The Terminals

This interview was conducted by Jonathan Bywater around September 1995; since then The Terminals have played live about three times, and recently pretty much disbanded. Their only releases since the Little Things album have been a 7" on Chicago's Roof Bolt label, and a CD of live recordings on Peter Stapleton's Medication label.

On a good night, live in a small room, at the Empire Tavern in Dunedin, say, or recently at the Dux de Lux in Christchurch, the divergent trajectories of each member of The Terminals lock into one smouldering, swaying heap. The dense, pounding sound leaks like smoke from the doors and windows. Mick Elborado's synth and organ, when mixed properly prominent, creak and wrench like tree-felling, making it seem that part of the music is a strain their playing places on the architecture. John Chrisstoffels' bass drives thick stakes down through the murk. Peter Stapleton's drums roll straight out from the stage. Brian Crook's note-bending howls shoot away angularly. And Stephen Cogle's strum fills the room, his icy vocal tremolo sliding along the ceiling in the only space left.

There's something dark in the music of The Terminals these days, something brooding, something stormy that never quite blows over. Every song is like a pencil drawing, heavily worked until there's more lead than paper. The sketches are of a crepuscular landscape, a twilight environment, where lone figures grip their coats and are driven to reflection. On the new LP, Little Things, there's 'Quicksand' to watch out for, and a 'Black Creek' alongside 'Coasts of The Shrunken'. They sing about a 'Ministry Of Lies' and 'Medication'. They've still got the 'Mekong Delta Blues'. Little Things, just out on the German label Raffmond, is their third LP and the second with the current lineup.

Opprobrium took the opportunity to talk with Dunedin resident Peter Stapleton (the man responsible for many of the band's lyrics, and their drummer since they formed) while he was in town for the aforementioned Christchurch gig. We talked about his songwriting, its contribution to The Terminals' downbeat tone and his experience of living and making music in Christchurch. We begin by asking him to try and place The Terminals within his own view of music.

Peter: I probably think of it more in terms of a songwriting thing, Stephen and me, almost like a continuation of the Victor Dimisich Band thing. But I know what's happened is that The Terminals has actually become much more than that, a real entity apart from the songwriting. The sound has a life of its own now. It definitely started off as a continuation of a songwriting thing that we'd had years before, but more recently, because The Terminals have been going so long, we almost refer to our own history now. And to some extent we cannibalise our own stuff. The newer things are probably derived from older Terminals songs. The sound has changed. We always get asked that, by people who don't really know who's in the band, why has the sound changed between the Uncoffined era and Touch? The obvious thing is that the people who are playing have changed. Ross and Susan are gone. John and Brian are there. But, I think there's also been quite a shift in the kind of sound. Whereas before the noise element was part of it, there was more of a pop element in some parts. There was more structure, and I think it's become less so, as we've become more confident with our playing, and wanted to play more, and the noise element has increased, the structures have become looser, so there's more space.

O: With the songwriting, is there anything you can think of, that you know, that touches on a similar feeling or idea to what The Terminals are about?

Peter: I think it's quite removed now with us. When we started out, I think, we had some strong influences, but that was twenty years ago, and I think they've become really very unconscious.

O: I didn't mean so much in terms of influences. More like: things with a common spirit.

Peter: I think with the songwriting there's probably an element in solo John Cale stuff, that I think is similar, just a feel...No, I can't really think of any other thing that's made me think, 'Yeah, that has an element of what we do.' It's quite funny, Stephen's elder son, Stuart, buys a lot of Seattle grunge music, and he really likes that. And he got a Sonic Youth record and he didn't like them as much because they "sounded like The Terminals". There's a sort of classicism about Stephen's writing, and there's probably an element of melodrama in my lyrics, and his singing of them, too.

O: Classicism in the sense of composed academic music?

Peter: I think of, say, Lou Reed as writing in that way, too, particular progressions, musical progressions. I think of them as quite classical, in a rock music context. Perhaps The Velvet Underground if Lou Reed wasn't there, and John Cale was the vocalist. Nothing recently. I mean, Peter Jefferies has, I suppose, a little bit of the same feel.

O: There's a real strong John Cale thing in what he does, his piano playing.

Peter: And that way of singing, too. [For those of you who don't know of Peter Stapleton's earlier career, it might be time to tidy up some background.]

O: You started in the Vacuum, who are basically unrecorded?

Peter: There's a couple of tracks on Bill Direen's Split Seconds, not credited to Vacuum, credited to Bill Direen. They're from a tape we did in a backyard studio that we never wanted released - 'Retail Trade', 'Remember Breaking Up', and there might be another one or two, I'm not sure, on various other Bill Direen records. Most of the songs on the early Bill Direen/Builders things were songs we did, and some of the Victor Dimisich ones. So, Vacuum, Victor Dimisich, and Victor Dimisich was me and Stephen who were in the Vacuum together, and Alan Meek, he played in both The Builders and Victor Dimisich before we split, and the Pin Group, and Scorched Earth Policy after that, and The Terminals, and since The Terminals have been going I've also been in Dadamah and Flies Inside The Sun, and currently I'm in Rain, which is Flies Inside The Sun without Brian.

O: And you've played drums and percussion in all those?

Peter: Now in Rain I play the radio and a synthesiser as well. In Scorched Earth Policy we used to swap instruments a bit, but otherwise no, I've never really got away from the percussion thing.

O: You've written songs, lyrics for most or all of those?

Peter: Yeah, well, I wrote songs with Stephen. Like before we were in Vacuum we had a backyard band sort of thing. We used to play in this room down the back of my parents' house. A woman called Theresa played guitar with us and we wrote songs. The ones we did with the Vacuum, most of the songs were written by Bill, which was a source of conflict eventually, and so we took our songs and did them with the Victor Dimisich Band. And the Pin Group, those songs were written mostly by a guy called Desmond, and Roy [Montgomery]. Desmond was in a sort of proto-Pin Group, and didn't actually make it to the performing stage, but he'd co-written most of those songs. And I wrote a couple [with Roy]. And I co-wrote most of the Scorched Earth and Terminals ones. In Scorched Earth Policy, I think, Brian mostly did the music. A lot of the music would be worked out by the band, though, as a whole. One person would have an idea, and I would just bring lyrics to it. Whereas writing with Stephen, he writes actual music to the lyrics and brings them to the band, and with The Terminals we then deconstruct them! Which has been one of the good things about The Terminals, because the Victor Dimisich was a very formal thing of trying to get the songs as they were intended, by the writer. With The Terminals, the band takes something and they do what they like, which I like. It's been quite refreshing. The other thing was a bit rigid, really.

O: The lyrical mood of The Terminals, the world that comes out bit by bit in those songs - with particular reference to the new album, Little Things, how do you see it?

Peter: Well, obviously the lyrics are pretty dark, gothic. I think more recently, the emotional range of the lyrics has got a bit wider, and I think in the past I have written at times almost cartoon gothic, which is something I can do quite easily, and I've wanted to get away from that. If I'm really depressed, I can't write at all. They're also removed from myself, those kinds of lyrics. It was just one strain of what I've always done.

O: I've noticed that quite often there's a single person, alone, writing or travelling.

Peter: I think I do write about people, and probably about myself, aspects of interaction between people. they are quite abstract. It has been commented on, just the darkness of them.

O: The music does emphasise that for me.

Peter: I think of it in terms of people like Jacques Brel, that kind of melodrama. It's not ridiculous, it's not absurd. Though there is a bit of that there, so it works on different levels. 'Medication' is probably not all that serious. I think of it as black humour, with things like that. I remember with Scorched Earth we got this review quite early on that said: "Scorched Earth Policy are about doom and gloom. That's last year's thing. This year everybody wants to be happy and dance." And nobody seemed to get that we thought of most of the Scorched Earth Policy lyrics as black humour. I think right at the end, after we'd broken up, there was quite a long review in The Listener [long-running nationally-distributed weekly TV/radio/arts/culture mag in NZ - Ed] where the writer talked about the black humour in the lyrics - "At last! Somebody's got it!"

O: You think that's the same thing with The Terminals?

Peter: Well, yeah, a little bit...

O: The idea of people jumping out of windows [as in 'Medication'] is pretty heavy!

Peter: I think there's a real absurdity about several of those lyrics, and that's another thing, something that's come out more recently in my lyrics, some of the Dadamah ones and some of the more recent ones, an absurd, surreal thing of everyday life, a bit away from the heavy gothic thing. But there's still some of that, 'Black Creek' obviously is a pretty gothy one, and 'Messianic' probably is too.

O: 'Messianic' I remember listening to the first time this week, and the key words were "reputation" and "career". It seemed to be evoking some horrible moment of self-doubt.

Peter: Yeah, it is talking about those things. The face people have in public. It was inspired by someone I knew, but it's gone on from that.

O: I suppose I'm quite puzzled that you see much of this as humour. The presentation seems serious.

Peter: I think there's always been that with Stephen's songwriting, because of the way he sings, his voice doesn't really convey things like humour, weighty singing. I don't think there's a lot of humour with The Terminals. Part of what I was referring to was my lyrics more generally, with other groups. So, no, we're not that humorous. It's hard to imagine The Terminals being much lighter than we are. There are a whole lot of things and I suppose lyrics are one part of that, and to an extent they define it, the sound and the singing, it is quite weighty, it is quite gothic, I don't think there's any getting away from that. I couldn't imagine us doing anything else, with the people we've got, the combination of people.

O: There seems to be a certain sort of landscape that I have to imagine to place these songs in.

Peter: It's funny, because someone had a go at me about how negative my lyrics are. This person had a real problem with that. And I didn't think of them, I genuinely didn't think of them as negative. But it was pointed out, these various images, taken out of context, and they did sound very negative. I don't think of them that way. Perhaps I see it as a struggle, something like that, but ultimately, I think of them as kind of positive.

O: When was 'Mekong Delta Blues' written?

Peter: It was actually written in 1974. We were joking last year when we started playing it again, that it's 20 years old! A number of those Victor Dimisich ones were written after Stephen and I left school. That and another one written then, 'Medusa', that's going to be on a single [a-side of the Roof Bolt 7" mentioned above - Ed] were part of what we called our 'Twilight Zone' set, which had a whole freeform element to it. 'Mekong Delta Blues' goes on as long as it feels a need to go one for. So that was just an aspect of our music that got shelved with Vacuum, and especially Victor Dimisich, and early Terminals. We felt these things are right for our band now, after twenty years.

O: What freeform stuff would you have heard or been interested in back then?

Peter: I listened to some free jazz from about then, and liked Can and some of those German bands too. We both really liked the 13th Floor Elevators and also things like Captain Beefheart. I would have had a bit of John Coltrane, and things like Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, but a lot of good things, I didn't get to hear until much later.

O: Where is the Mekong Delta?

Peter: Well, you've got to remember that we're of the generation when the Vietnam war was going on for years and years and you heard about the Mekong Delta just about every day on the TV or the radio. But the song wasn't really about that. It's quite odd now, you could transplant it to Bosnia, I suppose, that sort of feel.

O: There's something about my mental image of Christchurch that rings true with the word "delta". the swampiness.

Peter: I think that definitely is a factor in my lyrics. I'm not sure how much it comes into Terminals lyrics. It does definitely come into Scorched Earth Policy lyrics. The feeling of Christchurch, the swamp dragging you down. There's the sort of standard suburban emptiness in Christchurch, but the swampy feeling too. It seemed very strong in the mid-'80s. Obviously that is just a personal thing. There was feeling that nobody in Christchurch was doing anything that we remotely connected with. A lot of the people we knew wouldn't do anything because they felt they'd be criticised for it. There seemed to be a real lack of creativity, a lack of belief in creativity. The only people who did things were careerist, who wanted to "make it" in the usual sense of the phrase. And I think something of this got into my lyrics.

O: That song 'Messianic' - what provides certainty for you? What is the issue?

Peter: I think over the years I've tried to get away from that sort of control thing. It's quite a battle to do that, because I probably naturally try to control things around me. I think there is an element of that in that lyric. It started off with me being quite annoyed by something that somebody I knew did, and that triggered it off, but it's not really about them, and it is partly about me, and partly about talking about that whole thing of certainty. And that feeling, almost the feeling of predestination that some people have, not in the religious sense, just like tunnel vision... Often with lyrics I try to talk around a thing. There'll be quite a few contradictory things in there, it's just that I try to integrate them into a lyric that can be sung by someone else. So often there'll be different voices in there. And I think there are in that song.

O: Certainty is something that closes people off, something that limits their options, that makes it sound like quite a negative value.

Peter: I think I very much felt that at the time. And I increasingly have felt that, just a feeling of wanting more openness, whatever. It's not something that you can really articulate that well.

O: What provides the way ahead, what allows people to endure all the absurdity of everyday life, then? Without certainty, you might think, you're left with indecision?

Peter: It's a belief in something, in the out there. Just by valuing the simplicity of life, of each of our lives. This probably sounds a bit pretentious, but just getting enjoyment out of simple things. I've been playing free from music, for three years most of the music I've played has been free form music, and a lot of that came from the feeling that I found structures imposed things that weren't necessarily to do with me. I found that when I played music the structures were often there for the sake of structure. The structure becomes this sort of, I don't know, citadel, and it seemed like the wrong way round, not that you're there to serve the structure, which is how bureaucracies work, they have a life of their own. I just see parallels in music. I think quite often structures can be natural and feel like they are for the people that are doing them. And that's good. It's just when the main effect they have is to interrupt any sort of expression, or to striaightjacket, it seems a bit pointless. It is possible that we do impose or bring structure to each situation, I'm not sure about that. And I guess after seeing structure, order, that chaos is something uncomfortable, scary. It's all up in the air as a question. It's a question of how much, but, I think, it very much has relevance to music.

O: If there's an overall sense of endurance in Terminals lyrics, it's of one person, by themselves: "just a transitory in the Mekong..."

Peter: I think I probably do write from that sort of loner perspective. And I don't know whether I could write from any other. I don't know what else I can say about it.

O: The idea connects vaguely for me to the idea that Christchurch felt like a lonely or desolate place, when you were doing things no one else was interested in.

Peter: Playing with other people, I think there was not so much a siege mentality but more of a "fuck them, we'll do what we're going to do anyway" approach. Once you get a few people affirming that, you get a kind of thumb-your-nose at everything else that's going on, especially when you're young. We did that, and it was partly reinforced by what seemed to be happening outside.

O: And that's maybe a sort of certainty?

Peter: I think that's probably what happened with us, maybe with Bill Direen too, what we did became a certainty for us, feeding back into itself.

O: Over the last few years there's been quite a bit of affirming attention from overseas for New Zealand music.

Peter: We weren't aware of it so much, until comparatively recently. Probably the Dunedin people... There was this whole thing of looking for sites, of interesting things that were happening in music, and as they went around the world they hit on Dunedin, and Dunedin music became New Zealand music, and Christchurch was pretty much left out of that. There has also been quite a lot of positive response, quite a lot of affirming stuff, especially from American fanzines, magazines. Just getting that probably did sustain quite a few of the people. I think we'd been doing what we'd been doing for so long that it didn't matter by then. But I think it has been a sustaining thing for a lot of South Island musicians lately. When I lived in Christchurch I think I internalised a lot, I had a whole life inside my head, really, and I didn't take a lot of notice of the city, only the things I liked about it, and probably wrote from that point of view. And I think a lot of people here do live like that, because the environment is not all that nurturing, the physical and the people environment.