“Love is learned over time, ’til you’re an expert in a dying field.” That’s the thesis statement presented in the title track of Auckland band The Beths’s third album, Expert in a Dying Field. It’s a thought that’s at once poignant, pessimistic and a little funny, which just about sums up the territory the guitar pop quartet work in. Plus, it’s a euphorically catchy song — and that’s what The Beths do best of all.
“Over the course of getting to know someone, you kind of learn who they are and why you love them. And even if you’re not on good terms now, you still know what their favorite movie is, or what makes them laugh,” vocalist/guitarist Liz Stokes tells MTV News, joining a video call from a hotel room, alongside guitarist Jonathan Pearce, as they finish up a U.S. tour. “It feels like after a while you’re kind of a collector of all of these memories — I guess they’re useless, but they’re not meant to have a use. You can just kind of hoard them and treasure them.”
The song’s title struck Stokes as a broader idea, encapsulating the feeling of navigating adulthood in a chaotic reality. “Your entire life feels like you’re learning how to live in the world, and then the world changes. You’ve become an expert in something that no longer exists. It’s hard to deal with that sometimes,” she explains. And once a pandemic took over the globe, she says, it became harder than ever to ignore that. “You have more time to think and to dwell on old memories and people that you aren’t in touch with anymore. And everything feels like it’s changed — it feels like we’re really living in a different world. We’ve all had to grieve a little bit for something that doesn’t exist anymore. Big things and small things.”
But, she adds, “The record hopefully doesn’t sound melancholy. We wanna make something that really feels fun — ‘cause gosh, it would be nice to have some fun, wouldn’t it?”
The Beths’ first two albums — 2018’s Future Me Hates Me and 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers — made the band (completed by bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck) New Zealand’s hottest indie export from the outset. They impressed outlets like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, they opened for bands like Pixies and Death Cab for Cutie, and Phoebe Bridgers declared herself a fan in an interview with Charli XCX. The group, who got to know each other studying jazz at the University of Auckland, have their roots in the Auckland indie scene — a formative community for them, Pearce explains. “There’s kind of no middle people in New Zealand music until you get to a very high level. So if you wanna do a thing, you just find out how to do it and go do it. And you meet people who are also doing it, and work it out together. I’m hopeful that people are still doing that — I think they are.”
Sticking to their DIY inclination, the band recorded Expert in a Dying Field, like their previous two albums, at Pearce’s studio in Auckland. As they wrote, they were feeling uninspired and directionless. When a sudden four-month lockdown disrupted sessions, it was a blessing in disguise, giving them time to write more songs and rework existing ones; when they reconvened at the end of the year, they finally had an album they were excited by.
“Beforehand we were feeling a little bit like we lost our way with it, and it was meandering along and not really going somewhere that we felt was meaningful. After lockdown, I think we felt like we could do it,” Pearce says. “We had been making something that was too studio and too produced, and then we stripped a lot back [into] more streamlined ideas that someone could sit in front of you with just a guitar and play and sing, and fully explain the song.”
Whether it’s driving, intense moments like “Silence Is Golden” or “Knees Deep,” or sweeter, more laidback experiences like “Your Side” or “When You Know You Know,” these songs are some of The Beths’s best, showcasing an almost breathtaking gift for earworm melodies and singalong choruses. Stokes was focused on writing songs that felt instantly invigorating, she explains. “It’s a real intention. When you listen to a record and some songs you’re gonna like in a few listens, but some of them are just immediate — I just love those [immediate] songs. I feel like I’ve tried to write every single song I’ve ever written like that.”
For a band trained in jazz — Stokes studied trumpet — and reared in the indie rock scene, their ear for pop is somewhat surprising. But for The Beths, writing a perfect pop song is a “discipline,” Pearce says. “Liz and I really connect over rejecting the ego of alternative music where people are trying to do clever things, or cerebral things. I think Liz and I look for the things that work. The devices that really get the job done and get the heart racing and make the climactic moments happen.”
“When we were kids, what was on pop radio was guitar music,” Stokes adds, citing bands like Green Day and Fall Out Boy. “I feel like I’m writing pop songs, but I have been in love since I was a kid with guitar music. To me it doesn’t feel alternative or alienating, it feels fun.”
In addition to perfecting their craft musically, the band, best known for their self-deprecating and despairing lyrics (“Lying awake / With future cold shakes from stupid mistakes / Future me hates me for,” goes the chorus of 2018’s “Future Me Hates Me”, their biggest single), also aimed to inject a wider spectrum of emotion into Expert in a Dying Field. While still raw and anguished, there are faint glimmers of hope on tracks like “When You Know You Know” and “I Want To Listen.” “There’s a little bit of cautious optimism, which I think is not really there on the first two records,” Stokes says. “When you’re at rock bottom, it doesn’t feel so bad to be like, what if things got slightly better? It doesn’t feel like such a gamble.”
“There’s only so many times you can write that fast, self-loathing banger,” Pearce adds. “How many of those are in the back catalog now? It’s like, OK, we’ve gotta find some other emotions to put into the music. [Like] love songs that say ‘I love you’, without also saying ‘but I hate myself.’”
Having begun to play tracks from the album on tour, it’s been a relief for the band to see them connect with fans. Not just because it’s the sign of a successful album, but because it lessens the weight of the painful moments that inspired them. “Every song that you make, it goes through all these lives,” Stokes says. “It’s something that you fill up with memories and context, so when you listen to it, it’s not just about the thing that it’s about anymore. And when you are a person who hears a song at home, you fill it with your own associations and memories. I like the idea that people let you become a part of their life sometimes with a song that’s really special to them. It’s a house that you fill with your own furniture.” Singalong anthems for the broken-hearted — in this field, The Beths are experts.