A Brief, Nerdy, Only Slightly Self-Effacing Conversation With New Zealand Band The Beths

A Brief, Nerdy, Only Slightly Self-Effacing Conversation With New Zealand Band The Beths
Image:Dave Simpson (Getty Images)

When I call New Zealand power-pop band The Beths’ lead singer Elizabeth Stokes over Zoom, my day is ending and hers is only beginning. It’s an unforgivingly hot summer evening in New York City and crisp winter morning in Auckland, and we are chatting from inside our homes—arguably the most intimate setting for any conversation—with our cameras off, ensuring focus on our chat. Or maybe we’re both feeling timid. The latter would certainly mirror what makes The Beths’ music so charming: they are animated instrumentalists on record, even while they’re lyrically reserved. Stokes’s songwriting is trepidatious and careful, and so, it appears, is she.

I wanted to speak to Stokes because her band’s sophomore LP, Jump Rope Gazers, has become a source of pleasure for me in lockdown—listening to new music can feel like a bit of a chore when the weight of the world burdens every corner of everyday life, and yet The Beths offered a welcome escape. (Though, if listened to closely, the themes of the record reveal candor, closeness, insecurity, frustration with the limited and impersonal ways technology has commandeered traditional avenues for communication.) Their lyrical introversion is delivered atop propulsive pop, cheery harmonies, and bright melodies, now with softer musical moments than their 2018 debut LP Future Me Hates Me. It’s as if The Beths have learned to slow down in order to build up, and the effects of those elated moments are even deeper.

Below, Stokes discusses the band’s early days and their latest ones, and how strange communication can be.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JEZEBEL: Hi! I feel very guilty making you talk to me this early in the morning.

ELIZABETH STOKES: That’s OK. We should be up. It’s good to have stuff going on in the morning.

I think of The Beths as a ceaselessly touring band—have you been using this time when touring internationally is impossible to, I guess, decompress?

We are normally on the road. It’s been strange. I think we, in the lead-up to the album release, we were so busy. We had a show, and that was awesome, a hometown show in Auckland. It’s sitting in a little bit more, now that the album has been out for a week now—the big flurry of activity is over and now we’re just here. I got a little bit sad this week, but we’re still very lucky that we get to tour in New Zealand. It’s been a weird time. I wish I was writing. I haven’t managed it.

You met your bandmates while you were all studying jazz at the University of Auckland. Were there any particular skillsets there that translate to The Beths? Beyond, maybe, technical proficiency?

We were there for three or four years. It informed a lot of just the way we think about music, and the way we think about playing it, in a group together. It’s a very collaborative music study. I think that plays into the way that we identify as musicians. It’s in a live format, in that I like being a musician because I like playing music with other people and for other people. It’s different for everybody. Some people, the thing they like about music is the craft, in terms of writing. I like that too, but really playing together, the four of us, is something we really enjoy and really work hard on, among lots of other things to do with learning repertoire. The way that I think about melody benefits from the fact that I studied a melodic instrument in the trumpet.

Are there bands or musical interests that you share outside of jazz? I ask because on paper, and the way you’ve been written about (and this is totally based on geography) I’d expect The Beths to sound like classic Flying Nun Records, like The Clean or The Chills or The Bats, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

We all have slightly different tastes, which is not unusual. When we very first started the band, there would be references we’d all listen to, for guitar sound or for vibe. I was a big Rilo Kiley fan and the song “Gigantic” by the Pixies. I really liked the feeling of it, how it was really bright and fun. [We] looked at bands like Weezer, that particular fuzzy-but-nerdy guitar sound. We had a reference plan almost, which, over time, has changed. We’ve also figured out what we sound like, independently of other bands as well, in the six years since we’ve started.

This is a stupid question, but is there a particular meaning behind Jump Rope Gazers? There’s this obvious childhood, nostalgic image but if you were gazing while jumping rope, wouldn’t you get hit?

[Laughs.] It’s a metaphor, you know? I had something particular in mind, which has to do with—I think you guys call it Double Dutch? You’ve got two ropes and they’re moving around each other but they don’t normally touch. I’m usually hesitant to talk about it because I know if I don’t say anything, people will quite often come up with something to say about it themselves. And they usually say something that is equally valid, or better. I don’t want to take that meaning away from them. Sometimes it’s nice to know what a song is about from the perspective of the songwriter, but sometimes I feel like you fill in the gaps with your own story, your own canon of what you think it means and it’s almost disappointing when you find out what it is “actually” about. “Actually” in air quotes.

The reason I most wanted to chat with you today is because Jump Rope Gazers has been a favorite among me and my co-workers for a while, sort of specifically because of its joyful, power-pop nature. Your songs and those three-part vocal harmonies have an ascending quality. But thematically, there seems to be some apprehension—even in the opener, “I’m Not Getting Excited.” It’s like your gut-checking your optimism.

You’re exactly right. It’s gut-checking optimism. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that I’ve worked through over the years. It’s much better than it used to be, but it still rears its head every now and again when good things happen to the band or to me, when it’s “this is exciting and I feel I should be celebrating it but I’m scared that by openly celebrating it I’m inviting the universe to take it all away because I don’t deserve it,” or something like that. The song is kind of an exaggeration, but it’s still there, under the surface.

That’s not something people are so willing to admit: that when something good happens, you’re grateful, but it isn’t just some unrelenting high. There’s more emotional fluidity than that.

Totally. But the story has got to be that you are stoked. And you are, but sometimes it’s a little bit more complicated under the surface.

I was going to ask if the duality of cheery melodies and more nuanced, maybe even self-effacing lyricism, is something you’re attracted to but you mentioned Rilo Kiley so I assume the answer is yes.

God, I love that band. Yeah, that’s been, from the start, something that has been a priority—not a priority, but it’s part of the form of what we are. I’ve relaxed a bit on this record, compared to previous records, in terms of actually allowing some slightly sadder timbres as time goes on. But it’s still something that I identify with pretty strongly.

“Do You Want Me Now” stands out to me in that way, because there’s no explosive moment. You keep the song mid-tempo, which makes it feel sad. Was it a challenge to write in that way? To sort of restrict that explosiveness that seems to carry so much Beths music?

It wasn’t forcing [anything] to write that way. A few songs on the album turned out slightly more maudlin. You know, we have an entire album of upbeat, straight ahead pop songs and we’re really proud of those, and one of the small criticisms we got for the first album, which we felt internally as well, was that it’s very consistent. It’s really lit up the whole way through. And so we thought, “Well, if we treat this next album more like how we treat a song, where there are moments of calm, a bit of breathing space here and there, then that’s probably okay.” We allowed ourselves those small moments.

There’s also a lot about miscommunication on this album, which makes sense, because there’s also a lot of self-awareness (or maybe it’s more like self-criticism), too. A lot of is technology-driven. Do you feel technology is—not a burden, that’s so wack—but maybe new ways for people to feel misunderstood?

I’m definitely not like “technology sucks and I liked it way better back in the days when you’d just write a letter.” [Laughs.] Social media is the communication medium now. It’s the way that we, as humans, communicate—and oh my god, especially over the last few months. It’s the way that we do all of our communicating with the people that we love, unless you actually live together. I’ve definitely found that I personally—and I’m sure it’s the same for everybody—I struggle a little bit with keeping in touch with people who live far away and I struggle to find out how your relationship works through the new medium of communication. Chatting through email, or whatever, you have to kind of find the way it works. You don’t always manage it. This year and the previous year, it’s been about trying to support the people you can’t physically be near and them trying to be there for you—it’s just hard. It’s always been hard. Before, with technology, you just couldn’t communicate with them at all, I guess. It’s not perfect. It’s just a difficult thing to navigate, the way to communicate.

Do you self-edit a lot? You’re an open songwriter, but I don’t think you ever veer too far into overtly earnest territory.

I do. Yeah. That makes sense to me. I think I, in-person, soften [what I’m saying] a lot. I know that I have a lyrical style, I suppose, but I think from here it’s hard to pick at it. I just sort of follow my nose when I’m writing, and it makes sense to me, what feels right coming out of my mouth—things that feel natural for me to say and then things that I feel okay saying or singing. I don’t feel that way about everything. It’s definitely there.

I’m worried this sounds a little tinfoil hat-y of me but: in “Dying to Believe,” you sing “struggling to stand [my] own reflection,” which I found to be powerful because that’s quite literally what the cover of your first album depicted—Future Me Hates Me is this woman who can’t look in the mirror. Am I reading too closely into this, or are there through lines in your work that connects it?

That’s so great! I love this picking up of small clues like it’s some fantasy novel. I’m so into that. I’m very into finding clues in the texts. That makes a lot of sense. That particular lyric, I think it was written after the second album came out even though bits of that song pre-date the first album. I think that lyric did come after. That’s [album artist] Eleanor [Barker] who made that first record, just listening to that record and nailing it in terms of the kind of vibe and part of the way that I see myself, which is looking into a mirror and face-palming. I think it’s more that Eleanor did an extremely good job of reading the text and reading the room.

It’s a holistic image of what this music is, less so than an Easter Egg meant for a fan forum.

It’s about patterns. Now that I have enough songs, I can actually look at these songs and go, “Oh, whoops. I’ve made that reference before in the first album.” There’s a song on the new record [“Just Shy of Sure”] that’s about insecurity in a new relationship, and the main hook is “my head is aching.” All that goes back to “Future Me Hates Me,” which says something like, “future headaches.” And I’m like, “A-ha! You played yourself!”

You’re learning things about yourself through your writing, though, right? That’s exciting!

I hope it’s that. I hope it’s not that I’m pulling from a limited well of words. I’m really scraping the bottom now.

No way. And since I’ve been using your record as a tiny exercise in joy, I have to ask: what have you been listening to release some serotonin? To feel good?

This is going to sound weird, but I haven’t been listening to a lot of music over this year. Sometimes when I’m feeling stressed, I find listening to music to be a bit stressful if it’s unfamiliar. But I really liked the new Lomelda song that came out recently. I’ve been listening to a bit of Noname and some local bands and artists as well. There’s an artist called Fable from New Zealand and he makes R&B music that’s really nice. It feels good to me, lately, to be listening to our local artists. It just feels friendly, which is comforting.

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