The Beths and Hans Pucket Debate the Worth of Recording

Jonathan Pearce and Oliver Devlin talk demos, draining studio sessions, and more.

Oliver Devlin is the vocalist and guitarist for the Wellington, New Zealand band Hans Pucket, who just released their record No Drama on Carpark; Jonathan Pearce is the guitarist for the Auckland-based band The Beths — and the producer of No Drama. Hans Pucket is about to make their US debut at SXSW, so to celebrate, the two caught up about demoing, recording and more.  
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Oliver Devlin: How are you doing?

Jonathan Pearce: Doing good, Oli, doing good. We’re getting prepped for leaving for this tour. We go to Australia for two weeks with a bunch of Laneway Festival shows, and then five weeks in the US. And it’s wall-to-wall Beths, just a headline tour.

Oli: Are you looking forward to hanging out with Phoebe Bridgers?

Jon: Oh, Phoebe. Yeah, big Beths fan! [Laughs.] 

Oli: [Laughs.] Yeah, apparently.

Jon: I really do want to meet Phoebe, yeah. She’s wicked. 

Oli: Cool. So you’ve been practicing in the rehearsal room. What is your attitude towards rehearsal, and your own guitar playing for the band this far into however many shows you’ve played? How many times you’ve played these songs? What can still be gotten out of a rehearsal for The Beths?

Jon: Well, I’ll tell you how today’s rehearsal went: We’ve been trying to run every song we’ve ever played live so that we have a massive pool of songs to pick from for this tour and can constantly change up the setlist, and the the shocking thing is, we can basically play them all. Most of them were basically gig ready on first run through having not played it in months, or over a year or something. But yeah, they were still there. They’re still there.

Oli: Did you work through the discography in order?

Jon: No. I mean, Liz [Stokes, vocals/guitar] may have had some kind of rationale for what she was calling, but she seemed to basically be calling all of the deepest cuts and hardest songs and stuff like that. Which is, I suppose, what you do when you’re testing yourself before you leave for tour. I felt like on guitar today, I launched into those with a lot of like invention. Like I was constantly looking for areas in the songs where I could play something different to what I played before. And then Tristan [Deck, drums] dropped in a couple of new things, and I was inspired by that. We commented on how it’s just amazing and annoying when you find the part weeks or months or years after you’ve recorded the song. [Laughs.] So yeah, I consciously tried to kind of mix it up and be inspired because, yes — the point of your question is, do we really need to rehearse? I mean… it feels annoying that we do. But I know we do.

Oli: But it sounds very worthwhile that you’re still discovering things in these songs, and maybe that rehearsal is the time when you try and expand the horizon of these songs, with a bit more freedom than you would if you’re performing in front of an audience.

Jon: Yeah. And I mean, The Beths is pretty buttoned down. We don’t really do open-ended sections, or cues where we just keep playing until someone gives the nod or whatever. But I feel like we might go there. I think that might happen this year. There might be some moments in the set like that.

Oli: Yeah. I wonder how that would feel for some of the more established songs.

Jon: Well, I’ve been thinking about Crowded House — they’re kind of the masters of this, right? I have only seen them play live a few times, and kind of the later part of their career. But listening to earlier recordings of them, they were very spontaneous in the way they would sort of start songs. Someone would just kick it off and then everyone would join in. So I think there is a big part of it that’s just being confident that everyone you’re playing with knows the language. I think we’ve lacked a little bit of that confidence and we’ve wanted to have everything quite scripted so that we know what we’re putting out there is exactly what we mean to put out there.

Oli: And as The Beths, rather than a collection of four musicians who have their own tastes. With Hans Pucket, there’s sometimes bits in the songs when it should feel like anyone can play whatever they want. And maybe that’s a less considered output, but I don’t know.

Jon: Yeah, I think with The Beths, I think everyone’s very conscious of what Liz’s vision is maybe. I mean, I know I certainly am. And Liz and I talk endlessly about music and what we’re listening to and what we like and don’t like and stuff, so I think by virtue of being together all the time, we find ourselves on the same page quite quickly. But I get the sense in Hans Pucket that people worry about you less than we worry about Liz as a lead singer.

Oli: [Laughs.] You mean Jono [Nott, drums], Callum [Devlin, bass] and Callum [Passells, multi-instrumentalist] worry about me less?

Jon: I think they do, yeah. I think they worry about the song. I think you are an amazing accompanist as well as leader, and you can just sort of turn into an accompanist for some cool thing that someone else is doing.

Oli: Yeah. I really enjoy playing in the band and jamming out, basically. The songs are almost an excuse to then have finished singing and now we can just play loud music together as four equals, rather than a band as a vehicle for my very important feelings. [Laughs.] Which is not how I’ve ever really felt about it. And actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve heard the difference between Liz’s demos and my demos.

Jon: Oh, yeah?

Oli: You know, Liz’s demos are very almost at the song tempo and with several guitar parts sketched in there — I don’t know if they’re all like this, but the some of the ones I’ve heard, and the ones that have been released. And then compared to my demos, which are unreleasable.

Jon: [Laughs.] Yes, I’ve heard your demos too. I can think of a few that were a good representation of the song, but they are the exception. Your demos very open-ended.

Oli: Maybe given to the band with with a kind of, “I don’t even know if this is anything,” kind of attitude. And they jump on them and change them up. I kind of give the songs away very quickly, almost like embarrassed. Like, “You guys wanna do something with this? I don’t even know.”

Jon: There’s a few things I wanna ask you about there. So I work with this other New Zealand artist called Anthonie Tonnin, who we both know and love. And sometimes when I’m working with Anthony Tonin — his music is quite idiosyncratic, and if he plays me what he’s got — “I’ve got this song and it goes like this, and I’ve written this little drum machine beat and I’ve got the synthesizer, now let’s turn it into a whole production” — and I listen to it and it is so him that I just don’t know what to add to it. I’m at a bit of a loss and my ideas tend to rub up against what he brings. But if he inspires me with a small story about the song, or a little direction of, “I was listening to this David Bowie song, but I was also thinking about this book that I read about a public transport magnate, and I was thinking we could make a sound that combines those two,” then I’ve got the scent of it and I can follow it as a producer or a collaborator. But how do you feel that relates to what you bring to the band, when what you’re suggesting is that basically you’re bringing the band very little? Do you feel like they they need you to tell a story at all, or do they just not need that and they can run with whatever you’ve got?

Oli: It’s been interesting in the most recent album process. This one that we’re working on currently with you, our follow up to No Drama, they’ve all been very sensitive and asking me nice questions about what the song means, and listen to me talk about it. It slowed down the pace a little bit from how we used to do it, which was a bit more like you’re describing. Or a bit more the opposite, where everyone just jumps in and kind of gets to work and there’s not really much conversation. 

I think part of that was that we went out to a barn up near Arthur’s Pass and spent a week working on the songs together. And it was very thoughtful and dedicated work, which felt quite like a bunch of people in their late 20s intelligently talking about the songs. I felt really listened to, and it was quite a lovely experience for me. Like, “Here are all of my feelings,” and everyone going, “Those are great feelings. Can we help you express them?” [Laughs.] We had about 15 songs, and it’s like a couple of years worth of bad days all captured in these sad little songs. And then having your band mates go, “Those are very interesting and beautiful feelings, Oli,” is pretty nice. 

Jon: There’s a particular way that I think you hold these songs in your head when you work on them in the studio. We’ve recently just finished a bunch of sessions, you and I, where we just about made an album. We’re pretty close now. Quite spontaneous — you guys say you’ve done a week of pre-production, maybe a few more days besides that, but there were largely a lot of parts being written in the studio, modifications being made to the songs, throwing out sections, rewriting new sections. [It’s] a really great studio record, and a really great way of working in the studio with with you guys where you’re super engaged, you’re really committed, you’re really you top musicians. Once you’ve found the idea, it doesn’t take you long before you’re performing it really well and we can commit that to a record. It’s an amazing experience. 

I’ve noticed that you are particularly adept at feeling the emotional intent behind the song, feeling the meaning of the song, and what the arrangement is doing to that meaning. I’m thinking of an example where a suggestion was made to to kind of drop the drumbeat out of a certain section and leave you, and perhaps some deep and subtle accompaniment, to just play a few chords and sing this quite poignant line. You were just about choked up trying to do it, because of how much it maybe heightened that emotion that the song was conveying — but maybe in a distressing, or potentially even melodramatic way where it made too much of that moment or something, and changed the meaning. I guess I’m asking, where does that connection come from? Are you always thinking about the words even when you’re not singing them? Do you just know the song so well, having written it and and practiced it in the bedroom before before these sessions or whatever, that you just know what it is and what it’s supposed to do?

Oli: I think you’ve described that specific example really well. That is basically what happened, and has happened a few times. Every time it happens, it’s really surprising to me as well. Most of the time while we’re working on the songs, it’s just the practical task of arrangement. And then every now and then, the effect of singing them kind of creeps up on me and I feel it again. They are emotional songs, and it’s more the song itself is making me feel like that than the memory of what they were written about. 

Jon: Hmm.

Oli: There’s some songs we worked on where I just felt ripped at the end of the day, because I’m just like, Oh, this is so sad. And it’s just the effect of the melody itself. 

Actually, a kind of related example is, I was hanging out with some friends yesterday and one of them came into the room and sang my name, Oliver Devlin, to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby.” And I immediately frowned and got grumpy because it’s something that my friend, Freya, does all the time, and I thought it was annoying me because it happened all the time and it was a repetitive joke and I was tired of it. But actually, I realized it’s because it’s a really sad song. And so it was associating my name with this specific melody that when I first heard that song as a kid, I got really down. It’s so affecting in a way that I kind of forget. The strength of emotion in that melody… It really pissed me off to have my name sung to it. [Laughs.]

Jon: [Sings the melody.] That descending minor triad, eh? It’s just so dark and so final. [Sings again.] It just wants to sit there and stay there. 

Oli: Yeah. 

Jon: There’s some amazing musicians that don’t really do this, but you’re able to play a somewhat spontaneous version of a song that you’re still learning — still working your way through the chords and trying to work out what guitar part to play and stuff — and you’re able to play that and sing it. And then at the same time, there’s another part of your brain that’s up there in the sky listening to the entire arrangement and really feeling it, feeling the emotional crux of it. 

Oli: Yeah. 

Jon: It’s quite an amazing skill.

Oli: Yeah. I don’t know if I can do entirely all of that. Like, I can’t listen to the whole song.

Jon: Yeah, I find that too. And I think of myself as someone who can do this, and I know I just can’t really hear the whole thing. But making music with you guys is very different for me than making music with The Beths, where I’m a producer, engineer or whatever, but also playing electric guitar and writing parts and stuff. It feels really different. It feels a lot more stressful doing it with The Beths like you suggest. I’m just so exhausted at the end of days working with The Beths, trying to do several roles at once.

Oli: It must be quite satisfying taking off at least one, maybe two or three hats and just letting your other hats become very large hats. 

Jon: [Laughs.] It’s really great, yeah. I love doing it.

Oli: Like, Oh, I am really good at this. It isn’t always exhausting, it’s just that in The Beths you’ve gotta do four things at once.

This kind of reminds me of something that happened in the recording process. It was a dark moment: The band was at odds. I think there was a disagreement over the tempo, and I was struggling to play my guitar part, and it was just bad vibes. I went and had a water break and then we came back and had a little chat about what’s going on and cleared the air. Then you gave us some really sincere and lovely compliments and built us and our confidence back up. And it was really gorgeous and a genius moment of you as a producer at your best, which is making great music happen when it needs to sometimes. But I was wondering if you do you take on that role in The Beths as well? Because you’re very attuned to the vibe in the room, and capable of helping. 

Jon: Yeah. It’s something that I think about a lot, and I’m thinking about it all the time when I’m working with people. I try to do a lot of reflection at the end of days or between sessions. What the different people in the room’s energies are like at a given moment at lunch, you know, who’s up, who’s down, who’s got needs that aren’t being met, who’s got fuel in the tank. “Exhausting” maybe is too negative, but I do find it very draining. And I can understand how some people kind of give up on this aspect of making albums and and become quite workman maybe, and I have been in those sessions and I have decided that I really don’t want my sessions to be like that. But with that also comes a decision that I can’t make records seven days a week of every week of the year because it’s just too draining.

Oli: And do you have a similar role in The Beths or is it shared around between everyone? You guys are probably a pretty well-oiled machine in terms of making albums by now.

Jon: Yeah, and when you tour a lot together, you get reasonably well-trained at being emotionally attentive to each other as well. I think I do still take on a bit of this role with The Beths, but it’s different because they’re different people and the needs are different. And The Beths are a bunch of pragmatists. There’s kind of this romance in The Beths personality-wise or something. It’s weird to say that sometimes making records is even more of a strain than being on tour, but sometimes it kind of can be, because you’re constantly being very vulnerable when you’re writing stuff and creating stuff.

Oli: Yeah. It was as funny working and going back and staying with Annabel, Callum’s partner, afterwards and describing what had happened that day. It was like, “And then I was almost in tears, and then we all high-fived and hugged, and then…” There’s quite a lot that happens in a day of recording, at least with Hans Pucket. There’s some definite lows.

Jon: Well, the way you guys record as well, you record so much of it all together. It gives you really high highs because you can play the thing, and you’ve all played it really well and you know you’ve done it and and you’ve done it together. I think that’s really hard to replace that feeling if you’re doing things a bit more piecemeal, and perhaps extending the technology or the circumstances of your recording set up or studio or something like that. You kind of don’t know you’ve done it until… I mean, it could be months before you all listen to something that’s reflective of your initial vision and you say to each other, “We did it, we finally did it!” The highs are just not as high as when you’ve got a bunch of you musicians in the room together and you can hug and high five when you get the take. It’s special.  

Oli: Because sometimes maybe the moment when the song comes together is when you’re sitting by yourself mixing it. [Laughs.] 

Jon: Yeah. Absolutely.

Oli: “It’s all come together. I wish that my bandmates were here to give me high fives.” 

Jon: Yeah. Sometimes I kind of wish the bandmates were there sitting in the corner just to be like, “Go, Jono, keep going!” [Laughs.] As if you’re running a race or something and you just need people to give you a yell and a cheer. But it takes hours, so it’s a marathon.

Oli: Yeah. This is deep subject matter.

Jon: Yeah. It’s good reflection. I think we should have our own little reflection on our sessions anyway.

Oli: Yeah. I’ve been writing a journal for this recording process, which is the first time I’ve done that.

Jon: Writing things down on paper has been a big part of making this album with you guys.

Oli: Like just visibly seeing the progress of, “OK, we have these 15 songs and they’re each on a piece of paper and we put the ones that sound good at the top.” and you’re like, “Wow, we got six songs that sound good!” 

Jon: [Laughs.] Yeah

Oli: I remember watching Get Back recently, and there’s a really gorgeous scene on the last day when they’re going, “Oh, I don’t know whether we should go on the roof,” and “Do we have an album?” They’re all pretty down, and then they go through the process of just counting up all the songs — and they’re just listing the songs on Let It Be, you know? Like, “Yeah, well, we got that one. ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ and ‘Dig a Pony’.” The just list them off like they’ve just thought of them like, “Oh, what about that song ‘Across the Universe’?” It’s so good. And they’re like, “Oh shit, we’ve got an album!” It’s so cute.

Jon: God, there’s so much in that movie series that it’s just what being a band is like. Everyone’s done that, counting your songs and trying to work out whether you’ve got a body of work or not. But yeah, so we wrote things down and you’ve been keeping a diary. I know you’ve got your lyric sheets out and you’re keeping notes of what happens in the room while we’re doing it. And then are you taking that back home at the end of the day and kind of fleshing out your thoughts and feelings, your reflections on those moments?

Oli: Yeah. Well, sometimes it’s just really funny quotes that happened. I’m like, “Oh, I’m writing that down.” Every now and then we’ll be listening back to a song and you’ll say, “Oh, this reminds me of being in the warehouse with my mum and shopping for clothes.” Like, what? 

Jon: [Laughs.] Yeah, I remember that one. That was a non sequitur.

Oli: But totally sincere. It’s just good fun. And there’s so much that happens that I don’t want to forget any of it. 

Jon: I feel the same.

Oli: I’m looking at my list of questions I wrote down. I actually asked Ben [Sinclair] for some ideas and he’s got a good one here: Are there any pieces of equipment you won’t allow in your studio?

Jon: That is quite a good one, and I don’t really know. I think the short answer to that is no. But in practice, the answer to that is reverb. I just don’t have any reverb devices in the studio. And I think we’ve talked about this — I’ve got a thing with reverb. I’m just not very good at it. I can’t make my peace with it. It’s hard work with me and reverb. With EQing something, I’ve got this strong inner voice inside my ears saying, “This is what the sound sounds like. You’ve heard this. It sounds like this, and just keep going until you make it sound like that.” And and then there’s the other part of the voice that’s like, “If you keep adding 300 hertz to everything, there’s going to be a big build up there, so you need to stop doing that.” But with reverb, I just don’t have that inner voice. I’m kind of constantly searching. I think I’m never finding. [Laughs.] 

Oli: Yeah. It’s a very strong flavor and it just covers everything, doesn’t it? And really changes everything else that you’ve been doing with your careful EQ and your careful mic choice and all these other careful decisions. As soon as you put a reverb in there, it sounds completely different. It’s affected every frequency.

Jon: Yeah.

Oli: And its relationship to time. [It] just emotionally changes the sound hugely, and the feeling in the psycho-acoustic space.

Jon: That’s a thesis.

Oli: That’s a $5 word. Yeah,  think it dates music as well. You have to make a choice about what kind of music, what kind of reverb you’re using and whether you’re going to be an ‘80s reverb or a modern digital spotlessly clean reverb, or a late ‘60s reverb. They all have these very strong associations to me. You produce wonderfully timeless music, and maybe reverb has no part in creating something that you want to sound good in 10, 20, 30 years.

Jon: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this thing — this is an utterly half baked idea, and I have shared it with one person who strongly disagrees with it, but I’ve been thinking about when you make a recording, what are you keeping a record of? What are you preserving for the future? Obviously there’s just the design of it: that someone’s written a song, they’ve had a whole lot of ideas they’ve boiled the ideas down into song form, and I think that is worthy of recording for the future. And it could be recorded by writing it down — in times gone by, that was exactly how it was recorded, by writing sheet music. 

But then we invented a better way of preserving those ideas, and that was to preserve an actual recording of someone literally playing it. And then that has brought in a whole new challenge and concept of, what about the moment that it’s being played? What about that moment are we recording for the future? It just sits really uneasy with me now, thinking about this. When I’m making music with bands in a studio, how many of those situations are worthy of preserving for the future? Or how do we make them worthy of preserving for the future?

Oli: Hm. Because you’ve found yourself in situations that seem unworthy or…? I don’t know. You’ve gotta have extreme confidence to be like, “This should be kept around forever! I’m never throwing this away!”

Jon: Yeah. I mean, this is why I think it’s a bit of a half baked idea that probably needs to be challenged. But I do think that there’s some guiding value to it, where if you’ve really toiled over something and it’s just a mess of edits or something like that, maybe it’s not worth preserving. Maybe you should put it in the bottom drawer and pick it out in a couple of weeks time and try it again and see if you can really do it in a way that’s worth preserving. 

Oli: Yeah. It’s a really tough question. It goes against my humble nature as a musician to build up defenses against the idea of being around forever when I’m recording music. Like, in order for me to write a song or to do anything, I can’t be thinking about that sort of stuff. So I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t thought about posterity, really.

Jon: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And there’s lots of recordings that shouldn’t be considered records for the future. You know, if it’s just your demo, like we’ve been talking about, and it’s only purpose is so that you can show it to your bandmates and they can say, “Yep, it’s good,” then at that point you should almost delete it. Its job’s done.

Oli: You’ve passed it on into the next form of the song, which is, now it belongs to four people instead of just one person.

Jon: Yeah, I guess it does. 

Oli: And then the recording process after that is to give the song away to more people. And hopefully you’ve managed to time that recording very well where everyone knows how to play it really well, but it’s right at the moment of discovery, and then the band, all high fives afterwards.

Jon: High fives and hugs. That’s gotta be worth preserving. Very good, Oli.

Hans Pucket is a band from Wellington, New Zealand. Their latest release, No Drama, is out now on Carpark Records.