Back in the hellscape of 2020, I wrote about the Beths‘ excellent sophomore album, Jump Rope Gazers, and how it provided a little bit of light in a very dark time. At that point, the future of the band was uncertain. They hoped their second record would build on the positive attention of their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, but nothing was certain in 2020. Jump Rope Gazers received some acclaim, though, like other albums released in 2020, it was mostly buried under the weight of everything else happening in the world.
Soon after, singer-songwriter Liz Stokes began work on what would become their third album, Expert in a Dying Field. While the record finds the New Zealand band still offering their distinct take on power-pop, they’ve continued to push themselves sonically with their latest, striking the perfect balance between the introspection of Jump Rope Gazers and the high-octane buzz of Future Me Hates Me. More than anything, Expert‘s production, handled by guitarist Jonathan Pearce, is leaps and bounds beyond anything else in their catalog, featuring quaking walls of sound (“Silence Is Golden”) to legitimately anthemic stadium rock (“Best Left”).
PopMatters caught up with singer-songwriter Liz Stokes at the beginning of a stretch of North American shows. From a hotel room in Southern California, she spoke about writing in lockdown, artistic collaboration, and all that comes with becoming a professional Beth.
How’s this tour going so far?
Going well so far; knock on wood. We started about a week ago, and we’ve been playing some festivals, going back and forth a little bit, which means dragging all your stuff through domestic airports. But now we’re in the van proper, and we’ll do the driving around thing, which will be much less stressful. Things have gone wrong, but I feel like that’s always the case. Things go wrong, and you just duck-and-weave and make it work.
I read an interview where you said on tour immediately following the lockdown, people in the audience seemed to be grateful for the live music experience. Are you finding that we’re in this different stage of the pandemic that’s still true, or have things shifted somehow?
I think they’ve shifted, yeah. Since the start of the year, it feels like month-by-month, there’s been a different vibe. It’s hard to know—we’ve only been here a week—but it feels different. People going to shows have been going to shows for a while now. There’s a lot of shows happening; there’s been kind of a glut. When we played back in February, it felt like it was still a bit tentative, and there were not many things happening. It feels like we’re back in the swing of lots of shows and opportunities. It still feels very cool when people decide to come. And I know some people are still not coming out to shows; they’re still not comfortable, which is totally fine.
Speaking of the lockdown: I know a lot of the new album was written during the lockdown and then recorded remotely. How did that affect your songwriting process? How did it affect the band dynamic?
What we had in New Zealand throughout much of 2020 and 2021 was not lockdown. We would have a lockdown, and then COVID would be eliminated. The borders were hard-closed, but we were able to tour locally and play festivals. It was a strange approximation of normal for a while without the stressfulness of the normal now.
I did write some songs during the lockdown, particularly towards the end of 2021. We had our recording process interrupted by a four-month-long, quite hard, lockdown. The songwriting process was not that different. I tend to write by myself anyways. The fact that we weren’t touring constantly meant I had more opportunities and more time to do writing because I don’t usually write on tour. It takes up all of my brain. [laughs]
I think the new record has many things people love about the Beths’ records, but overall the songs feel tighter and crisper. The production itself sounds massive. A track like “Knees Deep”, in particular, stands out as a big step forward. Was there a conscious choice to refine things with this album? Do you feel any pressure to level up and do something a little different with each new record? Or is that not something you’re thinking about while writing?
For me, I try to write 20 songs, and then we try to choose a favorite ten or 12. We weren’t like, “this is the third album; we need to be really huge and different!” It was just a logical step up. It’s still the four of us. Jonathan [Pearce, Beths’ guitarist and producer] is still recording us at his home studio, and he is just doing amazing. That’s been really fun to see because from our very first EP up to now; he’s been the one who records and produces. He’s just improved so much, so I think that’s a big part of the sound being crisper.
But, yeah, it’s a thing. Once you have two albums, you realize you don’t have to do exactly the same as before. But it still feels like us making guitar music.
Speaking of your first EP, Warm Blood, this past March was its sixth anniversary. Within that period, you all have accomplished a lot—several international tours, a live record, and then, with Expert, three studio albums. What has changed the most for you since writing that EP? You mention Jonathan improving as a producer and engineer. I’m sure you’ve refined things as a songwriter. Is there anything beyond that where there’s a noticeable difference?
There’s been a huge difference in lifestyle for us. Back when we made the first EP and then the first album as well, it was really like a hobby. It was a thing you did for fun because you’re a musician and you’re in a cool music scene with lots of friends who have their own bands, their own projects, and are making cool things. We’d be working and make stuff on the weekends and the evenings and play at the local dive bar. And that’s probably the biggest lifestyle change now. This is something we do full-time. Not that we’re necessarily making any more money at it. [laughs] But we’re able to do it full time. It was a rough time through the pandemic, but we were lucky that there was a bit more support for people, especially in the arts.
Even if you’re not making much more than you were before, the fact that you can focus on creating rather than working and then creating… I would imagine that makes a big difference.
It’s pretty incredible. But there is a bit of pressure now. I will make some art, that’s nice, but also we’re a business now. So there’s that. I have three dependents on my songwriting. [laughs] And we have management and friends booking gigs, so you want to keep the train rolling. But also, you want to make uncompromising art. [laughs] So, how do you do both?
Right! So how do you? Out of those 20 songs you wrote for the new album, how do you focus on picking the best 12 or so tracks for that record rather than the ones that might be safe picks to keep the train rolling?
That’s tricky. I don’t write cynically. I’m not writing, saying, “I’m trying to write a hit single! Let’s write a hit single!” I’m trying to write a song that I like. I tend to like upbeat songs with a particular melodic kind of writing and tend to fall harmonically within specific parameters. But it’s tricky. I struggle with it. When you’re writing, you’re just going off gut instinct. That’s all you can do. I’ve been writing for a long time now, and I just have to trust my gut. “It just feels like the melody goes here, and I can’t explain why. It just feels like it needs to.” If you write something and say, “I think it’s good, but everyone I show it to gives me no reaction,” you reach a point where you have to decide: am I going to stick to my guns on this and say that it’s good or am I going to adjust what I think?
Sometimes it can be really rough. I have to be able to trust my gut because otherwise, I can’t write. But if there’s a consistent issue, you might say, “right now, I can’t really trust this.” It’s all about connecting with everyone else in the band. It’s about learning to trust your own gut but also everyone else you trust.
At six years in, is there anything you’re thinking about in terms of trajectory? Is there anything you’re all hoping to do?
We have ambition. We’d really love to keep growing our audience, which has been something we’ve been able to do, even with the huge wildcard that is the pandemic. We released an album [2020’s Jump Rope Gazers] and then weren’t able to tour it or promote it at all. We didn’t end up going backward, which was a huge relief. At the time, we were thinking, “oh my gosh, are we going to have to start again?”
That’s all we want. We feel a real correlation between us being able to tour and play for people and the growth we see with our audience. These are “businessy” words, but the more people who hear our music, the better. There’s a small percentage of anyone who hears our music who will like it. It’s just getting our music in front of as many people as possible to find that little percentage of Beth-heads.
[This interview has been edited for clarity.]