‘Happy Unhappy’: The Beths On Hope, Colour, And The New Zealand Music Scene

Image: The Beths – supplied.

Author: Melody Menu

Despite the sweet-sounding harmonies and power-pop feel, a live show by The Beths reveals a welcome edge to their sound. Raw and emotive, their songs affect a sweet-sounding catharsis, and a relatable message of hope. From a packed European tour supporting Death Cab For Cutie, to a five-show stint at South By South West playing with the likes of Priests and Deerhunter, The Beths have been busy. Taking a break before returning to Australian shores later this year for a headline tour, frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes talks us through the band’s foundational moments studying with members of Auckland compatriots Wax Chattels, and how their ‘Happy Unhappy’ music contains a multitude of emotions.

How did The Beths take shape as a band?

A couple years after finishing studying, Jonathan gave me a nudge and said I should write some music and he could record it. I did miss writing music so that got the wheels turning about what kind of music I would make if I started a new project. I listened to a lot of pop punk and indie rock growing up and was bummed I’d learned guitar but never gotten to play that style of music. So I did a lot of listening and writing, for about a year, and then Ben helped me record some demos and I nervously sent them over to Jono and Ivan. We started learning them the next week I think.

I noticed that the band met while studying jazz, much like Wax Chattels – how has this jazz training influenced your music or creative process?

We actually studied with Wax Chattels, and Amanda is one of my best friends, we went to high school together. I think it just is so great really getting inside music and learning about it and being surrounded by people who love it as much as you do and all you want to do is nerd out about it. As far as its influence on our process, it helps me to recognise and more easily decipher the sounds in my head, and then to communicate those ideas to the rest of the band. Ear training was maybe the most useful thing to come out of it, practically, as well as practice ethic.

What drives you to create and make music?

I’d always been drawn to music, since I was very young. I didn’t come from a ‘musical family’, but I always really took to listening to it and loved learning about it. Making music is now so tied to my identity that I can’t imagine a version of myself that doesn’t make music.

Your songs have that happy-sounding, not-so-happy lyrics combination – but how do the songs feel to play?

The songs are challenging for us to play and sing at the same time. That sounds so ridiculous, but these aren’t our first instruments, and none of us are amazing singers. So, I’m usually concentrating very hard and trying not to make mistakes. When things are going well, it feels great. It’s like riding a bike really fast down a hill, exhilarating in part because everything could go wrong in one second.

Your film clips are quite stylised and colourful – what does this aesthetic mean to you?

I like colours. I worked in cafes all though high school and university, and the uniform was always all black. So when I get a choice, I always choose colour. The best luck we have had with videos has been working with the talented friends we have and trusting their visions, so the aesthetic in videos usually comes from them.

How have concepts of self-doubt – or maybe even mental health – affected the new record?

It’s all in there, I think it’s something everyone has to deal with and there’s as much of me in these songs as there is the experience of my friends and loved ones around me. But I don’t think it’s a pessimistic record, there’s also the hope and joy of letting go, I hope that’s in there too.

How has Auckland as a city and New Zealand’s music scene in general influenced your music?

I think New Zealand musicians don’t just do one thing – no one tours their indie band through New Zealand for a living! So you’re exposed to lots of different music, and you mix with a lot of different, supportive and talented musicians too. Auckland musicians are a tight knit group too, the punk and the jazz players tend to go to the same gigs and inhabit the same bars. We’re so supported back home, I feel very lucky to come from such a strong scene.

What are some Kiwi acts that we should be listening to?

Hans Pucket, Miss June, Ladi6, Wax Chattels, Tiny Ruins, Skilaa.

The Beths Australian Tour with Jess Locke, info through here.

  • Friday October 4 – The Gasometer, Melbourne.
  • Saturday October 5 – Crowbar, Sydney.
  • Thursday October 10 – The Brightside, Brisbane.
  • Friday October 11 – Jive, Adelaide.
  • Saturday October 12 – Badlands, Perth.

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