The Beths’ full-length debut Future Me Hates Me proved to be a bit of a big deal in 2018. The Auckland quartet’s irresistible brand of lo-fi power pop and Elizabeth Stokes’ self-deprecating songwriting saw the group transcend from jazz school nobodies to indie rock darlings in the blink of an eye: critical praise came from all corners of the globe, and The Beths found themselves caught up in a whirlwind of international touring alongside the likes of Bloc Party, Death Cab For Cutie and Pixies.
Unaware of the tribulations that laid on the road ahead, the band spent most of 2018 stuck in a rut on the other side of the world, navigating an endless slog of soundchecks, hotel rooms and departure lounges. After concluding that the only way out of touring purgatory was together, The Beths stuck it through and made it to the other side, and after a lineup shuffle, found themselves back in Auckland as a stronger, more communicative unit: ready to hit the studio and do it all over again.
“A lot has changed since touring,” Elizabeth Stokes says of The Beths’ experiences on the road. “When we recorded the last album, we hadn’t done any of that international touring or anything like that, having to really figure out your dynamic as a group and really communicate with one another, not just as bandmates, but human beings.
“When you’re touring, you’re together so much, and it’s so strenuous. No one has any sleep, and you’re driving eight hours a day. You have to really work together as a team and support each other for that to work, otherwise you can just see the band disintegrate… I think that really made recording the new album different, and it felt like everybody could bring their own ideas to the table and work through them.”
The Beths’ newfound appreciation for working as a unit reveals itself within minutes of Jump Rope Gazers. The band’s latest release is slicker, more ambitious and infinitely more refined than their debut, with the group embracing a distinctive sonic palate that elevates them far beyond being just another band of high-strung guitar strummers. While Stokes eschews the notion that the record revolves around experiences learned by the band on the road, she does note a recurring theme of separation in her lyricism that’s best conveyed by the title of the album itself.
“I think I kind of like how vague it is,” Stokes says. “When I was showing that song to people, they all had different reactions to what it meant, and in that way I feel silly explaining how I felt when I wrote it. I was kind of thinking of double dutch skipping ropes, and when you have two ropes that move past each other, but never touch.
“I’ve also had some people think about it like the two people on the opposite ends of the rope who are connected by something, but separated by it as well. There’s a lot of distance on the whole album… Distance between friends, in relationships, between family - I don’t know if it’s obvious, but these were the things I was thinking about a lot while writing.”
Stokes says that while the band initially felt no dire need to top the success of their debut, it became a different story altogether when The Beths bunkered down in their studio to begin tracking Jump Rope Gazers.
“There was a little pressure, but I weirdly didn’t let myself feel it when I was writing it over the last couple of years,” she says earnestly. “I think the pressure really hit me when we started recording it, but realistically, all you can do to react to that pressure is to try and make something good, so we just focused on doing that and tried not to let it get to us.”
If there’s any major distinction to be made between Future Me Hates Me and Jump Rope Gazers, it’s in the production value. Whether it’s the fuzz pedal frenzy of guitarist Johnathon Pearce’s solos on ‘Acrid’ or the glossy textures that envelope Stokes’ vocals on the remarkable title track, Jump Rope Gazers abandons the warbling lo-fi production of the band’s debut to make for a much more polished effort without compromising the giddy hooks that made The Beths so fun in the first place.
“We hypothetically made it the same way,” Stokes says, noting a natural progression in the band’s use of their time in the studio, as well as pinpointing a notable renovation that assisted with their recording process. “It’s still our guitarist Johnathon who’s engineering, producing and mixing. He works really hard, and in the interim has become a lot better at what he does - you can really hear the difference between the first EP, the last album and this new one. We’re all a bit more experienced at working with sounds and arrangements now, and we also allowed ourselves a few more broader influences, which was fun as well.
“The other thing that really helped was that we did some DIY last year and knocked down the inside wall in the room we use as a studio, which made it big enough for all of us to record in at the same time. That made the recording process a lot more fun, because we actually got to jam and work on all the parts together.”
While Stokes assumes primary songwriting duties with The Beths, she recognises that it’s the sum of the band’s parts that make her songs as special as they are. The group initially formed while attending jazz classes in Auckland together, and there’s several moments across Jump Rope Gazers where each member flourishes their instrumental chops as a subtle reminder of their pedigree status.
“The Auckland jazz and music school mingles really well with the Auckland rock and indie scenes; maybe because it’s a slightly smaller scene and you can’t just be one kind of musician,” says Stokes, breaking down the benefits of playing in a such a tight-knit community. “Everybody who ends up starting something does it different, whether it’s weird avant-garde stuff or hip-hop. I just wanted to start a rock band, and asked my friends if they wanted to be in a rock band with me, and they kind of all just said ‘Yeah, let’s be in a rock band then’. It was all nebulous, to be honest.”
One of the greatest joys of Jump Rope Gazers - whether it can be attributed to their jazzy chops or simply an appreciation for the finer things in music - is The Beth’s devout use of backing vocals. The band employ Beach Boys-inspired harmonies across the album to wonderful effect, with Stokes confessing that the three-part vocal arrangements are proving to be a thorn in the band’s side as they slog it out in rehearsals for their upcoming tour dates.
“When we all started this band, none of us were singers, but that was part of what made it fun,” says Stokes. “It was like ‘Okay, we’re all going to play instruments that we’re only okay at, and we’re all going to sing.’ When you’re working with two guitars, bass and drums, having that extra texture - basically another instrument - that is the backing vocals and all the other ways you can use them is great.
“We do love backing vocals, but they’re really, really hard. I think we really wrote a hard album for us to play. But that’s part of it. As a band, we enjoy punishing ourselves a bit, but that also makes it really satisfying for when you do get it.”