Just over a year ago, The Beths were a little-known pop-rock band with a promising EP to their name and a full-length album stuck in the sort of slo-mo creative process that often encumbers musicians with real lives and rent payments and day jobs.
Over several months, the Auckland, New Zealand quartet chipped away at the record when they could — a couple songs here, a couple songs there, with no pressure from outside entities or expectations, according to the band’s singer and main songwriter, Liz Stokes. Then they got a “kick in the butt” from a friend, she said, and committed to finish the thing.
And that’s when The Beths started picking up steam. Lots of it. And quickly.
First, Stokes and her band mates — guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnson — decided to quit their jobs and start booking a tour, “just to see what would happen,” Stokes says. Then, they started talking to respected indie label Carpark Records about putting out the album.
Carpark released The Beths’ debut LP, Future Me Hates Me, in August, and it’s packed top to bottom with pitch-perfect pop-punk-rock songs built from barbed guitars, relentless hooks, sugary harmonies and Stokes’ deadpan delivery of biting lines like “I’m gonna drink the whole town dry. Put poison in my wine and hope that you’re the one who dies.” Across 10 tightly wound tracks, the band sounds like Velocity Girl fronted by Courtney Barnett, laced with Blue Album crunch, backing ooohs and aaahs worthy of the Beach Boys and a hint of that sweet Kiwi jangle coursing through their veins.
What followed was wondrous: an avalanche of glowing reviews from DIY indie-rock blogs and Big Media alike. “A wonderful little record that never lets up,” wrote Rolling Stone, “piling on unassumingly buzzy fun until you start realizing you might be in the presence of a true power-pop monument.” Now, the band is setting off on a world tour of rooms that were probably big enough when they were booked, but now are starting to sell out in advance.
Stokes is trying to take it all in stride, but that’s not something that necessarily comes naturally. Aquarium Drunkard caught up with her via Skype for a conversation about writing hooks, embracing sincerity and the reaction the band’s getting back home. Below is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Aquarium Drunkard: You’re in the middle of touring New Zealand. Are you seeing bigger crowds there?
Liz Stokes: It’s much bigger than previously. It’s kind of cool seeing the stuff that we’ve been doing overseas start to have an effect here. We’ve been away since May and we came back a few weeks ago, so I think it’s driven a lot by just going away. Everyone’s impressed. (laughs)
AD: Does the buzz elsewhere in the world feel kind of distant to you because you’re in New Zealand? Does it feel a little unreal?
Liz Stokes: Oh, I don’t think so. The most real thing that you get is when people come to your show. The rest of the stuff can feel a little bit detached. But it does feel pretty good. It feels surprising and it also feels like it’s happened quite fast, but also you don’t want to speak too soon. You don’t want to jinx it or anything. It’s going pretty well and I’ve got this feeling of, “Don’t fuck it up.”
AD: Based on your lyrics, that seems to be your default mode for everything.
Liz Stokes: Yeah, yeah. Very cautious.
AD: What made you want to start writing rock songs and playing in a rock band?
Liz Stokes: One of the first things that broke the ice on the project was Jonathan sent me an email that was like, “Hey, can you write some songs so I can record them?” And that got me thinking about starting a project. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew I wanted it to be a rock guitar project. I had this guitar I’d bought when I was a teenager and it was an electric guitar, so I immediately started a folk band with a friend and never played it. (laughs)
But I was starting to want to play the kind of music I liked when I was younger, which was electric guitar music, and that’s all I knew. I was pretty green at writing “rock music” in terms of how to arrange the drums and bass and two electric guitars. We just wanted to have a project where we got to play loud music.
AD: You mentioned wanting to play the kind of music you listened to when you were younger. Like what?
Liz Stokes: Well, there’s three things, I think. When I was quite young, it was like emo and pop-punk bands. In particular, Fall Out Boy from that set is one that I still listen to and like. And then also around that time, New Zealand radio was playing quite a few New Zealand rock bands, like Elemeno P and Goodshirt. They were local bands that you could go and see, and I did see them, and that was quite inspiring to see bands from back home who were on the radio. And then slightly later again I got more into the indie bands like Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie and stuff like that.
AD: When did you start writing songs? And when, if ever, did you realize that you had a talent for writing particularly catchy songs?
Elizabeth Stokes: I wrote while I was in high school in this band a little bit, and then I stopped until The Beths. I knew that I’d written some kind of catchy songs back then, but when those are like five or seven years ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d fluked it. And I knew there was going to be a big gap between how I wanted the songs to be and how they were going to be, so I actually spent quite a long time writing before actually jamming with the band. I wrote a lot of songs and then threw most of them away. I was writing with the idea that I could bridge that gap in writing by just writing a whole lot and then picking the three or four best songs.
AD: You seem to have been blessed with a bottomless supply of hooks. What’s your secret?
Liz Stokes: I follow my nose a lot of the time. I mean, I’m just writing songs that I want to hear. I don’t want to be bored by my own material. I like good melodies. More than anything, I like for my song, while I’m writing it, to be stuck in my head, so then I can keep writing it in my head. That makes it an easier job, because a lot of the time I’ll spend some time away from the guitar or something and I will have written a chorus or part of a verse. If it’s catchy, I can remember it and I can play it over and over in my head and figure out what comes next. I just don’t want to write anything that won’t stick with me.
AD: What role does Jonathan play in the band and the songwriting?
Liz Stokes: He handles the production, during which we do have chats about the sound that we want and that kind of thing. It terms of songwriting, when I bring the songs to the band they’re maybe 80 percent finished, and that’s when it becomes more of a sounding board situation with the guys. But I don’t usually show them the songs until they’re mostly done, because … I don’t know. I must be self-conscious.
AD: Are you a perfectionist?
Liz Stokes: No, I don’t think so. I think I’m on the perfection spectrum, but definitely nowhere near that end. I do like to get things to a certain point where I feel confident about them before I show them to people.
AD: So let’s talk about one of the best songs on the album, “Little Death”. It stands out, in part, because it seems to have a very different lyrical perspective than the other songs. Is it newer?
Liz Stokes: It’s not new. It’s quite old, actually. It’s one of the songs where I just kind of went sincere, which is quite scary, usually. The things that make me want to write when I’m emotional tend to be bad things — which is kind of sad — or things that make me uncomfortable or things that make me feel like I’m losing control of my composure, and I didn’t feel that way about this. It was such a strong physical reaction, so I just wrote about the physicality of it.
AD: That’s interesting that you say you “went sincere” on “Little Death”. What’s the opposite of that? What way did you go on most of the other songs on the album?
Liz Stokes: I think there’s a lot of sincerity in all the songs. I just think the difference with songs like “Little Death” and “River Run: Lvl 1” is that when I write them, I don’t feel compelled to make a joke or add another layer between the emotion and the song, where I’m poking fun at it. The way that I experience the world is similar to a lot of New Zealanders, who have a particular sense of humor — quite self-deprecating — and it kind of colors everything. And I think that’s maybe what the sincerity has to push through to be heard. words / ben salmon