The Beths Take Jesse Mulligan On A Late-Night Food Tour Of Karangahape Road

By Jesse Mulligan
Guitar band The Beths. Photo / Babiche Martens

On a busy Wednesday night, The Beths cross Karangahape Rd not individually but together, as a band, when everybody is sure it’s safe.

They don't walk in single file, like The Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road, but shoulder to shoulder, like the scene from Reservoir Dogs.

There are

They are a “guitar band” (Liz’s term, and a phrase you wouldn’t have had to use back when I was playing in bands, when all music was guitar music), and are successful enough that they no longer choose where they’re going to play next their international agents find a free calendar slot and book them on rolling tours through major cities across Europe and North America.

This would have all seemed pretty dreamy when I first met them, unsigned to a label, in 2017.

They already had a small local following and their goal, says Jonathan, was “to be able to fill 40 venues the size of Whammy Bar around the world”.

Now, he reckons, they could fill Power Station-sized venues in more cities than that and they probably need to adjust their career expectations.

But the conversation falls apart when I ask them what ultimate success might look like for a guitar band in 2022. “We probably need to have a meeting and talk about it,” he says.

The Beths and Jesse Mulligan at Acho’s. Photo / Babiche Martens
The Beths and Jesse Mulligan at Acho’s. Photo / Babiche Martens

For now they are home, showing me around their favourite eating spots on K Rd, a strip Liz has been gigging and eating on since she was 16 years old.

Their excellent third album Expert in a Dying Field (4 stars NME; 4.5 stars SLANT; 9/10 Bandcamp) came out last week, and this dinner interview with me a fan of and unofficial PR man for the band since they first played in my radio studio five years ago is I think a fun break for them between more serious media commitments.

Tomorrow they have some Zoom interviews booked in and, Liz tells me, “cover shoots for some small UK magazines”.

But for now, we eat, beginning at the Lim Chhour food court, just downstairs from the studio where they’ve made all three albums.

Creating even the most beautiful music can be a grind, and so they’ve eaten plenty of meals in this hall (sparsely populated and airy, though the band wear their masks until the moment they start eating because a highly contagious throat virus is not good news for a touring group but also, I think, because they are trying to do the right thing; someone who used to work with them told me they were a joy to deal with because “they always did what they were asked”).

After years of rigorous taste-testing, The Beths’ favourite kitchen at the food court is Swordsman Chinese, where we eat a great cumin lamb, sliced pork belly with chilli and some vegetarian delicacies.

“We believe this to be the best mapo tofu in Auckland City,” says Liz.

“It’s my second time here today,” reports Tristan.

We make time for a round of “surprise drink”, a tradition The Beths have taken around the world.

One of the band members is dispatched to a local convenience store to purchase a selection of obscure beverages which are then assigned via a lottery system to the rest of the group.

Tonight I am given a drink too, and I must admit that for long periods of the evening it is easy for me to forget that I’m not actually part of the band, though I’m brought back to reality when our photographer politely asks me to move out of frame for the photos.

My prune cordial tastes terrible (“like plum juice with a cigarette butt in it,” reckons Ben) but I enjoy the ritual. The band loves gigging but it must be good to break the monotony of touring with culinary adventures like this.

They have another game on long road trips where they essentially try to fight monotony with monotony listening to a nominated pop song 13 times in a row in a perverse experiment they call “Baker’s Dozen”.

Prosecco at Peach Pit. Photo / Babiche Martens
Prosecco at Peach Pit. Photo / Babiche Martens

We have another restaurant to get to (“we should ask for a container,” says Liz, who doesn’t want the leftovers to go to waste) so we drain our surprise drinks and move on.

The inside of a van looks the same no matter where in the world you are, and the glamour of international travel seems to have worn off Liz talks about a trip from Indianapolis to Cincinnati like it’s the road from Taupō to Rotorua though there must be times back in Auckland where they miss being in a properly big city.

Like when we try to eat at Uncle Man’s but the kitchen is closed at 8.15pm, so we cross the road to It’s Java and they’re closing too.

Our progressive dinner is looking in some danger at this stage but nobody is worried about Acho’s, a Japanese bar that serves fried squid tentacles and bao buns well past midnight and into the morning.

A legendary St Kevins Arcade destination, sometime during the pandemic it vanished, then some months later reappeared in a fancy food hall with a big window on to the main drag. Auckland is lucky to have it, even if the staff took a little warming up.

“What’s in the spicy edamame sauce?” I ask the guy behind the bar.

“It’s a secret,” he says. Then we look at each other for a few seconds and he returns to polishing glasses.

The band’s international success is hard to communicate by the usual metrics.

As a tragic I'll sometimes type one of their song names into Twitter just for fun and look at all the college radio stations around the world who are playing it, but their streaming numbers aren't huge as far as I can see (their biggest song, Future Me Hates Me, is sitting around eight million Spotify listens, the royalties from which I'm guessing would barely pay for those edamame beans).

The thing is, the people who love The Beths really love The Beths; according to Jonathan, the band has sold more physical albums than they have social media followers.

It’s hard to know what to make of that fact, except to say that their fans are there for them in the real world going to gigs, listening to vinyl, buying the merch.

It fits with what Liz describes as their original audience: “fathers and daughters”, something that makes me flinch when I hear it, as I’d always thought of myself as more of a grown-up cool kid in the crowd rather than just another dad bod (but yes, I did take my 11-year-old Hazel to their last all-ages gig).

The Beths at the AMAs in 2020 when they won top album and best group awards. Photo / Supplied
The Beths at the AMAs in 2020 when they won top album and best group awards. Photo / Supplied

We drink beer then plum wine at Acho’s and, seeing the boozy writing on the wall, Liz takes a small vial of hangover-preventing serum from her jacket pocket and drinks it like a messier lead singer might drain a tequila shot.

Though they’re not a band whose exploits are fuelled with alcohol with late pack-outs and early starts they don’t often do a big night out, and tend to spend their money and energy on pre-gig dinners.

Tristan is a “fanatical researcher” of prospective restaurants as they roll into a new town, a key requirement being that they’re close to the venue.

Breakfast is usually included the next day with the room (a point of pride in Europe, but inevitably something processed and miserable in the US) and, says Liz, “lunches are quite depressing”.

(If you want more information on what The Beths eat and where they go, Ben's efficiently titled blog is a precise record of every mile driven and omelette consumed. He dutifully created it for friends and family and to maintain an archive of tour life.)

After Acho’s we head to Peach Pit (which has “the vibe of The Wine Cellar but you can get a meal”, according to Ben).

Jonathan tells me it’s the best happy hour on K Rd but we’re at the wrong end of the night for it, picking over what’s left on their short but excellent vegan-friendly menu just before the kitchen closes.

We finish our K Rd degustation with a delicious, wobbly panna cotta with stewed cherries and ginger.

Interview mostly done, the band have settled into what I presume is their usual comfortable, chatty dynamic.

After being in close quarters on tour you might think they’d be well rid of each other by the time they get home but, reports Liz, “usually after a couple of days of not hanging out we call each other up and say, ‘Hey, what are you up to? Wanna meet up for lunch?’”

She considers this, then says “some bands maybe need more space”.

But not The Beths, who are taking turns now, recounting stories from the road in Slovenia, Singapore and Glasgow.

Next week they’re in Sydney, then Brisbane, then Adelaide. No wonder they seem so happy to be eating good food in a familiar bar.

“We’ve farewelled a few friends here,” says Tristan, who likes Liz’s theory that Peach Pit occupies the social space vacated by the late, beloved Golden Dawn.

Goodbyes, birthdays, Christmas drinks “it’s the sort of place you can tell everyone you’ll be here on a certain day and that they’re welcome to come along if they’re free”.

But, Tristan adds, “The hang will be strong, whether you come or not.”

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