Named after the group’s singer and songwriter Elizabeth Stokes, The Beths formed in 2015 after Stokes and fellow jazz school-trained bandmates Jonathan Pearce, Ben Sinclair, and Ivan Luketina-Johnston wanted to be in a guitar band.
The four had been playing together in Luketina-Johnston’s jazz band Sal Valentine & The Babyshakes and had known each other at various stages through high school music and then University of Auckland jazz school where Stokes studied trumpet, Pearce piano and Sinclair clarinet and saxophone.
Stokes met Pearce at school, she recalled to Lydia Jenkin for Under the Radar in 2020. “I just remember being in a concert band. I was playing the trumpet and Jonathan was playing saxophone. I think maybe we went to see some kind of trumpet concert together at school. We were just kind of friends through bands and friends through music generally at school.”
Stokes started learning guitar at age 13 and, two years later, started folk trio Teacups with Chelsea Jade and Talita Setyadi. Pearce already had a vast resume in music before The Beths, playing in Artisan Guns and working with Aldous Harding, Lawrence Arabia, and Tiny Ruins, while Sinclair and Luketina-Johnston were also well-established musicians in the Auckland music scene.
However the catalyst for forming The Beths came in the form of an email sent by Pearce to Stokes in 2013. The message, she recalled to Jenkin, “kind of said can you please write some more songs so that I can record them? I hadn’t written music since Teacups and at jazz school, I’d been quite focused on playing the trumpet. My response was kind of like, nah, but in the back of my head I wanted to write something where I could play guitar in a band.”
“I loved learning about music, but I missed lyrics,” Stokes told Huw Baines of Guitar.com in 2020. “I was playing the trumpet, and communicating in melody and improvisation, learning a lot of repertoires. I was missing songs, and being able to express myself that way. I was nostalgically missing the guitar music that I grew up on.”
Stokes describes The Beths sound: “sweetly sung melodies and super depressing lyrics.”
So with that, The Beths were formed and with them a unique style of indie guitar pop based around melodic lyrics dealing with self-doubt and self-deprecation, four-part harmonies, and a guitar sound that emulated the likes of Weezer, Rilo Kiley and Death Cab For Cutie.
Stokes describes The Beths sound as basically being “sweetly sung melodies and super depressing lyrics,” while power pop and pop-punk are labels that have been applied to the band. “It’s a guitar band. We make guitar music,” Stokes told Brodie Lancaster of the Guardian.
New Zealand has a strong legacy of indie rock and guitarist Jonathan Pearce admits they were never attempting to reinvent the wheel stylistically. “I feel like we don’t really break any barriers, we’re not trying to create something brand new,” he said to Jenkin. “I’ve always felt like the mission has not been to find some new sound, it’s been to do the sounds that we like really well.”
The band’s style was perfectly formed on their 2016 debut EP Warm Blood, a project they gigged on relentlessly through that year playing locally week in and week out. Tracks from this release included ‘Whatever’ and ‘Lying in the Sun’, both of which became staples on student radio.
During this time, they gained a reputation for being constant giggers who were willing to play anywhere and to anyone. Their gigs in 2016 included New Zealand Music Month in the 95bFM lounge, Record Store Day at Real Groovy, and the Flying Out basement early in the morning.
As a result, The Beths quickly became part of a burgeoning indie rock scene that centred on a new wave of bands such as Charlie Freak, Hans Pucket, and Polyester. These were bands who wrote melodic, guitar-driven pop songs and that drew in very enthusiastic audiences in the main centres around the country.
The Beths became a fan favourite during the 2016-2017 period and quickly developed a following that regularly packed out venues such as Whammy Bar to see them road-test material from the EP and other new songs, some of which would eventually end up on their debut album, Future Me Hates Me.
Future Me Hates Me was recorded at Pearce’s Karangahape Road studio. The album continued the sound of Warm Blood and included many songs that the band had performed live over the last two years, including the title track and album opener ‘Great No One’.
‘Rolling Stone’ named single ‘Happy Unhappy’ as one of its songs of the summer in 2018.
The release of their debut album was helped with the band being signed to American label Carpark Records, who distributed the album internationally, helping the band get wider exposure overseas. The move worked and led to Pitchfork calling the album one of the most impressive indie-rock debuts of the year. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone featured the band and named single ‘Happy Unhappy’ as one of their songs of the summer in 2018.
Future Me Hates Me was well received at home, cracking the Top 20 in the album charts, earning the band a Taite Music Prize nomination, two Silver Scroll nominations (for the title track and ‘Happy Unhappy’) and two New Zealand Music Awards for best group and best alternative artist.
The band headed overseas to try their luck on the international touring circuit. The success of Future Me Hates Me saw the group become a full-time affair with both Pearce and Stokes quitting their day jobs to focus on the band. As Pearce explained to RNZ Music, “In late 2017 we decided to take the plunge and get out of New Zealand for a period of time. We quit our jobs, and that was the catalyst for being overseas a lot longer than we expected to be.”
Luketina-Johnston would not join them overseas, leaving the group to focus more on Sal Valentine. He was replaced by Katie Everingham who would remain as a touring member until Tristan Deck joined full-time in 2018. Also in 2018, Jonathan Pearce’s brother Chris toured with the band, playing bass.
Through an 18-month period, the band played nearly 250 shows across Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia as their journey from local indie act to breakthrough international indie act took place. At the same time, they found themselves opening for the Pixies, the Breeders, Weezer, and Death Cab For Cutie.
Both Pearce and Stokes say touring brought the band closer together. “That first tour was a leap of faith that changed everything,” Pearce told Guitar.com. “We were much better friends by the end of it.”
Stokes described touring to The Alternative: “We pack up all our instruments and do our own merch and everything, then you drive to a budget motel or something, crash at like two in the morning, wake up and drive all day to the next place.”
After finishing a gruelling 18 months on the road through 2017, 2018, and into 2019, the band spent pockets of 2019 recording their second studio album Jump Rope Gazers. However, in 2020 an unprecedented event changed everything.
The global coronavirus pandemic saw New Zealand locked down for weeks and with it, the music industry was brought to its knees. Live shows were postponed or cancelled and venues were threatened with closure as the economic impact of the pandemic hit hard. With this, any plans the band originally had for their new album and tour were immediately up in the air, until they came up with the concept “Live From House”.
With an aching desire to play live through the lockdown and in order to reach their fanbase in New Zealand and overseas, the band put together four online live-stream events. Live From House saw Q & As with fans, acoustic performances of new and old songs, gimmicks such as snack cam, and the promotion of causes such as Black Lives Matter.
It was innovative, entertaining, and well-received by the band’s fanbase, something that was at the heart of the idea, Sinclair told the Spinoff. “It felt like because we weren’t able to go touring when we were scheduled to, that it was kind of a condolence thing to play songs our audience would have heard on tour. We tried not to totally abandon our overseas audience. It was as much about the audience as the band.”
Live From House also served as a promotional service and saw the band premiere new singles ‘Dying To Believe’ and ‘I’m Not Getting Excited’, and eventually announce their long-awaited second album Jump Rope Gazers in April 2020.
As an album, Jump Rope Gazers managed to retain all the essential elements of The Beths’ sound as heard on Future Me Hates Me, including the four-part harmonies and jangly guitar. However, the band also showed signs of pushing their sound forward, resulting in a more mid-tempo album that included slower ballads such as the title track.
goodwill shown to the band in lockdown and their growing army of fans SAW the album reach No.2 in the NZ chart.
This was The Beths evolving and offering up a more melancholy, downtempo album. The core Beths sound was still there, but this wasn’t a case of repeating oneself completely. Pearce explained to Laura McInners of the Sniffers website: “We’re a formulate band in the way that we make music. So having laid down the formula on the previous record makes us feel a little bit less like we have to obey that as much. Especially considering that on Future Me Hates Me we really laid down the formula for what a Beths song is, and now we can do different things and not feel self-conscious about representing ourselves in a certain way.”
The album was once again produced, mixed and engineered by Pearce. It also saw the band collaborating more, said Stokes in Sniffers. “It was just the four of us in a room choosing guitar sounds, working on arrangements and following our guts. We knocked down all the internal walls in the studio. So instead of being four tiny rooms, it became one medium-sized room, so we were able to record it all together in the same room.”
In a post-lockdown New Zealand, the album was finally released in July 2020 and was met with widespread publicity locally and internationally. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive once again and included critical acclaim coming from Rolling Stone, Mojo, and AllMusic.
The goodwill shown to the band in lockdown and their growing army of fans resulted in the album reaching No.2 in the New Zealand official Top 40 album chart. The band celebrated the album’s release and the return of live music – after months – in New Zealand by performing a sold-out show on release day at the Powerstation, to a very receptive audience.
Despite the pandemic, the band has no plans to stop any time soon, with a New Zealand tour planned for October 2020. They hope to get back out on the road internationally in 2021 with dates booked in Europe pending the easing of COVID restrictions overseas. At this stage, it is full steam ahead for The Beths.
The year started well with a positive review of Jump Rope Gazers from Robert Christgau, the veteran, often-acerbic New York critic, in his February 2021 Consumer Guide: “Inflecting her useful tunes, tender heart, and uncertain hopes for the future with a tart, sometimes breathy incipient twang, Elizabeth Stokes and her three male bandmates add a freshness to their all too durable New Zealand jangle-pop ... B PLUS.”
During the period of Covid-19 restrictions, The Beths arranged for their show at the Auckland Town Hall to be filmed as a live stream for their overseas fans. They also had time for some extra new recording – for their label’s 20th anniversary album they covered another New Zealand act that had been on the label (Over The Atlantic) and they contributed a punchy version of ‘Shark Attack’ for a compilation that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Split Enz’s True Colours album. They won three awards at the 2020 music awards, most notably Album of the Year.
However, Covid continued to play havoc with their plans. They wanted to support the small venue Whammy Bar by doing a run of shows there (despite easily being able to fill much bigger venues). After a couple of false starts, they finally completed a full week, sold-out residency there.
When they at last toured the US, Australia, UK, and Europe in early 2022, they faced the same difficulties, with shows postponed after members of their touring party caught Covid mid-tour. At one point, the band even played as a three-piece (without Jonathan) in order to complete a couple of shows in Europe that could not be rescheduled.
In September, they released a new album Expert In A Dying Field (2022) which entered the local charts at No.1, driven partly by the witty title track that compared the memories of an ended relationship to having knowledge of a now irrelevant academic discipline. The album impressed the sometimes-picky reviewers at NME and Pitchfork (who gave it a 4/5 and 8/10 respectively), while online sites like Paste and Slate later listed it amongst their Top 10 albums of the year.
The band were now at a point where they could sell out shows in dozens of cities across the world. In 2023, their touring even took them to Stokes’s birthplace of Jakarta in Indonesia. They were in the midst of a US run of dates when news came through that ex-president Barack Obama had listed their song ‘Watching The Credits’ on his official summer playlist. Word had clearly got out about their remarkably consistent skill at creating carefully constructed rock songs, where every element was in the perfect place.
The Beths were in the US – between gigs in Phoenix AZ and Las Vegas NV – when it was announced in Auckland on 4 October 2023 that their song ‘Expert In a Dying Field’ had won the APRA Silver Scroll.
– Update by Gareth Shute, 2023
Elizabeth Stokes - vocals, guitar
Jonathan Pearce - guitar, vocals
Ben Sinclair - guitar, vocals
Tristan Deck - drums, vocals
Ivan Luketina-Johnston - drums, vocals
Katie Everingham - drums
Chris Pearce - bass