The Beths strike precisely the right combination of exhilaration and longing that inhabits all the best indie rock records. The New Zealand band’s impressive 2018 debut album, Future Me Hates Me, which we called “a confessional, shimmering slab of Pacific pop” won them the title of Paste’s Best New Band of last year. Every single song has multiple moments of sunny, hummable bliss, and that’s a credit to lead vocalist and songwriter Elizabeth Stokes who writes stunningly catchy hooks and possesses a self-deprecating sincerity that’s so easy to get behind. Whether Stokes is poking fun at her own sulk (“If there is a record / For most hours wasted / Least worthy reason / To cry on a Thursday evening / I’m in the lead”), or devoting head space to that special someone (‘Cause you’re in my brain taking up space I need / For remembering pins and to take out the bins / And that one particular film that that actor was in”), you’ll identify wholeheartedly with The Beths’ charming “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” stance on love. Now, add rip-roaring guitars and three-part vocal harmonies from guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck, and you’ve got high-octane, good-natured guitar pop that never tires.
The Beths have practically become a mainstay in the American music scene after a couple years of touring, and considering their standout performance at this year’s South By Southwest, these New Zealanders are quickly making an impression. Today (Nov. 21), The Beths are unveiling a new slate of U.S. tour dates for next year, and because we’re dying to hear their new music, Paste also had an exclusive chat with the band to hear how their second album is coming along. We jumped on the phone with Stokes and Pearce who called from their Morningside flat in Auckland to talk about the infamous second album pressure, their studio setup, new songs, touring and more.
Read the full Q&A below, which has been edited for length and clarity, and check out exclusive behind-the-scenes photos from inside their Auckland studio.
Photo by Amanda Cheng
Paste: Knowing that your first album was so well received, do you feel any internal or external pressure going into your second album?
Elizabeth Stokes: It kind of goes up and down. When I was writing songs, which was like every time we had a gap in the last 18 months, I didn’t feel the pressure then for some reason. I think I was just like, “Well, I can’t make the songs better by being stressed about it. I can only just try and write as many songs as I can and pick the best ones.” But I’m kind of feeling it now just because we’re actually starting to track them and lay them down and there’s that period where they’re recorded or where they’re finished, but you don’t know yet what their final form will sound like. Sometimes that makes a big difference in the recording, which songs pop. I don’t know, now I’m starting to get more nervous.
How far are you into the new album process?
Stokes: Jonathan’s studio is where we’ve been recording our rehearsals, and he’s just set up more mics and we’ve been recording all the arranging that we’ve been doing of the songs. So we have demo takes. After the last show this weekend, we’ll start actively keeping takes and trying to get a final take of the songs that we’ve been rehearsing. We’ve got zero final takes at the moment, but hopefully by the end of next week, we might have about three or something.
Are you recording in the same Auckland studio you used for the first album?
Jonathan Pearce: Yeah, it is. Although we spent quite a lot of time doing it up, three weeks in April. It was a big project that we all worked together on. We took all the internal walls out of the studio, so it’s now one open room, which suits our way of working much better with the whole self-produced thing. We’re a band that really talks through everything we’re doing as well. There are some bands who are just like, “Don’t talk to me. This is my guitar.” But we’re not like that. So the one room thing is quite conducive to the discussions and the workflow and things like that that we like to do. It’s a pretty different environment. We were previously in a very small room all together and now it’s the size of four very small rooms, making it a medium small room, which is just great.
Photo by Amanda Cheng
Starting this new album process, was there a dialogue beforehand of what you guys wanted?
Stokes: We all discussed things that we want to be different for this record, but it’s not that much to be honest. It’s more things we want to improve on, definitely in terms of the feel of the recordings and the playing. There are bigger picture things as well that we did talk about, basic things like trying different tempos and not having to be a hundred percent hooning all the time. I can’t think of a better word.
Pearce: We talked about lots of stuff. I was definitely trying to stimulate discussions within the group. Last time, Liz and I did talk about lots of stuff. It’s always important to talk about what you want to try and do and you’ll never get there, but you’ll get something, hopefully it’s good. It’s good to talk about it and write some stuff down, have a bit of a plan. And we’ve done a few sessions like that leading into the recording of this record. We’ve tried to involve Ben and Tristan on bass and drums a bit more than we did on the last one. I felt a little bit bad about their involvement on the first record just because there was no dialogue between the recording session where they got the take and then Liz and I would squirrel away and work on guitars and vocals and stuff like that. And then I would mix it and throughout this whole process, there’s almost no conversation and it was still their music. I feel like that must’ve been not that fun for them. So that’s something that I want to try and improve on throughout the process this time around.
Since you’ve had to adapt to the touring lifestyle, is it hard to write about normal things?
Stokes: Being on tour is not a very relatable thing. I don’t think it’s as interesting as people think it is. The main thing that is relatable and something that I felt a lot this year, not just with touring, but with friends moving away and things like that and all being in different places when things are difficult. I think long distance is tricky in friendships. I’ve been really feeling the distance and that’s something that has cropped up with a few songs, just missing people and not just from touring, but because you get to a certain age when all of your friends scatter all over the world, and you miss them.
Photo by Amanda Cheng
Your super catchy hooks are one reason so many people love The Beths. How do those usually come out, and how do you decide whether they’re keepers?
Stokes: I do a bit of phone recording, a bit of writing down little lyric hook things on the notes app on my phone, but sometimes you just try and remember them and if you can remember them, that usually means they’re catchy enough. I think for me, it’s just following your nose when working with a melody, just what feels satisfying. Melodies are really important, like the last note of a particular line, landing it in a satisfying way is important.
Pearce: Liz will always understate her talents and abilities. And this is a classic example. It’s probably happened in almost every song where we identify a spot in a song that we could put another melodic hook in somewhere. Someone will or maybe Liz will suggest that something should go here. And then the first idea that Liz sings or maybe hums quietly into a microphone becomes the guitar line that I end up playing or something we all sing or something like that and it’s a super melodic hook. I think this is just a thing that Liz has a huge ability for, writing a beautiful melody. Sometimes it happens so fast that you’re like, “Oh, that was the hook. Did you spend hours working that out or anything? No.”
I heard a few demos for this record. There’s a new song called, “You Are a Beam of Light,” which is an acoustic ballad. Is it going to remain that way on the album?
Stokes: Yeah. I feel like the first album encapsulates what The Beths sound like. Now you can step out of that a little bit more. I feel more comfortable doing that. There is almost a tradition of having an acoustic song on a record. It’s kind of nice to try on that hat and see how it goes. I think it would add some nice space when thinking about the album as a whole and as a journey. That was something I wanted to experiment with, but it’s hard because the full band arrangement, I do like there to be lots of energy and so, instead of trying to make some of the songs a little bit less energetic, just have energetic songs and then a song that is on the other end of the spectrum.
Photo by Amanda Cheng
There’s another slightly downtempo new song called “Jump Rope Gazers.” Is that a phrase from a specific memory?
Stokes: I don’t know. It’s not a literal thing. I’ve been thinking about how to explain this. I was developing the writing of the chorus, and I was just imagining Double Dutch. We actually call them skipping ropes in New Zealand, so that is an Americanism, “jump rope.” It was the idea of the way that they are moving around each other, but they don’t touch. It was kind of that idea, but abstractly I guess. I thought it was okay to be a little bit vague.
Your debut record depicts this complicated relationship with romance. Do you feel more cynical or optimistic about love now?
Stokes: A lot of those songs from the first record were all written at the same time, and it was just something that was pretty big in my life. I think “Jump Rope Gazers” was written a little bit after, almost looking back on the same period with a less cynical eye and a more sincere one or something. I’m trying to remember old songs. I’m not actually as cynical about it as I am on that first record. I think that was me kind of reluctantly or self-consciously falling in love, and it’s actually been great.
Liz, I heard that you saw Elemeno P play in New Zealand, and you were drunk at the front with tears streaming down your face. Have you guys had any wild reactions like that at your shows?
Stokes: I guess because Elemeno P, that was a record that came out when I was really young. I was like 14. And then coming back to that show and not really remembering how much I loved the band until they started playing old songs. It just immediately took me back, and I re-realized how much I loved it. That was an emotional thing. I guess our record hasn’t been out long enough. I’ve seen a few people crying. But it’s not to the same degree.
Photo by Amanda Cheng
Pearce: Because no one cries like you.
Stokes: I’m the best at crying. The wild thing is just people singing along and then afterwards, quietly telling me how much the album means to them and things like that. That’s pretty special. On this run, we’ve been able to play every song on the album. That’s good because I think everybody has a different one that means the most to them for some reason.
Do you find the most validation in your live shows?
Stokes: Yeah I think it is. As much as touring is hard and I complain about it a lot, just like the actual travel. Every night playing a show, that’s everything. That’s the whole reason why you do it. It just means so much when you play, even if there’s like 20 people there, but there’s somebody who’s come from like three hours away or something. It just means so much that people have decided to see us on a certain night, when they’re just living their life and they could be at home getting ready for the next day. It feels special to be invited to be a part of somebody’s life.
You just announced more U.S. tour dates in April and May. Do you feel like you’re now a part of the American live music scene?
Pearce: Yeah, whenever anyone announces a tour, I’m starting to recognize names of clubs and things like that. We definitely feel so many measures more connected to these bands that we’ve watched and admired from afar, from New Zealand. Going over to the states so many times in the last 18 months or two years has brought all that closer to home, brought the world a lot closer. Especially all these people, these musicians, these venues and things like that. We still feel like New Zealanders in America. I would say that. We still know that we’re away from home, but I think there’s something special in that. It’s special for us, and it’s special for people coming to the show as well.
Watch The Beths’ Paste Studio session from SXSW 2019, and check out their upcoming tour dates below.
The Beths Tour Dates:
07 – Auckland, New Zealand @ Villa Maria*
12 – Marlborough, New Zealand @ Framingham Harvest Concert
15 – Seattle, Wash. @ Laserdome
16 – Portland, Ore. @ Doug Fir Lounge
17 – Bend, Ore. @ Volcanic Theatre Pub
18 – Oakland, Calif. @ The New Parish
19 – Los Angeles, Calif. @ Zebulon
20 – Phoenix, Ariz. @ Valley Bar
22 – Austin, Texas @ The Parish
23 – Dallas, Texas @ Three Links
24 – Houston, Texas @ Satellite Bar
25 – New Orleans, La. @ Gasa Gasa
26 – Nashville, Tenn. @ The Basement
28 – Washington, D.C. @ Pearl Street Warehouse
29 – Philadelphia, Pa. @ Kung Fu Necktie
30 – Brooklyn, N.Y. @ Rough Trade NYC
01 – Pittsburgh, Pa. @ The Smiling Moose
02 – Cleveland Heights, Ohio @ Grog Shop
03 – Chicago, Ill. @ Cobra Lounge
(*w/ A-Ha & Rick Astley)