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Following the tragic death of D.C. academic Alexandros “Alexi” Petersen, media coverage has tended to emphasize his remarkable professional accomplishments. Just days before the 29-year-old was killed last Saturday in a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan, Petersen had arrived in the Afghan capital to assume a teaching post at the American University of Afghanistan. Before that, the Georgetown Day School graduate had also served as an adviser on energy security issues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But friends of Petersen, particularly those from his high school days, remember another side of him.
“I’ve read a bunch of articles about Alexi, and they’ve all concentrated on what an intensely smart academic and political commentator he was,” says David Combs of punk band the Max Levine Ensemble. “And I know that’s all true, but not one of the articles mentioned that he had played in one of the most incredible punk bands of all time.”
Petersen formed The A.K.s in 1999 with classmates Noah Foster and Justin Parker while they were still students at Georgetown Day. A.K.s fan Ben Epstein describes the group as “the greatest band that you never heard of.”
“They were full of life, and they were infectious,” Epstein says. “It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes this band so brilliant…The songs that Alexi sang had a unique quality in that they transcended their lyrics.”
Petersen, the band’s main lyricist, often worked into his songs his interest in military history and geopolitical issues, which would inform his career as an adult. “Alexi reveled in knowing every detail of the most obscure battles and political treaties and loved explaining how it was of vital importance to our day-to-day lives. His lyrics reflected that,” says Foster. “Often they were long diatribes about the complications of guerrilla warfare or Napoleonic maritime battles.”
Petersen, says Combs, who shared a stage with him on several occasions, was the guy “who would come to his own show still dressed in a suit and tie from some internship with some congressman and proceed to writhe around wildly fronting a band who were made up of much more identifiably punk-looking kids.”
Petersen made other attempts at merging his two worlds. Epstein remembers one such instance. “At an A.K.s show, Alexi put out a book on the merch table. I glanced at it and it had a complex title,” he says. The book was The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, Petersen’s 2011 analysis of Western strategic objectives. “Alexi said, ‘That’s my book.’ I looked at him in disbelief. I flipped through the pages and realized this was an academic book and I didn’t understand anything in it. I thought this was a joke. But he wasn’t laughing. And then it all made sense. We all knew that Alexi had this other side to him—a professional and serious side—but it wasn’t until that moment that I really understood just how impressive of a person he truly was.”
“He combined the two things he loved without thinking that was unusual,” says Ben Richardson, who joined the band as a drummer in 2001 as a sophomore at Sidwell Friends School. “He had a lot of ambition, but without ego. He was committed to using his talent to excel.” Within the District’s think-tank and policy communities, Petersen’s modest and soft-spoken nature was refreshing.
On stage, Petersen put his academic persona aside. “Our shows were violent and kinetic,” Richardson says, remembering specifically a Battle of the Bands held at St. Alban’s School at which “Alexi was performing so wildly that a teacher stormed onto the stage demanding to smell his breath, thinking he was drunk.”
After the band members graduated from high school and moved on to attend colleges in different parts of the world, the A.K.s would reunite during summer and winter breaks. “After college, things continued to become more difficult until finally we were left with one annual show, usually around Christmas,” says Foster. The A.K.s played their final show at the Black Cat in December 2012.
Petersen went on to study at King’s College in London and the London School of Economics before beginning his career as a scholar. In a statement released by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Christian Ostermann, head of its Global Europe Program says, “He was an exceptionally talented, energetic and courageous young man, passionate about his work, someone who literally ‘walked the walk’— constantly traveling to the regions that were of core concern to him. He was doing excellent work and I will miss his wise counsel, enthusiasm and partnership.”
The tributes to Petersen’s life as an academic feel surreal to his friends from the punk scene. “It’s strange to see all the press about Alexandros Petersen, the energy expert,” says Combs. “Because even though he’s wearing a suit in the photos, I still see Alexi from The A.K.s.”