Proper.
An interview with the current members of Proper. discussing the current state of Afropunk and POC space in music journalism, among other topics.
Young Fenimore Lee | April 30, 2020

The Brooklyn-based all-black emo band Proper. (formerly known as Great Wight) is a rare sight in a scene inundated primarily by white straight men, but their strengths aren’t limited to their POC identity. Lyricist and vocalist Erik Garlington writes striking, biting lyrics about his experiences growing up in various places across the country as a queer black man, and it reminds all of us of the faults we have or will shed as we grow into our ever-complex intersectional identities. Backed by deft bassist Natasha Johnson and explosive drummer Eli Whitney, the band has received acclaim from the POC punk community as well as mainstream publications such as Pitchfork. Editor-in-chief Young Fenimore Lee sat down for a COVID-era Zoom call with the members of Proper. to get their perspective on their time as a band since their 2019 record, I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better.

Young Fenimore Lee: When’d you guys get signed to Big Scary Monsters?

Erik Garlington: Officially, last year. They reached out to us on our second European tour, so, November 2018 was when we talked to them. I don’t even remember how that happened. How did that happen? Take it away, Tash.

Natasha Johnson: It was Lucinda from Cultdreams. They’re a band out of the UK, amazing band. Their label was BSM, and apparently, Kevin or somebody from Big Scary Monsters reached out to Lucinda and said, “hey, do you know these guys? We like them a lot!” and Lucinda was like, “yeah! Tasha’s my friend.” They messaged me about it, and I sent it along, and that’s just how it started. It’s just a lot of connections between bands in the UK that we played with.

YFL: How do you guys think about your influences, considering the varying topics that have come up in previous interviews (Kanye, Wonder Years, etc)? I personally hear lots of second-wave emo in your music, like Taking Back Sunday.

EG: Well, Kanye comes from the style we chose for the record - super ornate. When I say “influences,” it’s an all-encompassing thing, not just what we sound like. The way that we carry ourselves, the way our bio just says “NWA,” just really going for that cool, integrated style. Music-wise, for me, it’s like, Say Anything, and rappers like Kanye or Kendrick for the audacity to say some crazy out-there lines. Definitely Taking Back Sunday for me. Stuff like Protest the Hero, where I’m like, I guess I don’t have to have this whole song be only in 4/4. I grew up with that, and then I realized I wasn’t good enough to play it. And I settled on just not being a shredder.

Eli Watson: I grew up with that second-wave emo as well - Paramore, Taking Back Sunday, Silverstein. So I think having that base informs a lot of what I do drumming-wise, but we all listen to a ton of different shit. I’d say my main influences are The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. A lot of rap also, like Dilla or A Tribe Called Quest in terms of the importance of serving a groove and keeping the beat intact so Erik and Tash can do what they need to do.

YFL: I’m doing everything I can right now to not just start screaming lyrics from At the Drive-In. (laughs)

EW: It’s crazy. I’m from El Paso, so I learned about them very late. By the time I learned about them, they had already diverged into Volta and Sparta. It’s been crazy getting older and meeting older people who were in the punk scene of El Paso at the time and them going, “yeah, we used to play shows in DIY garages and car repair shops.” And I was like, wow, it’s an honor to carry that spirit within this band.

NJ: My favorite band of all time is the Ramones, so I have a lot of that old pop punk background. When it comes to playing bass, a lot of what I listen to is Long Island emo type stuff. We just bought the new re-release of On the Might of Princes that came out on vinyl. I was in an emo band before this. I take my influences from anything and anywhere I can find it. We just watched all these documentaries on Thundercat. Even in this quarantine time, I’m just trying to get more in-tune with different bass styles.

Proper. Band Picture

(Picture by Nikki Austin-Garlington)

YFL: Erik, you were talking a little about the artistic philosophy of being a super audacious band that just loves to make super bold statements, with the Kanye influence. I don’t know a lot of other emo bands that have lyrics the way you guys do. I was listening to Marietta this morning, and their lyrics are great, but they’re always more vague, contemplations on life. But you’re just out here saying stuff like, “Oh my god, I’m back on my bullshit. Hooked up with this guy last night, wouldn’t eat me out, I’m angry.” (laughs from everyone) Obviously the inspiration for that comes from your life, but talk more about that philosophy, to say exactly what you mean.

EG: For me, it definitely goes back to the rapper mentality, where it’s just like, I was homeless, I don’t have to be diplomatic. I’m not going to sit here and be poetic to you. I want to get my point across. I think that’s even a Biggie line, something like, “even when I was wrong, I got my point across.” That’s a really good image in my head. There’s no five-syllable words in there, no words I gotta google or look up. It comes from that rap philosophy. For me, being a film buff, you see a lot of directors trying to be artsy by just throwing a black-and-white filter on things or doing a Dutch angle or a continuous take during this 20-minute long dialogue-

YFL: You weren’t a fan of the Lighthouse?

EG: OK, that one slapped. I wish it was in color, though. (laughs) Imagine that mermaid in color. But, regardless, I would rather impress you with my wordplay or my ability to rhyme something that you wouldn’t expect - instead of rhyming “love” with “dove,” I can rhyme it with something completely different. I just think there’s beauty in vulgarity, and you can get that out there. Less is more.

NJ: The thing I love most about Erik’s lyrics is when I hear people from all walks, all generations, from everywhere in the world say how relatable it is. ‘Cause each person I meet, each person out there has an experience that they can find within this black man’s lyrics. It could be this white suburban kid from Minnesota who’s never left his hometown. Or a traveler all over Europe. But they can all find a place within his lyrics. And it’s really cool to see that. How can you translate to that many people at once? It’s honesty.

YFL: Erik, I have some questions for you about your guitar tones. How do you get that tone like at the beginning of New Years Resolutions, that specific distortion? That distortion is all over the record, and it’s super signature for you, so I think people would love to hear how you get those tones.

EG: I have an MXR Overdrive and a blues driver. When I try to make something really big, like on New Years, I do them both at the same time, and then maybe I’ll put on my Organizer pedal to give it that octave fuzz feel. I just kind of overload shit until it doesn’t make any sense. Stacking pedals, that’s my trick on that one.

YFL: Who came up for the idea for that ABBA transition at the end of “Fucking Disgusting”?

EG: Oh, I’ve had the idea to do that at the end of a song for, like, 10 years. I’ve had that in my back pocket for so long. And I’m like, we just have to use it on this album. And luckily it worked? Because I’m like, alright, this song has 18 million chords, which ones do I pick and how do I transition into it? And how do I write a song that’s still similar enough, where these chords would still work, and it’s not just random? That was definitely a challenge for a while.

YFL: I’d love to ask you guys about how you guys identify with the Afropunk scene. I don’t know much about Afropunk that’s going on nowadays, besides Big Joanie’s record Sistahs, and Bartees Strange, who you guys have been bumping for a while. Talk about how you guys identify with that community, and how y’all are able to contribute to it.

EW: Adrian from No Flowers for Yt Powers, they used to have a band called Maduros, and I believe Adrian is half black half latinx. Adrian, the whole Maduros crew, No Flowers for Yt Powers, they’ve been people who we’ve tapped in with. All this feels so long ago. Punx of Color, that was at Silent Barn before it was closed.

I think the idea of Afropunk isn’t necessarily as a label, as much as it is about trying to build that reality. Obviously when you think of Afropunk, you think of the festival. It’s not that anymore, I think anyone would agree. In that absence, we have to do what we have to do, which is finding other bands who are similar, like the Breathing Light, an all-black punk band out of Chicago. I mean, shit, Soul Glo is barely popping off, and they’re one of my favorite bands. Or even Jesus Piece, their lead singer is black. That representation is there, but it’s hard to find when there isn’t media that’s hyperfocused on it. In DIY communities in general, it’s hard to tap in with people. But when we find them, those bonds are everlasting, because we see each other, we acknowledge each other’s existence, and we praise it, because we need more of it.

EG: One of those first shows we played, Eli, before Tash was even in the band, it was at that venue that was two floors, remember? And it was art school white kids who were drinking wine and talking while we played, and I broke a string and was asking for a guitar, and people were talking so much the other bands didn’t even notice that I needed a guitar. Remember that? (EW: Was this Gateway?) Gateway, yes! And after the show, I was like, I’m never doing that again. That was when I decided that I needed to find other bands like us, and every show after that was nowhere near as terrible, nowhere near that kind of crowd. For me, that’s what Afropunk is. I know before the show is booked that they’re here for us, and this is not just a party where you’re going to spend $9 on a glass of wine in Bushwick. You can be a pop singer and be Afropunk to me. You can be Sufjan Stevens part 2 and be Afropunk. The genre doesn’t matter to me, it’s more the mindset to me.

YFL: So within this mentality, within this philosophy and this crew, who should we be paying attention to? Who’s not being talked about that needs to be talked about?

EG: Bartees Strange is amazing, he’s one of the first people that we linked up with band-wise when we started out. His album, when it finally comes out, is gonna be great.

NJ: The one band I can think of that I just stumbled upon on Twitter is Teamonade. They’re POC, also queer, all black band. I don’t know how active they are, but I know they record a lot of music and I listen to it. It’s really good music, and if you interview them, I’d love to hear it. (laughs)

EW: The Breathing Light from Chicago, Soul Glo out of Philly, Pink Siifu just dropped a crazy-ass punk rock-y album called Negro. That shit is hard. Super sick.

YFL: And do you think there needs to be a POC space within music journalism? That’s what we’re trying to do, but I wonder sometimes if we can find that niche.

EW: Speaking also as a journalist, it’s not only that we need the space, but we need the writers who can articulate and contextualize that. As well as people willing to do the gruntwork of finding these artists, because they exist, you know? There’s no excuse nowadays. Everything has a hashtag now. Black punk, just type that into Twitter. You may not find a lot, but you’re going to find it. From there, it’s just the ecosystem of having the writers who understand it. Moses Sumney has talked about this many times. People were just calling his music soul music, or R&B, because he’s a black artist. Or Vagabon. Just because these artists aren’t screaming or rapping, you categorize them as soul and R&B. If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to describe them, hit ‘em up. I’m pretty sure they’d rather you clarify than have you simply typecast what they believe their music is. It’s just due diligence.

Proper. Band Picture

(Picture by Nikki Austin-Garlington)

YFL: Right, right. It’s giving them that same attention that you would give any artist like Tame Impala. You’d never in a million years dream of categorizing their music in a way they wouldn’t want to, so why would you do that to Moses Sumney?

EW: Exactly.

EG: I would like to, for once, when white people interview me, not be asked, “what’s it like to be a black person in a predominantly white scene?” That’s what all the white people talk about. Like, yo, I talked about being homeless, and I talked about these really awkward dates, and moving across the country. There’s so many other things that we wrote about that’s not just, “I’m black, look at me being black, we’re black people.”

YFL: Who did the album cover art for you guys? It’s super amazing, and feels very symbolic in a way I can’t quite explain.

EG: The guy’s name is Kevin Cuellar. For the first record, it’s a blue background with a branch and mandevillas. The whole theme of the first album is feeling blue and trapped in the midwest, and at the end of the album I move to New York. Mandevillas symbolize recklessness, hopelessness, general dread. So I wanted every album to be a color and a flower. So for this record, red symbolizes boldness, fiery passion. And the flowers are chrysanthemums, which represent regained hope and reciprocity. On the back of the second album is a broken mask, meaning shedding this mask. The back of the first album is a devil. There’s all that meaning in there.

Album Art

(Album Art by Kevin Cuellar)

YFL: Finally, I’d love to ask, what’s a question you always wished you were asked in an interview?

EG: I guess for me, I want people to notice the inside jokes and details. Like on “Curtains Down,” there’s a line, “I’m streets ahead of that kid you knew writing shitty songs 5 years ago.” “Streets ahead” is a Community reference. Or just non-black things. Like, “oh, you were homeless, talk more about that.” I want people to actually hear me when I talk about myself.

NJ: I’d like people to ask more about my basslines. (laughs) Like, “how did you come up with that? That sounds cool, how did you do it?” And I’d just be like, well… (pulls out bass). Because I’m really proud and happy with some of the stuff I did in general. Some random things, if they want to know about the bass that I have, it’s been through the ringer, my equipment, some nerdy stuff like that. (YFL: What bass do you play?) It’s a Peavey BXP, they don’t really make them anymore. It’s very random. It’s a PJ bass, and I like it a lot. (YFL: What’s your favorite bassline you’ve written for the band?) (laughs) Well, the bassline I like to play the most is “Art School.” Because it’s a lot of slides. (EG: That bassline, it’s really balls to wall, a lot of shit going on!) “Curtains” is fun too. I like all of them, because I wrote all of them. (laughs)

EW: Piggybacking on that, just drum stuff. And I would ask the interviewer to rank the hottest member in the band. (laughs)

YFL: Erik, what inside jokes do you have on this record that you’re really proud of?

EG: In “Dekalb Ave,” it turns out the Boobie Trap is not even off that train stop I named the song after, I was just so drunk on my way home that I just walked to the wrong train. The callback to “Not Black Enough” on the title track I really enjoy. Because then when people are like “I love your album, do you have anything else?” I tell them, “yeah, go listen to the first album.” And then they’re like, “holy shit!” when they get the references. Or the callback to talking about my friend John on “Art School,” who was also on “Red State Blues, Pt. I.” Just little things like that.

YFL: Thank y’all so much for talking! Take care, stay safe and healthy.

All: Bye!

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(Thumbnail Photo by Nikki Austin-Garlington)


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Editor-in-Chief
Young Fenimore Lee
(he/him)
Pictured: Henry, his pet Jellybone

Young is the child of two Korean musicians and was born and raised in the Chicago metropolitan area. They identify as queer and non-binary. They’re currently going through emocore/screamo essentials, and they love indie rock, indie folk, emo, post-hardcore, and math rock. Feel free to take a look at their rateyourmusic account, their last.fm, and this collage of the 100 albums they consider most personally important.