“There’s this beautiful part where he is reflecting on the battlefield and is torn between the Stoicism of the past and the Christianity of the future,” Colin Peterson said recently, describing Meditations, the series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, the 16th Roman Emperor. Colin, the vocalist of Los Angeles-based goth punks Terminal A, is disarmingly earnest in person, his wide eyes smudged with the remnants of day-old eyeliner. “He’s looking inward and chiding himself to see what makes sense when the world’s in turmoil. To think there was a leader who even thought in those terms ... it’s impossible now. The ethics that go into leadership have drifted so far from what our precious Western canon ordained once upon a time.”
These musings are standard for Colin and Terminal A’s other half, the equally warm yet comparatively taciturn guitarist, Lee Busch. The two seem to always be in the middle of a long conversation with no end, a symptom of their particular type of symbiotic friendship. They first met as teenagers at a house party, through a mutual friend who knew they were both infatuated with seminal synth-punk band The Screamers. “It was like a movie scene where everyone went silent,” Lee remembered. “Colin walked in all glam-rocked out with flowing hair, blue Divine-inspired eyeshadow, and a handcuff belt.”
Together as Terminal A, Colin and Lee inject minimal electronic beats with gritty guitar riffs and bellowing vocals. The result is a style that lands somewhere between anarcho-punks Flux of Pink Indians and avant-dance legends Kraftwerk — all high-energy, leftist sentiments and mind-numbing textures. Currently at work on a new EP, the tentatively titled A Bright and Guilty Place, the duo is out to prove something that’s important to them: how the personal is political. “You’re thrown into the world, you exist in the world, but guess what? That’s always in the context of a state,” said Colin. “There’s always these insidious things looming over you."
Colin’s knack for soliloquies has been incorporated into Terminal A’s live act, too. When the band performed at an organizing event hosted by the activist group The Future Left at the now-defunct DIY venue Non Plus Ultra, the singer launched into impassioned interludes in defense of refugees, against the warped faces of fascism, and about the gravity of hope. Trump had been in office for less than a month, and while the inauguration and its implications weighed heavily on those in attendance, Terminal A felt like a salve. During the set they roamed in and out of the crowd, refusing to be bound by the confines of a stage. Colin jumped between grandiose dancing and pretending to cannibalize himself.
When we met at a cozy outdoor cafe in the eastside neighborhood of Silver Lake a month later, Terminal A had just returned from their first SXSW. “Almost the entire festival felt like being in a YouTube advertisement,” Lee said between drags of a cigarette. “We went to an official showcase and all the bands sounded like Spotify commercial music.” At one point in our discussion, Colin brought up the 20th century vanguards he read about years ago, the ones responsible for the romanticization of cities like Paris and Vienna. “They were people who didn’t know what they wanted, but knew they didn’t want what they were being handed,” he said to me. “So they tried to create something different.” Maybe that’s what Terminal A is doing, too.
Your performances are incredibly theatric. You really engage with the audience and don’t adhere to the confines of the stage.
COLIN: We’re really influenced by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who wrote The Threepenny Opera. His whole thing was to build a perfect Marxist theatre. He was the first to do these stripped-down performances where the show would stop and the audience and performers would talk shit at each other and throw things. His shows were basically like organized riots, and the messages of his plays were always about how society is failing.
Does Marxist theory have a heavy hand in the ethos of your music?
COLIN: To a certain extent. We definitely love the old American left and love the idea of futurist optimism in post-war America and Europe. They thought nuclear power would fix everything. It was kind of like this democratizing of modernism, this strive for a better life, good ethics, good technologies, everyone working cohesively. We don’t think those are ideals worth abandoning.
LEE: For as long as the time I’ve been around, the idea of “positive change for a better world” is kind of a joke to people. Everyone’s so disillusioned by potential Marxist ideals. I understand and I have to fight that cynicism in myself all the time. It’s been hopeful seeing that shift recently, seeing people being enthusiastic and able to put the cynicism aside and be like, ‘We can do things!’
COLIN: Both Lee and I have American baby boomer dads, guys that were operative and revolutionary. From them we learned the most crucial term: solidarity. I think if you can empathize with someone, you should stand as strong as you can beside them. Because the rising tide lifts all ships. Life is fragmented. We’re of many many different narratives, but the social conditions that serve as the base of what we have to fucking live in, that’s something that affects everyone.
“It’s about creating cultural monuments, it’s about creating artifacts, it’s about leaving another chapter in a story that’s been running since we were in fucking Mesopotamia.” — Colin Peterson
It feels like some people are finally coming to terms with how their “progressive” idols are in fact perpetuating the neoliberalism that led the world to where it is now.
COLIN: With Trump comes the age of facts being negotiable. Everyone’s bold-face lying, but even within that there’s a real clarity in a sense. We finally have a figurehead that’s as ugly and despicable as American policy has been, not only to the working classes, but the world at large. You can no longer be fooled by a smile. It’s real and disgusting and we can finally see it and fall under no illusions. That’s good, it makes action possible.
LEE: When Trump was elected, a lot of liberals began saying it’s the ‘post-facts’ era. Don’t you remember ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction?’ Do you know how many people died because of that lie? That’s when the ‘post-facts’ era began!
What inspired Terminal A to deviate from a standard punk sound?
COLIN: One thing that fascinated both Lee and I was how with early Cabaret Voltaire, a record like Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, or a handful of obscure European new-wave bands like Guerre Froide or D.Stop, you have all these people using electronics in the context of straight-up punk or rock ‘n’ roll structures. Why haven’t more been able to heed that call? So for us, we thought, let’s see if there’s anything to add to this format. Plus, it made sense practically. I remember trying to start a band before I met Lee. It was such a hard thing telling people ‘I can’t engineer sounds on the synth and I can’t really sing, but I’m kind of well-read and like to jump around.’ Everyone was like, ‘Get the fuck out! There’s no place for you here.’
Tell me about “Unreason,” the song you released on the day of the inauguration.
LEE: We were really pissed off at the election.
COLIN: Like soggy pissed off.
LEE: As soon as I heard [Trump was elected], Colin was the first person I called. We knew we had to exercise all these feelings.
COLIN: It’s gnarly because Trump winning recontextualizes what you are. Right now you’re the white cell in a body of a huge tyrant. My mom is a caretaker and this old white dude asked what ethnicity she was, and then refused to be touched by her when she said she was Iranian. She’s literally changing the man’s diapers and he’d rather rot in his own excrement than deal with what he perceives as the "other." A thing that plays into the message of "Unreason" is what made all of this possible: what are the circumstances? Why is there an alt-right? What are the questions we need to ask ourselves in order to avoid the draining of revolutionary fervor?
What do you consider the duty of the musician in Trump’s America?
LEE: We’re at a point where any ethical ideal is considered a pipe dream, and there’s been this pervasive zeitgeist of "Everybody’s out for themselves and everything’s money and everything is marketing." It’s this weird Ayn-Randian perspective that’s been pushed since the Reagan era. Even if you’re outside of that, it’s hard not to internalize it a little bit.
There’s “alternative space” in the physical sense, but also alternative space in terms of if you can break a hole through the everyday reality of the neoliberal era where everything is super mediated and abstractly controlled. The times I was at a really good show, it was so formative for me to realize spaces like this exist and that there’s a way people can be on a higher level than just mindless consumption. I know it sounds new-agey, but it set a higher standard for what reality could be. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t like playing up on stages. We want to dismantle powers structures and interact with the audience, because this is real.
COLIN: As people making some kind of art, it’s about creating cultural monuments, it’s about creating artifacts, it’s about leaving another chapter in a story that consists of a dialogue that’s been running since we were in fucking Mesopotamia. I think if we don’t keep pushing for ethical spaces or turning people onto more transgressive ideas, that tradition could be lost.
What kind of cultural monuments are being represented in a song like “Parade Is Exile”?
COLIN: It’s what we learned from my mom, who had to bail Iran during the revolution. She went to England first and was present for punk. She was so pissed and debased. And the favorite pastime of both our dads is getting wasted, listening to John Prine, thinking about their dead friends, and crying. We like to politicize our work because we saw what [music] meant to our fathers and mothers. There’s that very immediate link between cultural artifact, pop artifact, personal history, and political history. It’s all wrapped in one.