Music Interview: Chatting with Liz Stokes of The Beths

By Blake Maddux

Lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist Liz Stokes talked about the making of The Beths’ most recent album, why the band isn’t called The Lizzes, and if fans can expect to ever hear her play trumpet.

I have had the good fortune to have — in an admittedly somewhat patchwork fashion — publicly chronicled my love of The Beths since 2019.

My PDA for the Liz Stokes–fronted band has included listing their debut album, Future Me Hates Me, among my delightful dozen of 2018, fawning over their 2021 live recording, Auckland, New Zealand, 2020, and previewing their 2022 and 2023 shows at Royale and The Sinclair, respectively.

My fondness for their 2016 EP Warm Blood, their debut LP, 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers, and their live release is more or less equal.

However, my enthusiasm for last September’s Expert in a Dying Field, is less than that of the many reviewers who have called it the Kiwi quartet’s best effort yet.

However, no one for whom this album serves as an introduction to The Beths will be left with any doubt of what Stokes and her bandmates are capable of.

In fact, I might be willing to say that Expert in a Dying Field is tied with their previous efforts in the quality of its best tracks. Moreover, it probably would have had the same effect on me that Future Me Hates Me did, had I heard it first instead. (And I might very well preorder the deluxe edition that is slated for release on September 15, one day short of the original’s one-year anniversary.)

The next stop for The Beths — which comprises high school and college mates Stokes, guitarist/producer Jonathan Pearce, and bassist Benjamin Sinclair, along with drummer Tristan Deck — is the Newport Folk Festival, where they will serve as part of Friday night’s entertainment. On August 19, the band will be among those participating in the In Between Days Festival at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy.

Both of these shows will offer opportunities for them to brag, if they are so inclined, about the fact that Barack Obama included their newly released stand-alone single, “Watching the Credits,” on his 2023 summer playlist.

Lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist Liz Stokes kindly talked to me via Zoom about — among other things — the making of The Beths’ most recent album, why the band isn’t called The Lizzes, and if fans can expect to ever hear her play trumpet.

The Arts Fuse: What do you think that you did better on Expert in a Dying Field than you did on previous ones?

Liz Stokes: I don’t know. I feel like it’s like I’ve figured out how to make albums get better or something.

I know for Jonathan, there’s a sense of progression. As time goes on and he learns more and more, he’s becoming a better mixing engineer and producer.

I want to say I feel like that as a songwriter. I know we feel more like a band. As we get better at our instruments, we get better at playing together as a unit.

With songwriting it feels like … I know that there’s a skill there — there’s like a muscle — that I’m getting better and better at. But also, 50 percent  of the time it feels like magic. You can’t explain it. Songwriters don’t just 100 percent get better and better and better necessarily. Sometimes people write their best stuff at a certain time and then don’t anymore.

So it feels like I’m tempting fate to be like, “yeah, I’m getting better and better,” and then the next album it would be like, “I don’t know how to write songs anymore!”

The Beths. Photo: Frances Carter

AF: What was it about the expression “expert in a dying field” that prompted you to use it as the title of the album and the lead-off song?

LS: Naming albums is kind of like the last thing we do. You look at the thing you’ve created, the larger work, and you have to make a call. That song just kind of felt like the emotional core of the album. It felt right.

AF: Did the band really bungee jump for the “Knees Deep” video?

LS: Oh yeah!

The story behind that video is that we had another music video planned last year. It was a completely different idea, but then the night before the shoot, the director got Covid. So we had to cancel that. But we had to leave to go on tour in like three days. So we called up our friends Sports Team, who are just amazing. They’ve made so many videos for us, and they made our concert movie in 2020.

They came last-minute, and I said, “We need to make an emergency video. I’ve got this idea, let’s just go bungee jumping.” And they magically extrapolated it out into a storyline and everything. We shot it the next day. It was all hypothetical until we actually had to do it! It was kind of terrifying. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but maybe because in New Zealand it’s just more commonplace.

AF: “Silence Is Golden” appears to be about something you felt inclined to vent about other than a relationship. Do you care to elaborate?

LS: You’d think that music would be a comfort, and for many years it was. But I think my relationship with it has gotten kind of complicated since becoming a musician. So often it’s work. So if I’m in a bad headspace, or have bad mental health, I like to stop listening to music and I really just want quiet. I feel like it’s an expression of that. When my anxiety gets bad, all I can stomach is quiet, which I don’t love. And then we made the song as loud as possible!

AF: “Change in the Weather” was cowritten by Jonathan Pearce. How frequently do your fellow Beths come to you with song ideas, or do they always build on what you present to them?

LS: Usually I will bring in the demo of the song, which is usually just me and guitar and all the lyrics and stuff. Sometimes there won’t be a middle eight or something, but the bones of the song — the melody, the words, and the harmony — are usually there.

I’d be interested in exploring writing together a little more. But I’m a bit goblin-like. I just wanna hoard my songs. It feels so personal, especially the lyrics. I’ve never really collaborated on lyrics before, not even in any of my previous bands. So it’s something I should probably learn to do.

AF: Did the Covid lockdown in New Zealand initially interfere with the completion and release of this album? How did it affect the final product?

LS: We started working on the album in early 2021, started recording it mid-year, and then like a month into recording at Jonathan’s project studio we went into a big lockdown because Covid came in.

We liked the album but thought we needed a few more songs. And I was like, I’ll spend the two or three weeks, however long it lasts, just writing songs, getting it done, and we’ll make the record something we really like. And the lockdown lasted until the end of the year!

When we finally got together, we recorded all through January right up until we left for the American tour in February last year. Jonathan finished mixing it on the tour bus. It was an intense process, but we got it done.

I feel like having that time where we had what we thought was an album, and then we suddenly had this time with it to kind of … I don’t know, I feel like it really made it better. I wrote “Knees Deep,” “A Passing Rain,” and “2am” during that time.

AF: I’ve read that you were inspired to call the band The Beths by Lorelei Gilmore, who chose to name her daughter after herself. So why aren’t you called The Lizzes?

LS: Like I said, naming things is hard. We were forced to come up with a name for our first gig.

“The Lizzes” is even harder to say and “The Beths” is hard enough. It’s never a name that people hear the first time, particularly because we have a different accent than most people. Trying to say The Beths to people in Germany is hard; even in Australia it’s hard. They’re like, “The Biths? B-I-T-H-S?” And I’m like, “No!”

So as hard as it is, I think “The Lizzes” would be worse. I feel like “The Beths” is snappier.

AF: Since The Beths and Boston/Natick native Jonathan Richman are both playing the Newport Folk Festival, I have to ask if the song “Rush Hour 3” (from the 2016 EP Warm Blood) was inspired by The Modern Lovers’ song “Roadrunner”?

LS: Oh probably, yeah. It was written by our drummer at the time [Ivan Luketina-Johnston], so we don’t really play it anymore. I know Jonathan [Pearce] is a huge fan of The Modern Lovers.

AF: Speaking of the Boston area, number one on my list of shows that I wish I’d seen is probably when you were at Atwood’s Tavern on October 10, 2018.

LS: I remember that. That was a fun show. We were like, “It’s great to be here in Boston!” and people were like, “Boo, this is Cambridge!” And we were like, “Oh, our booking agent told us it was Boston!” It was like a Spinal Tap moment!

AF: How strongly does your interest in jazz — which you, Jonathan, and Benjamin all studied in college — figure into the band’s sound?

LS: I’m not sure that it does. I think what we all really got out of it was that it’s a collaborative medium. It’s not like you sit in a room and play jazz by yourself. You play interactively. I really liked learning all the standards. And I feel like that really helped me figure out what I really liked about songs and songwriting. We kind of share a language which makes it kind of easy to communicate about arrangements and things like that.

AF: Do you expect trumpet, which you once taught for a living, to figure prominently on any future projects?

LS: I haven’t ruled it out. I did for a while because I felt like, “I’m finished with jazz school, now I’m gonna start a rock band!” But now I feel like I could bring the trumpet out again if the right opportunity came about.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, Somerville Times, and Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts