We discuss the state of Afropunk with Brooklyn-based emo pop outfit Proper.

April 30, 2020

The Brooklyn-based all-Black emo band Proper. (formerly known as Great Wight) is a rare sight in a scene dominated by white men, but their strengths aren’t limited to their 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. Backed by deft bassist Natasha Johnson and explosive drummer Eli Whitney, the band has received acclaim from the punk community as well as publications such as Pitchfork. Our editor 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.

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

Erik: 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. Music-wise, for me, it’s 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. So I settled on not being a shredder.

Eli Watson: I grew up with that second-wave emo as well – Paramore, Taking Back Sunday, Silverstein. Having that base informs 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 J 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.

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

Eli: 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.”

Natasha: 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 that On the Might of Princes album. We just watched all these documentaries on Thundercat. In this quarantine time, I’m trying to get more in-tune with different bass styles.

(Picture by Nikki Austin-Garlington.)

Young: Erik, you were talking about the artistic philosophy of being an audacious band that loves to make bold statements. I don’t know 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 vague contemplations on life. And you’re 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.

Erik: For me, it goes back to the rapper mentality, where it’s 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 good image in my head. There’s no five-syllable words in there, no words I gotta look up. It comes from that rap philosophy. Like in film, you see some 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–

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

Erik: 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.

Young: Erik, I have some questions for you about guitar tones. How do you get that tone at the beginning of "New Years Resolutions", that specific distortion? That distortion is all over the record, and it’s signature of yours.

Erik: 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.

Young: I’d love to ask you guys about how you 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.

Eli: I think the idea of Afropunk isn’t necessarily as a label, as much as it's about trying to build that reality. We have to do what we have to do, which is find 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. 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 and we praise each other, because we need more of it.

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.

Young: With this mindset, who should we be paying attention to? Who’s not being talked about that needs to be talked about?

Natasha: The one band I can think of that I just stumbled upon on Twitter is Teamonade. They’re also a queer, all-Black band.

Eli: Pink Siifu just dropped a crazy-ass punk-adjacent album called Negro. That shit is hard. Super sick.

(Album art by Kevin Cuellar.)

Young: Who did the album art for you guys? It feels symbolic in a way I can’t quite explain.

Erik: The guy’s name is Kevin Cuellar. For the first record, it’s a blue background with a branch and mandevillas. The 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. 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.

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

Erik: 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 things related to my identity beyond Blackness. Like, “you were homeless, talk about that.”

Natasha: 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). 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. (Young: What bass do you play?) It’s a Peavey BXP, they don’t really make them anymore. It’s a PJ bass, and I like it a lot. (Young: What’s your favorite bassline you’ve written for the band?) The bassline I like to play the most is "Art School". Because it’s a lot of slides. (Erik: That bassline, it’s balls to wall, a lot of shit going on!) “Curtains” is fun too.

Eli: Piggybacking off that, just drum stuff. And I would ask the interviewer to rank the hottest members in the band. (laughs all around)