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There's Something About You: The Beths Strike Pop Gold on 'Future Me Hates Me'

Wednesday, 18 July 2018 Written by Huw Baines

The Beths are learning Welsh.

It’s a little after 10 at Le Pub in Newport, and the New Zealand indie-pop band are parroting back a few reliable words and phrases shouted from the crowd. They try cwtch and iechyd da on for size before Elizabeth Stokes draws a line under it. “We’re butchering this,” she says. “Let’s do a song.”

Their first EP, ‘Warm Blood’, which was recently reissued by their new label, Carpark, quickly confirmed that “doing a song” is their speciality. It displayed a razor-sharp appreciation for melody and an absolute commitment to four part harmonies. On their debut album, ‘Future Me Hates Me’, the Beths have taken those early blueprints and used them to build something quietly remarkable.

There are buzzsaw guitars and punchy snare rolls to tie the record to punk, but its 10 songs are tiny pop masterworks. They are complex in the way that only the best simple songs are complex: all the pieces are in the right places, and things happen at the opportune moment. It’s not an easy combination to pull off for half an hour straight. In fact, if anyone with time on their hands could do it then we’d have more than one Abba.

The Beths - Stokes on guitar and lead vocals, guitarist Jonathan Pearce, Benjamin Sinclair on bass and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnston - have been playing together for several years and orbiting each other in adjacent bands for even longer. They have instrumental chops honed in jazz, and a shorthand with one another that makes the whole thing look like a stroll in the park. It’s thrilling up close.

‘Future Me Hates Me’ was recorded by Pearce, who has left just the right number of rough edges in place to bring out the cut-glass nature of Stokes’s hooks. “It started with Liz sending Ivan and I a few demos that had been recording at home, straight into the computer microphone,” he says. “They had a song with a great melody, a lead guitar line and loads of backing vocals. The reason the album’s concise is that we’re feeding off the germ of Liz’s great format for what she wanted the band to be.”

It still took some figuring out to get things to this stage, though. Everyone had to get used to handling their share of vocals, including multi-part harmonies and interwoven melodies, before the songs came close to resembling the finished article. Stokes is glad they waited a while before recording anything for posterity, a decision that is backed up by how together they sounded on ‘Warm Blood’ back in 2016. “It was really good having that time to be a bit shit,” she says.

Much like power-pop heroes Game Theory in their mid-’80s pomp or more modern examples like PUP, the Toronto punk band, and New York’s Charly Bliss, the Beths’ vocal arrangements are a high-wire thing that require meticulous care and attention. “I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it,” Stokes says, but the answer is that most bands can’t. “The default position is ‘I can’t sing’,” Pearce adds. “The first thing you’ve got to do is stop saying that. Then you can start getting better. You can go from shit to alright.”

Stokes attributes their patience to the fact that the early days were essentially an exercise in figuring stuff out. “It took us three years, or a couple of years at least, to get any good at it,” she says. “My vocals were not super strong in the first year. I was learning how to sing in a rock band. We were all learning how to be in a rock band. These guys were all learning how to sing backing vocals. It was really challenging having to play these tight arrangements, and everybody having to sing. That’s why it was fun - to do something really hard.”

The formula has now been refined to the point that half the band can ride the pine for a whole tour (Sinclair is teaching, Luketina-Johnston is busy with his Sal Valentine project) without a beat being missed. In Newport, Auckland scene mainstay Katie Everingham and Pearce’s brother Chris tag in as drummer and bassist in a watertight rhythm section while seamlessly hitting their high notes.

The set is a grin-inducing collision of singalongs and fizzing solos from Pearce (notably on a soaring Happy Unhappy) but the bittersweet nature of Stokes’ writing also carries over. The title track of the new record is a prime example. “There’s something about you,” she sings. “I wanna risk going through future heartbreak, future headaches, wide-eyed nights late lying awake, with future cold shakes from stupid mistakes. Future me hates me.”

“I think that song is a pessimistic song about being optimistic,” Stokes says. “That’s what it’s like: I know this is going to suck, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it might not suck. That’s what’s optimistic about it.” The LP is littered with small insights like this, and snippets that appear to be cribbed from real life. They add colour and depth to words that flit between romantic, anxious, arch and spiteful. One of the great joys in Stokes’ writing is also an underrated facet of pop music in general: its power as a communication tool.

When you can make someone sing along, your words sink beneath the surface and percolate; they stop being solely yours. The Beths’ songs are eminently hummable and, in tandem, Stokes’ words entirely relatable. “We all appreciate being concise in your ideas,” she says. “Trying to crystallise them into something that’s clear, I guess. When you’re listening to something, being able to pick out what the top line or main idea is is important to get through.”

“It's so easy to be generic and vague,” she adds. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not writing country songs with a specific story about a specific person. I want to leave enough room so that when you’re listening to it you're not thinking about the thing that happened to me, you’re thinking about the thing that happened to you.

“There’s a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about country music and specificity and how it can make a song sad, and I really like that idea of taking something that’s a big, broad feeling or a big, broad topic and adding the specific things in from my life. Make it seem real, I guess, about crying on a Thursday evening or something. Just the fact that it’s specifically a Thursday. That was real.”

The idea that these songs will strike a chord with people thousands of miles away from home is one that Stokes wrestles with, but it’s inescapable when considering ‘Future Me Hates Me’. “It’s funny to say these things are big and powerful and universal, because they feel so small,” she says. “To the point where I almost feel self-conscious about them. It’s the only kind of song I can seem to write. To me it feels like I can only write songs about my feelings. It’s nice to hear it’s a way to connect with people.”

‘Future Me Hates Me’ is out on August 10 through Carpark.

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