We jumped on Zoom with Erik Garlington of Brooklyn-based emo three-piece Proper.! In this interview, we discussed Erik’s songwriting process, the way musical catharsis can unintentionally help us with our emotions, and Proper.’s upcoming plans now that the pandemic is starting to wind down.
How long have you been involved in music, and how did your music history begin? Is there something you fondly look back on, like a song or a lyric from your earliest days?
Whatever year Drumline came out, that Nick Cannon movie, I was like, “I want to play drums.” And I told my mom that sports were never my thing, ever. And so, I did band. I tried out for drums didn’t make it. So they made me play trombone. And I ended up playing that for like twelve years. And at some point along the way, I picked up a guitar because I was just like, “Trombone isn’t cool. It’s not going to get me any friends. What do you do with the trombone?”. And I didn’t live anywhere near ska, so it was just a done deal. So I picked up a guitar.
And then I think around that time, like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and all those bands were starting to get really big. Like, I remember that year discovering guitar, Hot Topic, and Fuse TV. So it just kind of went from there, and I just went down the rabbit hole.
There’s a lot of My Chemical Romance lines that just are very dramatic, but really still resonate, because it was just like, “You can write about this kind of stuff? You can wear this kind of stuff?” You know? Before that my dad had given me a Megadeath CD, and that was the heaviest thing I had heard. It was before my time. I’m sure Megadeth is great, but it just wasn’t my thing.
I played guitar, like at 11 I started out. Then the following year I discovered all those bands. And lines that matter. It was probably Coheed and Cambria that made me realize that you can write a story, like a concept album. And just pretty much all of “Welcome Home,” when that song came out it blew me away.
Do you remember how to play the trombone?
Yes, actually, I every other year I think I find myself around the trombone. And I pick it up and see what I can do. I can’t quite get the higher notes to play anymore. But I can kind of read music a bit still. I’m a bit out of practice. But if I had a couple hours of practice, I think I could play, I don’t know…The Jurassic Park theme song. That was a fun one to play. So if I had some time, I think I could pick it back up pretty efficiently.
Your recent single “Aficionado” deals with themes of shyness and wanting to skip the awkward talking parts during an intimate encounter with someone new. Do you ever struggle with being shy onstage, and how do you deal with that?
I’m not shy anymore. I think I was my first performance ever. I was about, let’s say 18 or 19. I’m 30 now. So I just kind of had to just jump into the pool, so to speak. At first I would be shaking and just terrified. And I just had to do it once and then do it another time at the next show. Then kind of at some point that I don’t even realize, it just became second nature. I was just comfortable.
Especially now with my bandmates, this has been the most fun thing I’ve ever done, with the most calm, relaxed people on stage. I can mess up and no one’s gonna be like, “What are you doing?”. So it’s really relaxed onstage we have. Going into this band, I really wanted to just have fun, more so than be the perfect band. So now it’s not so much about shyness.
But when we had some bigger shows before COVID, I had a little bit of that feeling. I think one of our last shows was 300 cap room in New Jersey. So it was already like we weren’t on our home base. And it was the biggest show to date that we had done. It comes and goes.
Do you have any like pre show rituals or any mantras that you say to yourself?
No, actually, I’ve been thinking about like getting one, like how you see bands huddle and stuff in movies and documentaries. But we’re usually just chilling, like we’ll usually be walking around the venue. If there are people, we’ll already be talking to people at the merch table. Before COVID we started doing like fun things, like all of us wearing an African jumpsuit, or being silly backstage or doing scales together. And hopefully that’ll be a thing that we start doing again with shows come back.
Your most-streamed song, “Bragging Rights,” features Willow Hawks and the Sonder bombs. What was the process of collaborating with other artists like? What strengths and challenges does this surface?
I think that was my first time really collaborating with someone. I knew that I wanted a feature for that song. And we had met The Sonder Bombs at South By Southwest the year before. And they just have been doing it just since day one, just grinding. We weren’t able to get a tour set up or anything. And I was like, “Well, it’s time for us to start our next record. Willow, would you like to sing on it?” And just immediately she was like, “Yes, please send me what you have.” And it was probably one of the easiest things ever done.
I just sent it back told her what the general idea of the song was. Then she sent it back, I think two days later. And there was no… I didn’t have to chase her down. I didn’t have to do any young artist shit, where you’re just like, “Yo, where are you?”. We were just like, “Let’s do this.” So it was just really easy. And obviously her art is amazing. Really proud of how it came out.
But yeah, there wasn’t much like adversity in the way of getting it done. Willow’s amazing. All of her bandmates in the song, The Sonder Bombs, are amazing. It just really just was a smooth sailing type of thing.
We really admire how much personality, vulnerability, and clever phrasing goes into your lyrics. When you have writer’s block, or when you had writer’s block in the past, what’s something that helps you out of a rut?
I’m very much a kind of person that’s like, “I’m not going to do the work unless I have an idea.” You know? Faulkner of one of the writers said to write twenty minutes every day. That was just never me. I’ll go weeks without picking up my guitar.
Usually what I do is, if I do have an idea, I’ll just hum it into my phone if I’m out and about, or I’ll play the riff real quick on my phone. Or if I have a lyric idea, I’ll just write it down. So that way if I need to do a song, I just have this whole pool of stuff to work from. Some songs are put together, like in “Afficionado,” there’s some lines where they were just years old lyric ideas. I was like, “I don’t know what to say here. Let’s see what I have in my pool of thoughts.” And if it goes with the theme of the song, perfect. Let’s throw it in there. It’s very automated.
I’ve never…If I start forcing it, then like four hours go by and I’m just mad. I always try to avoid that just doing in my in my band space. Because otherwise, I’ll just be like, “Man, I could have done anything else today.”
The title track off of “I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better” really struck a chord. A someone who really values vulnerability and talking about mental health, I was wondering how writing has helped you process your mental health or learn more about yourself.
It definitely came out of nowhere for me. I didn’t ever start writing thinking that it would help me feel better.
I was just like…film is my first love. So every album, I’ve started out, I’ve had like a whole blueprint in the form of like, a season of television or a trilogy of movies. So I’m kind of like just like, “Well, this is the story. I’m just gonna tell it.” And then after the fact, like after the album came out, and my family heard “White Sheep,” for example, I was just like, “Oh, I actually feel a lot better.”
I didn’t think that I would, so I never started from a point of being therapeutic. But it definitely is now. And now going forward with new material, it feels a lot more intentionally therapeutic for me. Or writing in general, you know, having a conversation with my bandmates and being like, “Can I use this in the song? Are you okay with that?” It helps somehow. It just kind of started out, unintentional and then being like, “Oh, this helped me, and I didn’t realize it.”
Is it a super cathartic feeling for you now?
Definitely. Recording the title track on the last album, I had all these things I thought while writing it. I think I finished it the day before I supposed to sing it. That’s why I like that last line. My voice kind of cracks, because I immediately took off my headphones and started just sobbing. I definitely had a whole catharsis with that song, especially. And it then it came out great.
So, you know, it’s like, “Whoo, it went well!”. Like after weeks of putting off finishing that, that last final minute that you hear was the last thing written for the record. And last thing recorded for the record, because I just couldn’t do it. But once it was done, I felt so much better.
Your songs are heavily based off of personal experiences of growing up, if you could go back and offer your teenage self a word of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Don’t shrink yourself down for all of these straight white men around you, because their opinions are gonna end up being nothing to you. Or just in general, like I definitely had a problem with doing that. It was always like, “Oh, you like to play guitar? Prove it.” Or, “Oh, you write songs? Prove it.” Like having to prove yourself to, especially in like, 2009 when there was just all this misogyny and all these Hot-Topic-Core dudes in charge. I just shrunk down a lot. And I would tell myself that it’s that you don’t have to do that. And that you are as talented as them, and you are smarter and stuff. Whether they believe it or not.
You’ve mentioned how you viewed your albums like seasons off of a TV show. In addition to that, there are countless references to tv and movies within your discography, such as referencing Community in Curtains Down – “I’m streets ahead of that kid you knew writing shitty songs 5 years ago.” Have music and other sources of media always been linked for you?
I saw that connection before I even thought I’d wanted to be musician. I always knew I’d loved television and movies. I grew up on Air Force bases, so we would get the movie like two months after it came out. And then it would be a big event to go see it finally. Because the movie came out as a summer blockbuster, but by the time it got to the Air Force Base, it was about to be fall. It was just always an event to go to the movies. Always an event to see what new episode of Dragonball Z, like what was going to happen?
Especially moving every two or three years, the one constant I had was being able to see movies and watch television. So, there’s always been that connection. I don’t think I realized I wanted to play music until like, a month before I played my first show. I just knew that I couldn’t do one without the other. And then I just like references like that, like how a rapper can just reference some random, obscure thing. I was like, “I want to do that. Why can’t I do that?” So luckily, you know, I love when people get the references. I love little easter eggs.
You also reference your own work in your music quite often, such as “Curtains up!” and “Curtains down!” bridging both your first and second records, and your album art featuring floral themes. Could you tell us a bit more about how you maintain that cohesiveness in your discography while also growing as an artist?
I think we’ve been having these challenges. We’re starting to write new material, and we don’t want to do the same thing over again. That’s just boring. But we don’t want to do… I think a lot of heavier or alternative bands, they start getting some traction, and they’re like, “Let’s make a pop record.” And then kind of just never go back to old town. I realized I don’t want to do either of those things. But I still want to challenge myself.
It’s been a lot of listening artists that I told myself I don’t like, or I just would never have thought to give them a chance. I listened to that Olivia Rodrigo, everyone’s talking about her. I listened to that album. That’s just not me, normally. But I was like, “Oh, I see what the buzz is about, though.”
It’s just trying to get inspiration from places I normally wouldn’t. That has been my main thing. Because there are a lot of things. I’m just like, “Oh, I don’t like this artist, but let’s see what it’s all about.” And then I still might not like the artist overall, but I’d love three songs that I heard on the album, like three songs really resonated. Just trying to make sure I don’t get comfortable. That’s been the big, big thing this time around.
In an interview for The Independent, you touched on how you grew up in a punk scene where you weren’t able to feel heard amongst the crowds at shows and reflected in the artists dominating the stages. Where do you see the near future of emo and pop punk music going and evolving?
I think it’s already like getting there. I don’t know if y’all been keeping up with the fifth wave emo discourse. It’s like, “What is fifth wave, who is in it?”. Everyone that I’ve seen get mentioned is just… it’s just a diverse wave, finally, and there’s no putting up with just straight white dude bullshit.
I think it’s gonna keep going down that direction, is going to keep getting more inclusive, and more free for people that would normally wouldn’t have to have a way in. And hopefully will keep being a part of that. I think it’s really important as a band, you know, we’re getting on our third album. We’re not a new band, but we’re not a legacy band. Like as bands start to get to albums, 3,4,5 and 6, it’s important they’re still being a part of the community and getting bands that they believe in on bills with them, or just telling whoever will listen about them. So just being a part of the community, as always, will really keep this keep this train going. I’m very excited to see where it goes. But I think it’s gonna get even better than anyone could see.
Now that the pandemic is winding down, what are your upcoming plans?
Definitely touring, we had quite a few tours on the books that COVID just kind of blew. So, we’re booking, or rescheduling those because they were booked. We’re just trying to see when we can make them happen. Obviously, everyone is trying to tour so it’s been up in the air. But that’s our first and foremost thing, is to get some tours going and then write some more music.
The last album is already two years old somehow. And that blows my mind. So getting to work on that on the next album, for sure. And just trying to come back better than before. And now that we had all time off to think, we really want to make sure shows are even more inclusive, and even more diverse and even more safe. And doing this monthly discourse with a lot of other queer POC artists on Zoom about how do we get back to shows and in an equitable, equal way? So that’s the big goal. But the small goals are just getting back out there, shows, things like that.