"I'm back on my soapbox," announces The Beths guitarist Jonathan Pearce, while discussing the merits of love songs with bandmate and songwriter, Liz Stokes.
"Love songs always have an angle, and that angle is the context of a musician's life," he continues. "Some angles are played out and don't need to be written again – and I think this is one of the reasons there are so many successful and brilliant and loved female and non-binary artists in indie and alternative music right now. There's a whole well of great songs, and the themes that occur to those people don't occur to privileged white boys. Those songs haven't been written and played out yet. They're written from a different perspective, and they're very valid and worth hearing, and that's what people want."
There's no doubt that plenty of people were hugely invested in the stories of Stokes and her bandmates (completed by bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck). Full-length debut 'Future Me Hates Me' proved to be a call-to-arms for like-minded people the world over, in large part thanks to Stokes' perspective on relationships, love, identity and mental health.
Yet if The Beths sound a little more world-weary and a touch more jaded on new album 'Jump Rope Gazers', they have every right to. Since releasing the superb 'Future Me Hates Me' in August 2018, the New Zealand group has travelled the globe for nearly two years solid, making several trips to the UK and the US where their sparkling indie-rock found adoring audiences.
And while there's a melancholy air to songs like 'Do You Want Me Now' and the title-track, 'Jump Rope Gazers' is still an album that possesses the group's fine ear for a melody and some razor-sharp pop hooks.
For all the stresses and challenges of the last two years, 'Jump Rope Gazers' also has all the hallmarks of a hard-fought victory; an album that distils the life of a road warrior and encapsulates the camaraderie of being 'in it together', but it also hits on tropes of being away from home for long stretches – even if the subject matter lies a little closer to home:
"Some of the songs that are about distance predate us going on tour," says Liz over Skype, as she enjoys dinner with bandmate Pearce. "They relate to a period in my mid-late 20s, where a bunch of my friends moved away at the same time.
"In New Zealand, after you've studied, you live in Auckland, which is the biggest city – the Big Smoke – and the population is only about one and a half, two million. After you've worked there for a few years, you get itchy feet, and that's when you go overseas. It's quite a common thing. After a while, people start coming back. So, at that time, that was what was happening when I first wrote these songs.
"But then, taking those song fragments from that time and finishing them with the context of being home from a long tour, where everybody went through a hard time, and we were all trying to support each other, those things have given them a new context."
By the end of the group's final tour promoting 'Future Me Hates Me', they were in desperate need of some downtime. The success of the album led to some fantastic opportunities, including opening for Death Cab For Cutie in the UK and the Pixies in New Zealand. By the time the touring cycle had finished, The Beths had gone from headlining the cosy Sebright Arms to Heaven – a venue with nearly 10 times the capacity.
Yet the intensity of touring, which would see them return to New Zealand for only three or four weeks at a time before jetting off again, was beginning to take its toll on their mental health.
"The intenseness is something that you can kind of see coming," says Liz, when asked about this relentless touring schedule. "When this all started kicking off, and we started to tour, you're suddenly always looking six months to a year ahead.
"So yeah, we worked hard, but towards the end of the cycle, I think we were all starting to get a little bit fatigued – Jonathan in particular. It was quite intense."
"I've always been a pretty level and happy guy," continues Jonathan. "I've never had to deal with any mental health issues before in my life, but I definitely needed a lot of help during our last big tour, which was something like four months long. I had to contend with feeling things that I'd never felt before because it was getting pretty full-on."
It means that lockdown caused by the coronavirus has provided something of a respite for the group, as they gear up to release 'Jump Rope Gazers'. While Jonathan says he definitely needed some time to unwind after making the record, he admits it's a real stretch to see the current lockdown as a positive – especially when they wanted to "tour the shit" out of this record.
It's a record they're rightly proud of too, pushing the sound of The Beths far beyond the breezy pop hooks found on 'Future Me Hates Me', and into something far more textured and nuanced. It's still unmistakably The Beths, but it possesses much more stylistic depth – peaks and valleys – which make it a much deeper listening experience.
Liz comments that the first record established the circle in which The Beths sit, and 'Jump Rope Gazers' is an opportunity to push on the boundaries of the circle, while Jonathan sees the decision to push themselves sonically as a response to how 'Future Me Hates Me' was perceived.
"I have a pretty unhealthy relationship with music criticism as a job," he says. "There are people out there who are personality music critics, and it makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. But we were aware of one piece of criticism of the first record that we thought was valid – and we're very proud of that record – but it didn't have a lot of diversity. There were a lot of fast and loud songs, crammed-in hooks, and cool guitar parts.
"If people criticize the lack of diversity on the first album, I don't really have a leg to stand on. I mean, honestly, the tempo range…
"Basically, that record slams; what else do you want?" he jokes.
He's got a solid point too; 'Future Me Hates Me' won a legion of fans thanks to its unabashed love of pop hooks, sharp guitars, relentless tempo, and honest lyrics. 'Jump Rope Gazers' still has plenty of moments which sit comfortably in The Beth's self-defined circle, but also light and shade, as well as a striking pathos. It's an album that builds – at times spectacularly – on what came before. Pearce may be joking when asking 'What else do you want?', but The Beth's repost is greater than anything we could have expected…
Taken from the July issue of Upset, out now. The Beths' album 'Jump Rope Gazers' is out 10th July.
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