The Beths on Bungee Jumping, ‘Expert in a Dying Field’, and Screaming at the Void

    Following the release of Jump Rope Gazers, the Beths wanted to make a record that would thrive in a live setting. The New Zealand quartet – consisting of vocalist/guitarist Elizabeth Stokes, guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair, and drummer Tristan Deck – followed up their impressive 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me in July 2020, and the group spent the rest of the year and the majority of 2021 at home, connecting with fans via livestreams and working on new music. In September of last year, they released Auckland, New Zealand, 2020, a live album and full-length concert film recorded at a time when New Zealand was one of the few countries where live music was up and running. After recording most of their third LP, Expert in a Dying Field – out this Friday – towards the end of 2021 at Pearce’s studio in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa, a four-month national lockdown forced the group to trade ideas remotely before finalizing it during three days at a Los Angeles studio.

    With each release, the Beths have found ways to not only energize their signature formula of driving, incisive guitar pop, but also widen their scope. Filled with resonant choruses and cheerful riffs, Jump Rope Gazers also saw Stokes leaning on the softer, more introspective side of her songwriting, with several slower tracks paired alongside uptempo ones. Yet Expert in a Dying Field doesn’t feel like a course correction; with more time to both take in the response from the last album and sit with the new material, the Beths have simply gotten increasingly more adept at infusing their own personality into all kinds of songs, resulting in their most riveting and dynamic record yet. It’s home to indelible hooks that crystallize and explode off the constant turmoil of the verses; fiery instrumentals that rush along the anxious rhythm of Stokes’ thoughts and others that offset and antagonize them; and immediate production that’s also rich with detail. On ‘Change in the Weather’, Stokes sings of being “frozen in an avalanche of doubt”; as it careens between joy, fear, hope, and trepidation, the music melts away some of those negative instincts. Mostly, though, it brings everything to its bright, messy surface.

    We caught up with the Beths’ Elizabeth Stokes ahead of the release of Expert in a Dying Field to talk about touring, the process of making the album, what inspires her about her bandmates, and more.

    What’s your headspace like with the release of the album coming up?

    Feeling busy in a good way. It’s really nice to be touring while stuff comes out. I’m not lingering in trying to watch the numbers or anything, just because we’re on the road and it’s been really nice seeing a song come out and then playing a song the next day and there’s people who already know the words. It feels like real feedback in such a great way that doesn’t feel so spiral-ly. After the last album, where we would be releasing a single but obviously everybody was in lockdown – it’s really nice when people thank you now putting a song out during the pandemic, but for us, it was kind of weird putting a song out and then sitting at home, twiddling your thumbs being like, “I wonder if anybody likes it.”

    How does it feel to be performing songs from Jump Rope Gazers? Have you been playing unreleased tracks as well? 

    We have been playing some unreleased stuff – even on the shows earlier this year, we were playing one or two songs that were unreleased, because we were rehearsing those back at home. Once this [North American] tour finishes, we’ll be on tour in Australia, New Zealand and that will be an album release run. Whereas this tour and the tours earlier this year, weirdly, they still kind of feel like Jump Rope Gazers tours because we never got to tour those records. You still want to give those records their due and their time in the setlist, so the people who can actually connect with those songs have a chance to hear them live properly.

    We did get to play them live a bit because we managed to do a New Zealand tour in 2020 when the borders were closed and there was no COVID in the country, and we got some lucky timing. But the full tour of New Zealand, including a bunch of small towns, was like 11 shows, I think, in late 2020. So actually being able to play over the States and Europe and play a lot to play every night, the songs really they really come into their own and you really feel what’s working and what’s not. We’re much better at playing those songs now.

    I was wondering if you could tell me about the story behind the music video for ‘Knees Deep’, which ultimately sort of comes into contrast with the sentiment of the song.

    Yeah, the song’s kind of about feeling like I’m quite cowardly. I find it really hard to follow through and basically be brave, which is what the song was about. But with the video, we had a video planned with a friend of ours who’s a really great director, but in the days before, when we were just starting planning the video properly because he’s really busy, he basically got COVID two days before our shoot date. And then three days after that we were leaving to come on this tour, so we didn’t really have time to push it back or reschedule it. So last minute, I called Callum Devlin and Annabel Kea, who we’ve worked with a lot, they’re our friends who have made lots of videos for us. They’re so busy, but luckily they made time for us. And I was like, I’ve got this nebulous idea, because the other director had his own his own idea and concept but we didn’t have time to make that. So I was like, “I’ve got this idea where we go we go bungee jumping.” [laughs]

    So you brought up the idea?

    Yeah, but in a way that an idea is fully abstract and you’re like, “It’s not real, it’s just an idea.” And they’re so great, they just have a way of conceptualizing something, taking an idea and really making it into a whole concept. We started making plans that day and called the bungee place at the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which is the least picturesque one, which I think was important because I didn’t want it to look like a tourism ad. Then I feel like it all just started rolling into place, and then on the morning of I was like, “Okay, now we actually have to do it.” [laughs] Which I feel like is accurate, right? I feel like with doing bungee jumping – I was nervous, we were all nervous, but I don’t think you really feel the fear until you’re actually looking over the edge and you have to jump and your body is like, “Absolutely not, we’re not doing that.” But we did have to do it. You know, you can’t go all that way and they’d be filming it and then not go through with it. So I feel like it was a way to force myself to do something kind of risky. Even though it’s not risky, it just feels risky.

    Did it take convincing to actually do it?

    Yeah, it did take convincing. They count you down, and I didn’t go the first time, didn’t want to do it. [laughs] Then they count you down again… I went last as well, I think Jonathan went first and then Ben and Justin, just seeing them go one by on and then come back up. You see that they’ve done it and you’re like, “Oh no, now I know I have to do it.” But it’s just as scary when they go, in some way, because you see someone just disappear over the edge of a bridge and you can’t really see them bounce. But yeah, what a rush.

    Listening to the song and reading your statement on it, as someone who also takes a long time to go into the cold water, I could definitely relate, but bungee jumping seems like an entirely more frightening prospect.

    Well, I guess you can’t really slowly edge into a bungee jump, can you? You can’t wait into a bungee jump. You just have to fall. [laughs] It’s all or nothing.

    When you’re writing this kind of song that’s more introspective than observational, do you start with a physical experience and land on a metaphor that feels potent, or is the metaphor where you start building out a song?

    Kind of both. With this particular song, I feel like I had a visual in my head of – I think it was in 2018 after our very first tour, which we thought would our only tour, and then we had six weeks before our next tour. And instead of flying home to New Zealand from Europe, which is where we were, which was very expensive, we were like, we’ll just stay in this tiny village in Spain where our friend lives. It was incredibly cheap, I think it cost us like 300 euros to stay there for the entire time. There was a little swimming hole, and I just remember the feeling of being like, “I want to go swimming, I’m here, I’ve walked down specifically to go swimming.” And just being frozen with the water up to my ankles and not being able to get in. Just being really frustrated at myself, like, “What are you doing, you absolute idiot? [laughs] Just get in!”

    But it wasn’t until later that year when I was at home and writing that I turned it into a song. The song wasn’t very good, but it included the phrase, “I want to be brave and dive in.” But it wasn’t really working, and so I kind of shelved it. Until late last year when I was when I was writing again, and the idea came back and threw out almost everything, basically, except for that concept, and tried to turn it into a new song.

    Becoming more reflective, maybe, with the passage of time?

    Yeah, and a bit more cathartic. The old one was very slow, and I was trying to write something that was driving and fast and felt like there was a tension and a momentum to it.

    The album often bounces between conflicting states – high and low, quiet and loud, cold and hot – and I love how you capture a specific dynamic on ‘Head in the Clouds’ as “vicious with a rosy tint.” When you’re writing, does it feel like you’re toeing a similar kind of delicate balance? Do you feel a certain sensitivity to those extremes?

    Yeah, I still do feel those extremes. I feel like it makes sense when you’re writing, I do like writing dynamically. Even just arrangement-wise, when you talk about loud/quiet, it just works really well live. I guess the human experience is pretty extreme – there are some people I think that that are really good at writing in the middle, I think that’s really artful. If you can write in that kind of ordinariness, that’s something that’s really special. But I feel like I find it easier to write from either extreme, because that’s where the extreme emotion is. It’s where you can tug at your own heartstrings the most, maybe, is when you’re at a euphoric high or a crushing low. But it is something that feel like it’s a skill, to be able to write in the middle, which is maybe something that I just can’t really do. So I don’t do it as much. [laughs]

    Even by turning them into a song, though, you’re structuring them in this deliberate and intentional way. I was wondering if in the moment you’re writing, it feels very visceral and hard to contain, but the actual recording and production process is about trying to contain that dynamic energy.

    Oh, yeah. You’ve put that very succinctly. For me, a lot of the emotional expression happens in the writing and the demoing and the writing of the lyrics in particular. And the melodies as well, I feel quite attached to the harmony – I feel like it’s more of a context for the melody. But the arrangement feels like a fun creative craft part, where I still have an emotional arc or an emotional point that I want to get across, but it’s more collaborative with the band. And at that point, it does feel like you can kind of take a step back from what you’ve made and build the house that the song is going to live in. And yeah, it feels more like a structural, craft process. It’s still really fun, and obviously there’s a lot of creative expression that’s happening with everybody writing their parts. But for me, I really feel like the lion’s share of the emotion writing happens when I’m writing the lyrics on my own.

    A track that sounds like it really evolved in that collaborative stage is ‘Best Left’, with the group vocals and experimentation that bring the song to life. Does that one stand out to you in terms of how it came together?

    Yeah, that was a real trouble song. It was one where I had a demo quite early on, but we had to rewrite it a bunch of times. I had an initial riff, but it turns out that riff was really close to another riff that we found in another song, so we couldn’t use that riff. But the song, the verse is good, it had a chorus, but the chorus wasn’t very strong. And so I wrote another chorus. We played that for a while, but then we didn’t really like that chorus at the end. So now the song has no chorus, and that somehow was better. But there was this instrumental part that initially was under the chorus, and eventually, Jono tried this tremolo thing in the verses. It’s probably the one of the more out-of-character songs for us in terms of expanding into slightly different sounds. It’s still a guitar song. It’s still guitar, bass, drums and vocals, but it’s slow and it’s got this big sound to it that was fun to explore. It was really fun to make, eventually, but it was a hard one to bring together.

    Did it also feel exciting to you in the sense of it being something you could explore further in the future?

    Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve done a 16th note beat, which is such a rudimentary way to put it, but up till now, we’ve typically been an eighth note band. Which we really like, but it’s just fun to kind of edge out a little bit further. At the same time, I’m like, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. [laughs] It’s a large step for us, but within the context of rock music history, it feels very much like we’re still in our little fenced-off area.

    The album is more driving and energetic than its predecessor, but I found some of the quieter tracks, like ‘Your Side’, ‘When You Know You Know’, and especially ‘2am’, to be the most hopeful, even more confident than some of the upbeat tracks. They’re also some of the longest songs on the record, and I wonder if there was a sense of wanting to extend that feeling as far out as possible.

    You’re making very astute observations that I hadn’t really worked out. [laughs] That’s really interesting. There’s nothing I’m more confident in than my own self-disdain and anxiety about myself, so I guess I feel a lot more comfortable shouting those things from the rooftops as it were. And then, definitely I feel a tenuousness to any kind of optimism that I have. But I did want there to be some optimism because it’s just been such a weird, depressing time and I didn’t want to write a super depressing album. Even though that would be great, I don’t want to yuck any yums. I guess it is kind of scary to confidently proclaim optimism about anything – it feels like something that I’m definitely always hedging. And so maybe that’s reflected in the way that those songs are arranged, they’re more said in a kind of quiet voice. But I do feel it, and it’s something I do want, I want to be different and want to see the world differently and be more open and optimistic – just loving the world around me and people around me. But I feel like that’s a want versus where I currently am I. Looking at the album, it feels like I’ve got some work to do.

    Even said in a quieter voice, it still is vulnerable and kind of brave to proclaim that without much noise surrounding it, and to end on a tenuously hopeful note. I just don’t know how intentional it was when it came out.

    Doesn’t feel brave. [laughs] Finishing with ‘2am’ is like the other end of the spectrum for us, where it was one of the songs that was the least arranged. We recorded that one and in the stairwell at the studio, we set up the drums and the guitars in there, and we actually just got a whole live take, which is something that we usually don’t do. It’s not perfect and it’s a bit rough and wasn’t the same every time, and I think we recorded it four or five times and just chose one. The one that everyone was like, “That’s the one.” But then to put it last feels very cowardly. [laughs] But it’s nice to hear that it kind of fits there.

    I read in the bio that you “sometimes” recorded in the building’s stairwell, but it sounds like that was the only one you did there.

    That was the only time, it was just that one song. It’s just got this beautiful reverb that we’ve always wanted to use but never have. And also, just that thing of, because we record in our own space in Jono’s studio, there wasn’t really an urgency. In the way that sometimes, if you’re a band and you go into a studio and you’ve only got two weeks or one week or something, you have to kind of knock it out and focus, and especially if you’re making something live all together. I feel like it gives a kind of seriousness to what you’re doing, you have to really focus and get it done. So I feel like us moving into the stairwell, not the same thing, but you know, we’ve moved all the stuff there, we have to get it tonight. We got everything set up and I think we started playing around like 12:30, midnight. We just had to get it done, and everybody rose to the occasion. It was really nice.

    There’s a line on ‘Head in the Clouds’ that goes, “You can scream at the void/ But it never replies.” I know that any kind of creative pursuit can sometimes feel that way, too. I wanted to ask what you feel like it is that keeps you driving.

    Like, just making something and putting it into the world and then kind of seeing it kind of disappearing, do its own thing? It’s kind of nice. The album comes out in three and a half weeks, like a month from now, and it’s kind of wild. You do all this work in the lead-up, you make the album and then you do all this planning, you do interviews and we’re touring and making music videos and releasing singles. And then it kind of feels like that all builds up to the album coming out, and a lot of the work at that point slows right down. The album just goes off and just does its own thing. I just remind myself all the time that some of my favourite albums are albums that I didn’t discover until sometimes years after they came out, or sometimes a year after they came out if they’re a new album. Music has a life of its own once it’s out, and you just have to let go of it. At that point, your ownership over it is kind of done. I think that’s good, it’s kind of healthy at that point be like, now the album belongs to other people.

    But then you still get to play it live, and then it feels like it takes on a new context for you. The feedback that we get from playing live, it just feels great, and it feels more tangible. It’s not more real, right? Because someone at home listening to your album or listening to a song and really feeling a real connection, and maybe they live in the middle of nowhere and can’t actually come to gig, that’s real as well. But it’s just tangible for us, when we can play a room of even like 60 people and they know some of the words and they’re smiling. That, I think, becomes what the album feels like for us, more than anything.

    Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to add?

    I think we’ve covered a lot of stuff, it’s been really nice chatting. I do want to shout out – I feel like I do all these interviews, but Jonathan plays a huge part in producing the band and helping write the songs, and Tristan as well. Just always want to acknowledge that we are a band, it’s not a solo project. They’re great, and I love them very much.

    Can you share one thing that inspires you about every other person in the group?

    Wow. So, Tristan – he’s the drummer – because he joined kind of later than the other three, he’s just been this great jolt of energy into the band, and he’s just so up for anything and really feels like he’s trying to get the most out of, particularly touring, and the experience of being a musician on the road. He’s also a creative force, he’s always trying to think about music in a new way and get something out of it that’s satisfying.

    Ben is just super special. He’s this kind of strange, hilarious person. He’s the funniest person in the band by far – this very deadpan sense of humour. He writes this blog, this breakfast blog that he updates every day on tour, like what he had for breakfast and then what we do. He’s so funny and just has this huge heart. He’s always trying to do something useful and help you out in some way and just quietly getting it done.

    And Jonathan, he really is the brain and soul of the band. He’s just always ticking over what next step is, and just looking at the experiences up close and also from far away to make sure that what we’re doing is the right step. He has to make all these decisions all the time, because he’s a producer as well and often is running also the tech side of things. I don’t know, I’m underestimating them, but I feel so much love and respect for my bandmates. They’re all so great. I’m really glad to be able to play music with them.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    The Beths’ Expert in a Dying Field is out September 16 via Carpark.

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