Members: Erik Garlington, Natasha Johnson, Elijah Watson
Occupations: Vocalist (Erik Garlington), bassist (Natasha Johnson), drummer (Elijah Watson)
Current release: Proper.'s The Great American Novel is out via Father/Daughter.
Recomendations: I don’t have specific places to direct people, it’s more about the way we consume art and media. I firmly believe that good art, and intentions, come from a place of wanting to learn but also wanting to challenge yourself. Wanting to question why you like this or hate that. So I recommend to readers that you stay curious and keep asking why. Thank you!
If you enjoyed this interview with Proper. and would like to find out more about the band, visit their official website. They are also on Instagram, and twitter.
When starting out, many artists want to "change the world" with their work. What was this like for you? What were some of your early ambitions and in which way were you able to realise them?
I never wanted to change the world, I just wanted to make a decent wage making art. I know that doesn’t sound revolutionary but people being able to make a livable let alone thrivable, wage is still decades away.
I don’t believe that every hobby or talent needs to be monetized, and I especially believe that seeking fame / notoriety is a terrible goal to have. So for me, I just want to make a decent living while showing other black people that they can do this too.
Art can be an expression or celebration of identity, but it can also be an effort to establish new ones or break free from them. How would you describe your own approach in this regard?
It’s definitely an expression of identity for me.
I create from a place of wanting to be understood and validated as an equal. Everyone celebrates the idea of being different but when you’re actually an ‘other’ your entire life, you find yourself doing a lot of mental labor to validate your own existence.
When did you become aware that music could be more than just entertainment, a vehicle for darker, heavier, deeper topics? What role did bands like At the Drive-In, or System of a Down, which the press release mentions, play?
When I was 11 my dad gave me a copy of Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth and it began my journey of looking at music as a form of expression rather than something that passes the time during long car rides.
From there I discovered the bands you mentioned along with Coheed & Cambria, MCR, Dance Gavin Dance. Heavier music showed me that following the rules often leads to boring, soulless work. You don’t have to follow the verse / chorus / versus / bridge / chorus for every single song, or that 10+ minute epics are fucking awesome.
I didn’t begin writing until way later so what these bands did for me was make me a better guitarist before anything else.
I recently did an interview with Carribean/Belgian singer and producer Charlotte Adigéry, who also, in her lyrics often deals with racism. She said that sometimes it can be a good thing if music makes you feel uncomfortable. Do you feel it important that artists become more engaged with the political and social challenges facing us?
Absolutely. Proper.’s sole purpose is to decolonize rock, which you can’t do without having uncomfortable conversations. I’d argue that artists, especially musicians, were always political but then top 40 radio and maximal profits for the big labels became the norm.
My music is a product of just wanting to hear a different story told and having that ‘Aha!’ moment realizing I should just create the art I want to see in the world.
The title of your new album refers to the concept of the Great American Novel. Do you personally think such a thing can exist?
I’m sure it can exist but I haven’t come across it yet. I’d love nothing more than a black story about Americana that has nothing to do with slavery or police brutality. There’s so much more to black history than just Black Suffering.
Viet Thanh Nguyen said that "[o]ne of the unspoken silences of the Great American Novel is the assumption that it can only be written by white men".
Obviously it could be written by a black person but it seems the major awards ceremonies only care about the aforementioned Black Suffering. There’s so much great black fantasy and sci-fi out there, there’s no reason a simple tale about a black American can’t be told.
The main train of thought behind the album is that "Black genius goes ignored, is relentlessly contested, or just gets completely snuffed out before it can flourish." What are your own personal experiences with this?
My experience is people doing every mental gymnastic available to make themselves believe that I’m not a smart, capable human being.
I’d ace tests without having to pull all nighters to study so everyone assumed I cheated. I’d be asked about interests, to which I’d reply I’m a trained cook, and they’d accuse me of lying and force me to cook something extravagant to prove myself. It just goes on and on like that.
There’d always be some reason for my white peers to belittle me to feel better about themselves. I know I’m not special though, this is just common for people of color.
What could be done so Black people could become more in control of the narrative?
Labels could stop trapping them in predatory deals, media could show more positive portrayals of black jobs (more options than rapper or basketball player), really just the people at the top could grow a conscious.
Also we as a society could stop making the dumbest motherfuckers alive famous.
Tell me a bit about how The Great American Novel came together as an album.
I tend to plan way farther ahead than necessary so I already knew what the album would be about and that I wanted to leave emo behind for it. The concept is pretty in your face, as I tend to be, but as far as songwriting goes I really wanted to become the prog rock band I always dreamt of. Some of these songs I wrote the instrumental for 11 years ago but sat on them because I just didn’t feel confident yet.
The last 2 records are a 2 parter and the goal for this one is to be a departure for sure but also showing that we’ve only just begun.
The Great American Novel was supposed to work like a book. I'm curious why you chose to tell this story in the form of an album instead of a book? Why is music a good medium to discuss these topics?
I think one of my most characteristic traits is my total lack of patience! I would absolutely write a book if it wasn’t so involved. Maybe one day though, I’ll never say never!
Bartees Strange, who produced The Great American Novel, has also been very outspoken on the topic of racism and growing up as a Black person in a racist, white community. Were there discussions with him about these issues?
Honestly, no. For better or worse, I’m not a collaborative writer. We went with Bartees because that man knows how to make a record sound immaculate!
I’m not saying he isn’t a great writer, I just really wanted to focus on upping our production value this time around. All of his input was instrumental.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation, especially when it comes to black history and dance music. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
If it comes from a place of genuine inspiration or admiration, go for it. I don’t care what you were, your style your hair, or if you really fuck with rap. Just don’t make a mockery and you’re good to go in my book.
Especially with regards to the deeper layers of your music, how do you define success?
For me, it’s being able to do what you love and at the very least break even doing it, becoming peers with your idols while inspiring the next generation of artists, and owning all your art.
I don’t think you have to make the maximum amount of money imaginable to be successful.