Jon Bywater interviews Peter Stapleton
On a good night, live in a small room, at Arc in Dunedin, say, or at the Dux de Lux in Christchurch, the divergent trajectories of each member of TheTerminals 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, 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.
I talked with Dunedin resident Peter Stapleton about his songwriting, its contribution to The Terminals' downbeat tone, and his experience of living and making music. I begin by asking him to try and place The Terminals within his own view of music:
PS Originally I probably thought of it more in terms of the songwriting partnership between Stephen Cogle and myself, a continuation of the Victor Dimisich Band thing. But The Terminals have actually become much more than
that, a real entity apart from the songwriting. The sound has a life of its own and because we've been around for so long, we almost refer back to our own history now. The newer things are often derived from older Terminals songs. The sound has changed. We always get asked about the change in sound between Uncoffined, Touch, and Little
Things. The obvious reason is that the players changed. Ross and Susan left the band, Brian and John replaced them. But I think there was also a shift in attitude. Whereas the noise was always part of it, there was also a pop element and the music was definitely more structured. As we became more confident in our playing, the noise element increased, the structures got looser, and there was more space in the music.
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?
I think it's quite removed now with us. When we started out we had some strong influences, but that was twenty years ago, and I think they've become really very unconscious.
I didn't mean so much in terms of influences. More like: things with a common spirit.
There's probably something in common with some of the solo John Cale stuff (eg. Paris 1919, Fear, and Slow Dazzle), perhaps in early Roxy Music too. I can't really think of any other thing that makes me think, 'Yeah,
that has elements of what we do.' It's funny, Stephen's elder son Stuart liked a lot of Seattle grunge music, and he bought a Sonic Youth record and he didn't like them as much because they "sounded like The Terminals". There's a classicism about Stephen's writing, and there's an element of melodrama in the lyrics, and the singing too.
Classicism in the sense of composed academic music?
I think of someone like Lou Reed as writing in the same way, particular chord progressions that are 'classical' in the context of rock music. Perhaps the Velvet Underground if John Cale was the vocalist. Peter Jefferies' work has a similar feel.
There's a real strong John Cale thing in what he does, his piano playing.
And the way he sings too.
You started in The Vacuum, who are basically unrecorded?
There are two songs on Bill Direen's Split Seconds (Retail Trade and Remember Breaking Up). They're from a tape we recorded in a backyard studio in Christchurch, which we never wanted released. We used to play most of the songs that later appeared on the early Builders records, as well as some of the Victor Dimisich ones. The Victor Dimisich Band was Stephen and myself, along with Tony O'Grady, and Alan Meek who also played with the
Builders. After that I was a member of the Pin Group, then Scorched Earth Policy, and from 1986 The Terminals. I've also been in Dadamah, Rain, Flies Inside The Sun, Sleep, and Bible Black and more occasionally A Handful of Dust and Pieters/Russell/Stapleton. Currently I play with PSN and Eye.
And you've played drums and percussion in all those?
I add shortwave radio and tape manipulations to Flies Inside the Sun, Sleep, PSN, and Eye. In Rain I also used to play a Moog synthesizer and with Scorched Earth Policy we used to swap instruments a bit, but otherwise no, I've never really strayed from the drums.
You've written songs, lyrics for most or all of those?
I started off writing lyrics for Stephen Cogle's music. We used to play in a room down the back of my parents' house. A woman called Theresa McGuire played guitar with us and we wrote our own songs. After Theresa left and
Bill Direen joined we became The Vacuum, who ended up playing mostly Direen material, and that was eventually a source of conflict between us, leading to the formation of the Victor Dimisich Band as an outlet for our writing.
Pin Group songs were mostly co-written by Roy Montgomery and Desmond Brice, although I did write a couple of the lyrics. Desmond was in a sort of proto-Pin Group which didn't actually make it to the performing stage. I
wrote most of the Scorched Earth Policy lyrics while Brian Crook wrote the majority of the music, though I do remember some songs being worked out by the band as a whole and I would fit the lyrics to them after the fact. I
co-wote (with Roy) the songs for Dadamah, lyrics (where we used them) with Flies Inside the Sun and Rain, and also the majority of Terminals words. With The Terminals, I will write lyrics and Stephen will put them to music
and then bring the song for the band to arrange and sometimes even to deconstruct, which is something I find quite refreshing.
The lyrical mood of The Terminals, the world that comes out bit by bit in those, how do you see it?
Obviously the lyrics are pretty dark, though I think with the more recent ones the emotional range has widened and where in the past I have sometimes written in an almost 'cartoon gothic' style, I've wanted to get away from that. If I'm genuinely depressed I can't write at all.
I've noticed that quite often there's a single person, alone, writing or travelling.
I do write about people, and probably about myself, and aspects of interactions between people, often presented in an abstract way. The darkness of the lyrics has often been the subject of comment.
The music does emphasize that for me.
I relate it to the music of Jacques Brel for example, that kind of melodrama. The lyrics are dark, there is an element of the absurd, but they work on different levels, often simultaneously. Medication is not all that serious. I think of it as black humour. I remember a review of Scorched Earth Policy that said: 'Scorched Earth Policy are about doom and gloom. That was last year's thing. This year everybody wants to be happy and dance'. And nobody seemed to see the humour in the lyrics. I think right atthe end, after we'd broken up, there was a lengthy review in The Listener where the writer talked about the black humour in the lyrics, and we thought - 'At last! Somebody's got it!'
You think that's the same thing with The Terminals?
There are only a few Terminals songs that fit into that category.
The idea of people jumping out of windows [as in Medication] is pretty heavy!
I think there's a real sense of the absurd in several of the lyrics of that period, and also with many of the Dadamah and Flies Inside the Sun ones which have a very surreal view of everyday life, away from the heavy gothic
thing. Mind you, Black Creek is obviously pretty gothic, and Messianic too.
Messianic I remember listening to, and the key words were "reputation" and "career". It seemed to be evoking some horrible moment of self-doubt.
It is talking about those things. The face that people have in public. It was inspired by someone I knew, but it's gone on beyond that.
I suppose I'm quite puzzled that you see much of this as humour. The presentation seems serious.
I think it's always been like that because of the way Stephen sings, his voice doesn't readily convey things like humour, the singing is 'weighty'. I was referring more to my lyrics with other groups, such as Scorched Earth
Policy. Given the makeup of the band, it's hard to imagine The Terminals being much lighter. There are a number of elements but the songs, the sound, and the playing are very much in the gothic tradition.
There seems to be a certain sort of landscape that I have to imagine to place these songs in..
Someone had a go at me about the 'negativity' of my lyrics. This person had a real problem with that and pointed out that these images, taken out of context, did sound quite negative. I certainly don't think of them that way, and while they often involve a struggle, I think of them as ultimately positive.
When was Mekong Delta Blues written?
It was actually written in 1974. We were joking when we started playing it again, that it was over 20 years old! A number of the Victor Dimisich songs were written in the first two years after Stephen and I left school. Mekong
and another one from then, Medusa, were part of what we called our 'twilight zone' set, which had a whole freeform element to it. Mekong Delta Blues goes on for as long as it needs to go on for. So that was an aspect of our music that got shelved with The Vacuum, The Victor Dimisich Band, and early Terminals. We felt those things were right for the band, after twenty odd years.
What freeform stuff would you have heard or been interested in back then?
I had listened to some free jazz by then, and liked Can and some of the other German bands. I was also interested in that aspect of the early Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart. I had records by John Coltrane and Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, but a lot of good things, I didn't get to hear until much later.
Where is the Mekong Delta?
You've got to remember that we're of the generation where the Vietnam war was going on for years and years and you heard about the Mekong Delta just about every day on TV or radio news, though the song wasn't really about that. You could transplant it to any war zone, I suppose, the same feeling of desolation.
There's something about my mental image of Christchurch that rings true with the word 'delta'. The swampiness.
I think that has been a factor in my lyrics, probably more with Scorched Earth Policy and Dadamah than The Terminals, the feeling of Christchurch as a swamp dragging you down. There's a sort of standard suburban emptiness about Christchurch and in the mid-1980s there was feeling that nobody else was doing anything that we remotely connected with. A lot of the people we knew wouldn't do anything for fear of being criticized and there seemed to be a real lack of creativity and a lack of belief in creativity. The only people who seemed to be playing music were careerist, people who followed the trends and above all wanted to be successful. And I think the lyrics reflected some of my feelings about that.
That song Messianic - what provides certainty for you? What is the issue?
Over the years I've tried to get away from certainties, because I probably naturally try to control things around me and I think the lyrics to Messianic discuss that. It started off with me talking about the actions of someone I knew, and that triggered it off, but it's not about that person and it could just as easily be about me. It does talk about the whole idea of certainty and the sense of predestination that some people have. Often with lyrics I will talk 'around' a subject and there will be quite a few contradictory ideas in there, at the same time remembering that somebody else has to be able to sing it. Messianic is a song that has several different voices.
Certainty is something that closes people off, something that limits their options, that makes it sound like quite a negative value.
I felt that way at the time and have increasingly sought more openness, but it's not something I can articulate very easily.
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?
By recognizing the absurdity of everyday life, by taking it lightly, and by getting enjoyment out of simple things. Most of the music I play these days is freeform and a lot of my interest in that came from a feeling that musical structures imposed things that weren't necessarily to do with me, that they often existed for their own sake. Then the structure becomes some sort of citadel, and that's the wrong way round, something which often happens with bureaucracies, where they exist to perpetuate themselves. I see some parallels in music, and while structures can be natural (and that is the ideal), when the main effect they have is to interrupt any sort of expression, or to straightjacket it, they seem a bit pointless. It's possible that we do bring structure (order?) to any given situation and I guess the opposite can be scary, but it's a question of how much we need and that's always relevant to the practice of music.
If there's an overall sense of endurance in Terminals lyrics, it's of one person, by themselves: "just a transitory in the Mekong."
I think I do write from a solitary perspective. And that is probably my natural way of writing. There is often a sense of travelling through a landscape, of overcoming difficulties along the way, and achieving some kind
of resolution. 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 thumb-your-nose at everything else, especially when you're young, and we did that. Of course it was then reinforced by what seemed to be happening outside.
And that's maybe a sort of certainty?
Yes, we felt very sure about what we were doing and our worldview was a product of that.
Over the last few years there's been quite a bit of affirming attention from overseas for New Zealand music.
We weren't aware of it so much until fairly recently. The music press (especially in the US) practice a kind of tourism, going round the world looking for sites, and they discovered Dunedin, whereupon Dunedin music became New Zealand music and Christchurch was pretty much left out of that. There has been a positive response from overseas though, and just getting that has helped sustain a number of New Zealand musicians and in many cases
that affirmation was long overdue. We'd been writing and playing for so many years in our own very insular way that the significance was probably a bit lost on us. When I lived in Christchurch I think I internalized a lot, I had a whole life inside my head, and I didn't take much notice of the city, apart from the things I liked about it, and I wrote from that point of view. I think many people there do live like that, because the environment is not all that nurturing, both the physical and the people environments.
[Jon Bywater lectures in Critical Studies at the Elam School of Fine Arts, the University of Auckland. An earlier version of his interview with Peter Stapleton appeared in Opprobrium 1 (1995); in May 2004 the text was updated by Jon and Peter for Capital of the Minimal.]
©Peter Stapleton 2004