Spotlight: The Beths

Justin Jacobs on October 31, 2022
Spotlight: The Beths

“Hello, I’m Liz and I play rock-and-roll.” That’s Elizabeth Stokes, the singer-songwriter and guitarist of New Zealand quartet The Beths, checking in from her home in Auckland in early July. She and the rest of The Beths—guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck—are a few weeks out from launching a late-summer tour that will find them winding through North America and Australia, playing in support of their third album, the monstrously rocking, freakishly catchy Expert In A Dying Field.

Stokes is speaking with some dry Kiwi wit, but that straightforward introduction is spot on for The Beths—this band plays rock-and-roll to perfection, capable of delivering big, sing-along choruses, clever and emotional lyrics, buzzing guitars and pummeling drums.

“I call us a guitar-rock band because I think it’s quite funny—sometimes it feels like period music,” she says. “But it’s a palate that we just love. I don’t feel hemmed in by rock-and[1]roll. We could make whatever music we wanted to, but this is what we enjoy.”

The thing is, there isn’t any defensiveness with The Beths, as is the case with so many guitar bands in an age when straight-ahead rock-and-roll isn’t the hippest of all genres. The band’s music is a celebration; they revel in cracking the code of a song, a well-placed key change, a tight and searing guitar solo.

The group’s musical journey actually began in an entirely different world. After meeting in Auckland while still high-school students, Sinclair, Stokes and Pearce all studied jazz. For a while, Stokes was a trumpet teacher.

“The ideal situation is you become very good at jazz, which I wasn’t, and you work as a session player on lots of different projects and play in the orchestra for musicals,” Stokes remembers.

As Pearce dove into music production, he needed some material for practice—and his best friend Liz stepped in to help.

“I sent him an email with some demos I’d written—some really shitty songs. And a few OK ones! And even one that was pretty good,” she says. “We all played music together all the time anyway. And that was the push—it just made sense to start the band.”

The Beths were born, and a few years later—after gigging around New Zealand and sharpening their sound—Future Me Hates Me dropped in 2018, backed by U.S. indie label Carpark. The record opened doors the band never could’ve imagined: glowing reviews around the world, international tours and millions of streams.

“I had such imposter syndrome!” Stokes says. “We had this small indie label putting out the record, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’ve just done a really good job. Everything is going according to plan.’”

2020’s Jump Rope Gazers helped wipe away any self-doubt; Phoebe Bridgers even declared herself a fan. The record dropped in the midst of the pandemic—less than ideal—but The Beths remained on a roll. By the beginning of 2021, Stokes had challenged herself to keep up the momentum, and fight the ennui of the COVID-19 lockdowns, by writing 20 new songs.

“I needed something to kick me into gear, like, ‘Oh, an assignment!’” she says. “I felt numb to what was happening around me. So I began digging through old journals, tapping back into old emotions. That means some of these songs are very ‘2021’ and some of these songs place me in 2015, emotionally.”

Indeed, seven years ago, Stokes had just ended an eight-year relationship that had spanned much of her teens and early 20s. The Beths were just beginning, and she was experiencing “a second adolescence, on my own for really the first time.”

The process left Stokes’ new songs with a vulnerability that’s palpable. Tunes like “Your Side,” written about a budding long-distance relationship while on tour, add some ache to The Beths’ electric, crackling sound.

Lyrics like, “Don’t cry/ I’m on the next flight to be by your side,” sung over jangling guitars in a criminally catchy melody, present The Beths at their strongest. In short, their signature offering is beautiful, bopping, eminently lovable rock music.

By mid-summer 2021, the band was locked in, recording Stokes’ new tunes in Pearce’s studio. And then New Zealand went back into a quarantine[1]period that crawled on for more than three months. Being effectively unable to finish the album turned out to be a blessing—they already had a creeping suspicion that the recordings weren’t their best.

“Look, if we had finished it according to plan, it wouldn’t be good enough. So we wrote new songs and rewrote the ones we had. And when lockdown ended in December, we knew this album was going to be so much better,” Stokes recounts.

In February 2022, The Beths left New Zealand for the first time in more than two years for a U.S. tour. Pearce kept working—mixing the songs in hotels and venue green rooms. And by the months’ end, Expert In A Dying Field was finally done. It’s the band’s best effort yet, recorded with their live show in mind—less delicate, as Stokes describes.

“We want clear and easily understood ideas. It’s the difference between screen acting and stage acting— we’re playing to the cheap seats. We’re a live band, playing rock instruments. We wanna be direct.”