Photo by Mason Fairey
When The Beths put out their 2018 LP, Future Me Hates Me, they were relatively unknown. That quickly changed. The album gained rapid popularity in the band’s home country of New Zealand and abroad. By 2019, the band were embarking on a worldwide tour opening for mega bands like Death Cab for Cutie. Since the first album was so well received, expectations were high as the band geared up for their sophomore release, Jump Rope Gazers, which came out this July. Fans will likely find that the new album lives up to those expectations, as it delivers all the catchy hooks and vocal melodies that made the world fall in love with The Beths.
What’s the difference between touring and being a band in a place like New Zealand vs. the United States?
Jonathan Pearce: I think I agree with that. I think New Zealand has had a lot of good music over the years, but I think we lack a little bit of musical tradition when compared to the U.S. Shows are a bit different, they just have a bit of a different feel.
Is it a close-knit community, because it’s so small?
JP: It certainly is a close-knit community, but I don’t know that that’s exceptional to New Zealand. Lots of good music cities have really good close-knit music communities. But I think the smallness possibly does add to that. And I reckon there’s a thing about Auckland, which is the city we live in. The Auckland music community, in particular, seems to be the perfect size, where it’s big enough to have a good amount of people doing cool stuff, but it’s not so big that you have so many people doing math rock that you can just have a math rock gig and it will be three math rock bands. Or, there’s not so many people doing retail job inspired post-punk music, so that you can have a gig where it’s just post-punk music inspired by your retail job. All the bands, if you’re vaguely similar, you end up playing gigs together. So, as a musician, it’s a cool community because the same people who graduated jazz school, which includes us, and maybe come at music from one end of the spectrum, are always shoulder to shoulder with the people whose journey through music has been completely different.
You mentioned you went to jazz school—your songs are very different from jazz, it’s more like pop music. But does coming from a jazz background influence the way you write songs at all?
JP: I feel threw myself under the bus by bringing that up again [laughs].
ES: It’s hard to say, but, I feel like it probably has. We all studied music and I feel like when you do that, we all kind of went in head first, and really got immersed in it for a while, and I just really loved learning about the inner workings of music and going deep on theory and stuff like that. And ear training was really good. But the way that it’s manifested… I mean, there’s different ways. Part of it is just the repertoire, the amount of songs that you learn chords of, that you learn the melodies of, you learn a lot of really good songs, and I think that kind of helps. For me, I studied the trumpet, so it’s an instrument where there’s no chords and there’s no words, so you’re dealing exclusively with melody and rhythm, and trying to express yourself using only those things and I think that’s something that’s kind of stuck with me when it comes to writing songs.
Did you teach at a music school for a little bit?
ES: I taught trumpet at high schools, before we left on tour.
Was the music video for “Dying to Believe” inspired by your time teaching?
ES: Not necessarily, it was more specifically the tutorial culture that is obviously hugely mainstream with YouTube but has existed for a long time in terms of like, drum clinic videos and things like that. And just coming from a place of love for the strange ways in which, when you’re learning how to be a musician, things are presented to you. People probably don’t do this anymore because of YouTube tutorials, but I learned how to play guitar primarily by going to UltimateGuitar.com and learning how to read tabs and then trying them out and figuring out they were wrong [laughs], and then figuring out what the right thing is.
Your debut album a couple years ago was very well received, and you got to go on tours with some big names. What was that transition like, to go from being a small DIY band to touring the world with bands like Death Cab for Cutie?
JP: It was a massive transition. I think I wasn’t really prepared for how much life has changed for me. In the year of 2018, it was initially quite intentional. After making music for a while we had an album that we thought was really good, and we thought to ourselves, let’s give this a go, let’s try to book an international tour and see if a label somewhere in the world wants to release it. And then Liz and I left our jobs and left our flat that we rented, and went on tour and kind of upgraded everything. And it was just completely different before we knew it. When I came home, and thought it was gonna be nice to be home and restful, it was just so different that it was hard to… it took a little bit of time to accept that. If I want to come home and I want to feel a particular way, I’m gonna have to make that happen for myself because these things don’t just happen for me. If I come home tomorrow, I’m gonna be sleeping in my parents’ spare room, and that’s not gonna be the life that I thought I was coming home to, necessarily. So, the transition was awesome, and it was somewhat intentional, and a fascinating and awesome experience and it still continues to be. But also, it came with these unpredictable changes in life that we’ve since had to work around. And then this year’s just been wildly different again. You can do all the preparation you want and you’re still gonna find yourself in a situation that you’re not prepared for and don’t have an answer for and have to kind of rethink everything again.
I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a band at this time, with COVID and everything else that’s going on right now.
ES: We’re luckier than most. Being here when it went down, which is lucky. Some bands were mid-tour when it went down and we’re extremely lucky and grateful.
JP: Even just our timing, we had a sort of crucial three or maybe four weeks, where everything was going really crazy, where we didn’t have to make any really immediate decisions, and we were able to sort of watch what was happening and make a slightly more careful decision. But lots of people were not lucky enough to be in that situation. Like, mid-release or, like Liz said, already on tour, or actually getting sick as well, which we’ve avoided. Even timing-wise we’ve been very lucky.
Are there any adjustments you’ve made because of the way the world’s gone? For example, some artists are live-streaming concerts and things like that.
ES: It’s strange ‘cause, you’re a musician, and you know what it means to make music and share music with people, and you know what it means to do shows, and it’s something you understand. And then that gets kind of…playing shows gets taken away. And so, you have this completely new medium presented to you and it’s like, “how about this? It’s called live-streaming!” And so, we kind of picked it up and we’re like, “okay, what is this? What does it mean? What does it do?” And people have kind of interpreted that in different ways and we’ve just had to go with it. But it took a while to work out why we were doing it and if we enjoy it and what we get out of it. And we ended up doing a live stream in lieu of a show, mainly as a way to celebrate our singles coming out before the album. Because it gave us something to rally around and work towards and a way to interact with people. But it’s not the same as doing a show. But I think we’ve figured out what we like about it.
When you were writing this album, did you feel more pressure, given that more eyes are on The Beths compared to when you released your first album?
Liz: Yeah, it was a little bit unevenly weighted. When I was writing it over the course of the last couple years of touring, I didn’t really feel it, which, maybe I was just too tired [laughs]. But the only thing I can do to calm that pressure is to just try to write something good and feeling stressed about it won’t make it good. And you can know that and have that not help at all, but it seemed to help at the time. And it was only towards when we were recording and the album was taking shape and you’re kind of looking at this thing and being like, okay, this as a whole, is it any good? I have no idea, I’m too close to it, with me working on these songs for two months, working on them every day. But again, all you can do is try to make it good. Everything beyond that is sort of out of your control. So, you just try to make something that you can stand by and that you are happy with.
JP: We also had a bit of a defensive strategy on that front as well. We intentionally tried to keep a lot of the process and environment of making the first album the same, rather than what is quite common and what works for a lot of people, which is to get a producer on board for the second time around, maybe try to work on it while you’re on tour because you’re in an exciting place like Los Angeles or something and you’ve got the access to a famous recording studio or something like that. So, rather than go down that road, we thought maybe we would have more chance of success of perhaps making something that we really liked, if we kept a lot of that stuff the same.
ES: So, Jonathan produced it and mixed it, and we just made it at home, which was something important to us.
So, it was very intentional to approach it that way? In order to maintain that feeling you had when writing the first album?
ES: Yeah, I think… there are things that are very different from how we recorded the first album. But I think the core of it being still just the four of us, and Jonathan recording it, still in Jonathan’s studio, made it feel like we knew we were gonna sound like us. And because of that, we could stretch out a little bit more in terms of different sounds than we usually do, or slightly slower tempos, or exploring different feelings and different emotions, musically. We felt like we could stretch out a little bit more in that regard, ‘cause we would still sound and feel like the same band and the same place.
The two of you have known each other since high school. Do you think that long term friendship helps when it comes to songwriting? Is there a certain chemistry that comes from knowing someone that long?
ES: I think there must be. There is something to knowing people for a long enough time that you know that they have the kind of…a fuller picture of you as a person. I think that means that maybe you just feel more comfortable being yourself and feeling like any individual interaction isn’t a big percentage of the interactions that you’ve had, and therefore, somehow, defines you in their brain or something. We’ve all known each other for a long time. Tristan is the newest member, but the amount of time we’ve spent together now after touring… I personally feel more comfortable with Jonathan and Ben and Tristan than with anyone else currently, just because of the amount of time we’ve spent together, and the amount of time that I’ve known Jonathan and Ben as well. It just feels comfortable.
JP: Also, for us, I think our friendship is more important to us than any one point of contention in the process of making music or something like that. This goes both ways, in one sense, none of us are gonna die on a particular musical point and just press it to the point of offense. Because we’re just not like that with each other. And also, we all have the generosity towards each other which is such that if there is a disagreement, or someone’s… we just have such little acrimony, I’m struggling to think of an example. But that close friendship just means that there doesn’t really have to be any kind of reticence about making your point. You can just say ‘I think it should sound like this’ and then we can discuss.
It’s a pretty democratic band. It’s not a totally democratic band, I admit, and I think that’s very useful. It’s very useful that Liz can at any time just turn around and say, nope, we do this. But it’s much more democratic than a lot of bands. If that ever happens it’s usually a bit more like the influence of the queen of England or something like that [laughs]. “I have considered all of the evidence that you have put before me, and I have decided that the discussion is going in the right direction [laughs].”
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