The Beths Leap Headfirst Into Change

Guitarist and lead singer Elizabeth Stokes on the band’s third album

On October 3, 2022
Photo by Frances Carter

“It was all a hypothetical until you’re actually standing on the platform and you have to jump, and then you’re like, ‘Oh no, I've made a huge mistake,’” remembers Elizabeth Stokes, guitarist and lead singer of Aotearoa (New Zealand) guitar pop band The Beths. The music video shoot for the group’s single “Knees Deep” found Stokes bungee-corded by the ankles to a bridge about 130 feet over the waters of Waitematā Harbour, poised for the drop. “I think I was saying ‘I don't wanna do it’ right up until the moment that I let myself fall off,” she says. Or, as she puts it in the song’s shout-worthy chorus: “The shame! I wish I was brave enough to dive in.”

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But Stokes did end up taking the plunge, along with guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck, and she has the ultimate souvenir photo to prove it, soundtracked with the nervous thrill of the band’s harmonies and intercut screams. From their 2018 debut album Future Me Hates Me to their latest, Expert In A Dying Field, The Beths have always pushed themselves into bolder pop hooks and trickier garage rock riffs with an impeccable sense of songcraft — whatever you can say about their bungee jumping form, they know their way around that kind of bridge just fine, always underpinned by the vulnerability of Stokes’ lyrics, which paradoxically might be the bravest part of all.

Expert in particular, recorded between national lockdowns and mixed in the middle of The Beths’ rigorous, globe-trotting live schedule, speaks to the courage it takes to press on in the face of uncertainty. Between tour dates on the U.S. East Coast, Stokes stopped for a Zoom chat about coping with change and going from Jump Rope Gazers to bungee jumpers.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VMP: I’ve read that this record was made specifically to play well in a live setting. Was that something you talked about as a band?

Elizabeth Stokes: Yeah, it’s one of those things where it wasn’t a rule, it was just like, I had written demos, and we were starting to jam them, and we were kind of making mission statements for the album and what we wanted. We all missed playing live so much, and we know there’s a way to arrange music to be really clear on stage. It was just something that was important to us.

How did you go about trying to tap into that live energy in a time when shows were so on-and-off?

We just played the songs a lot (laughs). And yeah, before we recorded, we played them in a manner that was like, “This is how we would play it live,” with just two guitars, bass and drums, and used that as a starting point — then track everything and do all the things that we still like to do, like layering lots of different guitars. That was basically it. I feel like the mindset of it feeling like a live album is just the way you construct your arrangements to be a little more simple.

I was really pushing myself with the guitar parts on the previous record, and I’m doing that on this record, too, but I really wanted them to be straightforward enough that I could be present on stage, and not just be like, “Oh, god,” trying to play something super complex. Which I failed at, ’cause I still feel that way (laughs). Every set is so hard. We're a band that writes just on the limit of what we can all do, and it makes it fun, but every set, I walk off and I'm like, (sighs).

How would you describe the arc of this record thematically? In your mind, what is Expert In A Dying Field about?

We only really know looking back, right? I wasn’t trying to make a specific kind of album or anything, but there’s a lot of talking about change, and coping with change, and just coping in general. Part of that is the period of time that we’re living through where everything has changed, but part of it is just that things change. You live your life, and every couple years you can look at the people around you and where you’re at in your relationships, and you can really see those changes. Sometimes they’re for better, sometimes they’re for worse. Sometimes they’re not good or bad, they just are, but that’s still kind of sad, just thinking of things that you can’t get back.

The first words you say on [this record] are “Can we erase our history? Is it as easy as this?” Which I think is very connected to this idea of change, and of looking around at where you are.

Definitely. I feel like that song [“Expert In A Dying Field”] was the heart of the record — it’s a special song to me. I’m really happy to have finally written it, if that makes sense. It’s a phrase that I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a while.

When did that phrase occur to you? It’s so striking.

I don’t know; it’s one of those things where, I didn’t invent that phrase, so I must have just absorbed it over time. I know a lot of people who are studying postgrad kind of things in strange subjects that are very specific — kind of historical subjects — but I also feel like I know people who have old musical equipment, and I mean, we’re making guitar music … Everything is going to change, and you just have to learn how to deal with it.

I was so excited “Knees Deep” came out as a single because that was one of my favorite songs on the record. There’s a note in the bio that it was sort of a last-minute addition. What do you remember about writing that song?

I think I wrote that in September of the four-month lockdown in 2021. We were not that happy with the album, so [the lockdown] kind of happened at a good time, where we were like, “Oh, if this is, like, two weeks long, that’s enough time to reevaluate and come back.” But of course, it ended up being four months (laughs). 

We were looking at the album as a whole and being like, “It needs something that’s upbeat and fast. It needs another energetic, fun song.” And, of course, that doesn’t mean the lyrics can’t be depressing. I think I was trying to write something that felt like it hooned from the start all the way through and wasn't stopping and starting — it just drove down the road at full speed.

I had this old song that … included the phrase “I want to be brave and dive in,” and I was feeling that at the time as well. I feel that quite a lot, that I’m kind of unable to do anything that I wanna do (laughs). I’ll be like, “I wanna do that,” and when it comes to actually doing it — something stupid, like making a phone call — I feel like I often chicken out. 

I wanted to expand that concept, ’cause, yeah, at the surface level, the song is about wanting to go swimming, and you can’t just dive into the water. I’m incredibly ashamed, I’m always just walking really slowly, like, “Ah! It’s so cold!” And it’s like, “Yeah, of course it’s cold! You’re gonna get in eventually. You should just get in straight away.” But I never do.

You put out a video recently where you all go bungee jumping off a bridge. How did that concept come up?

It was one of my vague ideas. With a music video, I try to come up with a bunch of ideas, just in case the director is busy and doesn’t have time, or something? I don’t know. It’s a long story, but the director that we originally had, he was really busy, but then on the Friday before the Monday shoot, he was like, “OK, I’ve got this idea, let’s do this.” Totally a different idea, and then on Saturday morning, he got COVID, so he was like, “Yeah, sorry, I have to cancel the shoot.” Last-minute, I opened up that list of ideas, and was like, “Let’s go bungee jumping. Let’s just do that.” We called our friends Callum [Devlin] and Annabel [Kean] from Sports Team, and they just are so great; they jumped in and made it happen.

It was all a hypothetical until you’re actually standing on the platform and you have to jump, and then you’re like, “Oh no, I’ve made a huge mistake.” I can’t believe that we all — I feel like there’s not that many bands that I could say, “What if we all bungee jumped?” And they’d be like, “OK” (laughs). You know, “I’m scared, but alright. We’ll do it.” I'm very grateful to them.

Who was the hardest to convince? Did anybody have a particularly hard time with it?

I think Tristan is the most scared of heights, but, I dunno, everyone was such a trooper. Everyone was just like, “For The Beths, I will do this” (laughs). There was almost no hesitation. It was great.

What do you remember about the jump itself?

I got to the edge and counted down twice, and was like, “Oh no! I don’t wanna do it!” I think I was saying “I don’t wanna do it” right up until the moment that I let myself fall off.

If you do it right, you’re supposed to lean forward and put your arms out. Then you kind of go headfirst, and you can bounce in a way that’s graceful. But if you do it kind of hesitantly like I did, you jump off kind of sideways and you snap down a little bit at the bottom ’cause you’re attached from your ankles (laughs). I feel like I got a little bit of mild whiplash in the days after, which I didn’t expect. I was like, “Why does my neck hurt, and my back?” It’s a pretty extreme thing to do to your body.

In that song, you talk about the difficulty of being brave and decisive. Is that something you ever struggle with in songwriting?

The hardest thing is just making the time, for me. But there is an element of — even if it’s semifictional or something, I feel like if you’re writing from a biographical place, you have to be honest with yourself, at least, and that can be difficult. Sometimes I don’t want to (laughs) but I feel like I’m getting there.

I wanted to ask you about “When You Know You Know,” because there’s something about the lyrical flow on that pre-chorus section, (singing) “If you would commit to the expedition.” How did that song come together?

That was one of the few songs I did write in 2020. I think I had the chorus first and was working backwards from there, and it just felt like I wanted to do a line that ran on and on and didn’t even stop when it got to the chorus. I had that melody, and I just started populating it with words, and it was really fun to write. The second one was harder, ’cause the first one kinda just came out, but I wanted it to be different for the second prechorus. I wrote that on a different day, but I was committed to that rhythm and that melody, and there were just words that fit. 

Some of them are silly, but I really like the way it feels like the words are tumbling out. Like, maybe they don’t even make sense, but it almost feels like you collapse into the chorus having said all these things that you couldn’t not say, and then you can take a breath one line into the chorus (laughs).

Reading about this record, it sounds like a disjointed process. Recording at your home base studio, being interrupted, writing new songs … What is it like hearing it come together in stages and now having the complete thing in hand?

It was pretty strange, but I wouldn’t change the way it worked out. We had to push it back for the lockdown, but it meant that we had more time at that crucial middle stage … We really did have time to rebuild it, which — it makes me sad to think that if everything had just gone to plan, we might not have the record that we have now, ’cause I really like the way it’s ended up. Whatever kind of strange journey it’s taken has been great, and I’m grateful for it.

Was there a moment when you went from feeling like you didn’t have the record to feeling like you were really happy with it?

There were three songs that I wrote during late 2021 that we ended up putting on the record, and that was “Knees Deep,” “2am” and “A Passing Rain.” ... I felt really good when I had written “Knees Deep,” ’cause it felt like what the record had been missing, and at that point I was like, “OK, cool. From here, if we can add anything, it’s a bonus.”

And then “A Passing Rain” helped. I really like the way that sits on the album. It’s not, like, a big banger, but I feel like it’s one that people can find, and it was one that spoke to a lot of my experience at the time, of feeling like I was not coping, but that I had my partner and the people who I loved when I felt like I was drowning. They were always like, “We’re still here, and if you come out of it, we’re still here.” I just felt really grateful, so I was happy when that song solidified. It feels really simple, and we didn’t do too much to it. It was the latest addition, I think.

I love the bit on that one where the flute sounds and the bird samples come in.

That was something we did on the road. We were mixing it, and we were like, “The bridge is nice, but it needs a little something more,” and we got bird sounds from both Tristan and Ben’s phones. We were just, like, “Call out for bird sounds,” (laughs) and of course we all have bird sounds on our phone from going out on a walk or something like that — you take a video, there’s birds in the background. And then, yeah, Jono added a little synth part. Actually borrowed the keyboard from the opening band, Lunar Vacation. They were very kind, and Matteo [DeLurgio] let us borrow his synth.

What are you most proud of about this record?

I'm proud that we’ve managed to write 12 more songs, and they don’t feel like they’re rehashing the same thing from previous records, but they still feel really comfortably like Beths songs, and we feel a real ownership over them. At the end of the day, they’ve just got to be good songs. I wasn’t sure if they were a year ago, and now I feel like they are.

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Taylor Ruckle

Taylor Ruckle is a Northern Virginia-based music writer who still regrets not collecting a full Conventional Weapons 7" set before the MCR breakup. His work has appeared in FLOOD Magazine, Post-Trash, Merry-Go-Round Magazine and more.

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