Elizabeth Stokes and Jonathan Pearce of The Beths were sleeping in the lounge of a student flat in LA when they awoke to a series of texts and tweets. Their track Happy Unhappy had just been named by Rolling Stone as the song of summer. A "blissy, pissy breakup jam", that does in fact, taste of sunshine.
It was June. They had just played the last show on their first US tour, it had been tough and they were tired. “So it was kind of surreal and very cool,” recalls singer, songwriter and guitarist Liz, “but it didn’t really hit home until we started playing on our second tour of the year. Then it started to feel more real.”
By then their album Future Me Hates Me, filled with high-energy hook-filled melodies and catchy lyrics about self doubt and falling in love, had been hailed as one of the best debuts of 2018. It had been reviewed by music sites such as Pitchfork and publications such as The Guardian. The word on this indie-rock band from New Zealand was getting out.
“By the time we hit Chicago in October things had changed,” says guitarist Jonathan. “That gig was one of the highlights of the year.
“We had driven from Seattle to Chicago which is a long drive, 30 hours at least. There was inclement weather with a snow storm, and then a full-on rain storm across north Dakota. We lost an hour when we crossed the dateline and we didn’t get to the hotel until 3am.
“We’d sold less than half of the venue in pre-sales, but the door sales on the night sold out. It was the biggest venue and crowd of the tour, and it really felt like we’d worked hard for that moment. It was funny, because we just set up our gear in this club and left as we normally would, and then, when we came back to play, all these people had materialised and there was this big giant, loving audience. It was amazing.”
International recognition isn’t like the movies. It doesn’t translate into big bucks, contracts, tour buses and entourages. The Beths were just four people in a van couple Liz and Jonathan, bass guitarist Ben Sinclair and drummer Ivan Luketina Johnson (who has since left the band) zig zagging their way across the USA. There is no support on their tours. No room for extras. They each takes turns driving, they carry their gear in and out of venues, perform, and work the merch table after every show.
They're not your usual bunch of punks on tour, they tend not to drink, and like listening to podcasts such as Dan Carlin's Hardcore History about World War I.
The band first met as jazz students at the University of Auckland and it was only early this year that Liz gave up her day job giving children trumpet lessons. Ben handed in his notice as a saxophone teacher a couple of weeks ago.“We can probably now be classed as a working band,” Liz says with a smile. “Income comes in but it goes straight out again with touring.”
Critics have likened their sound to Courtney Barnett, Belle and Sebastian, The Chills . . . “I don’t mind it,” Liz says. “I quite like to see how different the references are. It might be Brit pop, or Mid West emo from the 90s, just the fact that they like it and want to draw comparisons, is interesting.”
They also love being out front on stage. “The craziest was in Krakow everyone was dancing really hard,” says Liz. “I was like, ‘no one ever does this’.”
“They were moshing,” laughs Ben. “And, what do you call it? A circle pit. Where basically one person goes in the middle and they punch them. It was pretty loose there.” “In Berlin,” adds Jonathan, “everyone was arms crossed, serious, ‘impress me’ types.” “That’s when I double down on my banter,” says Liz. “I will make these Germans laugh. It doesn’t always work.”
In Auckland for summer with a few gigs on their agenda (they just supported “heroes” The Breeders and will play at Splore), Liz and Jonathan are sub-letting a room in a central city apartment where she will spend her time writing the next record.
“I’m looking forward to writing; really itching to stretch that muscle. There’s a lot of emotional stuff that happens on tour, but I am usually too exhausted to get it all down. I can remember it though. I’ve got lots to get out,” she laughs.
For Jonathan, it’s back to being a boffin in his K’Rd recording studio. “Just being in one place is pretty awesome. By the end of the Europe leg of the tour, we hadn’t spent more than 36 hours in a city for over six weeks. Plus, I have a lot of microphone placements to try out,” he laughs. “This makes me very happy.”
Ben plans to relax, think about bass lines and do woodwork. “I’m making my dad a picture frame for his birthday.”
It will be at least 2020 before we get to see their second album; 2019 will be spent back on the road. There’s a tour planned for Canada and back into the US. There are gigs lined up in London. But first they’ll head to Dublin at the end of January where they will be the support for American indie-pop band Death Cab for Cutie, on a tour which will take them into Scandinavia.
It will mean bigger audiences, and a bigger cut of the financial pie, hopefully. There’s also welcome assistance from the NZ Music Commission. However, there will be no tour bus or fancy riders on this trip either. “We have to make our own way to each gig,” explains Jonathan. “But this time I’m going to get a power inverter so we can set up our own speakers in the van. We spend so much time in there, you have to make it feel like home.”