Tomorrow The Beths will release their sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers via Carpark Records. It was a tough task for the band to follow-up the whip-smart songwriting prowess and hooks found on their utterly terrific 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me. But they do just that and then some on the more than worthy follow-up that puts the dreaded sophomore slump right in its place.
While a more polished take of their infectious indie-pop that throws garage rock and tear-inducing ballads together resulting in a fully formed album that makes that next step forward sonically, while also maintaining what made us fall in love with them in the first place.
Earlier this summer I had the absolute pleasure of discussing the new record with The Beths’ frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes as well as her partner and bandmember Jonathan who joined us on the chat as well. We discussed the new album, self-producing their own music, and just how they manage to play with tempos in such a creative fashion.
They gave some really great insight into their process and we’re excited to share this conversation with you. Find the entire interview posted below. Please note that it has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Will: How are things going over there in New Zeland? You guys are doing extremely well compared to us here in the States.
Elizabeth: We’re doing well. We’re feeling very lucky about that. Honestly, it feels weird to talk about. This happens all the time, we got friends overseas and I don’t really know how to talk about it. We’re feeling extremely lucky, but things could also go back up at any time. The borders are closed and they will be for a long time. Lockdown ended on Thursday and now we’re on a restricted normal, there’s a limit on gatherings and things, but it’s been strange. We saw our parents over the weekend and that was really nice.
W: So it must be strange to compare it to what’s happening here in America.
E: Yeah it’s heartbreaking and hard to see. It’s not easy to watch people go through something so hard and you know, even from where we are with things comparatively good, you just don’t know what the future is going to look like. It feels like it’s going to be a long time.
W: Have you guys been writing any new music, is that even something you’ve considered?
E: It’s something I consider a lot (*laughs*). I’ve done very little, I think I’ve written a couple of songs. There’s been a lot of talk about how you don’t have to be productive. I’ve found it pretty difficult to be creative. It’s weird, it’s not like I’ve been super depressed or anything, it’s almost like this protective shell around my brain. But its been easing up a little now that things are feeling a little more normal. So maybe I’ll try again. I’ve mainly been playing Animal Crossing.
W: Seems like you and the rest of the world!
E: Yeah, many many hours. That’s been fun. Jonathan has been more productive. He’s been learning guitar, some maths, learning how to play the bass. He’s here as well if you got any questions as well!
W: Hey Jonathan! I think you’ve got us all beat on quarantine productivity then (*laughs*)!
Jonathan: (*Laughs*) It’s just what I do! Learning some basslines and linear equations.
W: With how well New Zealand is doing, do you think you’ll be able to possibly have shows soon?
E: Yeah, I don’t want to jinx anything. We’re almost afraid to look too hard at it in case it disappears. But people are talking about it. I imagine for a long time it would be something like small venues. We’ve floated amongst ourselves – perhaps delusionally – the idea of doing a really extensive local tour. Normal a New Zealand tour is like four cities at most and there’s a ten-hour drive between each city. We’re floating the idea of going to Auckland and just doing a real van tour of the country.
J: A real regional tour of New Zealand! It’s something I have done before, years and years ago. It’s an absolute treat as it’s a beautiful place to drive around and see parts of the country. It’s not a luxury that we’ve had available to us in the last few years, but that could happen pretty soon, in three months even, depending on a lot of factors.
*(As it turns out, they have a show lined up this Saturday night in Auckland!)*
W: You guys did a few live streamed performances, can you talk about that experience and any plans to keep them going in the future?
E: It’s something we’ve talked about. I don’t know, it’s something we feel sort of conflicted and bittersweet about. We wondering whether or not to even do them and then that’s separate even from the conversation about what they are and that they’re a completely different medium from live shows and how to do them well. Then there’s just the reason of why, what’s the point of doing them? But we ended up doing them!
The ones that we’ve been putting energy to have been quite fun in the end. I guess since we ended up releasing singles in the lead up to an album and realizing that the album may not have any touring around it, we’ve been doing live streams as a single release and it’s been nice doing them and learning how to do the format and experimenting with it a bit. I’m not sure what it would be like in the future when the album is out, but we’ll see. I feel like there may be some live stream fatigue. Do you feel that way (asking Jonathan)?
J: I think it was good for people, almost like a charitable response from a lot of musicians initially. “Everyone has to be locked down at home. What can we do for people? Well, we can still bring them some music in this format” And then as the severity of the situation sunk in and things got more desperate for artists, to the point for a lot of people it’s like “I need to make some money to pay some rent right now, the only way I can reach to people is via a live stream.” So I really hope that the fatigue doesn’t affect anyone that was generous enough to do the live stream for the benefit of their fans and their happiness.
E: This is why it can be conflicting – it always is in regards to money and shows, but for smaller and medium bands, your revenue is from touring. With that completely taken away and its replacement (I’m saying their replacement in air quotes) being live streams, they’re not really monetized, and different bands are doing different things to try and make it into another revenue stream to try and stay afloat. It’s an interesting thing and probably a lot of people having a lot of conversations about it.
W: Did you ever consider postponing the release of Jump Rope Gazers? Was that ever a conversation with all that was happening?
E: Yeah, it actually was. We finished and handed in the album in back in at the start of March. So there was this short period where we talked about pushing it back – and we didn’t for a couple of reasons and we are lucky that we didn’t have to for certain reasons. For instance, for vinyl pressings, there’s one place we can get masters made. Is that right (to Jonathan)?
J: Yeah there’s an issue with the production of vinyl, where some people have just not been able to make the vinyl.
E: So we were lucky and managed to get in just in the nick of time. First of all, we were lucky that we were able to have the option to do it and have the decision to do it. From a songwriting perspective, we didn’t feel like the album was inappropriate – and it felt like an ok time to release it. I just mean, there are probably certain albums that because of the themes or the vibe of the record you might be like “this is not really a good time to release this album, this is not really what people want to hear.” I felt like with the themes of the record, it was an ok thing to put out into the word.
And then secondly, just practically speaking, knowing that you don’t how long you’re going to be stuck at home for, or delayed for, it felt better to just sort of push ahead knowing that it was going to be a bit compromised, knowing that it’s not going to be exactly as it was before. Then at least you’re doing something and you can look ahead to making another record and keep moving.
W: While everyone may be at home and able to spend more time listening to it does it feel weird not being able to hit the road and support it with not knowing when shows will realistically be an option again?
E: There is an element of the last record, the fact that people were listening to it felt more real when you started seeing more people coming to shows.
J: I think we as a band, things like local radio stations (be they college radio stations, public radio affiliates) that have taken to the music and taken a part on playing us, we’ve toured a lot but a lot of that discovery was people finding us through different people around the world deciding that they liked our band at a good time and championing it. So with this record, we just are hopeful that we reach people in a similar way. We haven’t really seen that people are sitting at home twiddling their thumbs waiting for another indie band release (*laughs*), I don’t think that’s exactly the mood.
But the mood might definitely be that if the right album is presented to them in the right way, then it may really resonate with people. I guess that’s what we hope for and that things were really led by touring last night. So it’s hard to not have that, but without it, hopefully, we still have those advocates and those radio stations and people at the grassroots level of what makes up a music community.
W: You guys accumulated critical acclaim and buzz pretty quickly. Did you feel any pressure while recording this time around?
E: Yeah. Luckily I did most of the writing of the last couple of years in the breaks and for some reason, I didn’t feel very much pressure then. I was telling myself “I’m just going to write as many songs as I can and hope that the 10 best of them are good,” and that worrying about them not being good wasn’t going to make them better – and I know that knowing that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to be extremely stressed. But for some reason, I felt that it was going to turn out how it’s going to turn out. It was during the recording and the later stages that is when I got a bit more anxious about it.
The only thing that you can do to combat that is to try to make something that you feel proud of and you like and we consciously decided not to do anything like go “this is our second record, we’re going to go big and work with a big producer and aim for a different sound.” By trying to keep the core values of the band the same and the core sound of it the same, that meant that we could stretch out in different ways musically and not feel like we were doing something that felt drastically different.
W: Your songwriting packs some great power pop riffs with really infectious hooks yet it feels so natural and effortless. When recording do you strive to capture the live sound one would experience at one of your gigs?
J: I’ve always gone into the production of this band with the goal of live rock band plus. I do want people to be able to imagine us playing that song when they listen to it and its really important to us that it feels like a band, and that the contributions of the individuals are palpable even perhaps intentionally obvious in terms of “everyone has their role” and those contributions add up to the whole of what you’re hearing and trying to capture a live band. Then there’s the plus….(*laughs* as Siri goes off in the background) Sorry we just got Siri’d…Siri was just listening to us
But then there’s the plus element. Like, I love the sound of a band like The Minutemen or something like that, where it literally is just the band in the studio playing and there are no frills. I wanted it to just sound a bit more studio with a little bit of mystery and some deeper layers and have aspects specific to the recording that aren’t about the song or anything that reward repeat listens. I think there’s a balance between making it sound larger than life but not too large and some of those strategies are not really to make it sound larger than life but to make it sound more interesting and there just studio stuff that you don’t do live maybe.
W: What’s it like producing yourself and did you guys ever consider bringing in an outside producer / is that something you’d be open to in the future?
J: I think like Liz was saying we did want to keep the basic recipe the same and add a couple of new flavors but pretty much be working with the same ingredients. There was not really any debate about that. Midway through making the record when it was really hard and there was a lot of work to do, we did sort of thing that maybe having someone else to help would be good. But from our perspective now looking back on it, I feel like it was still the right decision and don’t feel bad about that.
Going forward, it is something we would consider as we go on. We’re not against it, but we feel like we are a really good team and we’re very close friends. So if the personality fit wasn’t absolutely perfect, I think that relationship wouldn’t be able to last very long. It’s really important to us that we just have fun and just enjoy doing this with each other specifically at every step of the way that is possible. It’s not always possible to be the best and brightest of yourself when you’re in an airport on three hours’ sleep. So it should definitely be aimed for when you’re in a purely creative situation working on songs in the studio. I don’t really believe that acrimony breeds any special creativity or anything like that.
W: Jump Rope Gazers is a great title. The title track also struck a chord with me. Where did this line come from and is there any special meaning behind it?
E: It’s weird, I have an idea in my head of what it means and how I got there. I was quite curious when playing it to friends I’d them what they thought it meant, everyone had a sort of different answer and I liked that. Everyone’s answer seemed to be weirdly connected. So I don’t want to define exactly where I got it from, but I was imagining this jump rope where there are two people and there’s something that’s connecting them.
It’s one of those things that kept coming up looking at the record as a whole once it was done with themes being distance and relationships between people and things that force them apart and yet t the same time sort of keeps them together. That song for some reason as well just felt like it was at the heart of the album.
W: With this album, I noticed you guys have some more harder rocking songs like “I’m Not Getting Excited” but also have some more slower tempo songs in there too. Did you guys set out to change things up in both directions, or was it just something that happened on its own?
E: We talk a lot about tempos (they both laugh). We’re deeply concerned with tempos. On this album we allowed ourselves to go slower than we’ve ever gone on some of these songs. And I felt like it was something we were able to, because maybe we had a stronger identity of what made the band sound the way it does. We still think that mostly it’s playing fast songs. The rest of the identity is still intact when we mix it up a little bit. What do you think, Jonathan?
J: I think that’s right. A lot of it is led by the song. It’s pretty rare that Liz will bring a song in at a medium tempo and by the end of it, it comes out super fast. It’s not really something we iterate on that much. We absolutely do on the tempo, but we’re talking degrees on the scale rather than a completely different approach to a song. On a practical level, Liz sometimes just fills these songs with so much rich information in the lyrics and the melodic hook ideas, that if we played that song at 100 bpm, it would be five and a half minutes long. Whereas if we played it at 180bpm it’s at three and a half and we’re happy.
So it is led by the song and that feeds into our musical personalities quite well. “Jump Rope Gazers” is a good example – it’s quite a hard tempo to ply. It’s a speed that either wants to rush or drag and it’s really hard to maintain at that same speed. Some people would probably say “ok fine, well let’s just play it a bit faster or slower,” but we spent quite a lot of time trying to make that set in its own special place. So yeah, that’s a window about how much we give a shit about tempo…a lot (laughs).
W: A lot of the new songs were about the distance you felt from friends and loved ones while you’re on tour. Is there a bit of irony now to being stuck at home?
L: Weirdly no, it wasn’t just on tour, but also just when your friends are scattered all over the world in the way that they can be. Like now, have you ever been further away from the people who live in your city than in the last couple of months? It’s weird finishing the record and having all this happen and then feeling like, oh, maybe by the time that this is released, all these songs will have this new context that didn’t exist when we made it. But it’s going to be there the first time when people hear these songs. It is interesting to think about how the songs will be perceived and how they’ll be defined by where we in the moment that we’re in.
W: On this album and your debut, you discuss themes of anxiety and self-doubt. As someone whose creative and is forced to constantly play in front of crowds and release new music, how does this affect your process? Has it gotten any easier over time?
J: Yeah, how do you reconcile your self-doubt with putting yourself out there in public?
L: Oh wow, I don’t know. That’s a good question, I guess this is “the medium, right?” Me and Jonathan have been playing music in front of people since were kids, like 15-16 years old. You forget that this isn’t a natural normal thing to get up on a stage and feel completely comfortable baring your soul. Yeah, it’s weird and strangely doesn’t feel that weird. Just doing it, making your art and performing it. I don’t know why they’re connected. I guess writing music doesn’t necessarily have to be connecting to performing it, but we all get a lot of joy out of performing it.
J: I think that’s important, isn’t it? I guess that’s maybe not actually true as a rule. Some people feel that drive to create but don’t really want to put themselves in front of other people. And it’s not that we want to put ourselves in front of other people, but that we genuinely enjoy it and playing this music.
L: Yeah, I don’t know how to reconcile that.
W: With that said, let’s close on a fun one. Any new movie/tv show or music discoveries during this quarantine?
J: Mostly Animal Crossing!
E: Mostly playing (Animal Crossing) but we did also get through the three original Jurassic Parks and the older Harry Potter movies. Deathly Hallows Part 2 we haven’t watched yet but we’ll get there.
J: We are good friends and really love the music of the band Ratboys from Chicago. They put out a great record, so we’ve been really enjoying that and their live streams, which are done completely different to ours and it’s been a really fun, as we even joined them on one of them. That was super cool.
E: They do theirs on Twitch, which is really great!
J: We’re huge Lomedla fans as well. There was a live stream of new music which was interesting, along with her playing her old records too. That was really great to watch. What else has been on our radar?
E: Reb Fountain!
J: Yeah, Reb Fountain from New Zealand put out a great sort of folk-rock record.
E: I listened to an audiobook called DisneyWar about Disney, I don’t think I absorbed any of it but I think it was good to keep my brain distracted while playing Animal Crossing!
Jump Rope Gazers is out tomorrow. If you haven’t already, consider purchasing the album from their Bandcamp.