New Zealand indie rockers The Beths take a leap on new album ‘Jump Rope Gazers’

Elizabeth Stokes on pushing through with album two, overcoming cultural cringe and finding her voice

Prior to the release of debut album ‘Future Me Hates Me’ in 2018, The Beths hadn’t played much outside of their native Auckland, let alone New Zealand. Formed in the mid-2010s by four university students, the band held few loftier ambitions beyond making harmonious indie-pop as an outlet away from the complex nature of their jazz studies.

By the time their album cycle ended, however, it would have been easier to list the places the band didn’t get to. ‘Future Me Hates Me’, with its blend of precision power-pop, lyrical vulnerability and impeccable vocal harmony, propelled them to festival slots in Europe and the United States as both headliners and supports for indie giants like Bloc Party and Death Cab For Cutie.

From Primavera Sound to Pickathon, The Beths gamely undertook it all. All while they were supporting their debut, though, their vision for its follow-up had begun to come together.

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“When we finished the first album, it was a matter of having a whole, complete work to point to and attach a sonic identity to,” Elizabeth Stokes, the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, tells NME. “Because of that, it felt like we could stretch out a little bit more.”

‘Jump Rope Gazers’, the band’s highly anticipated second album, re-asserts The Beths as quick-thinking songwriters. Take the exhilarating opener ‘I’m Not Getting Excited’, for instance, or the twinkly emo revival of ‘Out Of Sight’. At the same time, the album also opens up new spaces for the band to play and work through fresh ideas.

Things kicked off for Stokes with the album’s title track, a starry-eyed major chord love song and one of the first she wrote for the record. “The fact it felt different to the first album in its own way, and the fact I felt comfortable with that, definitely gave me a lot of confidence going forward,” she recalls.

The gruelling months The Beths put in touring ‘Future Me Hates Me’ inevitably informed its follow-up. On ‘Jump Rope Gazers’, Stokes reflects on life in the wake of a breakout debut album, rethinking ideas of normalcy after seeing the world – and leaving friends and family behind. Even as early on as the lead single, ‘Dying To Believe,’ Stokes sounds as though she’s hanging on by a thread. “These days I’m struggling to stand my own reflection,” she sings. “Six months ago so I could hardly breathe.”

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“It’s interesting,” Stokes says. “I find it really difficult to write on tour, and yet that’s where I experience a lot of the emotions that go into the songs.

“It’s like one can’t exist without the other. We were coming and going a lot at the time, so anytime I had a block of time at home was when I’d try and flesh out as many of the ideas as I could. We knew the end of 2019 was our chance to make this record – I didn’t want to be caught off-guard. When the time came, I wanted to be ready.”

“I find it really difficult to write on tour, and yet that’s where I experience a lot of the emotions that go into the songs”

For the new record, Stokes, guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and new drummer Tristan Deck – replacing Ivan Luketina Johnston, who amicably left The Beths in 2018 – laid down dozens of tracks at Pearce’s home studio. The ten on ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ were whittled down from that wealth of material. How did they decide what made the cut? “The bond between these songs is we loved playing them straight away,” says Stokes.

“There were a few half-finished songs, and could’ve really gone either way. Some of them just ended up ruling, so we pushed to finish those. Others we tried to fix and really work on, and they just never settled in. We just went song by song until we ended up with ten.” Why ten? “It just seems like a good number to me,” Stokes laughs.

The Beths
The Beths. Credit: Mason Fairey

That straightforwardness also characterises how The Beths decided on the enigmatic title ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ – which, like ‘Future Me Hates Me’, is a turn of phrase Stokes coined herself, and also a title of a song on the album. “The way we do things, stuff like the album title is the last thing we get around to,” she confesses. “You’re focusing so much on the songs, making them all the best you can, it doesn’t even cross your mind.”

Stokes knows ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ is an ambiguous title. In fact, that’s why she likes it. “When I’ve shown that song to people, they’ve all interpreted it in different ways,” she says. “There’s no official meaning to it. It’s something I made up, with a very particular kind of imagery in my head. People have been like, ‘Do you mean like this?’ then tell me something completely different. That’s great! There’s no way I’d want to take that from people.”

“There was this sense of accomplishment that came with being able to make it sound like you weren’t from here”

Another song Stokes highlights as the kind of music The Beths wouldn’t have been able to make circa ‘Future Me’ is the album’s fifth track, ‘Do You Want Me Now.’ The slow, methodical track substitutes the band’s firebrand pop-rock with something more understated and outside their comfort zone. “Traditionally, the way we write is with a build in mind – working towards a point and creating catharsis when it hits,” she says.

“This time, it felt different. We wanted to create a song that felt like it was kind of simmering the whole way through, not really changing dynamically. It was more about layering, creating more textual changes than anything. It felt very… un-Beths. It was not anything revolutionary. Within what our group does, though, it was nice to explore.”

“It’s a cheesy concept, but that idea of ‘finding your voice’ really applied to me”

Perhaps one of the album’s more noticeable aspects, for non-Australasian listeners, is Stokes’ Kiwi accent; Stokes took some time to navigate its presence within the band’s sound. “There was this sense of accomplishment that came with being able to make it sound like you weren’t from here,” she says of growing up with cultural cringe. “It was like, ‘Wow, they sound like a real band!’ That was basically code for, ‘Wow, they sound like an American band!’”

While her accent wasn’t entirely absent from ‘Future Me’, it wasn’t as distinct and prevalent as it is on ‘Jump Rope Gazers’. It’s come, Stokes reveals, as a result of growing accustomed to fronting a band. “Prior to The Beths, I’d only ever sung backing vocals,” she says. “I was always self-conscious about the way I sang. It’s a cheesy concept, but that idea of ‘finding your voice’ really applied to me. I’ve found a lot of comfort in being able to sing in a way that comes naturally.” With Stokes’ voice finally found, The Beths venture forth with one of the year’s essential indie rock records.

The Beths’ ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ is out now.

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