Remember Madonna’s “Italians Do It Better” t-shirt? That slogan inspired a record label, a tribute album, and heaps of merchandise emblazoned with similar claims—pilots do it better, and so do women, vegans, gingers, etc. While most of these are probably accurate, a quick Google search for “Kiwis do it better” only turns up articles on the fuzzy fruit’s nutritional benefits (one portion provides around 80 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement). Maybe this attests to the humility that typically characterizes people from New Zealand. Take the nation’s music scene—bands have to hustle twice as hard as their transatlantic relatives, a sure foil to egotism and a sure precursor to expert, unpretentious musicianship.
“The alternative music scene in Auckland is really great, and there’s a really strong DIY element to being a musician in New Zealand, but there are very few people who can actually make it a career,” says Elizabeth Stokes, the singer and rhythm guitarist of indie pop favorites The Beths. “If you wanna put on a gig, you learn how to book a gig, and you put it all together yourself, and you market it yourself, and you make it happen to a much farther point along than you would in a place where, a lot earlier, you’d be working with promoters and management.”
Stokes speaks without a jot of ostentation. It’s not a complaint. Rather: “With Auckland being where it is, artists come to New Zealand from internationally less often, and so it’s kinda special when they do.” The reverse is also true—the artists that make it to the Northern Hemisphere are always something special.
“We’re a band that likes learning in a way that’s probably pretty nerdy. When people are like, ‘I wanna put in this cool, weird, new chord that I learned,’ I feel like that’s coming from a place of being excited by something musically.”
Like faux familial trailblazers such as the Ramones and The Donnas, The Beths write concise, simple, punk-dipped pop songs—or that’s what they sound like on the surface. To borrow a phrase from the band’s lead guitarist and producer Jonathan Pearce, “‘If you pull back the curtain, there’s just more curtain.’” Stokes quotes her bandmate in the context of analyzing other musicians’ work, but this is still applicable to The Beths and their curtains. Expert in a Dying Field, the group’s not-so-difficult third record, utilizes barbershop-esque vocal harmonies and countermelodies to enrich Stokes’s bubbly hooks. It peppers its chord progressions with non-diatonic alternatives and key changes. It takes unique yet seamless tangents. Most pertinently, it plays with tension—harmony and dynamics are pushed and pulled with gratifying, fist-biting results.
This may go unnoticed, but it’s all carefully considered, an approach that’s partly a holdover from the quartet’s time studying jazz at university. As Stokes says, “We’re a band that likes learning in a way that’s probably pretty nerdy. When people are like, ‘I wanna put in this cool, weird, new chord that I learned,’ I feel like that’s coming from a place of being excited by something musically. You’re like, ‘I just learned about 7/4 and I have to write something in 7/4!’ Going really deep on anything musically, it all just adds to the stuff that you already know. Some of it you learn formally, and some of it you learn while you’re on a deep YouTube dive, and some of it you learn while you’re playing with your friends,” she continues, confirming the band’s collective approach to learning.
Speaking of which, while some bands beeline for true crime podcasts or I-spy to pass the time on long drives, Stokes, Pearce, bassist Ben Sinclair, and drummer Tristan Deck like to indulge in a game of Baker’s Dozen, passed down by fellow New Zealand artist Lawrence Arabia. “A baker’s dozen, for us, is where you choose a song and listen to it 13 times in a row,” Stokes explains. “We’ve done it with ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA, ‘One Sweet Day’ by Mariah Carey. We did it recently with a Savage Garden song, a really hard one. You just go on a real journey with the song, and every time you listen you hear something new. Normally, how long does it take you to listen to one song 13 times? It might take you like 20 years”—very unlikely when it comes to The Beths’ songs—“and so to do it all in a row, you really learn a lot.”
The idea of perpetual learning and attention to detail pervades Stokes’s lyrics. The title track, and much of the album, is built around the generous and relatable thesis that “Love is learned over time,” referring not only to romantic relationships, but those between friends and family. “It’s how I feel about love,” she says of the lyric, “and I feel like it’s how most people understand that love works, but it’s often not how it’s portrayed in music,” she continues, referring to the abundance of pop music that bottles the intensity of crushes, first dates, and breakups.
“The bulk of love that people experience is friendships and family, relationships you’ve been in for a while, where you just learn more and more about the people around you.”
“Even with my own songs, there’s a real rush that you can get from writing about the excitement of either new love or even just the angst of the extreme parts of a relationship. But that’s not the bulk of what the love is that people experience. The bulk of love that people experience is friendships and family, relationships you’ve been in for a while, where you just learn more and more about the people around you.” If and when those relationships start to disintegrate, one becomes an expert in a dying field—the painful, often banal end of a relationship that The Beths so masterfully excavate on their new album.
In a way, Expert in a Dying Field is the antithesis—an unintentional rebuttal—to that icky term “adult break-up record” and all of its mawkish accompaniments. Stokes’s lyrics possess a self-aware approach to both interrogation and acceptance that’s at odds with over-earnest yearning; she knows that “some things are best left to rot,” as argued on “Best Left.” Her Kiwi modesty shoots down any semblance of superiority long before it arises, though. “I mean, it’s pop music—I feel like it lives in the euphoria of love and the crash of broken love, and that’s also great. I would never be like, ‘But my one is better.’” Don’t let the New Zealand humility fool you. The Beths do do it better. FL