by Mia Hughes
photo: Nikki Austin-Garlington
For as long as discontent, boredom and yearning have existed (a Very Long Time; maybe forever?), and for as long as the suburbs have existed (a little less time), and for as long as emo and pop-punk have existed (a pretty short time), the three have gone merrily hand-in-hand-in-hand as if they were made for each other. From Saves the Day to The Wonder Years, endless shout-along choruses and stage dives have been born from suburban dissatisfaction, from wanting more out of life than a garage and a lawn with sprinklers. So it’s a familiar muse – a reliable one, but not yet a tired one – that Great Wight draw on with last year’s debut album The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life.
The record was written over the course of four years, in large part while frontman and lyricist Erik Garlington was living in Kansas City, Missouri. He lays out his frustrations with the Midwest suburbs and all that comes with them – the insufferable people, the racism and homophobia, the boredom – with clear, sharp lyricism that evokes Garlington’s love for rap music. “I’ve always just been like, ‘This song needs to have really hard, good bars, and then everything else is second,” he tells me. “My favourite rappers, just listening to them and being like, ‘Man, they put three rhymes into one bar. How do I do that?’” It makes for a collection of scathing and put-together indictments and explorations: “Believe it or not, there’s more than the town you grew up in waiting for you with your funeral plot,” he sings in the title track. And in ‘Not Black Enough’: “Who the fuck are you to tell me I’m not black enough? / ‘Cause if I lost my cool in the eyes of the law I’d be two shades too dark to trust.”
“People always rag on the south in America for being really racist and backwards. But the thing is, a lot of places in the south are poor, and underfunded, and undereducated,” Garlington explains. “So I think the difference is that Kansas and the Midwest in general is like, it’s a lot of well-off families, but they’re still racist and ignorant. People that come from money that are terrible, instead of people that are just ignorant and poor and undereducated and don’t know any better.” It wasn’t uncommon for the Westboro Baptist Church to come and picket shows he’d attend in Missouri, he adds. As he sings in the first instalment (‘The Problem’) of the two-part Getting The Fuck Out of the Midwest Manifesto ‘Red State Blues’ – “Me and these right wing politics don’t get along.” Neither did he and the people with whom he surrounded himself there – work friends from Forever 21, many of them. They barely knew each other outside of work and parties.
But if Garlington felt he didn’t belong, it was nothing new. A military child, he’d spent his whole life moving around, never settling down for more than a couple of years. Kansas City was the ninth place in which he’d lived. “I see all of my friends that have a hometown. They have their team that they root for, or they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had this friend since I was five years old.’ I’ve never had that,” he says. It wasn’t until he would go on tour with the metalcore bands in which he cut his teeth that he began to realise there could be a place for him. And as soon as he stepped out of the subway, he knew that place was New York. “There’s nothing holding me back but myself / If I don’t do this now, I never will,” he sings on the second part of ‘Red State Blues’ (‘The Solution’).
And so after that visit to New York, he and his now-wife saved up for six months and moved to the Big Apple. Not long after, Garlington and drummer Eli Watson connected through a mutual friend. The two spent a whole year practicing, getting merch made and getting ready to make the record; they wanted to come out strong. Together they finalised the songs Garlington had had in his pocket for years, fleshing them out as a band (they’d initially been conceived as acoustic folk-punk) and structuring them into a cohesive narrative. “There were, I think about fifteen songs originally, and three of them didn’t really fit the story that I wanted to tell,” he recalls. “It’s always been a conscious effort to be one complete thing.” Later, at one of Great Wight’s first shows, Garlington met Natasha Johnson. She was blown away, and asked Garlington if the band needed any more members; as it turned out, they did need a bassist.
The lineup was completed about a year ago now, the record released around the same time. A year’s not a long time, yet it’s seen them tour Europe, perform on the Chris Gethard Show and reach hundreds of people who connect with Garlington’s frustrations in the way he’d always hoped someone would. In the record’s opening track, ‘Curtain’s Up! It’s Showtime’, he sings: “I just want someone in this room to relate to this song / And feel a little less alone”. That song was written seven years ago, when he was 20; long before Great Wight existed. Though Garlington hoped that it would prove itself prophetic, he put the record into the world with no way to know how people would connect with it, and that was nerve-wracking. “I’ve always felt like, ‘What if this is only specific to only me, and no one else really vibes with it or gets it or has felt that way?’” he says. “But I’m not gonna know until I try. So I decided to just do it. I’m glad I did.” Now, he says, he regularly has interactions with fans who have been moved by these songs. “It’s great to see that it’s connecting with people. Especially like, other black punks, queer punks, stuff like that, coming up to us. It’s really amazing.”
“I feel like there are a lot of people like me, that don’t feel represented or get to hear their story. It’s important to let people know that they’re not alone,” he continues. That’s why Great Wight is an all-black band; the record could have been put out years earlier, Garlington tells me, had he not committed to finding black musicians. It was important to him, as a part of the emo scene that has always been so predominantly white, to show people that it didn’t have to be that way. “People being like, ‘Black people don’t make this kind of music’ or ‘You’re wasting your time’ or ‘No one’s gonna like it’. It’s a lot of frustration and spite, and wanting to change the status quo, even if it’s in a minor way.”
Garlington played in bands for years before moving to New York, but that sense of connection and belonging through music was something he never found in Missouri. “It used to be I would play and one person would show up, after all my friends were like, ‘Oh yeah, I promise I’ll be there’. I’d get home and they’d be like, ‘Oh man, we forgot.’ They were on the porch just getting high or something.” It wasn’t until he attended a Tiny Moving Parts show, alone, at a tiny DIY space, that he realised what he was looking for. In ‘It Turns Out There Aren’t Many Perks Of Being A Wallflower’, he sings, “I went to the Tiny Moving Parts show last night / And I swear that it changed my life.”
“I think there were like, maybe fifteen people. But half of them had driven from states over to see their friends, even though their friends were coming to their state and they could just see them. That’s how bad they wanted to see their friends,” he remembers. “And it just blew my mind to see, for one, that type of technicality and music playing. But two, just that friendship and camaraderie in their music scene, and how it should be.”
He’s not watching that camaraderie as a spectator anymore; moving to New York and creating Great Wight has made him a part of it, and given him another place where he finally feels he can belong. “The music scene I’m a part of now is so inclusive and so welcoming and so great. And everyone goes to each other’s shows, and they help each other out on tour, and it doesn’t feel like a competition like it used to be. Like back then, it used to be like, ‘Oh man, you’re doing better? I have to do better than you.’ And here, it’s just like, ‘Oh, you’re doing better? That’s fucking great.’ And people actually care.”
Plenty of bands sing about wanting to get out of the suburbs, but Garlington actually did it. Because his words aren’t empty – his frustration actually means something. He wants things to be better. ‘The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life’ ends with the lines: “I hope I never have to write these songs again / I want to give people a chance and not be so full of hate / I want to leave the Bible Belt and rub it in their face / I want to have some hope in the human race again.” Years on from his writing those words, I ask: where’s he at now? “I feel more freedom, just as a person, and artistry-wise,” he tells me. “I can find any music scene and any show and just have a different experience every single day. It feels like I’ve been waiting for it my whole life, I guess. I finally got to where I need to be.”