The Best Damn Thing:
The Beths Spike Power Pop’s Punch
Elizabeth Stokes has vivid recollections of her band’s show at the Drunken Unicorn last fall – mostly positive ones, but not entirely. “It was our first time in Atlanta and I wasn’t expecting a lot of people, but it a was really good, fun crowd and turned out to be one of our better merch nights,” she explains by phone from Auckland, where The Beths are taking a brief break from the road. “We made a mistake on stage – which we don’t normally do – but no one brought it up afterward, which was nice. It was just a small clam, but if I had been in a bad head space it probably would have taken me under.”
Unpacking this minor anecdote speaks volumes about The Beths, one of 2018’s best indie breakout stories. First, it reveals the quartet’s attention to musical detail. Upon further prodding Stokes allows it was only a minor glitch, the type a typical audience member probably wouldn’t even notice. Then there’s Stokes’ charming New Zealand accent, which had me scrambling to regional slang dictionaries – perhaps she actually said “small claim”?
As it turns out, a “clam” is a term for a performance error – most commonly associated with jazz musicians, often trumpeters. The Beths formed while all four of its members were studying jazz performance at Auckland University – Stokes on trumpet, with which she also scratched out a living tutoring high school students.
The pop punk of debut album Future Me Hates Me betrays few traces of that jazz background. This isn’t at all surprising to Stokes. “We had all been playing in a lot of projects, which is what you do in a small scene like Auckland’s. When the four of us got together for this one, the drawing factor was ‘let’s play in a loud guitar band.’” What does shine through to separate The Beths from the pack is an added level of craftsmanship as well as Stokes’ smart songwriting. She delivered a batch of songs sturdy enough to sound at home if cast in a variety of genres.
“I was in a folk trio in high school, with three girls singing,” Stokes explains. “Sort of like Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – I really liked that aspect of the band.” She’s brought some of that harmonizing spirit to The Beths, this time through the voices of her male mates. “I do a lot of the vocal arranging when I’m demoing songs out, but then the others bring in their own ideas and we mess around with them.”
The result is akin to The New Pornographers with a bit more Buzzcocks and less Sparks. Or for a more recent reference I’m reminded of Ex Hex, whose leader Mary Timony similarly applies her formal training to put a savvy spin on windows-down driving music. Stokes recalls liking Ex Hex’s 2014 album but hadn’t considered them a model – perhaps the groups’ paths will cross this spring as Timony’s squad fires up the cylinders to support its pending sophomore effort.
Another secret weapon is Stokes’ wordplay. So many successful lyrics – particularly in the power pop realm – are fueled by breakups, yearning, or unrequited love. Examples of keeper lyrics extolling the happy side of relationships are harder to come by. Stokes has found a brilliant workaround – she’s writing from the giddy end of the courtship cycle, but fast-forwards her perspective to fret about trainwreck inevitably lurking over the bend. The title Future Me Hates Me itself refers to an expectation that she’ll look back and curse herself for getting into such a mess. On “You Wouldn’t Like Me” she warns her lover that “it feels so much like being in love that I thought you should know” that he wouldn’t like her “if you saw what was inside me.” It’s as if Stokes can’t resist falling headlong despite knowing full well it’s unlikely to be The Best Damn Thing.
One can’t help but wonder how Jonathan Pearce feels about this. Stokes stays notably mum about her lyrical inspirations but acknowledges they’re based on personal experience – and most of Future Me was written roughly three years ago, around the time she and guitarist Pearce coupled up (the pair had known each other since grade school). Pearce runs his own recording studio in Auckland, and is very responsible for the quartet’s snappy, clear-as-a-bell sound. He’s sublet his place given The Beths’ incessant touring schedule, but still keeps a hand in production duties from the road (“I don’t know how he does it,” Stokes marvels).
Although the album sounds like a step up from the band’s 2016 debut EP Warm Blood – which wasn’t exactly lo-fi, and was quite catchy – Stokes insists the high fidelity is not the result of a bigger budget. “There are lots of small differences. Jonathan had been recording for a couple more years, and he’s a really good learner, constantly experimenting and improving. We tried out lots of setups, lots of tweaks to get better sounds upfront. He spent a lot of time on that.” The band already had stage tested the new songs, having sorted through the arrangements.
Warm Blood built them a solid Kiwi following, and one of its tracks (“Whatever,” the only one repeated on Future Me) enjoyed its moment as a Reddit viral sensation. This also helped attract the attention of US label Carpark, although Stokes points out the album was essentially complete before Carpark got involved.
From there things progressed quickly. The Beths initially embarked on a brief, barebones US jaunt in mid 2018, but buzz built quickly enough that after a European tour leg they decided to hunker down in Spain for awhile – in part to escape the New Zealand winter but also to avoid the costly, lengthy flight home knowing that more touring was suddenly imminent. “I have no idea how people like The Chills did it before the internet,” she marvels, referring to New Zealand’s early ’90s indie champs, whose leader Martin Phillipps frequently groused about his remoteness and temporarily relocated to the UK in a breakthrough bid. “I really like living here (Auckland), I don’t want to move. We might shorten our flights a bit but it would still be a lot of travel. Still, we’re going to be in New Zealand very very little this year.”
A since deleted passage in The Beths’ Wikipedia bio referred to a band stint in Perth, Australia – which would seem an odd choice given its status as arguably the one outpost more remote than New Zealand. My mention of this prompts an involuntary squeal of laughter from Stokes. “I lived there from ages 1 to 4,” she says, explaining an early ploy for airtime on influential Australian station Triple J. “They have an internet version that’s reserved for Australian artists. We submitted a track and said we were from Australia. They wrote back and said ‘it looks like this email is from New Zealand….’ I told them the truth immediately, but they said, ‘the song’s good, you can stay.’” Surprisingly Australia was not a Beths early adopter market, “but they’re coming around now,” she boasts.
Unfortunately the heavy touring schedule has claimed its first casualty, as drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnston has left the fold. Johnston’s own project, a swing band called Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes, has included all four Beths at various times. His drumming was perhaps the most audible link to the players’ shared jazz background, “Little Death” serving as a particularly good example of his effervescent, skittering rhythms. For now the core trio (bassist Ben Sinclair completes the set) are relying on a sequence of tour drummers – all Kiwis, mostly jazz school friends. To date, the complex patterns haven’t posed an issue. “Because it sounds hard I think everyone focuses on that one (“Little Death”) and gets it working,” Stokes conjectures. “Then there are the sneaky hard ones where the tempos are tricky and wavering,” she says, pointing to “Lying in the Sun” from the EP as an example.
More interesting to her is watching the drummers acclimate to harmonizing. “Often it’s the first time they have to sing in a band, which is actually fun. They’re all really musical people, so with a little practice they nail it.” Four-part harmonies are never a picnic on stage, particularly in gritty club settings, but The Beths are undaunted. “We played these songs live quite a bit before recording them – we might have added a bit around the edges in the studio, but the arrangements were there. It’s a full rock volume on stage – it’s hard, but a good, fun challenge.”
The final obvious question relates to new material – what comes next, and when? Given their 2019 schedule, it’s clear The Beths aren’t yet ready to put Future Me Hates Me in the rear-view mirror. “I can see these blocks on the calendar on the horizon – I’m trying to schedule my creativity!” Stokes laughs. “I didn’t really write on the road last year – it was kind of exhausting – but I’m going to try a bit more this time. I’m also working my way through a lot of old demos, fleshing them out and seeing if I like them.” The band is also eyeing a late 2019 window when they might re-enter the studio.
Given how well folks do seem to like The Beths, there’s little reason to expect Stokes’ gift for a hook to suddenly fail her. It’ll be interesting to see if she pairs the next batch with breakup songs, or crafts a way to weave conflict into a four-year relationship.
Photo by Mason Fairey.