platform that people were listening to, I was like, Oh, I'm not sure if I'm ready to be available to everyone so emotionally.

And it's definitely playing the songs that are really openly emotional with the crowd - you think it would be challenging, but it's actually really affirming. And it's really nice to take these situations that are often really negative in my life, and turning them into something, reclaiming it and making it a shared experience. So it actually is very cathartic to every night on tour, go through these emotions. And it is emotional, but in a good way. And I think now that we spent so much time during COVID reflecting, I feel ready to touch on more stuff, now that I've had space from it. I think that's the biggest difference. I need more space from things than I think I did before.

You guys basically ended up making a COVID quarantine album, which I'm sure was not the intention when you started writing it. What is it like releasing an album and not being able to tour, having it go out into the abyss of the pandemic?

NB: Well, we actually recorded it and had it done in the fall of 2019. So this was way before we even knew the world was gonna shut down. And so we were all ready to tour, we had everything lined up for the next year and all this stuff. And then March came along, and we had to pivot really quickly… Everyone's doing a live stream on every social media platform and stuff. And it was having to promote a record that we spent all this time on, but now have to play those songs in our living room with an acoustic guitar and a drum pad, where originally, we wrote it to have a full band, full everything.

AL: It was the first album that we had specifically written with the intention to play it live with a full band and not the two of us. So we wrote parts into it that were impossible for just the two of us to only play, and a lot of the songs really hinged on those parts working all together. And so it was so hard, all of a sudden, now it's just the two of us, deeply stripped down, in the living room… It was hard because our album came out in May. And we're supposed to tour starting in May. So the world shut down in March. And between March and May, the lead up to the album, it actually was pretty chill, because we were like, “Okay, we'll pivot to virtual. Everything's on social media. That's great. Let's do it. That's easy. We're just sitting at home anyway.” And then the album came out in May. And I feel like it kind of hit then. like, Oh -

NB: We're not getting in the car and leaving. I think it was like we built up so much; we were supposed to have a release show in London. We had this whole big thing planned. And then we're sitting in our apartment in Richmond, and we're like, this is great, we put the record out!

AL: Congratulations, we released the album!

NB: Now we're just like, now what do we do? We just, you know, make a new TikTok video of something we're eating at the time.

A lot of your work is really about growing up—young adult angst, the frustration of people not taking you seriously. How have you guys grown up for this latest album?

NB: I think the biggest thing that we both came to realize, especially working on "Do You Wonder About Me,” is that we weren't trying to prove anything anymore. And I feel like when we did “Swear,” we were touring so much. We were touring on “Over Easy” for almost two years. It was, like, five songs. Touring, playing a 20-minute set, just cranking out stuff. And then “Swear I'm Good At This,” we wrote it while we were in between tours. And then we got to tour that for two or three years. And then when we went to go and to write “Do You Wonder About Me?,” I feel like we figured out how Alex is as a musician, how I am as a musician, how we like to work together, and what we like and dislike. And I feel like we were trying to figure that out for so long. And then once we got to “Do You Wonder About Me?,” we feel like it clicked.

It was kind of like, “okay, we know what we like and what we don't like, and we're not afraid to try anything.” We're not trying to get picked up by a label, because we're already on a label. We already had the ball rolling. So we just had to continue doing what we're doing.

AL: It was a lot of freedom, it felt like, in writing this album because of that. But at the same time, pressure! I feel like we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make something bigger, better, louder, broader in terms of sonic scope. And with the songwriting, going back to what I said before, I was really focused on reflecting on stuff that had happened and how I've grown, and less about pointing fingers at other people in my life, or harming me or being shitty. It was more pointing fingers at myself for being shitty, in certain ways. And so it was maybe a more mature place to come from in terms of songwriting, a little more self aware, a little more like, “Okay, you're not just some angsty kid anymore.” It was more of, I am grown a little bit. And what does that mean? Who am I? A little more existential crisis vibes.

And you guys also moved to Richmond for the making of this album. Why Richmond?

NB: Well, we were living in Brooklyn. And it just didn't really make much sense. It was just like, we're spending so much to live somewhere that we weren't really living, because we were touring so much. And it's not a relaxing place. In Brooklyn, you're up 24/7, all our friends are there, which we miss dearly. But we'd go out every single night, and you're out till five in the morning. And you can never really get anything done. And so we just were like, what if we just didn't live in New York, and we just kind of threw a dart at the map. And we kind of ended up in Richmond. We thought we'd be here for like a year. And now it's been almost five years. Four and a half years.

AL: We like it here. And yeah, the lifestyle of Brooklyn was really intense for us. Like Noah said, we were drinking a lot, and spending a lot of money. And Brooklyn was where the party was for us, but also, our job - being musicians playing shows - our job was where the party was. And it was like, We need something to be relaxing.

You guys come from really different musical backgrounds. Alex, you’ve said you never picked up an electric guitar before Diet Cig. And Noah, you grew up playing music. How do you bring those two experiences together?

NB: I will admit, I was stoked. [Alex laughs] It was something so refreshing from when I met Alex and she was so green at the time, that there were no limitations. I feel like when you start playing with the same people a lot, there's certain things they stick to. It's like, this is how we do it, this is how we do it. But with Alex, there was no “this is how we do it” because she had nothing to compare it to. And all we had was a guitar and some drums. And we were like, let's just make it up and see what happens. There were no rules… I think it's carried on even now in the way we write and who we are as a band - everything was just like, let's have fun. Let's not try to do what everyone else is doing. Let's just do our own thing and just see what happens.

AL: Yeah, it definitely has been fun, and I love working together. I feel like because I was so new, it was almost like we got to cultivate our own musical language to collaborate together. And that's something that I always was intimidated by before being in this band, was the idea of playing music with another person, standing in the same room, your instruments are making harmonious noises - how do you say what you're going to play? This is magic, like, how are people doing this? And it felt like we were able to start from scratch a little, and build our own way of communicating musically together. And the idea of not really having any rules. I jumped into it so new, I was like, I don't have a very high expectation for myself that I'm stressing to hold to, because I just want to have fun.

NB: We never intended to actually do this for this long. We literally just thought we'd play a couple basement shows in New Paltz, where Alex was going to school, and we were gonna call it a day.

AL: When Noah called me to be like, We're gonna record what ended up being “Over Easy,” he's like, do you want to do this Saturday? And I was like, record it? We're still doing this thing? We had played two shows, and I was kind of like, Oh, we're doing this! And he was like, well, Chris [Daly, the engineer who recorded the EP] said he had an extra day on the calendar… He's like, "he just said we could come in and try and record them just to have it." And I was like, “I guess!” Which is so funny to think back on. Because now it's our beloved baby, our first EP.

What does your songwriting process look like?

AL: I come up with hooks and chunks of lyrics alone. I'll have a melody for maybe a chorus that I really like. And maybe some words or some piece of the song, like a melody and maybe words, and a chord progression. And then we'll get together and kind of build the song around that. Adding drums kind of brings in the dynamics of the song. So if I have a chorus, it's like, okay, let's figure out what we want this chorus to sound like - maybe big drums, loud guitars, and then how do we get in and out of the chorus?

NB: Yeah, no, it's fun and I think it's a special thing that we get to do it this way. We'll block out a month to record. And honestly the first couple of days, we don't even really record anything. We just kind of sit there and really workshop stuff with our engineer, Chris, and I guess producer as well… Most of our songs don't come to a full song until, literally, we're putting the lyrics on it, or vocals on it.

AL: Classic ADHD shit, where it's not gonna happen unless it's urgent! We really collaborate with our producer Chris a lot. I often have the lyrics, but getting to throw it around with all three of our brains really helps define, Okay, what lyrics are important? What stands out? And it's nice, it feels a little bit like group therapy. I'm like, these are all my feelings! Help me piece them together!

Do you guys have favorite songs off of “Do You Wonder About Me?,” or from your discography in general?

AL: I love “Thriving.” I feel like “Thriving” is my jam. I know it's so clichéd because it was one of our lead singles. But that was the first full song we wrote for “Do You Wonder About Me?,” and I remember being in the studio and hearing it back for the first time without even the lyrics, the vocals on it, it was just the instrumental. And in my heart being like, I could never write anything else, and I would be so just proud of what I did here.

NB: Yeah, I think “Stare Into the Sun” is a fun one. That's actually the only other song we played live before COVID. We played it in Halifax for some festival thing. We did it as a two piece, and we were like, Let's just try it, fuck it, whatever. Like, who knows, who cares. We were having a good moment. And it fucking ripped! And I was like, Yeah, this is gonna be so sick when there's actually two other people on stage, and it's not just the two of us.

Through a lot of the time that you guys have been working on Diet Cig, you’ve basically been doing it part time. Does it still feel like you’re balancing it with a ton of other stuff, and what is that like?

AL: Well, before COVID, we had fully been full-time with Diet Cig, for actually a couple years. I would say between 2016 until 2021 when COVID hit, we had been doing Diet Cig full time. With a handful of odd jobs going on when we were off tour, but -

NB: I think that was mostly just to give us something to do. [laughs]

AL: But we were full time Diet Cig. And so it is really interesting, because touring is the thing that financially makes it full time. To have that not happen, we have been kind of thrust back into this side hustle kind of lifestyle. And it's definitely been a challenge trying to balance it, because our band really requires a lot more of us than it did way back when, when we were just starting and having other jobs. It has a full time job kind of commitment to it, that we're currently also balancing with, you know, I teach printmaking workshops. Noah's building fences, painting houses, building bicycles, we're just doing 10,000 things.

NB: Having Diet Cig be such a full time thing for the last almost four or five years before, and then not being able to tour, it really kind of nails it in the head. It's really tough to be a musician in this world right now. Because the only way we really make any money is from touring. And so taking that all away puts it in the forefront where, you know, all these streaming services and all these other ways of making money, we don't make anything off of that. We could have millions of plays, but we get nothing.

AL: We make a little bit.

NB: But it's not enough to live off of, you know? And it almost doesn't really matter unless you go on tour, to pay your rent.

AL: There is a group though, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, that are organizing, trying to push Spotify and other streaming services to offer more money per stream. And I think this time just really put it into perspective how important movements like that are, trying to get a living wage for artists through streaming. And you'd think it wouldn't be such a struggle, but it is.

You guys have definitely been asked about this before, but because this is Harvard Radio Broadcasting, I have to ask you again about the story behind your song, “Harvard.”

AL: First of all, I think that song is the reason why Boston is our number one, or at least my number one, favorite city to play in. I feel like everyone goes buck wild, especially during that song but even outside of it, y’all just bring it. It’s so funny, this is a prime example of me just writing about something in the moment, and not even processing it, just writing it. I had broken up with a guy, who was the worst. I was like 18, and I went to college with this boyfriend, and he was older, and it was messy, because he was older. And I broke up with him because he was really controlling and really bad… I went to my friend’s house when I was home from college, and she was like, “Oh, did you hear that this guy is dating this girl from Harvard? He keeps talking about how he’s got a girlfriend from Harvard now.”

And I was like, “fuck that shit! Like what, you think she’s better than me because she’s an Ivy Leaguer? I broke up with him!” Which is so funny, because I look back now, and I don’t even know if that was true gossip! I don’t even know if that girl even went to Harvard… I just had so much angst toward this guy that I think he could have literally done anything and I would’ve written a song being like “fuck you.”

What’s the future of Diet Cig? What do you guys see for yourselves going forward?

AL: I feel like every time we have an interview, that is what they ask at the end, and it’s always interesting, cause the answer’s always different. And I feel like right now, it’s a little bit of a question mark. We have this tour coming up, we have our livestream, and then beyond that, we are finished with our record contract that we did our last two records in. And the world is kind of our oyster. And I think depending on how we feel on this tour, and getting back into full force, what that feels like to us, will really dictate where we go from there. I think we’re at a place where, especially after this year and a half of total trauma collectively, we are kind of moving and shaking based on intuitive feeling. Like, how does this make me feel? Good or bad? I don’t want to do things for the sake of doing things anymore. So I feel like we’ve decided to kind of move with a little more “feeling it out.”

NB: Yeah, kind of just going with the flow.

AL: Which means either we do this tour, we’re like, “that was fucking sick, let’s keep doing more tours, like right now” or maybe we will kind of take a pause on being on the road, if it feels like it’s not quite the time yet, and work on a new record. So we have the freedom to kind of choose -

NB: Kind of do what we want.

Tamar Sarig ‘23 is a staff writer for the Record Hospital.