Lessons learned from The Beths' long tours and making Obama's summer playlist
New Zealand indie rockers The Beths dished out anxiety-fueled optimism on their 2022 released, Expert In a Dying Field : “It’s what came out of my guitar in late 2020, post NZ election (and U.S. election). I was limply reaching for optimism about the future, but was really just marinating in dread,” singer/guitarist Liz Stokes recently shared with us, demonstrating that music acted both as a catharsis and a balm that’s kept her and the rest of The Beths moving forward.
The band’s fresh-yet-classic brand of guitar-rock is at once both hyperactive and calm, salty and sweet, sarcastic and sincere. It’s the juxtaposition of these things that’s endeared the band to so many fans and kept The Beths in hot demand, spending nearly every moment on the road since May. And with most of their whirlwind summer already in the rearview, The Beths are gearing up to let off some steam at a “Pool Party” show at Chicago’s Salt Shed on Aug. 24 — the closest they’ll get to Milwaukee after opening for The National (as tour-mates) at The Sylvee in Madison earlier this month.
We caught up with Stokes on the road — a little harried, a little homesick, but ultimately having loads of fun, catching movies on the road, making Obama’s 2023 Summer Playlist, landing future gigs in Stokes’ birthplace of Jakarta and planning for the splash The Beths will make at Thursday’s “Pool Party” show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation by tapping "LISTEN" at the top of this story.
ERIN WOLF: I know it's hard to make time [for things like interviews] on a really heavy tour, so I appreciate your time today.
LIZ STOKES: No worries. Yeah, it's early morning for me, but I know it's not that early, but we drove four hours after the gig last night because we're making our way from, um…where did we play last night? Oh God. Minneapolis to Denver. So it's big drives [laughs].
Oh my gosh.
That is the longest drive ever for sure. Okay, cool. Well, thanks doubly for joining me after such a night. So, you’re currently on tour with The National. What has been the highlight of that tour for y'all so far?
The National seems to exclusively play in really beautiful venues, so last night we played at the Armory in Minneapolis, and it was, like, the biggest show, I think, of the run so far. But it was just this gorgeous old venue with a lot of history. I think it was where Prince shot the “1999” video and where Aerosmith shot the “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” video, and it's just this beautiful big old room, so … I don't know, that's been a highlight, but it's also just been a highlight to play to lots of people and to be playing with the National. It’s all highlights.
So, your album Expert in a Dying Field basically came out a year ago this coming September and you're getting ready to release a deluxe edition on Sept. 15. Can you share some details of that deluxe version with your fans who are eagerly anticipating that?
Yeah, it'll be about a year from when the record came out and there are a couple songs — one of them is called “A Real Thing” and one of them is called “Watching the Credits” — that we recorded during the album recordings, but didn't go on the album just because the album had to be a certain length but we still liked them and they were fully finished. So they're kind of like B-sides, I guess? We released those separately as singles, but they weren't on the record, but they're kind of like in the universe of the album. So it's nice to put them on vinyl and have them be part of something. And then there's also some demos, some of my rough-as-guts demos that I record before I sing to the band and then a couple of acoustic versions, as well, of songs.
It’s kind of nice to put out the breadth of the work you did with a new record, because sometimes the actual full record you put out at first has to be a little more polished and cut and dry, so it’s nice to kind of like stretch it out a little bit and put something out that's a little more fully-realized.
So, one of your recent singles, “Watching the Credits,” is about your love of learning about movies, but not actually watching them. And I was wondering if you all often get to watch movies together on tour, because I feel like there’s often a lot of downtime on tour. You probably either watch movies on streaming services while you're traveling, or maybe you even go to see a movie at a movie theater in random towns…
We don't get as much time as I would like because we were in the van all day and then kind of like landing at home — sorry, at a hotel — and crashing … but we had a couple of days off on this run when we were transferring from Europe to the States. We were in Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival the day before we had to play, so we managed to watch Barbenheimer (Oppenheimer and Barbie); that was really fun, and we like, changed outfits halfway through, and yeah - it was my first time watching two movies in one day ever, so I really enjoyed that.
When we're in a bus, I think we watch a few more movies because it's more like you finish the show, you load the bus and then you are in the bus all night and it's like a big sleepover and so somebody always puts a movie on. Ben always puts on some kind of movie that I find really boring, like The Hunt For Red October.
I can attest that one's a little dry. Well, cool. I mean, Barbenheimer's kind of like the thing of the summer, right? So you got to catch that and to balance it out, you get to watch stuff like Hunt for Red October. You’re very well-rounded [laughs].
So you recently landed on Barack Obama's summer playlist. That’s so fun. If you’re in a band, what an honor. How did you find out, initially? And are you going to get to interact with Barack in any way after making that list?
So, we were in the UK and we had a rare night off. We were at the pub and just having dinner and a drink and playing a board game, I think. And then we just started getting like all these texts from people and it was like 10 o'clock at night and we're like, "what’s going on?" That was some exciting, big news; we had no idea ahead of time. It just got announced and we're like, "oh, okay … uh, yeah." So that's pretty cool [laughs]. I don't think we get to go to the White House or anything. Not that he lives there anymore, but, yeah. I think it’s a plus that we're on and I think that's really sick and I think we've hopefully reached a few new people from it.
Yeah, absolutely. A wider audience, for sure. With you all being from New Zealand, you've got quite a long time touring here in The States. I was just interviewing Julia Jacklin from Australia...
...and we were talking about how difficult it is (when you’re in a more insular country) to put together really big tours. She was talking about how she oftentimes has random downtime days and has to book real long tours in The States and just hangs out in random cities to wait in between dates. What’s the longest time you've been away from New Zealand? Does this tour feel like a particularly long one? And, what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back home to New Zealand?
Yeah, definitely. New Zealand is far away enough from The States and from Europe and stuff. We tour both of those places a lot. When we tour, it's like we do a big chunk of touring, very concentrated, so it'll be like six weeks basically in one run. The longest we were away from home was I think 2019 — we were away for five months. So, it would have been like two big runs with a month or so gap in the middle where all of us stayed in this tiny town in Spain called Chelva, which is near Valencia. It’s just like incredibly cheap. I think we managed to stay there for like 200 euros or something for the whole time. It was really nice just to chill out somewhere, especially ‘cause in New Zealand in the middle of the year, it's winter, so it was nice to stay somewhere where it was summer and just have like an “eternal summer." But it ended up being about five months away from home and that ended up being too much, I think. So we kind of learned our limits on that tour. And now we have a kind of a six-week hard limit on any particular run.
But this year again, Jonathan [Pearce] and I stayed in Europe, which was interesting as well. We had three weeks between the earlier run that we did and this run, the one that we're currently on. And so we did the same thing and just went to Chelva for a few weeks. But we’ve been gone since May and we'll be back at the start of September, so this one was a good few months away.
I'm assuming you guys can't have pets or plants…things like that?
Yeah. Well, luckily we live with Jonathan's brother, so they take care of the plants and we don't have a dog. I really want a dog. But yeah, when we get home, the first thing I'll do is go and pet my [sister’s] dog called Cole. He's a big, long, black greyhound. And we miss him very much.
Aw, yeah. That’s one of the hard things about being a touring musician — you don’t have things like a regular animal or pet buddy, but at least you got your sister, who's got Cole.
Yeah, we got Cole!
So, you recently announced that you're playing this big festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is amazing and cool. You were born there, which is absolutely incredible. What does that mean to you personally, being technically from Indonesia?
Well, my mom's Indonesian, so I guess I'm half Indonesian. It feels weird to be like, “I’m half something," but yeah. My dad worked a lot overseas, which is how he and my mom met. [Growing up] it was just like living in a semi-Indonesian household, but in New Zealand. So, we moved to New Zealand when I was about three or four. I don't know, I basically look white, so it was probably weird for my mum. I think. Sometimes she would get assumed to be, like, a “nanny” or something. So, that's a bit sad, but it's one of those things, I guess, where it's familiar to lots of people, being between two different cultures. And I really am looking forward to playing in Indonesia because I've been wanting to do it for ages. My mum's side of the family is over there, and it'll be nice to finally play there.
Yeah, like a family reunion. Are your family members going to come out and see the show?
I hope so. I'm gonna have to see how many guest spots we get because there might have to be some bargaining.
But at least you get to go hang out with them and maybe have some home-cooked meals of like foods you might not get a lot of?
That’d be really good.
Okay, we're putting it out there into the ether. It's gonna happen. So, going back to being on tour for long stretches, that [sort of thing] leads to a lot of travel downtime. Do you have any favorite ways as a band to pass the time? Do you write a lot while on the bus? Or do you have a favorite thing to listen to lately … watch, read … anything like that?
Well, we're in in the van on this run, so it means driving all day and then arriving at the venue. I've been sitting in the front a lot because I get motion-sick.
That's a struggle that’s real.
I've been in charge of putting music on a lot, so that's been nice. Just kind of DJing in the front. We try to move around a little bit as much [as we can]. I feel like you can get so sedentary and your body starts to break down from just sitting in a vehicle all day and then you lift a bunch of heavy stuff, directly afterwards. So, some of us go bouldering if we have time. And we always bring a cricket bat on tour and if there's a large, flat surface and we have an hour, we just have a little bowl and bat.
So, is “bouldering” rock climbing?
Yeah, it's like indoor rock climbing, but you don't need ropes or anything, ‘cause it's not very high, so there's just like padded mats and you just need shoes. You don't need a lot of gear.
Cool. Have you done this mostly outside or just indoor places?
Just indoor. I'm too scared to go outside. I just started at the end of the year because I guess I'm in my thirties now. I think it's compulsory that you at least try bouldering.
It's super fun. I've just always been really unfit and I tried running for a long time and I hated it. And it's just nice to have something that is physical and difficult where you can kind of get stronger.
Yeah, totally. So, you’re playing DJ a lot in the front seat. What has been one of your favorite artists or songs to play for everyone in the car?
It feels like you have to play something new every time … some novelty ... When Ben switched to the driver's seat last night, he requested some Michael McDonald. So we listened to that 1981 album. I can't remember what it's called. Full of bangers. It’s got “I Keep Forgettin’” on it.
And yeah, sometimes we play this game called “A Baker's Dozen,” which is a game we learned from a New Zealand band called Lawrence Arabia. It's where you listen to a song 13 times in a row. And that's the game. So it's just like a musical journey game where everybody in the van kind of goes through a collective trauma of listening to the song so many times, but it's just a really interesting game to play for listening because you have to deep-listen to the song because otherwise, you’d go crazy. And so on the seventh listen, you'll be like "I hate this." And you'll hear like a triangle part that you didn't hear before and be like, "oh, I never noticed that."
And that's also a good skill to pick up too, if you're in the recording studio, ‘cause that's what you're basically doing, is listening to something over 13 times even, trying to pick out all the things, all the separate parts.
So, you’ve got this really great show coming up here in the Midwest; You’re playing a “pool party” in Chicago on Aug. 24, which intrigues me. You’re playing at The Salt Shed. Can you share some details of this “pool party” and what fans can expect?
The lineup is pretty great. Yeah, I'm super excited to play at The Salt Shed. It’s like kind of a new-ish venue and [we’re playing with] Beach Bunny, who we've been wanting to play a show with for ages, so that'll be great. And also Charly Bliss, who I love … and who else is playing? Elita is playing, who I haven’t seen before, so that'll be exciting (and Squirrel Flower). Yeah, I'm not sure where the “pool” element will come in, because we played there once before with Courtney Barnett and Alvvays and I didn't see a pool, so maybe it's BYO pool to the venue. Bring floaties, just in case.
All right. Floaties and kiddie pools, coming right up. So my final question to you — and I always find this has a fun, surprising answer, for most people I ask — if you could pick a dream lineup at your favorite venue, who would you play with and where would you play?
Whoa, dream lineup. That’s so hard.
Maybe we could narrow it down further to being all artists have to be currently alive?
Oh, okay. Um … I’d love to play with Rilo Kiley and I'd love to play with … oh god, this is so hard … my friend's band, Hans Pucket and … I’d love to play with The Postal Service, but we are going to do that. So, that’s definitely up there. I can't remember any music [laughs]. I don't think I've ever listened to music in my life. I can't remember any of it.
Well, I think Rilo Kiley and the Postal Service together would be pretty darn cool. And then your other friend's band, is it called Hans Puckett?
I just love that band.
And where would you all play together?
Where would we play? I'd like to play on a roof somewhere, like The Beatles. Maybe there's a roof outside the studio that we recorded in — Jonathan's studio — that looks out onto Karangahape Road, which is like where all the music venues are in Auckland. And it's a very special street to us. It feels like the center of the music scene in Auckland. So, it'd be cool to play on the roof there, with those three bands.
Okay, we're speaking it into reality, hopefully. Maybe it'll happen now that, you know, Postal Service is doing their reunion tour?
Yeah, I'll bring it up. I'll say, hey - do you want to play on a very small roof [laughs]?