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Interview: Peter Stapleton of The Terminals

Interview: Peter Stapleton of The Terminals

Sam Longmore / Wednesday 2nd November, 2016 1:50PM

Peter Stapleton was born in Christchurch on the 25th of April 1954. As a drummer/lyricist he has a long history of involvement in New Zealand alternative music, beginning with The Vacuum in 1976, carrying on to The Victor Dimisich Band, The Pin Group, Scorched Earth Policy, Dadamah, and The Terminals (who continue to this day).

Since the early 1990s, Stapleton has moved in more experimental circles with Rain, Sleep, and Flies Inside the Sun, as well as occasional performances with A Handful of Dust and Pieters/Russell/Stapleton. In 1996 he founded the Metonymic and Medication labels and from 2000 has organised the biennial experimental music Lines of Flight.

He currently lives in Dunedin where he plays in the free-rock trio Eye.

This text has been edited from a discussion via telephone, undertaken on the evening of the 26th October, 2016, in the lead up to the 30th anniversary of The Terminals first live performance, and their third ever appearance in Auckland.

The full transcript will be available as an editioned booklet as part of the 2016 Nowhere! Festival.

SL: To start I think would be nice talk a little bit about history, especially given that you are coming up to this 30 year anniversary. So let’s start at the beginning with how the Terminals first came about…

PS: Aaaah, so the Terminals first started in about… it was probably early 1986, maybe even late 1985. I was playing in Scorned Earth Policy and I think Ross Humphries, who had been in the Pin Group, was keen to get Stephen Cogle out of retirement. He had gone into what we called 'retirement' after the Victor Dimisich Band folded – the story was he’d given up music to play golf [laughs]. And I think in early 1986, we started having sessions with Mick Eldorado, who was also in Scorched Earth Policy, and Susan Heney from 25 Cents. Towards the end of that year we played live for the first time.

How much of a sense did you have at the time of perhaps being outside of the ‘mainstream’, of being against playing derivative music, for want of a less, you know, antagonistic phrasing?

Yeah, I think we always had that. Steve and I were in Vacuum with Bill Direen, and then the Victor Dimisich Band both of which very much outsider bands. Scorched Earth Policy were even more so. We were on the outside of the Christchurch scene, which at the time was quite Anglophile, and pretty much only concerned with what was the latest thing in NME and those British music magazines.

I think a sense of defiance, or something, does come across, especially in the lyrics, though it never feels as though like is coming from a place of futility…

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, people have commented on the darkness of the lyrics, but I think of them as ultimately hopeful, or….. [Laughs] I’m not sure how to answer that, but yeah, I think the protagonist is always an outsider.

It may be a little tangential, but there is often talk of isolation - whether it’s geographic, or sonic, or ideological - not just in reference to The Terminals, but around most groups of that era. What do you make of that? Is overblown, or…?

Ahh, yeah, I think there was a perception of distance, but it was more psychological than geographical and often, for many of those people, it was actually a positive thing too. It enabled them to – and I think this applied to us as well – not be too influenced by the latest thing. Then everything became a bit removed, but I think in that way it was quite a positive thing.

You’ve previously alluded to sort of internalising of the physical surroundings, for example Christchurch being on a swamp, and being in that way slightly oppressive…

Yeah, the physical environment of Christchurch is not all that nurturing.

And the membership had a lot different things going on throughout, yourself included, am I right? People playing in lots of different projects. How do you think that influenced things as far as the incorporation other influences, or just keeping it all fresh, or allowing for the longevity…?

Yeah, I think that probably influenced us quite a bit. Both Brian and I – and Brian was also part of The Renderers of course – were involved in more improvisational, for want of a better word, ‘noise’, music. I think we brought that to The Terminals as well, and I think the others also became aware of it because of our involvement. So that was definitely a factor throughout the 1990s.

It sounds almost like, if they weren't already interested in those types of music, there was almost, if not an indoctrination, but a cross pollination of your’s and Stephen’s influences on the new, or the incoming members…

Well, Brian bought a lot more noise to the band, both sonically and in terms of influences. Stephen doesn’t have that. He comes from what I’d call the more classical aspects of the Velvet Underground, early Roxy Music, or solo John Cale. By ‘classical’ I mean a sort of rock classical, not….


Yeah, those kinds of things.

You and Stephen [Cogle] have a very long musical relationship since, what, high school?

[Laughs] We weren’t in the same class at school, but we were both in the 1st XI cricket team and [laughs] we decided we liked music better than cricket.

Could you talk a little about the songwriting process that you and he have, or have had in many different groups?

Well, from very early on we decided we wanted to be songwriters. We started off writing songs for imaginary bands and then gradually, you know, they became real bands. Most of the time, I’ll write the lyrics first and he will put music to them. Occasionally, we’ve done it the other way round, but mostly it's the lyrics first.

And do you give notes, or a gist of a feel, or do you just pass them over and…?

[Laughs] No, no. I just pass them over and see what he comes up with. Usually, I have some sort of melodic sense in my head when I’m writing, but often he’ll come up with something completely different. Most of the time it turns out well!

How has it – I mean, I suspect it has changed over time, and I’d like to hear how if it has – but how does it feel to have someone else giving voice to your words?

Yeah, people have often said that it’s a bit weird. I guess I write for Steve’s voice and I know the kind of words and phrases he sings well. So there’s a bit of that. Other singers such as Roy Montgomery and Kim Pieters have interpreted my words quite differently.

Do you think it is important that you have a relationship with the person who is going to be singing, that you know each other well?

I think it probably is, although Steve and I are quite different people and we no longer live in the same city. But we have our own songwriting tradition and I guess we draw on that.

You said that you have been surprised by some of Stephen’s interpretations – have you ever been disappointed, or found that they’ve gone perhaps in a way so very different to what you yourself expected that is has been, umm, problematic, or….

Occasionally, yeah.

How do things play out, at that point?

Well, basically, if a song doesn’t work with the band, it’s eventually dropped. Over the years there have been a few songs that didn’t really gel. Perhaps the music and lyrics didn’t really match or there might be other factors too. Generally, there’s a process of working out the better ones.

It is a much more abstract question, but we touched briefly on the subject of songwriting, and rock classicism, and structure, and so forth….


… and it seems that with The Terminals there is this sort of tension at play between structured, song-based music on one hand, and a… a freer way of making music on the other. Can you elaborate on this a little? I mean, is this unintentional, purely a matter of the background influences at hand, or does it stem from somewhere conscious, from a guardedness, or an awareness, or…?

It comes from the different people involved. For example, Mick, who’s been there from the beginning, is a fantastic improviser. When Brian was in the band, so was he. And now Nicole is as well. So it’s that combination between songs and noise. It’s a place that I really enjoy, on the edge between formal structures and structures breaking down [laughs].

And is that ‘edge-position’ something which is considered or courted in the songwriting, or in the rehearsing, or is it purely a by-product of the people involved?

[Laughs] Stephen has often complained that he brings songs to the band, and the band deconstructs them, that he has no say in the matter. And that may be true. but I think The Terminals as an entity are greater than the sum of the parts…

And is there a different dynamic now, coming together to play live much more infrequently that you used to?

I think there is. It’s almost like this moment where we have to remember what we do and then, after that initial doubt, it seems to come back pretty easily. Yeah, it is different, but it can also be quite exhilarating too, perhaps even more than it used to be.

I was going to ask – it doesn’t seem that you were ever a prolific touring outfit or anything like that. Was there a reason for that? Was it a conscious thing, or did circumstance just not allow it, or was there a lack of interest…?

It’s mainly that circumstances didn’t allow it, but also that we didn’t feel the need to tour. Over the years we’ve played pretty consistently in Dunedin and in Christchurch. As for further north [laughs]… well in 30 years this will be only the third time we’ve played in Auckland. We’ve played maybe three times in Wellington and just once in Hamilton.

You are well overdue then!


Do you think the group has tended in one direction or the other over the time?

At different times we’ve moved one way or the other. In the mid-to-late 1990s we moved quite a long way in the experimental direction and in the 2000s we’ve moved back to a much more song-based practice. More recently it’s been heading the other way again [laughs].

This is another tangent, but I have to ask because I am very curious about it…


So, Uncoffined. There was quite a delay in the release of that, a couple of years, yes?


And I wonder, was this was related at all, and if it was in what way, to the, ahhh, disassociation between The Terminals and Flying Nun around that time?

I think there were a number of things that coincided around that time [1990]. The recording sessions for Uncoffined were the last time that Ross played with the band. He wanted us to be more like a 60s garage revival band and we weren’t interested in that. We had also met Bruce Russell by then and he had agreed to release a 7-inch single (‘Do the Void’/‘Deadly Tango’) on Xpressway. So we were already heading away from Flying Nun and the fact that the album took so long to come out just confirmed that.

So it was a happy, or symbolic uncoupling?

[Laughs] We also didn’t like the way Flying Nun seemed to be heading. At the time I thought they were a reflection of new right economics and the ‘trickle down theory’. They seemed to be putting a lot of money into a few bands in the hope that they’d become big sellers and that somehow this would trickle down to others on the label, which seemed to me to be pretty flawed thinking. Yeah, so, I think we didn’t actually feel that comfortable on Flying Nun anymore.

And so there was also an aesthetic divergence?

Both, yeah.

To wrap this up in a nice, neat way, I wonder, are there any things that you think have been of stand out importance in the history of The Terminals? Defining moments, or something like that, or has it been more of a juggernaut?

[Laughs, loudly] Yeah, like a juggernaut! It just keeps on going. It is just something that keeps on going, probably because when we do get together there’s still something special there. I guess if that stops we’ll stop as well.

Long may it last then!


The Terminals will be performing in Auckland this Saturday 5th November as part of Nowhere! Festival, head over here for more information and to buy tickets


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