This spring, Elizabeth Stokes quit her day job teaching trumpet to kids in Auckland, New Zealand. The reason: She was ready to tour the world with the Beths, the exuberant pop-punk band she’d started with three classmates from her days studying jazz in college. “The Beths is almost reactionary to jazz school and trumpet,” says Stokes. “It’s a guitar band. We make guitar music. I like it that way.”
Stokes, 27, has a sense of humor that’s obvious in conversation, and more understated on The Beths’ excellent debut album, Future Me Hates Me (out this week in the U.S. on Carpark Records). Songs like “Great No One” and “You Wouldn’t Like Me” are peppy, hooky and fun, but also straightforwardly dark in their lyrics. Deciphering the difference between playful self-deprecation and genuine misery is part of what makes the album not only interesting, but acutely human.
The singer-songwriter picked up guitar at age 13 and spent her teens playing in a folk duo in Auckland’s “dangerously supportive” all-ages scene. “It’s very quiet, and they’re very respectful and will laugh at all of your jokes,” she says, speaking from her bedroom in New Zealand via Skype. “And you’re like, ‘I’m so great!'”
Once school picked up, she fell out of touch with songwriting until the rest of what would become The Beths – guitarist Jonathon Pearce, bassist Ben Sinclair, and drummer Ivan Luketina – encouraged her to scratch that itch. She’d never fronted a band before, but she took to the role quickly. She compares the Beths’ band name to Lorelei Gilmore’s decision to name her daughter after herself: “I like that – I’m gonna name my band me,” she recalls thinking.
Many of the best songs on Future Me Hates Me are about Stokes’ reluctant attitude toward romance, and the anxiety that stems from overthinking her feelings. “I never wanted to/I didn’t want to fall/I don’t believe that love’s/A good idea at all,” she sings on the LP’s title track.
“I write most when I’m upset about something or super stoked about something. Just basically feeling emotional,” she says in a slightly sheepish tone. “I still am bad about writing a story song, or any sort of song from another perspective. I feel phony, like a bad actor.”
Her lyrics come from intense stream-of-conscious writing sessions. “A lot of it’s terrible,” she says. The parts that make it through her filter sound like deep intrapersonal conversations and stressed-out replays of older interpersonal ones. She has a hard time explaining what the record is about, mentioning “infatuation or something,” “self-hiding” and “self-directed telling-offs,” and preferring to leave it at that.
Not even her bandmates, including Pearce, her boyfriend of three years and the subject of many of her lyrics, press her on the details. “And I’m glad they don’t,” she says.
The Beths’ real-life friendship translates into an impressive musical chemistry. The band recorded both the album and their 2016 EP in-house at Pearce’s studio on K’ Road, the musical hub of Auckland. And their university training gives them the advantage of speaking the same language. “When you’re with a group of people making music together, it’s a lot of taking ideas in your head and putting them in someone else’s head,” Stokes says.
On Future Me Hates Me, power-pop harmonies flutter behind glittering hooks, while pummeling drum fills and brawny guitar solos leap up briskly and tuck back down. “River Run LVL 1” has the dynamic trajectory of a speedboat, moving steadily from the dock to the buoy and then gunning off breezily toward the horizon.
That track is the first of a three-song closing run where The Bethsopen up their sound and let themselves jam a bit, breaking an early vow to keep things succinct. Album finale “Less Than Thou” packages a dramatic arc à la Kurt Vile into a slim four minutes as Stokes sings about trying desperately to look away from the writing on the wall. It’s more uplifting musically than it reads, and the way the band takes off during its climactic riff echoes a feeling Stokes uses to describe her own emotions.
“It feels chemical,” she says. “You can feel the chemicals running through your entire body when you’re super-happy or super-sad. It’s like, I’m losing control. It’s alarming when your emotions betray you or get the better of you.” She pauses. “Sometimes it’s really nice. To learn to like someone.”