The Beths' Elizabeth Stokes interviewed
Fresh off a breakout year, and ahead of capping it all off by playing Indian Summer in Glasgow, The Beths’ Elizabeth Stokes talks about long distance, writing on the road and what future her really thinks
Elizabeth Stokes has been thinking about distance. And as the lead singer and songwriter of The Beths, it's not surprising that her mind is occupied by vast expanses of time and space. From the band’s home in Auckland, New Zealand, to stealing hearts at festivals, like closing Primavera Sound in Barcelona, to returning multiple times to cities they played for the first time just a year ago – as they will to Glasgow, when the summer, or what’s left of it, begins to tail off later this year – Stokes has travelled far distances, both geographically and personally.
Having been on the road for much of the last 15 months, covering that distance becomes a daily task. "Obviously, being on the road can be tough," says Stokes down the line from Chicago where the band have a day off. "The biggest thing, and something I’ve been writing a lot about recently, is distance. Long distance relationships – not in a romantic sense. More like friendships and family, and navigating being away from people. And when you’re going through a hard time, maybe knowing they are too. That’s been on my mind a lot."
The Beths' debut Future Me Hates Me came out around a year ago. The fact the band are packing out venues, ever-increasing in capacity, in disparate places, is testament to how it has gone over. The casual listener might baulk at the thought of Stokes' writing moving along such melancholy lines, such are the bountiful sunny hooks and immediately melodic disposition of The Beths' songs.
But what makes Future Me such a critical and popular lasting success, is Stokes' ability to wrap up ideas of mid-to-late-20s existential crisis, self-deprecation and self-doubt, unrequited love and tanking relationships – which Stokes tells us are built from notes she takes "whenever things are going strangely" – into bright, whip-smart and hopeful sounding tunes. The album deserves repeat listens so that Stokes' every line, every carefully crafted reference to the mundane and the personal, can be soaked up. The unceasingly fun riffs her words are dressed in make such replayability a pleasure.
"I realised how important my lyrics are to me," says Stokes in reference to her time at jazz school. "I was studying trumpet, and I realised I wanted to play ‘popular’ music. We loved jazz school; I mean, we loved music, and getting to study it all day, every day, and just going to a place where that’s all you do, was great. But I wanted to write songs again."
The story of The Beths – filled out by permanent members Jonathan Pearce and Benjamin Sinclair, with Tristan Deck now on drums – and their jazzy formative years is a bit over-emphasised now. Of course, the juxtaposition cries out for some mild surprise (jazz: long, intricate, improvised; The Beths’ pop-punky indie rock: lean, punchy, urgent). But actually that education informed a chunk of what she does best now, Stokes posits. "I think because I did trumpet, and it was not a chordal instrument, it’s a melodic instrument, it does, in a lot of ways, feel like singing. And in the music I like to write, the melodies are really important to me, the way that they stand on their own. I think playing an instrument where it's 100 percent melody – no words, no chords – there’s something to that. But maybe I’m reaching there."
Back on the subject of distance, two brief breaks over Christmas and in spring are the only tastes Stokes and her bandmates have had of home since their star shot up. That comes to bear, especially when where you’re from is so isolated and far away. "Your entire existence is wake up, drive to wherever the next city is, and then you play this show," she explains. "There’s this kind of routine, and everything is focused on this one thing. It's definitely an endurance test where your whole day is leading up to this one set that's like an hour long. And then if that set doesn't go well… It's where you get your energy from to continue to the next day. And that's really fun most of the time. But when you get to go home and just be a regular person who's part of whatever music scene that you're in, and that focus becomes just a bit widened, it feels a bit more normal, I guess."
Those swirling feelings about distance – the ones Stokes says she's been thinking and writing on – became tinged with heartbreak and disconnectedness back in March when a gunman, with links to white supremacy and the alt-right, shot and killed over 50 worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, injuring almost 50 more. The band may have been thousands of miles away, but this shocking act of violence reverberated with them, as it did all over the world.
"We were at South by Southwest, coming to the end of a day where we played like four shows. We were on the way home when we saw the news. It was pretty surreal," says Stokes, somberly. "It was really important that we were together, the four of us at least. You start reaching out to all of the good friends you know are not at home, and… I don't know. It was just kind of like everybody reaching for each other and trying to make sense of it, coming to terms with what that means as a society in New Zealand that we've kind of let this happen. It was really strange being away from home and knowing that everybody was grieving there, but we were at this festival where everybody was just drinking, seeing life just kind of keep rolling on."
Life did keep rolling on in New Zealand, with politicians seeking to ensure that no such heinous act would be repeated. And roll on too do The Beths, arriving in Glasgow once more in September, having headlined their own shows and supported emo legends Death Cab for Cutie there already, to play the rejuvenated Indian Summer festival. In fact, it’ll be their last show in this part of the world for a while – to which Stokes, with casual but perfect comic timing, says "so, I think, we might just have a drink" – before going on to record a follow-up to Future Me Hates Me.
"Something I really love is, even though it was all so exciting the first time, now we’re getting to a point where we’re coming back to some places for like the third or fourth time and it's pretty awesome to be playing in slightly bigger venues, but then also just to see familiar faces. It just makes the world feel a lot smaller. That’s really nice."
At this point, contrary to the name of the record, it seems impossible that future Elizabeth Stokes will be anything but proud of the current iteration, never mind hateful. "I don’t think I’ve done anything to piss off future me too much right now," she says, laughing. "I think I'm in the green zone. Hopefully. But I'm sure I’ll think of something to get bummed out about eventually."
The Beths play Indian Summer 004, BAaD, Glasgow, 1 Sep