At the end of a feisty and fun track called Dying To Believe on their new album, The Beths – Auckland’s guitar pop band not afraid to play up the pop side of that definition – run a sampled welcome announcement from an Auckland railway station.
It sounds odd as much as unexpected to non-New Zealand listeners, but it’s a reminder, a message from the band to themselves.
“We chose because it’s the most beautiful commuter rail line in the world I think,” says singer/songwriter Liz Stokes. “You go along from the central city down the long the beach and over a body of water. If it’s a nice day it’s an incredibly beautiful train trip, but it’s just a commuter rail so it costs about four bucks or something. It’s just a reminder to look up from my phone or whatever I’m looking at.”
Three years ago, The Beths - guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Dreck alongside Stokes - were dreaming of getting somewhere, maybe a bigger venue in Auckland, maybe across the Tasman, but happy to be part of a scene with their friends in their hometown that was focused on pleasure more than profit.
Then things blew up with their debut album, 2018’s Future Me Hates Me: reviews in the cool press; tours across North America and Europe; famous musicians now their boosters and backers.
Did they find a need to prod themselves when they were on the road overseas, even among the tedium of airport transfers or waiting for the tour bus, to say look at what we are doing and how much fun we our having.
“It’s something we’re guilty of a lot of times. It’s something that we try to remember, or I try to remember, before going on stage and while playing. I suppose it can feel a little bit, like when you’ve done it 150 times, that you know what you’re doing is good to look up and remember what it feels like in that moment.”
It’s understandable losing track of that when there is so much going on, especially when your life changes dramatically within a year. When you go from doing something you love for the love of it to suddenly having people in your face all the time with demands and requests and “love” for you you’re never sure is real.
It’s disconcerting for anyone being away from your foundations and alternating between having smoke blown up your arse and feeling like you’re nothing in the scheme of things. When you’re prone to doubt the positives, does that make it even harder to just enjoy what is happening and look up?
“It’s an interesting thing. Your life kind of becomes quite specific and I suppose unrelatable in a way. Before this we were working at home and doing band stuff in a spare time. When for two years most of what you’ve done has been playing shows in driving around then being at home frantically writing for the next tour, you get a bit weird,” says Stokes. “I feel like normally in your life you have multiple things going on, you’ve got family stuff and your hobbies, all these different things going on, and there are people around you with your friends and family. But on tour everything becomes very tunnel vision, becomes very focused on one thing, and that’s the project. It makes a little strange and to believe the good things.”
When they got home, the Beths found themselves seeking out other people to do things like make music with just for fun. It’s easy to forget that that’s a part of the creative self that gets shut out when the day job is 24/7.
“It’s like that joke, I made my hobby my job; I need a new hobby.”
Stokes’s answers make it even clearer how the premise of I’m Not Getting Excited is possibly the most New Zealand thing ever, the song starting with “I'm not getting excited/'Cause the thrill isn't mine to invite in/Just the chill when I learn/That's it's finally my turn/I've finally earned my place in the urn.”
Stokes explained recently that “deep down there's a tiny Liz saying, ‘don't get excited.’ She is certain that anything good that could happen will most likely not happen, because of a freak accident. Or because somebody finally realises that we aren't worthy, shouts ‘phony!’ and takes everything away.”
“That song is basically what we’re talking about, almost feeling afraid to jinx something by acknowledging where things are at. It’s an exaggeration, because we have made a point, as a group, to feel good about the work that we’ve done and to feel good about how people are connected with it,” she says now. “It’s something that we do work hard on. But this is more my personal baggage, because this is the best group of people I could be working with, providing this real positive energy, which I guess negates my quite [sceptical approach]. They’re the ones pulling me out of my head when I’m thinking too hard and not letting myself enjoy myself.”
It really does seem like they are a group of people who are just good for each other, but are trying to be good for other people, genuinely working on the notion of paying forward. It’s an easy thing to say in a press release, but to actually do it, to draw strength and value from the people around you, it’s a hard but good thing to do.
Put it this way, it can’t hurt the world, now maybe more than any time in recent memory, to have people thinking about someone other than themselves.
“I hope so,” Stokes says in a tone that is almost like her backing out of the room, away from that gaze and that compliment. “We’re just trying to be okay. I don’t know, we’re just good friends and we want to take care of each other, first and foremost.”
Maybe it’s not unrelated that one of the appealing things about The Beths is they are not afraid for their songs to be gentle and pretty, alongside one that might be full on and power driven. For example, Just Shy Of Sure is one of the loveliest songs you’re likely to hear this year.
“It’s been nice to try on a few different hats on this album: sounds that we like and music that we enjoy listening to. It’s one of those things where everybody in the band is listening to different stuff and the pool that you kind of draw from, specifically with instrumentation and sonics, it’s been good to explore those times when it feels comfortable and still sounding like us. We are really happy with who we are and what we sound like.”
Artists get praised for admitting fear and anxiety, called strong and brave, but people don’t get enough praise for being confident enough to be positive, to feel good or to want to share good.
“There seems to be in the global consciousness a lot of anxiety in the last few years, and it’s present in the pop culture we consume, in the music we consume.,” says Stokes. “If you look at the difference in what was popular 10 years ago, it feels like people are anxious and I think it’s good to be making art about that but also people can be making music that is trying to be optimistic. It’s hard to be optimistic and I never really wanted to make music that’s optimistic, because I’ve never felt optimistic, but it feels like once you’ve reached the very, very bottom of the crevasse, it’s like a Hail Mary. What if things got better?”
Doesn’t even have to be about being optimistic; it could just be recognition that this part of my life feels good, these people make me feel good, or I’m prepared to be happy at times as well. It’s not all peaches and cream but it’s not all shit sandwich either, as Bob Dylan put it recently (in an album of anxiety and love), we contain multitudes.
“Things are still fucked but they can be good things around you that you’re grateful for.”
The Beths’ Jump Rope Gazers is out now. An Australian tour will happen as soon as the borders, and venues, open.
A version of this story first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.