Merry Christmas from The Beths, New Zealand’s coolest uncool rock band

Henry Oliver talks to The Beths’ Elizabeth Stokes and Jonathan Pearce about their love of Christmas and uncool music.

It’s been a year for the Beths. Their album Future Me Hates Me was released to frenzied fandom around the power pop-loving world. Funny famous people tweeted about them. They toured relentlessly, spending tens of thousands of hours driving around at least three continents. And if that wasn’t enough, today they released a Christmas single, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, with all proceeds going to Girls Rock! Camp Aotearoa and Women’s Refuge. We caught up on a rare break before their NZ Christmas shows and upcoming tours in Australia, the States and Europe.

The Spinoff: Your album has been received incredibly well. Are you surprised by its reception?

Elizabeth Stokes: Yeah! But it feels good. It doesn’t feel like super fast hype or anything. For us, it’s been since May since we started putting out singles, it’s been growing and growing in a hopefully sustainable way.

You seemed to have found your way into these pockets of people or scenes – emo scenes, pop-punk scenes, as well as general indie scenes.

ES: Yeah, that’s me. With the first tour, which was mostly self-booked in the UK and in the States, a big part of that was in each city we were trying to visit, trying to find that pocket that we fit into. It really makes a big difference when you find your people in a town. Especially in the UK, people always say how they treat you really bad and the guarantees are really low and they don’t feed you, but we had a really sweet time meeting all the vegan pop-punks. But we’ve managed to find a home in a few different scenes, some strangely mixing ones, like the emo, pop-punk scenes, but also the slacker indie scenes.

Lot’s of the people I know who are really into the album are people who haven’t listened to much of that music for a while. You’ve given them something they didn’t know they wanted or needed.

ES: That’s nice. Happy to fill that void.

One of the things that feel so refreshing about the record is how tight and clean and direct it is. There’s a lot of music around now taking inspiration from the 90s and early-00s, but most of it takes the lo-fi, shaggy sound of that music, rather than the bright, full, clean sound that you have.

ES: It’s a statement.

Jonathan Pearce: It’s something we really like. I don’t know if it goes much beyond that. We definitely had some conversations about reverb and what we wanted to sound like in the early days. We decided pretty quickly that we didn’t want to do that. And it felt uncool to do that as well. I remember having conversations about that – how uncool and unfashionable this music we were trying to make was. But that’s quite satisfying.

ES: Because it’s also exposed – you can’t hide lyrics behind lots of effects and the guitar parts, you can hear them all, so they can’t be a bit sloppy. It’s all out in the open. We had to be okay with that.

JP: We even talked a lot about the sound of other guitar bands around us and our frustration that a lot of the time the vocals are mixed real quiet and they’re sung a bit mumbly or you can’t hear what the words are. There are too many layers of obscurity between you and the music that is preventing us from really emotionally connecting with it.

This is all part of the Beths formula. It’s in the recipe to our cake.

ES: Yeah, that uncoolness is something we’re okay with.

What’s the formula?

JP: Tempos above 135bpm, diatonic major key harmony, no reverb, or no noticeable reverb.

ES: Group backing vocal parts. Also, just like songs that I’m not ashamed of. Because it’s hard. There are still parts that are left in [the album] that we wish weren’t, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. The time for that has past. But you have to be happy with it if it’s going to be that exposed. We do lyric sheets and stuff so people are going to know what you’re saying.

I think traditionally, most people making the music that you’re making, even if they came up with the same end result, wouldn’t know how they got there in such a specific way. Maybe not having that musical training…

ES: I think they know. People know.

JP: I feel like that’s a fading characterisation of guitar rock bands. I don’t know if you can learn guitar in the age of YouTube and be completely ignorant. You get a pretty good casual education learning to play guitar these days.

ES: And a lot of guitar music now is made by nerdy people. It’s not a cool, rock’n’roll leather jackets thing. Maybe it is still, but people like to nerd out about old music.

It’s interesting that the generation before would have learnt guitar through tab websites…

ES: Ultimate Guitar!

…and that’s kind of devoid of any musicality. It’s just where you put your fingers on the fretboard.

JP: It’s super unmusical. I vividly remember in my learning how to play guitar that the tabs weren’t 100% accurate. I was…

ES: So disillusioned!

JP: Yeah, definitely.

ES: I got a message once from someone saying ‘I’m putting your songs up on a website, are these chords right?’ and I was like ‘This is so cute but, nah, a bunch of these are wrong.’

So you guys met at music school?

ES: Well, we knew each other before music school. The Auckland scene is small enough that we all met. But it wasn’t until after we studied that we formed a band. We were in indie bands and all-ages bands and went to music school and did jazzy things and session things for a while. But obviously, we all played with different bands so it’s not like we were doing jazz and then decided to start a band where I’d have to write songs again, which I hadn’t done since high school.

How was it starting writing again?

ES: It was cool. I approached it quite regimented. I was like, “Okay, it’s been a long time so I’m not going to be very good, I’m going to be out of practice, so I’m just going to write a lot. Every single night. So I wrote a lot of songs over six months or a year and ditched most of them.

There’s this Ira Glass quote where he talks about how when you first start doing something there’s a gap between your taste and your ability. So I was just going to try and fill the gap as fast as possible by writing a bunch of shit songs until I got to the good ones. Once I thought I had some good ones I demoed them and sent them to these guys.

Did you know what music you wanted to make or did you just write and this is what came out?

ES: I was listening to a lot of guitar bands and also listening to new stuff and figuring out what it meant to be in a guitar band now. Because I didn’t know. I’d completely fallen off the radar between 2008 and 2014. I was figuring out what electric guitars can do. Because I didn’t know.

JP: Did the electric guitar thing happen first? Was that the seed of the idea? Or was that just the one instrument that could play chords that you know how to play?

ES: I wanted to play guitar in a rock band. That was the seed. I played acoustic guitar in my high school band, so I had this electric guitar that I got when I was a kid and never ended up using because I immediately started an acoustic band, so I wanted to figure out how it works.

What was the appeal?

ES: I never got to play loud rock music. And I was playing the trumpet and to play loud is so physically exhausting, you have to blow harder and use all your core muscles and I could only play for 45 minutes and my face would get tired. So just the idea that you could pick up a guitar and just turn the volume up and hit the strings and it would be loud. I was like, “This sounds amazing!” And you could practise at night and not annoy the neighbours. It felt like a very freeing instrument.

JP: I feel like there’s a universal truth about musicians which is that every musician is keenly aware of the limitations of their instrument and it’s quite exciting to break out of that. So the limitations of the trumpet are it’s hard to play loud and as soon as you play anything you’re going to annoy the person next to you until you’re really really good. And then there are genre limits – you can’t sing while you’re playing. To all of a sudden have that turned on its head and almost play the opposite instrument – the guitar, a stringed instrument that’s generally really quiet, made for singing and for performing as a soloist – that’s gotta be a great feeling.

ES: For you it was piano, right?

JP: Yeah. I studied at university but I’ve ended up playing more guitar over the years. I had a similar thing. When you play the piano, the first time you hit the note, that’s the best the note’s ever going to be. It immediately falls away and dies. It’s kinda depressing because you just want to play one note but it doesn’t work. And the weight of expectation on that instrument – you’re supposed to be an eight-limbed, one-person symphony machine. And I was never like that.

ES: It’s expected that if you’re a pianist, you’re virtuous, but not if you’re a guitarist. The opposite is expected. With guitar, you only need to learn what you need to. You can play to your own needs. It’s the people’s instrument.

So Liz, you write all the songs?

ES: I write the songs, but I wouldn’t write a specific drum part or I’d maybe write a basic bass part and then Ben [Sinclair, bassist] would write his own lines. Sometimes I write a lead guitar part and then sometimes Jonathan will write it.

How do you jam them so full of hooks?

ES: If you have a space… maybe it’s because I’m not a good enough guitarist that I can put a juicy little line in there, I’m like, ‘There’s nothing there, I need to fill it with an idea.’

JP: How do you not jam a song full of hooks? How do you just write half a song with all these gaps and boring bits?

Um, I think lots of bands do that. And it’s often really great.

JP: It’s just the style of music we’re making. I feel like part of the style is for it to be hooky and catchy. Maybe if you’re the Salad Boys, yes it’s hooky and catchy but there’s lots of extended guitar bits so you wouldn’t describe their music as full of hooks necessarily, even though it’s a great example of its genre. Our genre is hooks! Which is easy for me to say because Liz writes all the hooks.

ES: The guitar music I’ve been enjoying listening to the most is like Frankie Cosmos where there’s some really cool arranging going on, but most of why I listen to her is because I think she writes good melodies and good lyrics. And the rest of the stuff is a bonus almost. The rest of the stuff is like set dressing.

And you’ve got a Christmas song!

JP: The Beths with strings!

ES: It’s very uncool. It’s gonna be great! Pushing the limits.

JP: It’s the ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ Beths version of the Ella Fitzgerald version.

There aren’t enough Christmas singles any more.

ES: You reckon? I feel like a lot of people would say exactly the opposite. I dunno… I like Christmas. I’m not religious anymore – I grew up Catholic – but I like the pointless tradition of it. I really like that you can try it out, like ‘I’m gonna put up the plastic tree this year’ and it feels good. I like that you can pick elements and tradition and one of those might be taking time off or spending time with your family and friends. It’s got a lot of baggage of course, but I really like it!

A Very Beths X-mas Party
14 December, Meow, Wellington
15 December, Leigh Saw Mill, Auckland

This piece, as well as several of the Beths’ hook-filled hits, was made with support from NZ on Air.

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