No need to front: You are completely forgiven if you are unaware of these Eugene, Oregon, skate-punk hellions. Starting in 1996, Cigar—vocalist/guitarist Rami Krayem, drummer Jon Sortland and then-bassist Jason Torbert—could’ve been a major contender in 21st century punk. Pennywise’s Fletcher Dragge was taken by the trio’s love of melody and straight-up acceleration, which led to the band aligning themselves with SoCal label Theologian Records for their Dragge-produced debut album, 1999’s Speed Is Relative. For the next six years, Cigar (who were named after the winning racehorse in the 1995 Breeders Cup Classic) lived the punk life by relocating to San Diego, appearing on some skate-punk compilations and videos while waiting for their lane to open. And during that time, the members’ lives began to change, from creating families to exploring other musical interests.
But here in 2022, with Sortland having acquired a playing resume that includes the Shins, Broken Bells and EV Kain, and Jonathan Hischke assuming the bass slot, Cigar were ready for reignition, writing songs and playing gigs in Europe before the pandemic hit.
“It wasn’t that I ever got tired of doing Cigar,” Sortland reflects. “I just don’t think that all three of us had a unified vision. We weren’t all going the same direction. When we came back to it more recently, we realized that it was just too much commitment to do this next level. And then Jason realized he just wasn’t capable of committing on the level that Rami and I could. Once he stepped down and we brought in Hischke, a lot fell into place. It turned out that Rami and I were willing to do a lot more than we were doing before. So I feel like we’re more unified now because we all have the same trajectory and vision for it.”
“Life gets in the way of trying to live up to… I guess I’d call them childhood dreams,” Krayem says, “but that’s not to discredit the value of those dreams and goals. Because to me, as a 49-year-old, it’s still the same dream for me. So age doesn’t really have as much to do with it, as much as the commitment to the passion. It’s not about chasing trends, like, ‘Okay, now this type of music is hot, so I’m going to jump over here.’ It’s more like ‘This is who I am as a musician and a songwriter.’ It was a long, long process to build [the album], but it’s more about our commitment to the passion that drove us from the very start.”
Indeed, the 10 tracks on The Visitor easily shatter preconceived notions of young listeners and long-in-the-tooth poonks, alike. The album’s opening salvo, “These Chances,” fires right out of the gate with Krayem’s strident vocal and Sortland’s amphetamine drumming powering the proceedings. Headbangers can find joy in the brisk riffing of “In Armor” and “Move On.” The duo are also quick to acknowledge the contributions of Hishke, who plays in EV Kain with Sortland and had a stint in post-everything math-rock masters Hella. (“He’s a prog nerd who’s really bringing in some gnarly stuff,” Sortland enthuses. “He honors and respects the style that Jason set up for us originally while embellishing and making it more his own.”) The Visitor doesn’t let up on velocity or honesty: No detours in the form of four-minute acoustic love songs, trite hip-hop beats or other sonic concessions. Cigar are skate-punk personified, with a well-tuned engine and the knowledge that in punk, only you determine your glory days.
But while the men of Cigar do sound like a flashing chrome time machine, the intention is different. While a lot of contemporary punks might sing through their adenoids about how their girlfriends hate them, Cigar bring a worldview that can only be acquired by being on Earth longer than the entire run of the Warped Tour. On The Visitor, the trio ponder the line where angst becomes neurosis, with a pedal-to-the-metal efficiency that appeals across generations of music fans. Cigar’s derailed search for glory is detailed in “We Used To” in a way that’s more factual than regrettable. When Rami sings, “Please just leave my records by the door,” at the beginning of “Forget About Me,” that’s a universal punk emotion, right there. And the closing track, “Knocked Down,” is the kind of self-help anthem punks need in an era where so many people should get a trophy for merely staying alive.
“Some of it is intuitive,” Krayem offers. “But then there’s also the element of intentionally pushing myself as a lyric writer and ourselves as songwriters. Jon and I collaborated on some of the lyrics which we had not done on the first album, so we were flexing new muscles. But in terms of the themes, there’s definitely the beginning of a relationship and growth in those relationships—including growing apart. I think that there were certain sentiments that eventually came full circle after the album was completed. It was almost like I was talking to myself about what was going to come, even though I didn’t know what was coming.”
Sure, the combined forces of real life, managed expectations and youthful pessimism may have stopped Cigar from their fair share of media coverage, ancillary stages at Warped, and tats on dedicated fans’ bodies. But the kinetic energy coming off The Visitor goes far to reconcile nostalgia and value systems. The fact that it took 22 years to get to this point? That makes Cigar all the more resonant.
“We can hang out and talk or whatever, but we have this thing between us,” Sortland says. “This fast, skate-rock, punk-rock thing we grew up on through skating and skateboard videos. And if we’re not doing that, it’s kind of like Starsky and Hutch not jumping and sliding across cars. It’s like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’ That’s what we do best: driving a ‘75 Gran Torino and sliding across the hood. Now that’s what we’re supposed to be doing together.”