When I worked on BLUNT in its previous incarnation (before it was buried unceremoniously by its parent company, left to rot in the void until Mike and Peyton swooped in and revived it from the dead like punk-rock Frankensteins), my go-to breakfast was a double-serve can of V Energy – the all-elusive flavour known only as ‘Blue’, of course – and two original glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts from the nearest 7-Eleven. Not the healthiest of choices, I’m well aware, but the office was a 90-minute drive from where I lived, and I could barely conjure up the energy to shower and get dressed in time, let alone even think about proper nutrition.
That was four years ago, but I’m reminded of The Classic BLUNT Grind every time I hit play on Future Me Hates Me, the 2018 debut album from Auckland-native pop-rockers The Beths. It’s a chaotic record, to say the very least, defined by its breakneck pacing, off-the-wall energy and loveably self-deprecating revelry – a reckless cocktail of adrenaline and anxiety.
Nowadays I work from home, and my morning routine is much more respectable: I lie in bed for a while and scroll through news articles, eat Weet-Bix with fresh fruit, and make a concerted effort to spend some time outside before I whip open my laptop. It’s a chilled-out life; I can breathe.
Incidentally, that same relaxed maturity is how The Beths approached their second album, Jump Rope Gazers. Track three on Future Me Hates Me is ‘Uptown Girl’, a manic, blink-and-miss-it punk-pop scorcher in which frontwoman Liz Stokes declares she’s going to “drink the whole town dry”. At the same point on Jump Rope Gazers (its eponymous simmering, five-minute-plus ballad), she’s crooning earnestly about how she thinks she loves its protagonist, and thinks she’s loved them “the whole time”.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting sadder,” Stokes ruminates to BLUNT from her living room. “I don’t know, I used to think of myself as funny, but I don’t think I’m that funny anymore… Oh God, what’s happening to me!?”
It’s always a good sign when an interview kicks off triggering an existential crisis, right?
“I think I just see more value in earnestness and sincerity now,” she concludes after some brief self-reckoning. “I don’t think that means that I think humour isn’t important, because I still love that – particularly in music, I love when there’s humour in the lyrics and the way the music is made – but I feel like I’m becoming a little more straight-laced of late, and maybe it’s just that shining through… And I’m okay with that, I think.”
“As a songwriter, I tend to hide a little bit behind jokes, or metaphorical terms of phrase and things like that.”
Its title track was the first demo Stokes finished for Jump Rope Gazers, and was integral in her committing to a second LP at all. It was chosen to represent the release as a whole because of the leap of faith it represented for Stokes as a songwriter, stepping out from her comfort zone of penning quirky, tongue-in-cheek pop hooks and tackling a sincere love song head-on.
“There’s barely any gags on it,” she quips, surprised by her own restraint. “It was a scary one to write. As a songwriter, I tend to hide a little bit behind jokes, or metaphorical terms of phrase and things like that. Which I still like, and I stand by that formula – but this was just a plain, clear-cut love song, and you can’t hide behind anything with that! But when I was sharing it with the band, I knew there was something special in it.”
Even once the song was immortalised on tape, Stokes couldn’t escape it. “It was always at the top of my mind when we were making the rest of the album,” she concedes, noting that, “Even though all the songs are about different things, they all tended to be about relationships – whether they’re romantic relationships or relationships with family and friends and stuff like that.”
Such came to shape the way Jump Rope Gazers would unfurl positively in contrast to Future Me Hates Me. Where LP1 mostly saw Stokes punching down on herself and using irony as a shield on its few love songs, the follow-up allowed her to embrace the comfort and positivity at the core of her relationships.
As for what it actually means to be a ‘jump rope gazer’, Stokes is less than willing to break down the mystery. When it comes up in our Zoom meeting, she flips the script and asks what I think it means. I stutter – having put absolutely no thought into it prior, mind – through a half-baked theory that it’s a metaphor for the fantastical core of young love, and how the butterflies you feel in your stomach over first crushes rarely make sense, but consume your entire being nonetheless. I’m not exactly right, Stokes admits, but she commends the sentiment; she likes the dorky, lackadaisical whimsicality it inspires.
“Here’s the thing,” she clarifies: “I wrote [‘Jump Rope Gazers’] with quite a specific kind of metaphor in mind, but knowing that it doesn’t have to have a predetermined meaning. I’m hesitant to explain what my version of it is, because I don’t want to ruin the mystery. Whenever I talk to someone about the song and ask what they think it means, they all have a different interpretation, and I really like that. I don’t want to squash their creativity by going, ‘Well, this is what it actually means.’ It’s about people being connected, and it’s linked to a particular experience of mine, where… It feels so dumb to say it, but there is an actual skipping rope involved. But I like leaving some secrecy around that and leaving it open to interpretation – to be honest, people usually think of something better than what I thought of when I came up with it.”
We liken the idea of Stokes hinting at there being an actual skipping rope, but not giving any more context, to those Tupperware containers with food-themed designs on them. “You give people an empty container with some colour [being the song itself], but they can fill it with their own choice of protein [being the meaning behind it].”
This is more or less how Stokes operates as a songwriter to begin with – she’s not one for crafting huge, sprawling narratives for her themes to embrace, or building intricate worlds for her subjects to flourish in – rest assured The Beths present Aotearoan Idiot won’t be on the cards anytime soon, whether their now-on-ice Australian tour with Green Day ends up going down or not.