Rolling Stone magazine praise them, their debut album was lauded. Then came renovations, radiation and Rose Matafeo: The inside story of The Beths' brilliant new album. Chris Reed writes.
There's an end-of-term feel at The Beths' studio, a windowless room painted in what might be called Ultra Avo above a tattooist's on K Rd.
Elizabeth Stokes and Jonathan Pearce, partners outside and inside the band, are sitting close together; Tristan Deck is in front of his drums and Benjamin Sinclair is lying on the floor.
It's late May and one of the few times they've been in the same room since lockdown.
We're discussing their new album, Jump Rope Gazers. There's talk of panic as the deadline loomed and the need to stop Jon, producer as well as lead guitarist, getting into what Liz calls an "extremely unhealthy place". But the conversation is peppered with laughs and dominated by a sense of a job well done.
"It was kind of a weird relief," says songwriter-singer-guitarist Liz, of listening to it after a post-delivery break. "You never know if you're gonna be like, 'I hate it.' I don't know, it still feels very close but, I mean, I like it."
"I listened to it a couple of weeks ago," offers Ben, the bass player. "I was like, 'F*** yeah, this rips."
Indeed it does. More on that later, but first some history and a clunky metaphor.
Formed in 2014, The Beths went global with 2018 debut album Future Me Hates Me, a collection of sunny-sounding guitar pop anthems that were mostly about gloomy subjects.
After rave reviews from some of the world's most respected music mastheads and two nominations for New Zealand's premier songwriting prize, they won best group and best alternative act at the 2019 national music awards.
In April last year, during a short window between international tours, thoughts turned to album two and they went to work in their studio. But before dusting down the amps they did some DIY, tearing down walls and raising the ceiling.
Jump Rope Gazers will cement their status as the biggest alternative band in New Zealand and satisfy their burgeoning international following. If there's any justice - and often there isn't in the music industry - it will also bring them mainstream commercial success.
The songwriting and playing are more assured, with a wider range of styles. There's an acoustic track, another that sounds like Crowded House (they covered Fall At Your Feet live last year); Jon's production gleams with sonic flourishes; their trademark vocal harmonies sound richer (eager to improve, they've been having singing lessons).
Lyrically it mines similar tropes to its predecessor: the fragility of relationships, various anxieties. But even here there's an advance: the title track offering a sincere - and moving - declaration of love.
"Sincerity is something that I really value but it's something that I've found difficult," says Liz. "Even in daily life I find it really hard sometimes to give somebody a sincere compliment. I found it a little bit scary to just try and write a straight-up sincere love song."
Does she write about her relationship with Jon?
"It's not off-limits," he says. "We sometimes talk about it but we try not to. And also," he laughs, "it's been explained to me that it's often quite abstracted."
"Sometimes songs are written from multiple points of view," says Liz.
"Also we communicate pretty well outside of the medium of song," says Jon.
"Yeah, there's no passive-aggressive music being made," says Liz.
"A song about putting a cup in the dishwasher," offers Ben. "That would be a power-play if Liz manages that."
I was invited to follow progress on the album after writing a breathless gig review last November.
I described The Beths as "smart and self-deprecating and at that amazing stage of a band's career when they've wrung every last drop out of their first album and people still love them and can't wait to find out what's next".
After four visits to the studio and a final phone call with Liz and Jon, I stand by those adjectives. I'll add authentic, hospitable and modest.
They care deeply about what they do and each other, interacting with interest and respect. If their lockdown photos are any indication, they're less Rolling Stones than rolling pasta.
All four were raised in Auckland suburbia. All majored in jazz performance at the University of Auckland. All but Tristan, who officially replaced original drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnston last year, are multi-instrumentalists. ("I want to get good at drums first," he deadpans.)
I think Liz, 29, and Jon, 30, are more introspective than Ben, 31, and Tristan, 27, although all are thoughtful. The former offer long, considered answers while the latter are more likely to chip in with a punchline, although all are arid-funny.
The creative process goes like this: Liz supplies demos and they rehearse until they're happy; they record their parts into music production software called Reaper several times, giving Jon multiple takes to work with (although they play together, the set-up records each instrument separately).
Next, using full takes whenever possible, Jon pieces together the arrangements; Liz records and edits her vocals; they add "overdubs" (extra guitar parts, backing vocals, etc).
When everything is recorded and arranged, Jon starts mixing - adjusting volumes and adding effects. He shares updated versions throughout, for detailed feedback.
Finally, the tracks are sent overseas to be "mastered" - given a final polish.
All but the mastering is done in their studio, technically Jon's, who dreams of it being like a living room.
I first visited in mid-December, going through a nondescript door, past stacks of cardboard boxes and up some stairs in an old-school building full of old-school creatives.
Amid the tangle of leads there are nods to their non-musical interests - bird prints on the walls and a Smurf in cricket gear behind the computer.
"Now everyone in the band plays cricket," says Jon. "That's like my dream come true."
Before last year's remodelling the space contained four small rooms where each member had to play alone. Now they're together.
There's no fancy mixing desk and a relatively small amount of recording equipment. It feels like a creative place.
"Yeah, in that it's a real pigsty," says Jon.
"The benefits of being in here outweigh the negatives quite dramatically. Not being on anyone's clock is pretty huge and the negatives are just that it's a little bit rough around the edges."
Officially, work began on November 18, the day after their final gig of 2019. By then they'd been through Liz's stockpile of songs and tested some live.
Nearly 20 were considered before they settled on 10. Was there consensus?
"I feel like there's two sides to that discussion," says Jon. "There's usually the negative side embodied by Liz and I saying, 'The song's not working and not good enough.' And then there's the relentlessly positive side embodied by Tristan and Ben saying, 'No, it's a good song, we just need to work on it some more.'"
Initially there were four evening rehearsal/recording sessions a week, usually ending by 10pm.
"That's mostly for the benefit of our neighbours but there are some other advantages," says Jon.
"Something in this area makes a lot of electromagnetic radiation, which is picked up by the guitar pickups.
"The guitars will be real noisy until about 6.30pm and then all of a sudden it will just die away. I suspected that it's the tattoo guns downstairs and they've done their last tattoo but it could equally be someone's dodgy fridge or lights."
I ask if they're pumped about discovering what's next, not knowing then that one new song I'm Not Getting Excited is about the fear of "everything being taken away".
"There's no guarantee people will like the second record," says Liz. "The one thing that you have control over is just trying to make it as good as you can. I do this a lot I think. Managing expectations and having very low hopes has worked so far."
After we talk, I watch them run through a song called Out of Sight. It's a crystalline jolt with a guitar melody that sticks in my head for a week.
When I return, two days before Christmas, Liz and Jon seem a tad subdued.
Although most of the music is recorded, she's been struggling to nail a tricky vocal and he's been distracted by a family health drama.
"It's been a little bit hard to get back into the zone," says Jon. "We tried to record a guitar solo last week but it wasn't really happening, I wasn't in a very good place."
"[For this album] I've written harder songs vocally," says Liz. "I think that's a trend with this band though."
"Always writing something a bit harder than we can competently play all the time," says Jon.
They play me the latest version of Out of Sight. It sounds full, fresh and every bit the lead single it's earmarked as.
My third visit is the week before the Auckland Anniversary Day Laneway Festival, where The Beths will play a mid-afternoon set on the main stage.
Both the weather and their performance will be blistering but Jon is worried.
"I'm always nervous for these bigger shows at home after we've been away for a while. People you know are there, I have expectations, we haven't had our heads fully into it."
Although the album deadline has been pushed back a week, their small American record company is leaving them alone, progress remains steady and Jon's itching to start mixing.
An artist friend is working on the cover and Liz is tackling the running order. It's like Sudoku, she says, of efforts to keep tracks of similar keys and tempos apart.
They share the title and, when I query the last word, Jon asks Liz: "Is that a reason why we shouldn't call it Jump Rope Gazers?"
"Because it sounds like geezers?"
"Because the word gazers is not common enough for people to catch it the first time."
"Names have to be not actively bad," she says. "They can kind of be nothing and once you have heard something, the name doesn't matter anymore."
Out of Sight is still pencilled-in as the lead single.
"It's got quite a long intro and only two choruses so it's not going to be a huge hit," says Jon.
It's now May and Jon is reflecting on the mixing and mastering. They went "faaairly smoothly", but there was a "panic point" when he considered flying a producer pal up from Wellington to help.
"We kept that idea in the back of our minds for about a week. But that was a good week and we made a lot of progress," he says. "I was hoping to be able to work how I want to work, maybe six hours a day with good breaks and dinner at home. But it was 12 or 13 hours a day. I only went home to sleep and it was a huge push at the end."
"I would like to see Jono's dinner logs for throughout the mixing period," says Ben. "How many pineapple fried rices were there?"
Two singles are out, with Out of Sight now coming third. Its replacement as lead single, Dying to Believe, features comedian Rose Matafeo voicing train announcements about Ōrākei station.
"I just didn't know legally what the rules were with me actually [recording] train audio," says Liz. "So I just wrote it down. And then we asked Rose."
"Liz originally wanted to have an Air New Zealand pilot announcement that we were landing in Auckland or something," says Ben. "And then we realised that somebody had already done that."
"We chose Ōrākei because it's the most beautiful city commuter railway station in the world," says Jon.
At our second meeting, they'd explained they were paying themselves a weekly wage until they resumed touring.
"It doesn't have to last much longer before the cashflow starts happening again," Jon had said.
He was referring to a North American tour booked for April which fell victim to Covid-19.
"We were luckier than a lot of bands," Jon says in May. "We didn't have that much on the line and so the money that we would have spent upfront has been supporting us. And the Government's support packages have also been supporting us and our wonderful management and record label have got our business finances into a great place. So we will be fine for quite a while."
During the enforced break they produced a series of warm, idiosyncratic live streams from Liz and Jon's flat in Morningside and finally recharged from a gruelling 2019, when they played more than 120 shows.
"I don't think anyone wants to hear how being a musician is hard, because it is like you're living your dream but touring is hard work," says Liz. "We've been in one place for a long time and we've been sleeping regularly, cooking, just doing stuff that feels nice."
Although The Beths merit a mainstream breakthrough, they may not actually want it.
I'd initially wondered if they were under-appreciated in New Zealand, not least by commercial radio. They said they were happy with the "spaces" they occupy.
By our final conversation, I'd concluded they are an exemplar of independent success: They do things their way and retain creative control, they remain part of a thriving community of like-minded musicians - in Auckland and beyond, they still make a living.
"I think we agree with that," says Jon. "And we would just add that on your own terms doesn't mean by yourself - it totally 'takes a village', to borrow that phrase.
"Everywhere along the way, people have been willing to help and we love the opportunity to share what we know with other people."
"We are part of the music community and the music industry," adds Liz. "It's just that we feel quite a lot less cynical about the [part of the] industry that we tend to interact with."
It's little surprise they've no desire to move overseas.
"We always hate the idea," says Jon. "Give us some examples of it being successful. Honestly, who are we talking about?
"Some people don't like living in New Zealand for whatever reason and I would never judge them for their decision to pursue career moves outside of the country. We just really like living here."
"You spend all your life building up this connection within this community," says Liz. "The idea of throwing that away to move somewhere where you have to begin from scratch terrifies me. It doesn't make sense to us to have to do that. You really think we'd get the Rick Astley support if we lived in LA?"
Jump Rope Gazers is out now. A national tour starts on August 27, tickets from thebeths.com