The Flawless Indie Pop of The Beths
Speaker A: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Speaker B: There’s, like, the music that I want to be making and that I want to be playing.
Speaker B: And that music is generally like it’s upbeat and it’s like, fun and it’s fast and it’s fun to play on the guitar and fun to sing it’s.
Speaker B: Scratch is all the itches that I want to scratch.
Speaker B: And then just lyrically, it’s like, you get what you get.
Speaker A: Welcome back to working.
Speaker A: I’m your host, June Thomas.
Speaker C: And I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
Speaker A: Isaac, it’s always nice to see you, but today I am absolutely dying to know whose voice we heard at the top of the show.
Speaker C: We heard the voice of Liz Stokes, who is the songwriter, guitarist and lead singer of New Zealand’s premier power pop band The Beths.
Speaker C: You’ll also hear on this episode Jonathan Pierce, who is the band’s lead guitarist.
Speaker A: Now, they are not the full band, right?
Speaker C: No.
Speaker C: There’s also a bassist and singer named Benjamin Sinclair and a drummer and singer named Tristan Deck.
Speaker C: But Liz and John are sort of the ones in charge of the songwriting and the sound of the band.
Speaker A: Got it.
Speaker A: And why did you want to speak with them?
Speaker C: Well, June, you may remember that way back when in our New Year’s resolution episode, I mentioned wanting to get into new music.
Speaker C: Cameron, roll the tape.
Speaker A: Isaac, you are up.
Speaker A: What is your first goal for the year ahead?
Speaker C: All right, so my big one here is I want to get back into listening to new music.
Speaker C: Following up on that, I went and read a bunch of critics Tops Ten lists, and The Beth’s latest album, Expert in a Dying Field, was on a lot of those, including, I think, Carl Wilson, slate’s own Carl Wilson’s.
Speaker C: And I listened to the album while walking Chili one day, and I was just immediately hooked.
Speaker C: They are practicing rock songwriting at a craft level way beyond most of their peers.
Speaker C: And since this is a show devoted to craft in the creative process, I just really wanted to pick their brain about how they do it.
Speaker A: No kidding.
Speaker A: And I am very impressed with your sticking to those resolutions, enough to actually follow through.
Speaker A: I will be catching up very soon.
Speaker A: I am really excited to hear this interview, but I believe that today there will be a very special, very special extra segment that is exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Speaker A: What will they hear?
Speaker C: So The Beths have become my daughter’s favorite band this year.
Speaker C: So when they agreed to come on, I pitched them on this idea of having my kid ask them a few questions.
Speaker C: They were very open to it.
Speaker C: Liz actually used to teach trumpet to children and stuff like that, so I thought they’d get a kick out of it.
Speaker C: And so our Slate Plus listeners will get to hear Iris, age eight, ask her favorite band some burning questions about their work.
Speaker A: Adorable.
Speaker A: What a treat.
Speaker A: If you’re a member of Slate Plus, you will hear that at the end of the episode.
Speaker A: All right, let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Liz Stokes and Jonathan Pierce of the Beths.
Speaker C: Liz Stokes and John Pierce, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your process right here on Working.
Speaker B: Thanks for having us.
Speaker C: Hey, I guess let’s just, like, start at the very beginning of the songwriting process.
Speaker C: Where do the songs begin for you?
Speaker C: Do they begin with an idea, a melody that comes into your head while you’re walking down the street?
Speaker C: A riff?
Speaker C: How does a song start?
Speaker C: Is there a typical way?
Speaker B: I feel like there used to be a typical cool way, and it’s kind of changed a little bit.
Speaker B: I used to write well, I still write a lot.
Speaker B: I always have a notebook, and I’m always trying to write just, like, free association kind of stream of consciousness stuff.
Speaker B: So I used to kind of go through that and kind of pull little bits that I thought were good, like a good idea or a good or, like, funny.
Speaker B: And then I would kind of link them together or something like that.
Speaker B: But then sometimes it’s the other way around.
Speaker B: Sometimes I’ll have a riff first or a melody first, and then I’ll go through the books and try and find something that feels like it fits.
Speaker B: Or sometimes everything kind of comes at the same time.
Speaker B: Like, I’ll be playing guitar and they’ll have a concept or an idea, and then the words kind of like, come from that as well.
Speaker B: It’s hard to remember.
Speaker B: It’s like you finish a song and you’re like, I don’t know.
Speaker B: I don’t know how I did it, and I don’t think I can do it again ever again.
Speaker C: Oh, really?
Speaker C: Do you have that at the end of each song?
Speaker C: You’re like, well, that’s it.
Speaker C: I’m now retiring from songwriting.
Speaker B: Well, I don’t know.
Speaker B: It’s scary because it feels like it should be, like, a skill that you hone.
Speaker B: And I know that it is because I feel like I’ve gotten better at it.
Speaker B: But also when I haven’t written a song in a while, I’m just like, that’s it.
Speaker B: My career is over.
Speaker B: I don’t remember how to do it.
Speaker C: One thing that I love about your songs, particularly on the most recent album, I like all three of your albums, but I noticed this the most on the most recent one is that there’s often this central image or kind of core idea that you’re playing around with, like, in Knees Deep, right?
Speaker C: It’s like the jumping in the water as a metaphor for just, like, being a braver person in your life and in your relationships and stuff.
Speaker B: Waiting.
Speaker B: I am a cow.
Speaker C: So, for example, with that song, did it, like, start with ah, yes.
Speaker C: I’m going to talk about jumping into the water as a way to explore interpersonal bravery?
Speaker C: Or is that something that developed kind of as you revised it and as you thought about it and dwelled on it more?
Speaker B: Can I remember?
Speaker B: Because Niece Deep is a song that it started as another song that I wrote in 2018.
Speaker B: And it was like an example of a song where I had very few of the lyrics are the same, but the idea I liked.
Speaker B: And so I had, like, a good idea, but like a bad song.
Speaker B: It was kind of boring and slow and so I kind of like was like, oh, well, don’t need that one.
Speaker B: And then later on was like, okay, I’m going to write another song.
Speaker B: And I feel like there’s something to this idea.
Speaker B: Yeah, I feel like for me, there’s a lot of songs that I like.
Speaker B: I like story songs or like character songs, and I like songs where the lyrics are just, like, cool feeling words.
Speaker B: But I just always tend to write different kinds of songs.
Speaker B: Like, I tend to write songs with, like, a central idea.
Speaker B: There’ll be, like a verse or a chorus, which will be the first part of a song that I’ll finish.
Speaker B: And it feels like there’s an idea there and then it kind of branches out from there.
Speaker B: And it just makes sense to me to kind of have those connections.
Speaker B: It would feel weird to me to kind of just ram kind of different ideas, even though that would work.
Speaker B: I think you can have a song that’s like pieces of different kind of ideas.
Speaker B: It just feels right to me to kind of extrapolate from one idea and build the song from there.
Speaker C: You mentioned although you like these kinds of songs, you’re not like, telling a story or it’s not like a traditional narrative song or it’s not just like strings of language.
Speaker C: It tends to be organized around ideas and images.
Speaker C: But do you think of yourself as kind of playing a character when you’re writing a song?
Speaker C: Or do you think of it as it’s like a form of you?
Speaker C: Because they don’t always feel like it’s not like confessional songwriting either, necessarily a little bit.
Speaker B: All the songs come from they feel like they start autobiographically, but they don’t always finish that way.
Speaker B: And they’re usually in first person.
Speaker B: Always in first person, I think.
Speaker B: And then sometimes it’ll be like I’ve written quite a few songs where I’m writing from the perspective of somebody that I know.
Speaker B: It’s not necessarily, but somehow that still feels autobiographical because it’s like empathy.
Speaker B: You’re like, right, this is what it must feel like.
Speaker B: And it feels kind of real.
Speaker B: But yes, I’m not sure where it’s from, but don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Speaker B: I feel like sometimes it makes sense that a song is going to you can give a song some closure or something like that.
Speaker B: There’s still some fiction in there, but I feel like it always comes from a nonfiction place.
Speaker C: Right, totally.
Speaker C: I’ve also noticed there’s like a few of the songs where part of the central idea is this kind of ironic tension between the music and the lyrics.
Speaker C: So, for example, not getting excited is an incredibly musically excited song.
Speaker C: There’s tons of tension and release.
Speaker C: It’s very fast.
Speaker C: It’s the opening number.
Speaker C: It’s a burst of energy.
Speaker C: Or Silence Is Golden is the song about how you want quiet, and it’s the loudest and most chaotic song on the album, as far as I can tell.
Speaker B: I’m gonna sit down.
Speaker C: Do songs like that start with like, oh, right, I’m going to oppose these things, or how does that irony develop in your songwriting process?
Speaker B: Yeah, with Silence Was Golden, the big loud riff came first and then the phrase Silence was golden kind of came out and I was like, oh, I think I know what this song is about now.
Speaker B: That to me just makes sense, though, because it’s about silence.
Speaker B: But it’s like, embodying that feeling of being completely overwhelmed by kind of sound.
Speaker B: I feel like there’s, like, the music that I want to be making and that I want to be playing.
Speaker B: And that music is generally, like it’s upbeat and it’s like, fun and it’s fast and it’s fun to play on the guitar and fun to sing.
Speaker B: It scratches all the itches that I want to scratch.
Speaker B: And then just lyrically, it’s like, you get what you get.
Speaker B: A lot of the stuff that I get is just that I feel okay, singing is honest and it’s me dealing with some stuff.
Speaker B: But, yeah, that’s where the tension comes from and it just makes sense to me.
Speaker B: I think I just feel too self conscious, or maybe I feel less self conscious more recently, but for a long time felt self conscious to be like, I’m going to write a serious song and we’re going to sing it in like, a somber, serious way, and people will take it seriously.
Speaker B: Maybe I just feel too self conscious to commit in that way.
Speaker C: Although there are serious songs on the new album, like Your Side and Best Left and stuff like that, that have a certain kind of grounded, sincere thing to them.
Speaker B: Yeah, I’m dipping my toe in just feeling like it’s okay to be sincere.
Speaker C: Right.
Speaker C: So what form are the songs in when John comes into the process or when you share them with John?
Speaker C: Like John, do you hear them when the rest of the band hears them?
Speaker C: Or do you get like, is it early on when it’s chords and melody?
Speaker C: Or when do you come into the process?
Speaker D: About halfway through the podcast.
Speaker D: But it’s cool.
Speaker D: I know my role.
Speaker D: I’m a passenger for a part of this process in reality and in the podcast, liz basically puts a demo together, like a bedroom demo with some straight in guitar and maybe some backing vocals and stuff.
Speaker D: And most of the time that demo has like two verses and two choruses or two verses and three choruses and lacks a bridge, which is that’s the whole subject of conversation.
Speaker D: You can make a podcast about writing bridges.
Speaker C: Oh, totally, totally.
Speaker B: So hard.
Speaker D: It’s a deep well, let’s do that.
Speaker C: Let’s make this the Bridge podcast.
Speaker C: I’m sure there is a real podcast called the Bridge Podcast.
Speaker C: But what is it that’s so challenging about bridges?
Speaker C: Why does that come at the sort of towards the end of the songwriting process.
Speaker B: Usually in quite a classical form, it’s like yeah.
Speaker B: Versus the choruses.
Speaker B: Which is not necessarily have to write how you have to write a song now you can do anything you want.
Speaker B: But I like doing that.
Speaker B: And then it just feels like with the Bridge, it’s like you have to kind of be brave enough to take it to a slightly different place.
Speaker B: And it feels like it’s got to be supposed to be like a contrasting little bit, right, where it’s like you go somewhere else and then you come back to the chorus or you come back to the final part of the song.
Speaker B: And it’s just like sometimes hard to know what the song wants, what it needs.
Speaker B: And it’s so often I feel like I’ve explored the idea to a certain degree.
Speaker B: It’s kind of like daunting to be like and now I have to write an entirely different thing that has never been part of the original vision of the song.
Speaker B: And I now have to feels like studying another song or something.
Speaker B: You need a whole new section, but.
Speaker C: It still has to relate in terms of the chord structure and the idea and everything to this other thing.
Speaker B: Yeah, this is things like it doesn’t have to some songs just go to a completely different place and it’s awesome.
Speaker B: And I think I just get overwhelmed or by possibility.
Speaker B: Suddenly anything is on the table, this section of the song.
Speaker B: Because it doesn’t have to be a bridge.
Speaker B: Right.
Speaker B: It can be like an instrumental section or it can be a guitar solo.
Speaker B: Often it is a guitar solo.
Speaker B: I like guitar solos, but it just kind of needs something needs to happen at that point in the song.
Speaker C: And sometimes, though, it is.
Speaker C: John, one of your guitar solos, which I noticed because I saw you all live recently.
Speaker C: Often the guitar solo is reproduced fairly note perfect.
Speaker C: Not for every song, but fairly note perfect live as well.
Speaker C: Do you compose those?
Speaker C: Do they come out of improvisation?
Speaker C: Can you talk about how you approach the delicate art of the rad guitar solo?
Speaker D: Yeah, there’s a bit of both.
Speaker D: If I’m really leaving it pretty open live, it’s usually because it was one of the more improvised ones in the studio and it made sense thematically for it to be a bit more improvised or something like that.
Speaker D: I’m a happy man playing the same guitar solos.
Speaker D: Night after night, because that’s, like, part of my joy of learning guitar, was learning solos that were the solo, the thing that got played in later life.
Speaker D: I’ve seen Queens of the Stone Age as an example that just pops straight into my mind.
Speaker D: And Josh Homie.
Speaker D: They play.
Speaker D: No one knows.
Speaker D: It’s like one of their biggest pop banger numbers.
Speaker D: And he plays the solo exactly like it’s on the record.
Speaker D: And not only does he play it, he slays it.
Speaker D: He absolutely shreds.
Speaker D: He’s like more on top of the beat than ever, but you’ve heard it a million times before, so it doesn’t sort of need to be so it doesn’t need to be perfect, but it just needs to be not lazy.
Speaker D: And he completely crushes that and that just makes me really happy.
Speaker D: I love that.
Speaker D: And learning to play guitar.
Speaker D: There’s iconic solos, right?
Speaker D: Like, imagine if you went to such and such a show and you’d learnt the iconic guitar solo and then they f***** with it and played it and played something different.
Speaker D: It’s a bit of a shame.
Speaker D: It’s not really an improvisation.
Speaker D: Yes, they’re kind of compositions and I kind of pride myself on finding little isms inside of the solos, on finding something that is like a trait of the mechanism of the guitar or a trick.
Speaker D: I try to make things where if other guitarists learnt them, they’ll be like, oh, I see the trick.
Speaker D: He’s used an open string every time he plays that note or something like that, and that lets him do this thing.
Speaker D: So whatever it might be, or the trick for this one is unison bends, where you bend one string up to match the note of another string you’re playing.
Speaker D: That’s like, kind of a simple, more simple guitaristic ism my mood.
Speaker D: Every time I play a guitar solo, the mood I’m trying to capture is hooray.
Speaker D: It’s the guitar solo, right?
Speaker C: You’re usually beaming during them on stage, and not in a like, I’m a rock god way, but just in a like, hey, this is really fun, this thing I’m doing.
Speaker C: Are we having fun?
Speaker D: That’s my one emotion.
Speaker C: And I also noticed live, one thing I was really fascinated by live is that even within a song, you two will switch off who’s playing a melodic line and who’s keeping rhythm on the chord sometimes.
Speaker C: And I was interested in what happens in the songwriting process that results in.
Speaker D: That Liz actually writes quite a lot of the guitar parts, at least, like the motiv ideas of them or something like that.
Speaker D: And then heaps of stuff that I play comes pretty much straight from the demo, maybe slightly embellished.
Speaker D: And then when we record, like, when we recorded Sansa’s Golden, all of the main riff that’s Liz playing, all of the guitars of the main riff, because at that time she was really good and accurate at playing that riff and I was really sloppy.
Speaker D: So we’re kind of pragmatist about some of this stuff.
Speaker D: Liz has like a total guitar superpower of using the pick and skipping strings and so playing on like the 6th string, skipping the fifth and playing the fourth and then maybe going back to the fifth or something like that.
Speaker D: And I’m not entirely sure where you’ve managed to develop this superpower, but I.
Speaker B: Think it’s because I used to play finger picked and then I had to learn how to play with the pick, but I would still work stuff out finger picked and be like, okay, now we got to play with the pick.
Speaker D: We’ve clearly done the time to actually work out how to play that with a pick.
Speaker D: And it’s pretty common that Liz will have faster downstrokes and more accurate alternate picking than me until several months worth of gigs when I caught up with her.
Speaker D: So in the studio, it can chop and change who’s playing what.
Speaker D: And then when we come to play it live, it’s kind of like what makes sense for someone to play at that time.
Speaker D: Liz might be singing something challenging, so she doesn’t want to also play a melodic line.
Speaker D: It might be sonically.
Speaker D: It makes more sense to have the quote unquote lead guitar, like the typically louder guitar part play the melodic line.
Speaker D: So we swap it back or something like that.
Speaker A: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Liz Stokes and Jonathan Pierce of the Beths.
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Speaker A: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Liz Stokes and Jonathan Pierce of the Beths.
Speaker C: Another key thing that I think really comes out live is, of course, the harmonies, the counterpoints, the backup vocals, which for folks who have only listened to the Beth’s Studio recordings, it is shocking how on point the live harmonies are.
Speaker C: Because often you see a band that has, like, great harmonies on the album and then you see them live and you’re like, oh, no, something has gone awry here.
Speaker C: The opposite happens with you all and the backup vocals are so much a part of the sound of the band.
Speaker C: I mean, just starting even on that early single whatever with those whatevers that start in unison and then split into harmony.
Speaker D: Whatever.
Speaker B: Yeah, whatever.
Speaker C: All the way through.
Speaker C: Expert in a Dying Feel where the vocals are doing a lot of really sophisticated stuff.
Speaker C: Sometimes you’re almost singing in around with the rest of the band, sometimes they’re singing the part of the chorus while you’re holding a note above it and they’re singing the lyrics.
Speaker B: To be an expert in a dying field how do you know it’s over?
Speaker B: When you can’t let go, you can’t.
Speaker C: Let go obviously, that was always part of the brief and aesthetic of what the band was.
Speaker C: But can you talk about how that’s evolved and how the four of you work out the harmonies?
Speaker C: Have you arranged all of that in advance before the band hears the song?
Speaker D: Liz?
Speaker C: Or is that something that gets worked out in the studio or what?
Speaker B: Often I write what I think will be the harmony part as part of the demoing process.
Speaker B: To me, it just made sense because when I was in high school, I was in, like, a folk band and it was just three people and one person was a lead singer and the other two of us, I played guitar and someone else played double bass.
Speaker B: And it was like it gives you another arrangement tool.
Speaker B: It’s like, oh, cool, we have another instrument that we can layer up on each other or we can be this.
Speaker B: I like that.
Speaker B: When you have harmonies at Skype, you can kind of have that question and answer thing of like you have the main lead vocal and then you have this the chorus and like a musical or something.
Speaker B: And they are like this one demonic voice.
Speaker B: They’ll sing at the same time.
Speaker B: Not demonic, but it feels that kind of interplay.
Speaker B: That’s something I really like as well.
Speaker C: And John, do you have perfect pitch or are you all just drilling that stuff constantly until you know it in your bones or what are your rehearsals like?
Speaker C: Are they excruciatingly perfectionist?
Speaker D: None of us have perfect pitch.
Speaker D: We’ve got pretty good pitch over the years, but mine is the worst of the group just for tuning.
Speaker D: As an example.
Speaker B: You got the high part.
Speaker D: I got ears for other things.
Speaker D: I always take the high part because it’s the easiest to hear and because I’m control freak and I feel like the high part defines the chord and I want to be the one that makes the mistake or gets it right.
Speaker B: When we started then, it was like kind of almost a conceit was that we were all on second instruments apart from the drummer, who’s just very good at drums.
Speaker B: And then we all were like, we all have to sing.
Speaker B: And none of us were like singers.
Speaker B: We could all make noises with our mouths, but it’s like we were like, let’s all get good at singing by writing really hard singing parts and having to sing them at the same time as playing things.
Speaker D: Yeah, lately we’ve been doing a lot of rehearsal where we just sing around an acoustic guitar to double practice the singing.
Speaker D: And that’s super valuable in improving all the way we can practical stuff like making sure you can hear yourself really good in rehearsal.
Speaker D: For the first several years, we were rehearsing on tiny little pas and sweaty band practice rooms.
Speaker D: And I think it’s hard to develop really tight harmonies in that sort of situation unless you’re ultra talented.
Speaker D: So we’ve worked on it from all angles.
Speaker D: But, yeah, beth’s rehearsals are a thing.
Speaker D: I think the rehearsal culture of bands is probably another subject for another pod that’s another one bridges and rehearsal cultures.
Speaker D: Our rehearsal culture is pretty perfectionist, but it’s like we play the song once and then someone makes a joke and that turns into a yarn that we spit out for, like, ten or 15 minutes, and then we come around to deciding we need to play the song again.
Speaker C: So those demos, you’ve overdubbed some vocals and is it just chords at that point or some melodies as well in the guitar?
Speaker B: Usually it’ll be like, what the main guitar patterns?
Speaker B: Which very rarely is just chords, but usually there’s, like, a riff, because it feels like that’s the way a song gets, like, built, right.
Speaker B: Then John O, like, kind of comes in and, like, I don’t know, writes, like, a whole extra part or, like, has to be quite creative.
Speaker B: And, like, he’s using his guitar problem solving brain to, like, figure out, like, what needs to go where and adding melodies and adding lead lines or adding texture, things like that.
Speaker C: And then, of course, obviously, bass and drums have to go into that too.
Speaker C: Do you have kind of in your head what you want those to sound like, or are they sort of then finding their way around it?
Speaker C: The way that John is with his guitar work, there’s usually a bit of.
Speaker D: A vibe in the demo, and because Liz is not just strumming chords, she’s written in somewhat of a guitar part and it usually has the tempo, but what we’ve learned is it usually has the tempo but about ten BPM slower.
Speaker D: So we just need to speed it up a little bit into, like, band mode and then we basically know what it is.
Speaker D: Surprisingly, bass is quite a lot more open ended than drums because it’s such a melodic instrument or it can be played that way, that I think there’s a lot of scope on bass and there’s always moments on drums where they can really make a moment.
Speaker D: And that very rarely is that written by us.
Speaker D: That’s just an opportunity that’s picked up on and taken for a run by Tristan.
Speaker D: But very often there’s a pragmatism to drums as well.
Speaker D: It’s like, this is a four four beat at such and such tempo.
Speaker D: And because of the way the riff and the lyrics fall, the kick drum needs to be on one and three instead of one and the and of two.
Speaker C: Right.
Speaker D: Or one and the end of four.
Speaker D: And those might be, like, the classic beats and you just pick which one fits with what else is happening and pretty much play that.
Speaker D: That’s how I view drums, which is quite reductive, and Tristan will get grumpy at me for saying that, but they still have their moments.
Speaker D: You know, the pre chorus moment in out of Sight, for instance.
Speaker D: It’s like open ended and much enhanced by a little bit of a flourish on the drums.
Speaker C: One thing I noticed about your albums is they don’t sound super studioy, right?
Speaker C: It’s like you’re not like putting a ton of post production effects and each playing seven instruments and getting Jim O’Rourke to add a soundscape in the background or whatever it is.
Speaker C: It feels to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that you’re trying to preserve as live a feel as possible, even though obviously that’s through careful manufacture.
Speaker C: Can you talk a bit about how you use the studio and how you kind of keep the energy up and capture that live ish feeling while still having to do all the kind of meticulous stuff you have to do to record an album?
Speaker D: Yeah, we sort of talk about it.
Speaker D: I mean, obviously it’s something I think about a huge amount because it is important to us for it to be representative of our composition.
Speaker D: We want to compose for the instruments that we play.
Speaker D: Playing live is such an important part of what we do, but it’s also always been my naive belief and goal that if it’s recorded in such a way and performed in such a way, that that simple approach can compete with other approaches and they can live side by side.
Speaker D: I don’t mean to compete, like, to beat them, but we’re big lovers of radio, right?
Speaker D: And we like that our music is on radio and we want to do what we do, but we want it to sound such a way so that it can be played on the radio next to whatever someone else.
Speaker D: Is doing and someone else might have chosen to do way more layering and way more like, quote, unquote, studio sound or something like that.
Speaker D: So I think that’s what I’ve been chasing as a producer for a really long time.
Speaker D: It’s like a way to capture and reproduce more or less a live band with the minimum of pressures on the musicians to change their mode.
Speaker D: And I think what the result has come out to be is like, you could almost call it vague, but it’s just like the sound doesn’t really sound exactly like anything because it’s kind of just trying to sound like the best possible version of what we played.
Speaker D: I mean, if other people are hearing things that I’m not, they can tell me, but I don’t hear any really obvious like, oh, this is such and such a production style, right?
Speaker B: For a long time, it was hard to find things to compare to just because our songs are really dense and fast and so there’s not a lot of space usually there’s not a lot of space between notes and then the guitars.
Speaker B: Are all distorted and so they’re, like, filling up kind of every crevice but not in like a big washy kind of way.
Speaker B: It’s like everything’s very tight and it’s.
Speaker D: Got to be punchy and the wrists have got to be heard.
Speaker B: You’ve really got to dig to find room in the mix for everything because there’s just a lot of space being filled.
Speaker D: It’s a shockingly technological process but I remind everyone that I can about this fact and people have somehow no one has ever thought about it before but rock and roll music is a really technological music.
Speaker D: Yes.
Speaker D: It’s not possible to do it acoustically.
Speaker D: The drums are just too loud and that means the guitars have to be loud and they’re all amplified and the distortion is a factor and distortion tends to happen from volume and then you can’t hear the singer over the top of that.
Speaker D: So then we have microphones and PA systems and things like that.
Speaker D: That’s the bare minimum of technology required to make rock music happen let alone what you need in the studio.
Speaker D: It’s a shockingly technological process to try and get a loud rock band sounding naturalistic as if it was an acoustic band or something like that, which is like a trend right now.
Speaker D: I don’t think Grunge was really trying to sound naturalistic but the stuff that’s on the radio in our world we might be played directly after Afoebi bridges song, which definitely works acoustically.
Speaker D: It’s an acoustic volume in general and there’s an authenticity born out of naturalism to Afoebi.
Speaker D: Bridges performance which we would sound like contrived next to if we weren’t sounding like a naturalistic rock band or something like that.
Speaker D: This is what goes on in my head.
Speaker D: So then that’s how I have to make it.
Speaker D: But that’s what rock music kind of always is.
Speaker D: It’s real technological and I think that’s, like, generally music styles kind of tend to progress on technological lines and we’ve chosen a subset of musical technology that makes sense for us.
Speaker D: I think acknowledging that and embracing it is part of what we do.
Speaker C: Finally, you’re a band who I assume, like a lot of bands, live performance is a significant part of your lives.
Speaker C: And of course, New Zealand, your home nation had amongst the strictest border controls during the early times of COVID which I imagine had to kind of impact what the band was and how it worked in some significant ways.
Speaker C: Can you just talk about how the band evolved maybe or responded to the challenges of trying to be a working band during that early time of the pandemic and what changes you feel like maybe it brought on after?
Speaker B: Yeah, sure.
Speaker B: So we were recording our had finished recording our difficult second album and handed it in on March the first in 2020.
Speaker B: And at that point we were we had a decision, like, once everything in lockdown, it’s like, do we delay the release of this album or do we put it out when we decided we were going to put it out?
Speaker B: In July, I think, and we decided.
Speaker D: To go ahead with it and we made that decision with a dearth of information as well.
Speaker D: Right.
Speaker D: We made it like sitting on a beach in New Zealand wondering, what is this thing going to be?
Speaker B: But then weirdly, we had maybe one of the best two thousand and twenty s of any band in the world just because we managed.
Speaker B: The New Zealand had the border closed and there was quite a hard lockdown and managed to eliminate COVID from the country for most of 2020.
Speaker B: And so we did like a national eleven day tour of New Zealand, which is a lot of shows.
Speaker B: Normally you only do like three or four because there’s not many big cities, so we played a lot of small towns and stuff and we played a big show at the Auckland Hall, which is our biggest ever show.
Speaker B: We got like a lot, lot of press in New Zealand, I guess, because there was not a lot going on.
Speaker D: Kind of like summer festivals.
Speaker D: There was a whole festival, but we also did live streams and tried to put an album out internationally at that time and so we had to try to find people and it felt pretty fraught at times.
Speaker D: We weren’t sure who was listening or if anyone was really listening.
Speaker B: Yeah, it was kind of weird.
Speaker B: So we got to play a bit in 2020, which was great, but then 2021 was extremely quiet and that was when we were recording the next album.
Speaker B: Yeah, I don’t know, it was a weird time.
Speaker B: We were also really lucky that in New Zealand we were able to get a wage subsidy.
Speaker B: So none of us was like, well, just have got to switch careers right now.
Speaker D: Well, we all kind of thought that.
Speaker B: For a second anyway, yeah, everything was on the table.
Speaker B: But I feel like that’s an important point to make as well, just because that was what allowed us to kind of like keep going as a band and keep making stuff and keep hopeful that we would be able to tour again internationally.
Speaker C: Amazing.
Speaker C: Liz, John, thank you so much for joining us here.
Speaker C: I’m working to talk about your process.
Speaker B: Thanks.
Speaker B: Thanks for having us.
Speaker D: Thank you.
Speaker A: Up next, Isaac and I will talk about harnessing the unconscious and how you prepare yourself to take on the work that is generated from collaborative feedback.
Speaker A: Isaac, I learned so much from that conversation.
Speaker A: The specificity of your questions revealed that you are knowledgeable about the technicalities of rock and roll performance.
Speaker A: Have you spent a lot of time playing in bands?
Speaker C: I actually have not.
Speaker C: I’ve always wanted to do more of it, but I haven’t played in a band since my high school band, Lincoln on Stilts.
Speaker C: Shout out to Dave Hanlon if you’re listening to this, but I have a good layman’s grasp on how music works.
Speaker C: I have friends who are composers, I have friends who play in bands.
Speaker C: I will often look up a chord chart and play a song and sing it to myself on my ukulele.
Speaker C: I should probably insert a little special thanks here, actually.
Speaker C: My friend Adam O’Fallon Price, who is a wonderful novelist, used to play with his band called Mayflies USA, who are themselves kind of a power poppy band.
Speaker C: And I sent him the Beths to listen to and he got really into it.
Speaker C: And so we would kind of pick apart their songs and what they’re doing a lot.
Speaker C: And that really helped me to prep for this interview.
Speaker A: Wow, that sounds great.
Speaker A: I loved hearing Liz’s explication of her songwriting technique which often starts with stream of consciousness writing that she pulls an image or a line from and then gradually that incoate notion which comes from a very loose part of the brain involves into something more structured, and specifically a demo that she hands off to Jonathan, at which point he becomes involved and adds his skills.
Speaker A: That just fascinated me.
Speaker A: And this might seem silly, but I think because songwriting is often done well by very young people, it can seem slightly magical, something you’re either gifted at or you’re not.
Speaker A: And it sounded to me like Liz’s process begins with magic, but then goes through rounds of revision that bring experience and technique and maybe even science into play.
Speaker A: Like, what a journey.
Speaker C: Yeah, I agree with you.
Speaker C: But I will say that isn’t initial magic of inspiration plus incredibly hard, thoughtful work of revision, how great art gets made, whether you’re a writer or painter or whatever.
Speaker C: I often think that the technical craft stuff we learn as artists in whatever field we’re in is most relevant in the revision stage.
Speaker C: That’s actually when you’re thinking about, oh, I shouldn’t use the passive voice or whatever, or impasto or I don’t know what painters do anyway.
Speaker C: It’s most useful when you’re revising or when you aren’t feeling inspired and need to work yourself into the space where the spark catches and a fire starts.
Speaker C: I think young people are particularly good at rock songwriting because they’re often less inhibited about that initial creative spark.
Speaker C: They don’t know enough to be cynical about their work yet, or they might not know enough to say, this song kind of sounds like this other song by Paul McCartney, which I think can really get in people’s way.
Speaker C: US old fogeys are trying to get back to that less inhibited place where we can be more open and just kind of go with whatever the impulse is and worry about refining it later.
Speaker A: Yeah, and I think a lot of my what I think is probably a romance about songwriting comes from this very cliched notion of, like, the black kind of art students sketchbook where people have written out the lyrics to songs and maybe some chord notation in their sort of teenage handwriting.
Speaker A: And you see that years later, maybe on an album cover.
Speaker A: I’m revealing my age right there, and it seems like it’s just straight out of their head onto the page and then into your ears.
Speaker A: And obviously, that’s not how it works.
Speaker A: We know that.
Speaker C: But that initial spark is important.
Speaker C: It’s a funny thing if you watch the documentary Get Back, there’s the moment that went very viral online, where Paul McCartney is just kind of strumming and he’s trying to figure out what to do, and he’s like humming a melody and then all of a sudden the pieces get come together and the beginnings of the song Get Back just hurt.
Speaker C: You know, people went crazy about that.
Speaker C: But actually, it’s like if you’ve ever written a song or you talk to people who write songs, that’s actually what songwriting often is.
Speaker C: You’re, like, f****** around on the instrument, then suddenly you’re like, oh, that sounds good.
Speaker C: What’s a word that would go like that?
Speaker C: And it emerges like that.
Speaker C: And in fact, a lot of writings like that.
Speaker C: You pace around and then you jump onto your keyboard, you write a sentence, and suddenly something comes out.
Speaker C: So it is a miracle, but it’s the kind of miracle that happens all the time all over the world.
Speaker A: Yeah.
Speaker A: And you got to put yourself in the position for the miracle to happen, which is probably sitting at your desk or scribbling into that black sketchbook.
Speaker C: Absolutely.
Speaker A: I know it’s a bad habit of mine to compare other artistic pursuits to the one I work in, but well, here we go again.
Speaker A: Hearing Liz talk about the resistance she sometimes feels when John responds to her demo, which is basically the first draft of the song, he will sometimes ask her to write something else to accommodate the bridge or a solo or to take a different approach that he thinks the song should have.
Speaker A: And that’s like when a nonfiction writer gets an edit back.
Speaker A: Right.
Speaker A: Liz knows John’s suggestion will improve the work she’s produced, but there’s still a natural kind of pushback.
Speaker A: It’s basically kind of, oh, but it was finished, I was done.
Speaker A: I imagine this happens to pretty much every creative person who has any kind of feedback loop.
Speaker A: So how do you deal with that resistance?
Speaker A: It’s temporary.
Speaker A: It’s not like you want to have a fight with your editor, but it has to be gotten through.
Speaker A: Right.
Speaker A: So what do you do?
Speaker C: You sound like someone who maybe just got an edit memo back on the manuscript of their forthcoming book about the history of lesbian culture through specific places and types of spaces that have been important to lesbian political organizations.
Speaker A: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Isaac.
Speaker A: This is a purely hypothetical question.
Speaker C: Well, I think everyone has a moment of immediate resistance when they get notes.
Speaker C: It’s completely natural.
Speaker C: You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.
Speaker C: If you’re listening to this, it’s because sharing your work with anyone in even a finished form is an incredibly vulnerable and intimate act.
Speaker C: And that’s even true if it’s an editor at a newspaper that you’ve never worked with and you’re just sending them a draft, which I did yesterday on a piece.
Speaker C: And it’s anxiety producing.
Speaker C: You’re really opening yourself up there, and then they’re going to respond.
Speaker C: In John and Liz’s case, that’s a relationship that goes back to high school.
Speaker C: They’ve been working together for a long time.
Speaker C: They trust each other a lot, and they’re still going to feel that way.
Speaker C: Ben Hyman, my editor at Bloomsbury.
Speaker C: We’re about to start working together on our third book.
Speaker C: I still feel like when I get notes from him, there’s a moment where I’m like, oh, I don’t know that I want these, even though I know I trust him.
Speaker A: Yeah.
Speaker C: When you know the person well and you have a trusting relationship, you just have to hold on to that.
Speaker A: Yeah.
Speaker C: This is one piece of advice that I will say.
Speaker C: If you are getting notes from someone you don’t have a long standing relationship with, is that you are also learning about them through this process.
Speaker C: It’s not actually all about you, and you’re learning about their taste, where the two of you might differ.
Speaker C: And it’s really important to think of their notes.
Speaker C: A friend of mine has this good adage about editors, that editors think they’re the doctor, but they’re the patient because what they’re actually doing is diagnosing.
Speaker C: They’re like, Ow, my stomach hurts.
Speaker C: Right?
Speaker C: And so their solution to the problem may not be the correct one, but they may have stumbled upon a problem that needs some other fix.
Speaker C: So it’s okay to ask a lot of questions about the notes, real questions.
Speaker C: Not pushback questions, but real questions.
Speaker C: It’s okay to explain what you were trying to do and then say, obviously I didn’t do it.
Speaker C: Do you think there’s a better way to do this?
Speaker C: Or do I need to be doing something else?
Speaker C: Like get into that dialogue, particularly if it’s someone you’re going to have a long standing creative relationship with, like editing a book or being in a band, because otherwise I think you’re going to find yourself in some trouble if you’re just like, well, I have to blindly take all these notes.
Speaker A: No, you f***.
Speaker C: Don’t talk to them about it, and you’ll get better feedback as a result.
Speaker A: Totally.
Speaker A: And I’m very glad that I’ve never worked with an editor who I just felt we were kind of speaking different languages.
Speaker A: We weren’t hearing each other in either direction.
Speaker A: I’ve never had that.
Speaker A: But really, I think, Mike, you’ve given a lot of great wisdom there.
Speaker A: But I think there just is this feeling, even when it’s someone you trust, even when you agree with everything they say, where you’re just like, oh, but I was finished.
Speaker A: And, you know, you weren’t, you know, you weren’t, you know, there’s a lot more work to do, but somehow it’s just like you just have to get past that point and be like, okay, now we’re in for another round.
Speaker A: Let’s roll our sleeves up, whatever the cliche might be.
Speaker A: But, yeah, it’s going to be great.
Speaker A: I loved how much music we heard in the interview.
Speaker A: Thank you, Cameron.
Speaker A: But naturally, we only heard very short snatches of the songs.
Speaker A: Once listeners have finished this episode, if they’re curious to hear more from The Beths, what one song, just one, would you direct them to?
Speaker A: In order to get a sense of the band’s style, the easiest thing is.
Speaker C: This go to their latest album, Expert in a Dying Field.
Speaker C: Play the first track, which has the same title.
Speaker C: I could go beat by beat through what it’s doing at each moment that makes it like this sophisticated little pop masterpiece on a craft level, because every choice they make in that is exactly the right one.
Speaker C: Down to like, when is the harmony going?
Speaker C: Who is doing this?
Speaker C: When is it switching from major to minor?
Speaker C: But doing all of that makes it sound laborious, when actually it’s just a really fun anthemic song.
Speaker C: You will really like it.
Speaker C: Or if you don’t like it, this is not the band for you.
Speaker A: Yeah, that’s a great test.
Speaker A: Well, I need everybody to go and listen to that.
Speaker A: But before we go, we’ve got to say thanks to a few people and also mention that if you enjoyed this show, why not subscribe?
Speaker A: You can do it wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Speaker A: That way you’ll never miss an episode.
Speaker A: And a reminder that by joining Slate Plus, you’ll get ad free podcasts, extra segments on shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you’ll never hit a paywall on the Slate site.
Speaker A: To learn more, go to slate.com.
Speaker A: Workingplus.
Speaker C: Thank you to Liz Stokes and Jonathan Pierce of The Beths, and to our producer Cameron Drews, who is an expert in every field.
Speaker C: Some additional thanks to YouTuber Marty Music for providing us with the lovely sound of the unison band.
Speaker C: We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with prolific and acclaimed mystery writer Ellen Hart, who’s most famous for the Jane Lawless series of novels.
Speaker C: Until then, get back to work.
Speaker B: Our channel.
Speaker C: Hey, Slate Plus listeners, thank you so much for everything you do to support us.
Speaker C: We have a special treat today, some extra questions for The Beths.
Speaker C: These questions were actually written by my daughter because The Beths have become her favorite band over the course of my incessant listening to them over the course of this year.
Speaker C: And so she wrote these questions and she’s actually going to ask at least a couple of them, I believe.
Speaker C: So why don’t you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Speaker C: Iris.
Speaker E: My name is Iris and I am Isaac’s daughter.
Speaker C: Okay, great.
Speaker C: So here you go.
Speaker B: Okay.
Speaker E: So what is the favorite song that you have written so far?
Speaker B: That’s a hard one.
Speaker B: Favorites are hard, I think, because when you go to an ice cream shop, it’s like, what’s your favorite ice cream?
Speaker B: But to me, I like to go to the ice cream shop and figure out how I feel.
Speaker B: And do I feel like peppermint chocolate?
Speaker B: Do I feel like salted caramel?
Speaker B: And I feel like so favorites to me are kind of hard because they feel so permanent.
Speaker B: And now this has to be my favorite forever.
Speaker B: But I don’t know.
Speaker B: I do have a soft spot for song called Lying in the sun, which was, like, one of our really early songs that we wrote on our first EP, just because it’s kind of a special song to me.
Speaker B: But also I like, Expert in a Dying Field because I feel like it’s maybe one of the best songs that I’ve written.
Speaker E: I love that song.
Speaker E: I love that song.
Speaker E: Expert in a dying field song.
Speaker E: I listen to it all the time.
Speaker B: Thanks, Iris.
Speaker E: How and where did you all meet?
Speaker D: We all met when we were quite young.
Speaker D: We were in school together and we were kind of playing in our first band and starting to play shows because we were trying to put on, like, small shows for our friends and things like that with our first bands.
Speaker D: And then we sort of learned through each other that we really loved music and we wanted to keep doing music.
Speaker D: And we ended up going to university to study music together, like, to college and study music together.
Speaker D: And we did that and we just kept playing in bands.
Speaker D: And the Beths was just like, our hobby band for a long time or we worked away on it on the weekends or on a Wednesday night or something like that.
Speaker D: And then it just turned into something, and we’re really happy for that.
Speaker E: Is it hard to write songs?
Speaker B: To write songs sometimes, yeah.
Speaker B: But like, anything, it’s like when you first start doing it, it’s hard, but you have to kind of start at something and kind of be bad at it to get better at it.
Speaker B: And every time you start a song, it kind of feels like I’m a bit rusty again, but then you kind of get into it and you remember that you can still do it.
Speaker E: Were you ever scared at your first performance?
Speaker B: Oh, yeah.
Speaker B: I used to be very nervous being on stage, and I would make jokes, but I wouldn’t make them into the microphone so no one could hear them.
Speaker B: And yeah, with performing, it’s one of those things that the more you do it, the less scary it gets.
Speaker B: And now I’m not usually scared at all unless it’s like a really big show.
Speaker B: Usually I’m just looking forward to playing.
Speaker B: Do you get nervous, John?
Speaker D: Not as much anymore.
Speaker D: But still, sometimes something will just set you off and set me off, and then I’ll be nervous all the whole time.
Speaker D: But yeah, just trying to remember our first gigs.
Speaker D: I think I was just so happy that this band that Liz was running was playing a gig that I didn’t get too scared on the first one.
Speaker D: But we definitely had some scary ones later on.
Speaker B: Yeah, we did a tiny disc recently, and that was pretty scary because it was really quiet.
Speaker E: My parents went to one of your concerts, and I really wanted to go.
Speaker E: I just really wanted to go.
Speaker E: My mom taped a video.
Speaker B: Maybe you can come next time.
Speaker B: Or if it’s our 18, maybe you can come to a sound chip.
Speaker E: I want to go.
Speaker C: Do you have any other questions you want to ask, or is that it?
Speaker E: No, that’s it.
Speaker C: Okay, great.
Speaker C: Do you want to say goodbye?
Speaker E: Goodbye.
Speaker B: Bye, Iris.
Speaker B: Thanks for the interview.
Speaker D: Thank you.
Speaker C: Now she’s popping in and out of frame.
Speaker C: All right, that’s it for the bonus part of this week’s episode, slate plus.
Speaker C: Listeners, thank you so much for everything you do to support us.
Speaker C: And thank you again, Liz and John, for joining us here on Working.
Speaker B: Thanks for having us.
Speaker D: That’s your pleasure.