Posted: by The Editor
Forget anything you know about Proper. They’re not that band anymore. The propulsive, bright-eyed pop-punk of I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better, the joke song titles, all the various references and allusions–that’s gone, and in its place is progressive, genre-bending, sprawling alt-rock. The Great American Novel finds the Brooklyn trio at their most experimental, sonically, and their hardest-hitting, lyrically. It’s their very best project yet, and we spoke with frontman Erik Garlington about the record.
So you’ve been on tour for a little bit at this point.
Yeah, we did five dates in Europe–two in the UK, three in the mainland. Then we had a little four, five day break, and now we’re doing Pouzza Fest in Montreal, Canada.
How’s that been? How’s the new material been received?
Shockingly well! We’ve never done a tour where it’s like, “Hey here’s this new project,” then hit the road. [laughs] We’re usually the kinda band who gives it three months. We gotta make sure people like it! This tour was supposed to happen in March of 2020 I think? Or maybe April, but COVID–we just had to see. The album had been out for two weeks and we were in the UK and people were singing along. It was affirming to see people singing along with something that’s fifteen days old.
How much of the new record have you been playing?
A good amount, probably about six, seven songs. It usually depends–this was a headlining set, so we’re doing about twelve songs, and seven or so of those are from this album. Some of our loose singles from lockdown too. It’s a good amount of the record.
With the number of different styles you play around with on The Great American Novel, how do you decide which to include in a set?
It’s very much a game of sequencing. [laughs] There’s some we’d love to play, but, like, what can we play them between? It’s the same game we played when we sequenced the record. It’s gotta flow well, gotta make sense. It could be very jarring otherwise. [laughs] Obviously we play the singles. We’ve been getting requests for the loose singles, “Don’t,” “Aficionado,” because people wanna hear them. Then we do three or four from the last record. Then we just fill it out so that our 45 minutes of music hopefully don’t feel like 45 minutes.
I wanted to ask about sequencing the record. You’ve said each song on here is sorta like a chapter of a novel. Is it a story told chronologically, or is it more of a collection of short stories?
I tried to sequence it to feel like a linear story. It’s a concept record but it’s still actually my life. What I tend to do is I’ll make a blueprint of a record before I start writing, like a one through twelve, one through fifteen tracklist with a topic. That way before a note is written I have a sequence in mind like it’s a season of television. With this one, I wanted it to be linear. The trick is that you gotta be able to play it in any order–add it to a playlist, say. It’s a tricky thing, but luckily my first love is television and film, and so I happen to study these very sequenced television shows to figure out how to make everything flow the best.
That’s fascinating–do you have a background in television?
I don’t–I’m a military brat, so we moved every ten years, so I didn’t have friends. I would go see movies after school–sometimes two or three a day. I’d watch a lot of television. I’m also the one queer artist in a family full of straight athletes, so I spent a lot of time alone. It unintentionally got me well versed in the flow of television and movies.
So you mention you moved a lot–there’s a lot of songs on here that reference different places on here. What’s the role of geography in the narrative of The Great American Novel?
Me being a military kid, it’s like, pick a starting point and go 200 miles in any direction and you’ll be in a whole different cultural zeitgeist. While I’m a military brat, I spent most of my time in the Bible Belt–Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia–so for me, geography is make or break. If you’re born in the mountains you have a different set of skills, but if you’re born near the gulf, you’ll be a more seafaring person. Seeing all these different amalgamations of cultures all still being American, it makes you think about how vast America is. It’s the difference between knowing everything and not even knowing someone’s dialect.
The song “Ganymede” is one of my favorites, and what’s interesting is obviously it’s a geography song, but not earthly geography. What’s the role of that song?
First, thank you. Second, it’s supposed to be presented as a low point but masked as a high point–so many people say, “I’m fine,” but they’re not fine. I wanted to flex my love for really wordy artists like Bright Eyes or Sidney Gish, my love for English. It’s specifically “I’m fine but I’m not.” It’s an allusion to wanting to kill yourself wrapped up in all this Greek mythology–Ganymede is a figure who got whisked off to heaven by the gods and Hades, obviously, the underworld. It’s a tongue in cheek pondering–if I do it, where do I go? That’s why it ends that way–I wanna do it but I’m scared of the unknown. And I have this routine–even if I’m not happy, I have this routine that keeps me grounded.
I also wanted to ask, and I’m sure everyone has, so I’m sorry, but first off–have you been playing “McConnell” and “Done Talking” live?
Oh yes. We end our set with “Done Talking.”
Nice. How’s that been received?
Extremely positively–more so than I thought! “Done Talking” is a pretty straightforward song, but “McConnell” has so many dips and turns–it’s one of the first songs I showed my bandmates for this album cycle, specifically our drummer Elijah. He said, “I don’t know how this is a Proper. song.” Thankfully once it clicked, it clicked. We’re gonna start playing that one, but we just need some more time. [laughs] It’s a lot, especially to do it every night on tour. I need to practice. But it’s been really well received. “Done Talking” I expected to be a favorite, but for people to be like, “It’s the one.” As a lyrics-first person, I thought it’d be “Ganymede” or “Shuck & Jive” but it’s been “Done Talking” and “Jean,” and to see people so moved by it, to go from something like “Jean” to something as angry as “McConnell” to something as batshit insane as “Done Talking”–it’s been so nice to see people relate to these songs, as drastically different as they are from each other.
How long have you been writing this record?
For us, we tend to move really quick. The last record we wrote in six weeks, and this we wrote in three. I’m very much notorious for not liking to do my one job, which is writing songs. Everyone begs me to write, and then I manically knock it all out in one session. We did a song a day for weeks. I worked with Dan Campbell from The Wonder Years–for “Jean” he put a lot into that one.
Was that like mid-2021?
That was November, 2020! We had to sit on a lot though. When we signed to Father/Daughter, they very much focus on one band at a time to give them time to flourish. We got in the studio with Bartees last February, and we were like, “It’ll be out by summer, right?” and they were like, “I think we need more time.” [laughs] Obviously it was a good idea because they know what they’re talking about, but usually we write a record and put it out in a four- or five-month period. It’s been a big learning curve learning some patience. We don’t have a lot of self-doubt, but man, we wanted people to hear it now. The hardest part was the wait.
I know you’ve talked to a certain extent about this, but this is a huge jump from your previous stuff. Was there an idea in your head to write a much bigger record than in the past or was this just what happened when you started writing?
I wanted to do that. I’m one of those poseurs who discovered emo pretty late. For me it was that year that Home, Like Noplace Is There came out and then I think You’re Gonna Miss It All too, then that Foxing record. All those seminal third-wave records I kinda discovered in one six-month period. I’m very much a visitor in the emo scene. I had my moment in the scene but my roots are prog-rock, metal, post-hardcore. The good thing about lockdown was that I was forced to practice my instrument which, again, I notoriously do not do. [laughs] I found this old hard drive with a prog rock record that I had guitar parts for. Songs like “McConnell,” “Shuck & Jive,” “Done Talking,” these were songs that I wrote when I was 19 and I didn’t have the funds to record a record. I was a broke 19-year-old who didn’t go to college! But I found them and they still sounded good and I wanted to use them–I only ended up using three of the nine or ten songs on that album, but I realized I still loved prog. When we got on with Father/Daughter we got a pretty substantial advance and we could go for it. I showed Elijah “McConnell” and “Shuck & Jive,” and he was like, “This is different,” but he was on board with it. Then we showed Natasha, who’s the oldest in the band, and has the most punk roots–Ramones, that stuff. She was like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to write for this.” But we trusted her–it was a lot of trust in each other with this–but it paid off. She was like, “I don’t listen to prog. I don’t know who Coheed & Cambria is.” We made her a playlist and everything. She knocked it out of the park, some of the best parts I’ve ever heard. It was a lot of trust. It was a lot of me leaning into prog.
I know the record literally just came out, but do you see Proper. going down that route in the future?
Absolutely. More proggy, more hardcore, yeah. For me, what I came up on when I started playing guitar was At the Drive-In, Dance Gavin Dance, Mars Volta–all that proggy stuff. Protest the Hero was big for me. I don’t know how to properly tie these bands down to one genre and I’d like to go down that. We’re just getting started, I think, on our weird sensibilities.
Is there anything you’re most proud of? Whether it’s a set of lyrics, a riff, whatever.
For me it’s the lyricism. I should be proud of the guitar, but the lyricism for me, specifically “Ganymede,” and “Yeah, I’m Good.” I was one of those people who felt like pop had no merit. I was that guy.
We’ve all been that guy.
Yeah. [laughs] Instead of doing a ten-minute outro like the last record, why not just dabble in looping something? It came to me so quickly. I really stepped up as a storyteller. I was always really disappointed when bands end things on a poppy note, but now I get it. It made me go back and revisit some things. Hebrews by Say Anything they end on a poppy note with Tom Delonge. I was like, “Why?” but now I get it. For me it’s always trying to improve as a lyricist. I’ve always been consistently happy with my guitar playing.
What do you want your ideal listener to get out of the record overall?
It goes back to me being that pretentious music nerd. I used to want people to push themselves but I don’t anymore. I just wanted to inspire other queer, trans, Black, nonbinary people to pick up an instrument. I want people to pick up a guitar, and maybe only they’ll ever hear it, but that’s enough. I wanna inspire younger fans to write a really undeniably good story.
I know you’ve been annotating on Genius, so is the full record autobiographical?
Yes. It’s been an odd life. [laughs]
And then did you just structure it in terms of your life chronologically?
Actually I structured it instrumentally. “You Good?” was designed to be a jaw-dropper intro, but we went with the instrumentals first, then added the words.
What was it like working with Bartees?
It’s great. We’ve known him since we were a band. One of our first shows was with one of his old bands, so it’s just like another day hanging out with Bart. We literally have known him for five or six years. I remember I texted him that we’ve signed to Father/Daughter and we wanted to work with him, and this man pulled over on the side of the highway to call me! He wa so excited. That sums up Bartees to me. He showed up day one with a notepad. He was so genuinely happy to be creating with us, and it shows. I’m very much not a coworker, but I trust him so much. I don’t have that trust much, but he’s a perfect mix of a lover of music and a professional. And he has every pedal I’ve ever wanted! [laughs]
If you went back to Erik from when Proper. was starting and played him this how would he feel?
He would be like, “You’re gonna do that old prog shit? Why?” [laughs] He’d be impressed with the lyricism but would be very critical. I was like a music major who didn’t go to school–I was very overconfident. For him to be like, “You’ve unburdened yourself from your ego,” would be nice, but would be very passive-aggressive. [laughs]
If you can, what’ve you got the rest lined up of the year?
We’re going on a tour with Los Campesinos in August, and we’re making plans. We’re going some places we’ve never been before.
The Great American Novel is out now through Father Daughter Records.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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