Proper. on “I Spent The Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better” - Getting Better Than Ever | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Proper. on “I Spent The Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better”

Getting Better Than Ever

Aug 21, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Brooklyn-based band Proper. (formerly known as Great Wight) already won fans over with their unfiltered brand of emo on 2017’s The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life. Their sophomore album, 2019’s I Spent The Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better, is even more unfiltered and explosive. Its strikingly blunt lyrics speak to lead singer and guitarist Erik Garlington’s experience growing up as a queer Black man in the Bible Belt, moving through largely white social spaces. Yet, they do so in such universal terms that anybody can find their teenage self in his lyrics. Together with bassist Natasha Johnson and drummer Elijah Watson, Garlington wrote a defining coming-of-age record that can stand amongst the best of the band’s influences such as Say Anything and The Wonder Years.

Under the Radar caught up with Proper. to talk about the record, pop culture references, and what they hope to see from the DIY scene when live shows come back.

Caleb Campbell (Under the Radar): So I’ve been loving I Spent The Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better. What were your goals going into making the record? Was it different than The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life?

Erik Garlington: Yeah, for me personally. For the first record, I had it pretty much done before I met either of these two beautiful humans. So this time it was a lot more of, “Hey here’s the song, see what you come up with.” I am notoriously bad at doing things on time. So it would come time to record bass for the first album and I’d be in the studio. I’d say, “Let’s hit play and I’ll just wing it.” It’s a lot easier now. A lot less stress for me without writing seven guitar parts or bass parts. I like television so I like to think of this as season two of my story. So just trying to do more consistently the things I could have done better on the first album. Some of those songs I wrote when I was in my early 20s. So for me I was just trying to be a better writer.

What were some of your favorite parts about making this album and being in the studio?

Eli Watson: So having played on the first and second album I think what I liked more about this album, in terms of the recording process, was we recorded it much faster than we did the first one. And especially with me, because for both albums we laid down drums first. So it was very quick. B but I really enjoyed that because every part that I gravitated towards was more instinctual, even though we had been playing these songs beforehand. So there was a sense of structure but there was also a sense of timeliness and I’m going to play what just feels right, as soon as the track starts recording. I think also there was more of an element of challenging ourselves in the studio too. A lot of moments where we would record to a click, and then where we wouldn’t, and we would just kind of have to feel it. I think that was really interesting and really brought a different dynamic to us within the recording studio and getting that chemistry stronger in that space too. Especially with Tash because that was the first album we did with her.

Erik: For me it was just watching you two. The effects Tash would use, like the Big Muff. Just huge parts. I just said, “Show me what you come up with and we’ll do it.” Just having faith in these two people and it coming out great. Or the parts like at the end of “Curtains Down” there’s a slowdown and we have to get right back in time. And I had to literally look Eli right in the eye and have him count me back in. Little things like that where we said, Let’s just MacGuyver it and see how this works.

Natasha Johnson: I liked it a lot because we wrote most of the songs on the record before we signed and then we went on tour overseas. At that point we knew we had to do the recording. So I think I did a lot of,, “Crap I need to get this stuff down. Let me actually figure out all these songs and how to play them,” so I could do them when we recorded. I think that part helped a lot. It’s a lot of fun to fine tune that. My other favorite part was when Erik would hear my basslines for real, and be like, “Oh shit, I didn’t know you did all that.” [Laughs] I was just doing the most, apparently. That was cool as well. Recording was great, writing songs with them was awesome.

One thing I’ve noticed about this record compared to The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life is it seems like there’s a lot more hope in the lyrics. There’s a progression on several tracks, most notably the title track, where it starts in a really dark place but ends in a position of self affirmation. Was that an intentional shift in perspective when writing this new album?

Erik: So this is my first band that has ever progressed to writing a second record. So I already had that pressure on myself. I remember asking, “Guys, is this song good? Seriously is this good? Tell me. You can tell me if it’s not,” a few times. I realized that instrumentally I was happy with where I was but I don’t want to write “I’m sad part two.” It just didn’t make sense. Especially with the whole analogy of thinking about it like a television show, there has to be dynamics. This season has to be about this. This season has to be about this. And I just happened to be in a better place, luckily. Thank God. So it just felt like the right progression to do for this album to have the theme of this one be a little more hopeful. Especially with moving out of the Bible Belt and finding my family and my friends.

I also appreciate how the record centers the intersectionality aspect of your music by talking about Black and queer experiences together. I did notice more of this blunt expression about queer experiences on the record as compared to The Suburbs. What made you want to more explicitly explore that on this record?

Erik: Honestly, moving to New York. So, I’m in an open relationship so it was moving to New York and going on dates with other queer people and not having to hide. Going to a bar with another cisgendered male person and not thinking, “Nobody is looking at us. We’re good. We’re safe.” Literal freedom was what inspired it. I used to change genders in songs to make it more heteronormative and straight and now I don’t have to do that.

You also are talking about a lot of really hard subjects here - sexuality, race, family, privilege, etc. Has it been cathartic writing and playing these songs?

Erik: I guess, for me, it’s more so that my bandmates are both Black, finally, for the first time in my 12 years of being in bands. So I could tell that the song means something to one of them. For me it’s more a sense of community. I’ve always written this way. But now I feel a lot more confident with the people surrounding me, that it means something to them also, I hope.

There’s all these inside jokes on this record. You name drop Dr. Manhattan, I think I heard a Community reference on “Curtains Down” where you say you’re “streets ahead of other bands.” Where does all that come from?

Erik: Just growing up watching television shows like that, that have a lot of callbacks. I remember Futurama, something in Season 2 they did a callback to in Season 8 and I was like, “Holy shit that’s amazing.” And just being a fucking nerd man. Just anime and Dungeons & Dragons and things that require a lot of, “Remember that little detail back there?” I just really like that. So it’s fun to me, like trying to find a creative way to rhyme something or fill in a bar. It’s just fun I guess. It’s like doing a puzzle, just extra added stuff in there.

I was wondering if you all could talk a bit about the track “Toby.” I find it interesting given that it is less autobiographical than the rest of the album, which is reflecting on these experiences in the past and present. But this one is looking more towards the future.

Erik: Yeah, it’s about Toby from The Office so it’s not really that deep. It was just that he was my favorite character when I watched that show and it’s just what I thought would happen to him afterwards and a little extra backstory. It started out as a song I wanted to put on the first record. I had that opening riff for six years, sitting on it. And then I decided, let’s just use it and try and make it better than what I had six years ago. I got engaged to my now wife and it was originally just about gender roles and how people expect us to live. She cuts the grass and I cook and people think that’s weird. But then I decided let’s just not. I already have enough deep thoughts. Let’s just make a tongue-in-cheek song about a TV show. So it was just that I wanted to try and write about something other than myself and when you hear me say it’s about The Office it’s like, “Yeah I get it.”

I also think Eli and Natasha both really kill it on this track specifically.

Erik: Oh yeah, they murder it!

The instrumental portion right before the last verse blew me away. What was the creative process on your side like for this track?

Natasha: It was everybody right? I think at first that was going to be guitar and Erik said, “Do it on bass,” and I’m like, “I’m not doing this shit!” [Laughs] And then the speed up, I think Eli you were going to…

Eli: Yeah, we did it to a click up until where we all come in during that instrumental part. And then after that, we took the click off and it was based on me leading and us feeling it out. To me that was one of the highlights just because for the first album I don’t think Erik and I did anything like that. The click always stayed on;, the tempo was always consistent. So it was really interesting to do that and see how it builds up and add all the additional layers after that. It was really cool.

Natasha: A lot of layers.

Erik: I think originally that whole thrash outro thing before the acoustic part, that was Eli’s idea and I remember vehemently hating it. I was like “No, no!” And then it was, okay, it actually goes really well. And then we did the whole outro and I added on that last verse after the fact. I don’t think I had it written until the day before I went in to record it. And then we all just coalesced and did our parts on it and it worked really well.

I also saw on Twitter you did an all POC tour before COVID. Do you mind talking a bit about what that was like?

Natasha: There were two legs.

Erik: Alfred. Oh yeah we went down south. The first leg was down south with clwdwlkr and Alfred who is from Richmond, Virginia. Queer rapper, I heard their album on the Topshelf YouTube and I said we have to do something with this rapper. And then the second leg was with Mint Green to the west coast. I don’t even remember the planning. It took me five months to get the whole shit figured out. I just remember us doing it.

Natasha: With Mint Green it was the article.

Erik: Oh yeah, for The Alternative. It was about POC in emo. And that’s how we found Mint Green. And literally it was about five weeks out I asked, “Hey do y’all want to go on a tour” and they said yes. It kind of just fell into place and then we did it, two weeks with both of them.

Natasha: Yeah, two and a half weeks.

Erik: Yeah, first one was down south, took a ten day break and then second one was to the west coast then we drove the van back home.

Into the future, how would you all like to see the post-COVID DIY scene change?

Erik: I guess all this exposure and diversity that Black and brown and queer people are getting on these Bandcamp days being a normal thing. Just not one day out of a month. Just a normal, inclusive scene, period.

Eli: People who do have power in these communities just really using it to diversify the community and bring awareness to these things. Of course, it takes work to find these artists but if we could do it for Mint Green and Alfred and clwdwlkr and live with the intent of trying to find those groups, so can bookers and people who really want to live by that. So I’m just hoping that it becomes a more universal thing because I think what was really beautiful, when we did tour, was seeing the people we brought out and even the diversity of the spaces we played in. Didn’t we play in the back of someone’s shed? That was in Alabama.

Erik: Oh! With Insignificant Other. Yeah it was literally a shed. And it was one of the most diverse, fun shows on the tour by far for me.

Eli: To me that was the fun. Every show was different because it was a different space. And a different space in the sense that not every one was what you would define as a music venue. Having that infrastructure where we have all these spots but the youth are hungry to see it so they’re going to come out.

Natasha: Yeah, I’m hoping post-COVID to see more Black and brown kids coming out to punk shows. Even me, during all these Bandcamp Fridays, I’m learning about more and more bands that are out there and I’m thinking, “I want to see these guys next time.” So I’m hoping that it’ll just be like you said about an inclusive and diverse scene. I want to see all that, I want to be a part of it and I can’t wait for it all to happen.

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