Self-doubt, self-deprecation fuel New Zealand band’s spirited debut
Future Me Hates Me (Carpark Records), the full-length debut from New Zealand rock quartet the Beths, arrives awash in self-doubt. Throughout, singer, songwriter and guitarist Elizabeth Stokes struggles with her confidence, espousing a self-deflating philosophy that would probably make her a perfect Tinder match for Charlie Brown. “You, you wouldn't like me,” she offers on one song. “If you saw what was inside me.”
Indeed, even when the musician's confidence temporarily swells on the title track — “I think I'm doing fine/I think I'm pretty smart,” she sings — it isn't long before she's spiraling back to earth. “Oh, then the walls become thin/And somebody gets in,” she continues. “I'm defenseless.”
“I mean, I'm in my mid- to late-20s; [self-doubt] is a big part of my life,” said Stokes in a late-September phone interview. “Sometimes I feel like I'm getting more sure of myself, but probably not. … Maybe [writing about it] helps articulate it, and there's a bit of solidarity that comes with it. Almost everyone I talk to is like, ‘Yeah, I feel that way.' Why do we all feel that way? It doesn't make sense. But at least it makes me feel not alone in it.”
Rather than sulking, Stokes and Co. transform these sometimes-sullen moods into exuberant guitar-pop jams. So even in that moment on “Whatever” when the frontwoman sings of jerking the steering wheel of a car and sending it tumbling into the waters below, the dark vision is accompanied by multipart vocal harmonies, relentless drums and gleaming, cascading guitars that somehow manage to swing thoughts from crashing autos to the open highway.
“I like songs that sound happy but that are sad, I guess,” said Stokes, who joins her bandmates in concert at Rumba Cafe on Sunday, Oct. 7. “I think everyone always has something going on that you don't know about, but they've got to go about their day with a smile — or they've at least got to pretend that everything is OK. Maybe it's that.”
The songs are further buoyed by a wry sense of humor, walking the line between depression and self-deprecation, which Stokes said “feels like a New Zealand thing.” “It can be a deadpan place, I suppose,” she continued. “I am sincere sometimes. It's just that maybe too much sincerity is scary.”
This humor surfaces frequently in our conversation, whether the musician is discussing her first instrument, piano (“New Zealand is a country that's very isolated, so all these pianos, how did they get here? I don't know.”), or those music journalists prone to referencing the Clean and other Flying Nun Records alumni when writing about any rock band emerging from New Zealand, the Beths included.
“The Clean, even in New Zealand, was niche,” said Stokes, an Auckland native who was inspired to pick up a guitar early on in high school by U.S. imports like Fall Out Boy and Rilo Kiley, as well as locals Goodshirt and Elemeno P. “New Zealand is not a country of Flying Nun fans. I think the ratio is similar to the rest of the world.”
The same goes with the popularity of a certain boy wizard, which helps explain how Stokes' songwriting career kicked off with a bit of literary prediction.
“The first song I ever wrote was in study period when I was 15, and it was a song about what I thought was going to happen in the seventh Harry Potter book,” Stokes said. “All of the podcasts and forums were saying similar things about [the final book], so it was fairly accurate, but no one could predict the last Horcrux, as you know.”
Stokes met guitarist and Beths bandmate Jonathan Pearce in high school, when she also became familiar with bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnston, who round out the group's current lineup. “We were all playing in different bands, and the Auckland music scene is certainly small, so we've all known each other a really long time,” said Stokes. (The four all later studied jazz together at the University of Auckland, as well.)
Early on, the Beths served as more of a side project for the four, eventually taking more of a lead role following the release of the band's debut EP, Warm Blood, from 2016. Though slow to coalesce — the band's first EP followed more than a year of jamming and sonic exploration — there was a clear sense the musicians had hit on something worth exploring more deeply from the first song they recorded together.
“The very first song I brought into the band was ‘Whatever,' and … that felt like the flagship,” Stokes said. “Is that the right word? Is that when you have a fancy shop that's the fanciest of all the shops? And it's the one that all the other shops are meant to emulate? I feel like that was that song for us. That was the sound we were going to aim for. Everything else is in relation to that.”