Jonathan Pearce

Kiwi Krunch
Jonathan Pearce

Hailing from New Zealand, the Beths play crackling power pop fronted by singer/guitarist Liz Stokes with Jonathan Pearce on lead guitar. On its new album, Expert in a Dying Field, the quartet delivers 12 exuberant tracks that mix pop, alt-rock, and a dash of punk. VG talked to Pearce about how, as producer, he captures the Beths’ ferocious energy in the studio, as well as his beloved vintage Les Paul goldtop.

You recorded the album at your own studio. How do you shape the Beths’ sound?
We will always do another take if we’re allowed one. The live rock and roll energy is all about focus and intent, so if you’re losing that, you might get a more accurate take, but it won’t have the vibe. I think we can focus long enough to play the songs a lot of times and get the accuracy, and hopefully, also the intent, the rock and roll fury. We are perfectionists for the vibe.

Your music is sometimes described as a mix of pop and “skuzz.” What’s that?
To me, it sort of means a specific thing about guitar and band arrangement – like being unafraid to play dense stuff with heavy distortion, and still try to find space for a song. We recently tried to rebuild Liz’s pedalboard and replace the Crowther Hot Cake pedal with something more versatile. But the new pedal wasn’t skuzz enough, so the Hot Cake stayed.

“Silence is Golden” is a good example of a super-tight band. How do you make sure the guitar and rhythm section are in lock-step?
For a time, we naively thought that in order to be played on the radio, we needed to compete. I’ve learned that’s not always right or a good way to think about it, but we are absolute tempo obsessive. We don’t want to play live to a click track, so we put ourselves to the test in practices.

Who were your guitar influences?
I always say I’m most influenced by the musicians around me. Michael Howell, of Skilaa, is one of the most inspiring musicians in Auckland at the moment. Our bass player, Ben Sinclair, is a very inspiring musician. I’m really into the classic ’60s lead playing – bluesy stuff, often in major-key song formats, but just going ham with a wild fuzz or a loud amp. The New Zealand icon for this would be [psychedelic guitarist] Doug Jerebine.

Do you know of Gary Thain, the New Zealand bassist from the classic ’70s lineup of Uriah Heep?
I didn’t know about Gary – another undercover Kiwi!

“Knees Deep” has a full-on guitar solo. How do you approach a lead?
I typically play through a solo a crazy number of times, first improvising, then taking bits I like and composing around them. I keep repeating and iterating until I’ve essentially composed a solo that does everything I want. Some solos are more off-the-cuff, but “Knees Deep” was definitely composed.

We see you with a Les Paul Deluxe goldtop frequently. What year is it?
It’s a ’78, and it’s my dream guitar. Just dreamy. I have a ’64 violin bass, too, which is a real beauty, but doesn’t get played much on Beths recordings. We have a Jerry Jones borrowed from a good friend, and it gets a lot of use.

What does Liz play?
Liz’s main guitar is a G&L Tribute Fallout, which is another great instrument we have a lot of history with. In the studio, we mostly use that for its powerful bridge humbucker sound, or sometimes the smooth middle combination with the P-90.

What amps and pedals did you use on Expert In a Dying Field?
Our amps are all vintage New Zealand-made valve amps by Jansen and Fountain. We have a small collection now, and they’re a history lesson in themselves. They do need work these days, but we love them. For effects, I use plug-ins or pedals like the Earthquaker Interstellar Orbiter and Data Corrupter.

Is there anything about New Zealand music or culture that has become part of the Beths’ sound?
Maybe the DIY streak that’s evident in classic NZ music – that’s part of what we do and must come through in the sound somehow. It used to be that if you wanted a guitar amp or compressor, you had to build one yourself or find a bloke in a garage somewhere who could. To us, even synthesizers feel like they break the rules a little bit – they’re all too easy. We still feel like we want to do a lot of the work ourselves.

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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