The Beths on Crafting a New LP in the COVID-Changed Musical Landscape

by | Oct 12, 2022 | Interviews and Features

At first glance, Elizabeth Stokes and Jonathan Pearce of The Beths seem like your average indie rock musicians. Taciturn, a bit self-conscious and noticeably introspective, the Auckland-based pair comes off as the type of people who might feel more at ease on stage or in a recording studio than in an interview setting. But unlike many of their contemporaries, who often take great care to curate a low-key and introverted-seeming facade to hide a dearth of artistic substance behind their creative process, the duo, which makes up one-half of the New Zealand indie-rock band The Beths, has a clear vision of who they are and what their sound should reflect.

Having first met in high school, Stokes and Pearce struck a creative relationship with bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Ivan Johnston while attending the University of Auckland. Following their time at the university, the four musicians actively began exploring songwriting and recording as a unit. Conceived at the tail end of 2014, The Beths embraced a self-reliant DIY philosophy that helped the band connect to and garner the attention of a growing legion of devoted fans across the prolific Auckland music scene.

After receiving funding from government-backed programs like NZ on Air and NZ Music Commission, the group recorded their first single, “Idea/Intent,” in July 2015. Following a warm reception from critics and peers alike, the band spent the next year working on their EP Warm Blood, a collection of hard-hitting and atavistic punk songs that paid homage to the genre’s first wave of artists and their guiding ethos.

The success of the band’s EP was, in turn, followed by the release of their debut album, Future Me Hates Me, in 2018. A melodically complex and highly energetic record, FMHM effectively cemented the group as one of New Zealand’s and indie rock’s most promising acts. After a line-up change as a result of drummer Ivan Johnston’s sudden but amicable departure, the group undertook a 250-date tour in which they shared a bill with alt-rock luminaries Death Cab for Cutie. It was during this time that the band wrote and recorded the material for their second album, 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers. Released during the first wave of COVID, JRG saw The Beths revisiting a sound with which they seemed incredibly comfortable and intimate.

Bolstered by the success of their sophomore release as well as by a string of tours around New Zealand and Australia while most of the world was still in lockdown, the group wrote and recorded their upcoming third album, Expert in a Dying Field, out this September via Rough Trade. Polished and crisp, the record aptly showcases the band’s evolving songwriting abilities as it builds layers of sonic nuance and texture that successfully enrich the quartet’s trademark and beloved sound.

I caught up with Stokes and Pearce and discussed their songwriting and recording process, their experience releasing and recording new music during the Covid pandemic, and what it’s been like to tour internationally as the pandemic seemingly draws to a close.

If I’m not mistaken, I’ve read that you guys all played together as part of your first drummer Ivan’s backing band and that it was a swing band. Are you fans of jazz?

Jonathan: Yeah, so we played in a bunch of bands together, and that was kind of like a Louis Prima swing band. I think that was what our original drummer was into at the time, and we would all just play in each other’s bands at that time, so that’s how it sort of happened. Now, this wasn’t really jazz, it was more jazz-adjacent music.

What groups or artists influenced you guys growing up?

Liz: There are different people for different reasons. Death Cab for Cutie was one group because I got to see how they run their whole operation and how much they still love making music and writing and performing. Or a band like Wilco where you see how much the fans love being Wilco fans.

Jonathan: We’re certainly like music sponges. We try to absorb a lot of different music. I know my music listening habits have changed a lot. Like when I was in my late teens and twenties I was listening to a lot of quantity, trying to listen to as many artists as I could and studying production techniques, and trying to learn what makes the music tick. We’ve usually been influenced by New Zealand artists, which are the artists that made the most sense to us.

What was the music scene like in New Zealand around the time you guys got started?

Liz: There wasn’t a sound really. I think that because Auckland is a medium-sized place there’s enough stuff going on that all the bands aren’t just playing the same kind of guitar pop. For the most part, each band is doing its own thing, but everyone is still collaborating with each other.

Jonathan: Right, so Auckland is big enough that you have a lot of bands doing pretty unique things. But it’s not big enough that you can stratify things by genre where you can have a certain venue that only caters to garage-rock bands, for instance. So, you get garage-rock bands playing with poppier groups, or with groups that might be influenced by hip-hop or other genres. And often, these might play together at the same venue on the same night. You might also see musicians from one band hopping in and playing in another, so everyone’s sort of playing a bit of each other’s music. Us, we played a lot with a lot of our friends while also coming up with a formula that was our own and that worked for us.

Within a really short time after getting started, you released your first single “Idea/Intent” in mid-2015, followed by your EP, Warm Blood, in early 2016. What was the recording like for those? I ask, mostly, because your early sound seems much rawer than what you went for in later projects. What were you guys going for at that time?

Liz: Yeah, I think the songs from that era definitely leaned more towards power-pop and punk. We wanted to play fast and energetic songs. We really enjoyed that.

Jonathan: I think those initial recordings were done with simpler tools. We’ve always embraced the DIY mindset, and I think that we were striving to get something that sounded reasonably good in light of all our limitations in terms of production.

And it’s around this time that you began receiving support from NZ on Air and NZ Music Commission, which if I understand correctly, are government-funded agencies that promote the national music scene and industry. How did you stumble into this opportunity, and what was the experience like?

Liz: That’s something that New Zealand is really lucky to have where every two months they give out funding to about 30 songs, which really helps the local national scene. It helps people with small studios or people who are recording for the first time. It’s a good way to feel motivated and get some support. Honestly, I think that we got really lucky and got support from it and it helped.

Jonathan: It’s quite a unique system; it’s an open system and they receive over two hundred submissions per every round of funding.

Liz: Right, and there are different criteria that you need to fulfill where, for instance, you have to play National Talk, which can be two shows because New Zealand is small. And this is stuff that if you’re starting out helps you get your music out there, and it’s also stuff that you would be wanting to do anyway to get your project off the ground.

As you began to grow your fanbase, you cut your first record, FMHM, produced by Jonathan. What was that recording experience like and what sound were you going for?

Liz: So that album came together over a long time. There were songs that we had re-recorded or tweaked a few times. I think that just like with our EP, we were going for something that sounded really good and powerful that we could do with the tools that we had. We felt that we were getting better with each album and Jonathan was learning more recording techniques, and we were definitely becoming better musicians and tighter as a band.

I was really working on becoming a better songwriter and was working on my arrangements. On the first EP, we were really trying to figure out who we were and what we wanted to do, and by the time we put this out, we knew that we wanted to play fast and hard but also broaden the spectrum and play with other sounds. We knew we were going to have ten songs, and you can’t have a great album with ten songs that all sound the same. So, we wanted to add a little variety, and I think it ended up sounding like a cohesive project because the making was cohesive in itself.

Once [new drummer] Tristan got onboard, you guys go on tour with Death Cab, and by 2020 put out your second LP Jump Rope Gazers, which to me sounds like a more polished continuation of the heavy-riff, harmonic garage-rock style from the first album. How did you guys feel going into this record?

Liz: We were so busy that we didn’t really have much time to feel any pressure until after it was done. I remember at the time telling myself that there was no point in stressing out about the songs you write because stressing out about your songs isn’t going to make them better. I just embraced the fact that I was going to write what I was going to write. This was also during a period when we played about 250 shows in 18 months between 2018 and 2019. So, I was writing in between shows as much as I could, and that turned out to be the album. And I remember that once the tour was done, I felt a little bit of pressure, and once the album was done, we handed it in at the start of March 2020. Of course, the world shut down immediately after that, and I remember feeling like maybe I didn’t have a reason to rush.

What was it like to release the album during the first wave of COVID? How did the pandemic affect your plans?

Liz: I think that every musician at the time must have asked themselves what it meant to be a musician at that moment. At one point, the album had already been turned in and we could decide if we would put it out or not. The release date was set for July, and after talking about it, we decided to go on with that date because the alternative was to sit on an album indefinitely, and we really didn’t want to do that.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, your third album, Expert in a Dying Field, is due out in September. Personally, I feel like this is an album that sounds more polished and a lot richer, and in which you can tell that there’s a lot more attention to detail. What was the recording process like for this album?

Liz: This was an album in which we had way more time. We had a lockdown halfway through tracking it that lasted about three to four months, so I think that having a lot of time to write a lot of songs really helped. We knew that we wanted to make a fun live record. After writing the songs as we were working on arrangements, we talked about how we wanted to make an album that would be fun to play live. And again, having a glut of songs, a bunch of songs that you could pick and choose from made the process really fun.

Speaking of playing live, you guys are currently on tour and have been on the road for a while. What has this tour been like? Is this the first tour since COVID?

Liz: No, actually. So, we did some touring in New Zealand while there was no COVID in the community which was for most of 2020 and a bit of 2021. Since the start of this year, we’ve been doing a tour of the States, UK, and Europe.

Jonathan: I think that touring this year has been a bit hard. In some ways, it feels like it’s getting a bit easier, but the threat of catastrophe is certainly always there. A lot of the things that we used to love about touring we can’t really do anymore. We love meeting other bands and hanging out with them which is something that on this tour you can’t really do at all. You also have to have the masks on and always be alert about what kind of space you’re in. These are the things where you compromise. But then, at the end of the day, you’re still getting to play a show. And the shows have been the highlight of every day, and so long as people enjoy that and have a great time that’s really what it’s all about.

Photos by Francis Carter