by Sage Shemroske
Taking risks, letting your guard down, and how the band are unlikely to be ditching their guitars anytime soon
Photo credit: Frances Carter
Expert In A Dying Field is the fourth record from New Zealand scuzz rockers, The Beths. For a band who burst out of the gates at a ridiculously high level, it is yet another step up. The guitars hit harder, the slow moments cut deeper, and, throughout, the question is posed of how do we leave the past behind? Following the announcement of a run of UK & EU tour dates, Secret Meeting spoke with songwriter, Elizabeth Stokes.
I feel like Future Me Hates Me and Expert In a Dying Field dovetail. Future Me is this precipice, right before you jump into something. And Expert feels like the aftermath, when you’ve had something beautiful but need to move. How do you go from trepidation with intimacy to wrestling with how to let go of it?
That’s a big question for the morning. I guess I hadn’t really made that connection. A lot of songs on Future Me– even though the album came out in 2017 – were written around 2015-2016. It was our first album, it took a long time to come together. I guess that was the stage of my life I was at. I was falling into something new, having just left something and feeling trepidation but also feeling kind of reckless. Now it’s many years later where I’m at an age where there are relationships in my life – not just romantic ones, but familial ones or friendships – that don’t exist anymore. And it’s not always for a sad reason, it’s just the passage of time. People come in and out of your life and you come in and out of other people’s lives. That’s it, that’s just something you have to reckon with. I think everybody’s circles get a little smaller as they get older. People move away, people start their own projects or families. People’s lives diverge.
That’s very logical, straight to the point. Sometimes time moves on and things are out of your control and that’s how we learn to let go. But I feel like you as a storyteller hold people and experiences with a lot of grace. How do you storytell without relying on blame, or shame, or guilt?
That’s really nice of you to say. I feel like I do have all of those things, but usually directed towards myself. I do look back at this record we just made and I’m like “oof”. I’ve said it before, it’s like painting a picture with your eyes closed. Then you open your eyes at the end and you’re like “ohh no, I have some stuff that I need to work out”. With songwriting I think it’s a reflection of spiraling and overthinking that I do a lot. Whenever there’s been an emotional fracture or a situation I feel compelled to start writing about. There’s no way for me to write about the situation without going and writing about my reaction to the situation, and then my reaction about my reaction to the situation. I feel very self conscious about throwing stones in any scenario because I’m like “what about me! I’ve done the same thing!” Which is very navel gaze-y probably. But it just goes round and around and around, that kind of thinking.
That makes a lot of sense. When you’re listening to these songs you wrote when you were in a certain place over and over again, and you’re writing about your reaction to experiences. How do you avoid getting torn apart in hindsight? Is there a way you navigate not ruminating a lot or are you just like “this is it, I’ve gotta put it down on paper”?
Putting it down helps. It helps clarify, even if the clarification ends up being semi fictional. It’s kind of like pulling a thread until you get to the end of it. And in that way it can feel kind of satisfying. I find it helps. You start to notice patterns in yourself and it’s something I’m trying to be aware of and trying not to write the same song over and over again. Especially when it feels like a lot of songs are the same song [laughs].
Pulling on that thread a little bit, especially with Knees Deep, there’s a real bravery in being in love or emotionally vulnerable overall. Is that something that takes guts or takes preparation for?
Increasingly I feel like I’ve been feeling like I’ve been closing off to people, to new situations of inviting people in. Because you know the costs and you know the risks. But I’ve been really starting to not like that about myself. I wish I was a more open person and a more courageous person. In those situations but in so many situations; I’m a real chicken. I do wish I was more able to take those risks and let people in and have new experiences.
Is touring this album helping you take those risks? Hearing it back do you feel more inclined to take reactions to that instinct to close things off?
I don’t know if touring helps. But touring’s great. It helps professionally and musically and creatively. It’s just great. It feels so much more like what we’re supposed to be doing. When we couldn’t tour for a while it was like “eh, what do we do again? What’s the point?” It makes you weirdly unrelatable. It’s like any job where it’s specific and requires a lot of travel and also consumes. It’s kind of consumed my entire identity. Sometimes when talking to people it’s like “do I have anything else going on that we can talk about that’s not this?” So yeah, I don’t know if it helps but I still do like it. It’s something I’m working on! I have other interests!
Quick, what’s another interest!?
Video games! [laughs]
Oh man, now I’m just bullying.
It’s ok, I deserve it. I understand the stakes.
Expert In A Dying Field has a lot about weather and seasons. Do you take a lot of inspiration from nature?
Yeah, it makes it sound like I’m a big nature head- I’m a city kid. But growing up in New Zealand I really love the proximity, you’re never far away from the ocean, you’re never far from the beach, you’re never far away from a walk. It’s fairly leafy even in the city. I suspect that it’s more than that. There’s almost a tradition in New Zealand, the local music I grew up on, including the weather as a metaphor is fairly common. I’m thinking of Crowded House songs, ‘Always Take the Weather With You’. And ‘Anchor Me’ by the Mutton Birds. These were really big songs for me as a kid. There’s a real connection there. I feel I do it intentionally as well. I feel like part of the tradition. Obviously it’s not just a New Zealand thing, people write about it all the time, it’s such a present thing. There’s a lot on the record that’s about change and dealing with it, and coping with it. And nothing is more inevitable than change in the seasons. It’s rich songwriter fodder.
Bringing up the idea of how inevitable change is and talking earlier about how time passes no matter what we do, how do you continue to write really vulnerable songs and maintain a logical rationality?
I don’t know, I feel I’m both an emotional person and sometimes not an emotional one. Which is probably how everybody feels. On the first record particularly I was feeling a real frustration because my emotions were really high at that point. It was a tumultuous period in my life and I felt completely overwhelmed by them and the way they would crash over me, and I couldn’t control that and had to ride those waves. It’s still something I feel like everybody has to struggle with sometimes, that feeling of being at the whim of your brain chemistry. But often I’ll write a little bit in the full throes of my emotions, and afterwards that’s where I’m able to write from a place of observing and write from that second perspective of how I feel about the fact that I’ve been feeling those emotions. And that’s where I can get clarity, or a new fresh way to feel terrible.
I feel like that’s the trick of art. It’s like “I need to convey these overwhelming, crushing emotions” and then you dig them all up and are like “aw shit, I don’t know if I feel so good”.
I dug these all up, why did I do that??
I feel like this album has somewhat of a pop side, but I love the guitars. They go crazy and I’m such a fan! What was it like balancing those tendencies?
I fucking love guitars. When you’re songwriting and playing with different palettes and maybe you start to feel a little bit stuck. But thus far I haven’t really felt that. Guitar music is what I’ve loved since I was a kid. There’s so many ways you can be a band with just a couple guitarists, a bass player, and a drummer, and still try something a little different. I just really like the energy it gives me, it’s choosing to paint with a particular palette and a particular medium. I just really love this medium. We’re three albums and an EP in now, but the next album we may feel like we want to explore a little more. We started making this one and we were like “do we wanna do that?” and it’s like “no”. I wanna keep making guitar music, the four of us together. It’s great.
Is there anything growing up or even listening to right now where the guitars are influencing what you’re doing?
A couple days ago I was watching what may be a foundational documentary. It’s this video that’s on Youtube of Rilo Kiley. It’s from 2002 and someone must’ve captured it on a handy cam or something. And it sounds just dreadful but great. You know it’s absolutely crushed 2002 sound. They’re playing some kind of bar, maybe in Houston or something like that? Jenny’s playing this huge bass and she’s really tiny and it’s just great. The guitar solo comes in and it’s way too loud and very shred-y. I really love that show and I wish I was at that. But I was not.
I just need a moment to bond over Rilo Kiley because I fucking love Jenny Lewis.
Me too, she influenced me so much when I was younger. Diving into those recordings, I got really into Rabbit Fur Coat. The first band that I had in high school with my best friend Chelsea was a folk duo where we would just go busking and play Jenny Lewis covers. She’s a very important part of my early musical diet.
Did you ever make any money busking Jenny Lewis covers?
I think we’d make maybe between $8-15 a night. Whatever it was, it was enough to buy two fish burgers from the LJ’s at the food court.
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