If you see the album title Expert in a Dying Field, what form does the ‘dying field’ take in your mind? It could be the arts; it could be politics; it could – with a literal reading – be nature; hell, it could even be journalism. To The Beths, who named their new album that, it has diffuse meanings.
“I’ve had journalists come up to me and say they really connect with it, and people working in biology and academia say the same,” the band’s lead singer Liz Stokes says. “There are so many beautiful and different ‘fields’ that feel like they’ve changed a lot in the last three years, let alone the last 20 years.”
Rolling Stone AU/NZ is catching up with her to discuss the New Zealand band’s third studio album, the eagerly-anticipated follow-up to their 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me and 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers. The interview takes place just a casual stroll away from guitarist Jonathan Pearce’s Karangahape Road studio in Auckland, where the bulk of the album was recorded. By a strange twist of fate, though, Liz is thousands of miles away in Pittsburg, deep into a second successful US tour.
It was actually in Los Angeles that the album was finalised over a busy three-day period earlier this year, after the band first started recording it in the middle of 2021. A fourth-month COVID-19 lockdown interrupted their process, with each member – bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck completing the lineup – forced to work remotely for months, a fact that doesn’t come across in the completed album.
This is where the first possible reading of Expert in a Dying Field presents itself: on this album, The Beths prove themselves as one of the more exciting power-pop bands of recent times. Perhaps not since Fountains of Wayne’s peak has a band been so adept at consistently creating tracks with such infectious immediacy – there won’t be a finer opener on an album this year than the title track – and exhilarating melodies. Jonathan’s production is clean and crisp, allowing harmonies to flower and major chords to fizz happily along.
Expert in a Dying Field notably builds on the band’s previous efforts without providing a massive reinvention. Jump Rope Gazers breezily passed the ‘Difficult Second Album’ test two years ago, imbued with darker hues and slower tempos, which helped lay the template for its follow-up. “Our catalogue doubled between the first and second album,” Liz recalls. “The first album was so succinct and then we allowed ourselves more wiggle room on the second one. With this one, the small changes didn’t feel huge, they just felt like little explorations from very much the same band.”
All songs on the album were written by Liz, with the exception of “Change in the Weather”, which featured a chorus melody from Jonathan. When asked if she’s noticed a difference in her songwriting, she pauses. “It’s always a little different. Every song is always a little bit different. There’s a part of it that feels like a skill, the more you do it you get better at it, but there’s also another part that feels kind of like magic. You do it again and again and sometimes you get magic and sometimes you don’t!”
Capturing such ‘magic’ has been happening to Liz and The Beths more often than not recently. Reflecting on how rewarding it feels to have such a variety of people appreciate the music she’s making, she offers up a satisfying analogy. “Making music is like building a house: you put it out there, and then people fill it with their own furniture. It means something different to them, and I think that’s really great. I really love writing music and sharing it with the world.”
In Liz’s lyrics, another meaning behind the album title emerges: the ‘Dying Field’ is actually love and romance. “Can we erase our history? Is it as easy as this?” Liz ponders in the title track’s first lines, and it’s a recurring theme throughout the rest of the record.
It’s a realisation that eventually overcomes every person undergoing a post-breakup post-mortem: what do I do with all this useless information about a former partner? All that previously acquired knowledge – their favourite books, the songs they listen to when they’re sad, the TV show that makes them laugh the most – becomes obsolete, but it frustratingly doesn’t simply vanish. “Love is learned over time / ‘Til you’re an expert in a dying field,” Liz ruefully sings in the chorus. Her perceptive songwriting throughout is mature and self-aware, ensuring the record doesn’t wallow in self-pity. “Pinning all my hopes to the wrong pincushion,” she notes on “When You Know You Know”.
The Beths have been one of New Zealand’s biggest musical exports of the last several years, but they still feel welcomingly local. Liz’s fondness for her hometown, for one, is immediate in conversation. When asked if she could ever foresee The Beths leaving Auckland behind for a larger city, she hesitates. “I can’t account for what everyone individually would want to do but I love Auckland. I like travelling and touring and being in other places for periods of time but Auckland feels like home to me.
“You never say never but I haven’t got the urge to move to a big music city overseas yet. For us, we’re lucky that we can do what we do anywhere. If you’re involved in more collaboration or production, it makes sense to want to go where there’s more people doing that sort of stuff, but for us it’s Auckland.”
Staying put is clearly working out so far, with New Zealand’s music industry backing them just as much as they’ve supported their music community.
From the 1990s onwards, the funding agency NZ On Air has supported local bands in making music videos, and it’s paid artistic dividends: from the surrealistic “Four Seasons In One Day” scenes concocted by Crowded House to The 3Ds performing in a room decorated in Dr. Seuss-inspired creatures for “Hey Seuss”, watching the music videos for classic Kiwi songs has become almost as interesting as listening to the song itself.
“The main reason we make music videos in New Zealand is because we have funding to do so,” Liz says. “You can get little grants of $5,000 or $8,000 to make them, which is not a lot of money for a filmmaker but it’s a lot of money for a band! I think that’s why a lot of fun music videos come out of New Zealand. There’s a real DIY ethos in the music industry.”
It’s a tradition that The Beths have carried on happily. Their most recent music video, for the track “Knees Deep”, sees the band brave a bungee jump from the Auckland Harbour Bridge, but it almost never happened in the first place. “Oh my gosh, music videos are so hard!” Liz insists. “The original plan got cancelled because the director got COVID and we were leaving to go on tour in a few days. Our friends at Sports Team came at the last minute and I was like, ‘what if we went bungee jumping?’ It was just a stupid idea. It’s all a hypothetical until you’re leaning over the edge and your body’s telling you you’re going to die!”
In the video, each Beths member leaves band practice to attempt the bungee jump, with the sheepish Liz plucking up the courage last; filled with adrenaline afterwards, they regather in the studio for an energetic performance of the track. A sense of closeness and camaraderie between the four-piece is always evident in The Beths’ music videos, and it feels like a large part of their continued success.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” Liz says. “We like being together, playing together, and touring together. You have to because with the amount of time you spend together it’s like a marriage! If there’s even a small problem, you have to sort it out, otherwise it could grow into something bigger.” After a beat, she adds: “There’s still time for that to happen but we’ve been lucky so far.”
There follows a Wildean interlude involving Liz mistaking a question about iconic Kiwi band The Clean for one about the Queen – “I didn’t know if the Queen was that good at making music videos!” – but her country’s musical history and identity is something Liz and her band are clearly keenly aware of. “There’s such a tradition going way back,” she says. “The music industry here has grown but it’s still a small country with a small industry. Until you get to quite a big level, you’re still kind of doing everything on your own, working with friends, and just making things happen because there’s not many middlemen or much infrastructure.”
Perhaps that’s why, in the slimmest of silver linings, the pandemic had a positive effect on Auckland and New Zealand’s music scene. “New Zealand was luckier than a lot of countries during 2020 and 2021 because we were able to have local music shows and festivals,” Liz explains. “It was a really interesting time because we were able to have these events but the borders were closed so nobody was able to come in or out. So there was a real emphasis on local music during that time. All the headliners and middle bands and smaller bands were all local artists, and I feel like people really got into it.”
In its own small way, this local attachment feels distinctly Kiwi. Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate took their band Toy Love to Australia, but found happier times as Tall Dwarfs back home; the close-knit bands associated with the ‘Dunedin Sound’ made the tiny South Island city one of the greatest indie music spots in the world for a time. There’s a big world out there, but New Zealand bands like The Beths often realise that’s what touring is for.
Touring, Liz acknowledges, is stranger now, and there’s one particular thing she misses about touring pre-pandemic. “We used to sell our own merch, but as things got bigger we had to get merch people,” she recalls, “but it was nice to hang about the merch table and meet people and say hello. It was just a nice thing to do after a gig.” It’s not surprising to hear her say this: in conversation, Liz is naturally modest and unpretentious, and no matter how big The Beths become, you feel that she’ll still be eager to stand at the merch table post-show, waiting to hear from fans.
Guitar music has always flourished in New Zealand, but its demise is often – ludicrously – touted overseas. As one of the bands most prominently making this type of music over the past few years, Liz has heard The Beths being compared to a huge array of predecessors. “I feel like every band is a Venn diagram of different things,” she considers. “I like where ours is. When people like you and want to put you into a genre, I feel it so often comes from a place of enjoyment. Like ‘I really love 70s power pop and The Beths remind me of 70s power pop,’ or ‘I really love The Pixies and The Beths remind me of them.” It’s hard to note with any kind of objectivity what things sound like, you always attach meaning to things that you like.”
As well as listening to New Zealand bands both young and old, including 90s alternative rockers Bressa Creeting Cake and current touring mates Hans Pucket, Liz – like so many of us – was sucked into Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back during lockdown. “They’re quite good actually!” she deadpans. “It can be intimidating to dive into an artist (like he Beatles) with a huge catalogue, so it was nice to have such an avenue.”
Get Back famously captures the Beatles’ recording their 12th and final studio album Let It Be. How many more are The Beths going to make then? “I don’t know,” Liz says with a laugh. “Should we set a goal? We’ll make 10 and then retire.” If The Beths continue making power-pop as polished as Expert in a Dying Field, seven more albums should be a breeze.