“It’s about having a rough year… but hoping next year will be better,” singer-songwriter Liz Stokes wrote on her Instagram in explanation of the song.
Without calling into question Stokes’ taste in Christmas tunes, it was a curious choice, if only because it’s hard to imagine The Beths having a better 2018.
In August, the New Zealand quartet released its debut LP Future Me Hates Me – a resplendent collection of hook-filled, faintly crunchy power pop – to glowing reviews. It toured Australia, the US, and Europe several times over. It announced yet another trip to Europe, this time in support of Death Cab for Cutie, a longtime favorite of Stokes. (“I’m pretending to play it cool but kind of freaking out,” she remarked at the time.)
It’s relatively fresh off the completion of that last tour that I checked in with Stokes via e-mail, after her band had already embarked on its current North American tour. Somewhere, freezing in Canada, she took the time to answer a few questions.
Earlier in the week, The Beths released a video for the track “Uptown Girl”, which marks the sixth Future Me Hates Me song to be given the single treatment. That’s a lot of singles. But what’s remarkable is how far from excessive the move feels. Few records in recent memory have arrived with so many exuberant (musically, at least), tightly executed, radio-ready songs. It places The Beths in the company of acts like Car Seat Headrest and Alvvays – confident, cathartic, earnest but self-aware, sonically and spiritually plucked from the prime years “120 Minutes”.
If 2019 keep unfolding as they are for the band, the next Christmas single is going to be a doozy.
What are some favorite memories from your recent European tour?
It was so great touring with Death Cab For Cutie. I am a big fan, and everyone was just so lovely to us.
As support band you’re kind of at the bottom of the totem pole, and often that’s made very clear, but right from the start we were taken care of and treated with kindness. It was very gratifying to find that a band you love has a good culture around them.
Anyway, favorite memory was when we snuck onstage in Antwerp all wearing matching DCFC merch, and then they came onstage for their encore wearing Beths t-shirts.
Are you mildly disgruntled about having to leave summer to come to Northern Hemisphere winter?
Ohh man. Yes. It’s -11C in Toronto and getting colder. I thought Scandinavia in February was going to be the coldest place we visited, and I was wrong by a long shot.
As has been duly noted, you all went to studied jazz in university. When you’re immersed in a program like that, are you and your classmates still listening to and/or making guitar pop? Is there any sense of disregarding or looking down upon rock music?
I listened to indie and pop punk growing up, but when I started studying I kind of stopped listening to that kind of music and started just listening to jazz. Studying music kind of consumed my identity for a bit, which I don’t regret. I learned so much by committing to it that I probably wouldn’t have if my heart was only half in it.
It wasn’t until after university was over that I noticed a pattern in my listening and realized how important lyrics were to me having a deep connection with a piece of music, and in searching again for music that really hit me emotionally.
To your question though, the friends I made studying jazz have been the most avid supporters out of anyone. They just love music.
How would you describe Auckland’s music scene? Do you feel like The Beths could have come together anywhere or is there some element of the band that’s distinctly of the city?
I definitely am biased, but I think Auckland’s scene is so great. It’s big enough that there is some small infrastructure like student radio, a few decent venues, and lots of different genre-based scenes, but small enough that those scenes overlap and people are less segmented into specific genres, as players and listeners. I can’t imagine us being from anywhere else.
I studied abroad in Melbourne during the mid-00s, and I’m embarrassed to admit how much of my parent’s money I spent on exorbitantly priced CDs. Growing up, prior to streaming and iTunes, how did you afford to get into music living in that corner of the world?
I also grew up in the mid 00s, and spent many an hour on Myspace, Purevolume.com, early YouTube, and Kazaa.
A lot of my music taste is also shaped by mix CDs that my best friends burned for me. Hong Xu made me a pop-punk mix with Fall Out Boy and Sugarcult, Chelsea made me a mix with Tegan and Sara and Jenny Lewis on it. My older sister came back from “Camp America” with a handful of CDs I requested, including The Postal Service, which was my favorite record for a long time.
It’s weird to think about now how different it was, but already the internet was my main source of music.
Having never fronted a rock band, was there an adjustment period in terms of getting comfortable on stage? If there were any kinks, have they all been worked out?
I feel pretty comfortable onstage usually, most of the kinks had specifically to do with figuring out electric guitar and all the sounds and gear that go along with that. Plus, we went and made a band that is loud onstage, but where we all have to sing quite intricate backing vocal parts when hearing yourself is difficult, so playing the set is pretty challenging at best, and sometimes it feels like I am just able to do it.
Going into making Future Me Hates Me, following up the Warm Blood EP, producing it yourself, what was the discussion like about the type of record you wanted it to be? Were there any touchstones you had in mind?
[Guitarist and producer] Jonathan [Pearce] and I talked a lot about what we wanted it to sound like, of course. Warm Blood helped solidify a lot of what we wanted to sound like, and Jonathan had a year or two more experience and was more confident in capturing sounds and in his mixing ability.
We were referencing sounds like Car Seat Headrest and Alvvays.
There are songs on the record that are slyly humorous and self-deprecating, and there are others like “Little Death” and “River Run: Lvl 1” are comparatively quite earnest. Does one type of song come easier to you? Is one truer to your personality?
I’m not sure. I am more self-conscious about the sincere songs, but they seem to come a bit easier now. I think my personality is more accurately reflected in the self-deprecating songs, but purely because I find it difficult to physically embody the sincerity I feel more comfortable writing.
I am not sure what the ratio will be on the next record, we’ll find out.
How fierce was debate over which singles would come off the record? There’s probably a case that could be made for any song.
The debates weren’t too fierce. We already had videos for “Future Me Hates Me” and “You Wouldn’t Like Me” before the album was finished, and we felt “Happy Unhappy” should have one too.
Our label really liked “Little Death” so we shot a video with Norwood Cheek in LA on our very first US tour.
We just released a tour video for “Uptown Girl”, and I think it might be my fave from the lot.
I know singles don’t have to have videos, but I like having them.
What were your impression of the States last fall?
We really like playing in the States. The people who come to shows seem to just love music in a really forthcoming and open way. We run our own merch table, and meeting lots of people every night is really special and something quite important to us.
Last night in Toronto, a couple people brought us some Canadian snacks; it was so lovely!
The only downside to playing in the States is the visa process. I don’t think most people realize how difficult and expensive it is, and also how scary. But once we get in, the bubbles we end up in are all so great.