Interview: Midnight Oil
"...the energy that is created by xenophobic, chauvinistic people is an energy fuelled out of anger and insecurity, and it’s important, from my perspective at least, that people who don’t share those views create significant energy of their own."
Midnight Oil released their first eponymous album in 1978 but it was their fourth album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 released in 1982 that brought them to global attention. From early on their politics were firmly embedded in the music but concerns about the plight of indigenous communities, the environment and militaristic power were not limited to lyric writing as they continuously involved themselves in these issues.
In 1986 they toured Aboriginal communities with Warumpi Band exposing themselves to the appalling conditions many of these communities lived in. In 1990 they played a guerrilla set outside the Exxon HQ in protest at the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2000 at the Olympic closing ceremony they played ‘Beds are Burning’ dressed in black with the word ‘Sorry’ emblazoned on their clothing as an apology to Aboriginal people for the forcible removal of children from the end of the 1800s to the 1970s.
These and other political acts fed into, and were entwined with, the series of albums they released throughout the 80s and 90s. In the 90s they released a stream of diverse, expansive albums that evidenced a band unwilling to settle down in any way. These peaked (for me) with Redneck Wonderland. Released in 1998; it was a unambiguous, confrontational response to the racist, anti Aboriginal politics of the Australian Right. Four years later they released their last studio album Capricornia and played Europe in the summer, including Fierce Festival in London. Later that year Peter Garrett left the band to enter parliamentary politics, being elected for the Australian Labour Party in 2004. They reformed a couple of times to play benefit gigs in 2005 and 2009 but it seemed that Midnight Oil had been a great band-past tense – until last year when they announced they would be reforming to tour in 2017! (1,2)
When Midnight Oil announced ‘The Great Circle’ World Tour, Echoes And Dust decided to go for it, contacted them to see if an interview could be arranged and at 22.30 on a Thursday evening (07.30 in Australia, I think) a very pleasant lady rang up and put Peter Garrett through to chat over some questions!
(((o))): In 2002 I was lucky enough to see you at Fierce Festival in London and later that year you left for a role in parliamentary politics. At the time did you see it as putting Midnight Oil on hold-a kind of hiatus-rather than an ending? Did you always suspect you’d be back some day?
PG: Yes although probably not as clearly formed as that, Tim. I think when I wrote my Memoir, I was writing it all, how I felt, and I said something like ‘Somehow the feeling inside was ‘That’s not the end of it’’ I mean we had done to much together, played for such a long time and we had had such a singular vision and a singular path if you like. It wasn’t hard to imagine that at some point down the track if we were still healthy and alive and enjoying making music that we wouldn’t do it together, and of course that has proved to be the case.
(((o))): You reformed a couple of times for benefit gigs didn’t you?
PG: They were really big benefits that came along. I think the second time, by that stage I was actually a minister in the Government, that was an interesting feeling to take the suit off and leave all the business of trying to reform Australia’s schools behind, and jump up on stage at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and play but it was for a good cause and that kind of made it work.
(((o))): I was going to ask you about that. You were elected as an MP in 2004 and filled various positions before stepping down in 2013 – how did you find that 10 years? It was quite a period of turmoil with the Rudd/ Gillard struggles – do you look back on the period positively? Were you able to achieve some good things?
PG: Yeah. Ironically I found that because day to day politics was so distracting and we had leadership tensions that essentially dogged the Government from day one, along with a couple of other colleagues we decided to put our heads down and try and get as much done as we could under the radar. And I’m proud of what we were able to do especially in the Gillard Government. They were big reforming Governments, they got a lot under their belts. Not all of it was perfect and as a high profile celebrity candidate I naturally had the Murdoch press in particular gunning for me on a daily basis and that’s not always pretty, but I feel very strongly that it was a time of highly focused work and I’m not an either/or person, I think that you can work both inside and outside the system. I’ve worked in both places and I’m proud of what we were able to achieve.
In the environment we took the Japanese to court on international whaling and won that case. I legislated a resale royalty scheme for visual artists so that they got paid some royalties, painters in our country weren’t in the same position as authors or even musicians. We created some huge indigenous protected areas in the remote parts of the country and of course in education we actually completely changed and reformed the education system in our own country so that children from poorer backgrounds could get more resources in education. These are really tangible things to be working on…you make a difference.
(((o))): To be honest you should probably be proud that the Murdoch press was gunning for you as well!
PG: Haha exactly. Well, they didn’t kill and bury me that’s the main thing, I’m still alive, I’m still here, haha!
(((o))): Was your decision to reform and tour due to internal reasons, the love of the music, friendship or was it a response to external factors like the mainstreaming of nationalism and xenophobia, the lethargy of any meaningful response to climate change?
PG: All internal really. Good question though because those external factors obviously bear down on us and for a band like Midnight Oil who have been outspoken, have been clear about its politics and not afraid to step out and give physical evidence to them, those external matters obviously meant something to us. But, no, it was really a question of if we sat in a room together and we started to talk about playing. I always had a feeling that there was a possibility it could happen. They had gone off and formed other bands but they had never really found a singer they could work with and I think once we got into a room and began the simple act of turning on amplifiers and creating rhythms and sounds there was a pretty clear sense that this could work and there was a lot of life and a lot of spark in what was happening.
Like it always has been since day one, Tim, it has to happen for us, in a room or on a stage first, and then whatever falls out from that we get to share with the rest of the world.
(((o))): I think I saw you in a televised interview saying you felt like there is ‘plenty left in the tank’?
PG: Yeah it’s amazing, I’m pretty astonished by it actually! It’s not a line that’s created in order to essentially explain what we’re doing, we wouldn’t be going out to play, I don’t think, unless we’d felt this sense that there is so much power and so much intensity in playing the songs again. That was kind of an organic thing which really worked for us, that meant that charging out the front door and getting on the stage somewhere would be a prospect we could really wrap our heads around and have a crack at!
(((o))): That kind of ties in with my next question. How has it been coming back to Midnight Oil songs – do they still feel like a good fit with who you are as people now? Do they still feel like they fit with you even though some of them may be 20, 25, 30 years old?
PG: It’s been really interesting to reacquaint ourselves and myself with some of these songs, the short answer is most of them, again surprisingly and sometimes unnervingly, do. Probably some of the early material you wouldn’t necessarily express yourself quite that way again, and some of them have got the blissful naivety of youth, haven’t they! You’ve got to love that even if you’re not feeling quite like that! But others (sound as though they’re) as much written for today as they were for the times they were created in. And without wanting to sound too grandiose I think what’s surprised us and surprised me more than anything else is actually that some of the material in particular essentially has presaged the time that we are in now, in other words as artists we didn’t know it, but we were tinkering around with ideas and themes and just expressing ourselves in song and you go back and you look at a line and you go ‘Far Out, that is actually about today!’ haha
(((o))): So you feel some of them are almost prescient really?
PG: Yeah, exactly. I was compiling a little list the other day, just scribbling down some stuff on my Mac about them, and I do feel that some of them have been a little bit like that. Y’know it’s not intentional, of course you couldn’t claim that for one second, but it’s interesting when you uncover it.
(((o))): Have you been surprised by the response to your tour? I noticed you’ve been adding dates hand over fist really! Including in London. That must be really encouraging!
PG: Yeah, haha, completely surprised! Haha. I sort of expected it in Australia up to a point but even Australia exceeded everybody’s expectations I think, including the people we are working with. A lot of people experienced the band here physically, we were in their lounge room, we were in their hotel or in their surf club or whatever and I think that carries you a certain distance, but nothing quite prepared us for the response in other places and how quick it was too y’know, the fact that everything sold out pretty much straight away!
(((o))): In Europe we have worrying developments like Brexit, FN in France, Orban in Hungary. On the edge of Europe we have Erdogan in Turkey and of course Trump in the US – the general drift to the right has been going on in the UK for maybe 40 years, but there has been a major shift again recently. Has that been similar in Australia? Or had the major shift occurred when you wrote Redneck Wonderland? Was that a response to that rightwing shift?
PG: Haha, well, yeah, good question. Redneck Wonderland was a response to the beginnings of that shift and in Australia it faded for some period of time but it has started to ebb back just very recently, over the last 18 months. I don’t believe that it will gain as much traction here as it has both in the States and in Europe. It’s worth remembering, particularly with America, that in some ways the energy that is created by xenophobic, chauvinistic people is an energy fuelled out of anger and insecurity, and it’s important, from my perspective at least, that people who don’t share those views create significant energy of their own.
The Australian political system is interesting in as much that it’s compulsory for people to vote. If it had been compulsory voting in America I doubt whether Trump would have been elected, and I feel the same when it came to the Brexit vote. Putting that aside for the moment we are certainly living in much more charged times and those sections of the population who, for whatever reason, feel threatened and angry about life are throwing their weight around and of course, in America in particular, they are aided and abetted by a rapacious assemblage of truly evil business forces who see nothing but the opportunity to profit at everybody else’s expense in a completely unfettered way under the guise of the nationalistic policies that someone like a Trump espouses.
(((o))): On Capricornia, you had a song called ‘Tone Poem’ and you talked about “the invisible hand clutching at the throat”. Someone once said one of the problems with the invisible hand is you also get an invisible elbow of social and environmental destruction. In ‘Tone Poem’ you also sung “heat haze refugee-no one panic”, we are already seeing millions of people suffering the effects of climate change. You’ve got a long history of campaigning around environmental concerns-for instance the ‘Black Rain Falls’ gig-is that an issue you’ll be drawing attention to again on this tour?
PG: I don’t see how anyone can avoid it even if they’re a pop band from central London or rap artists from the ghetto of L.A., the pervasiveness and the enormity, and if you like the stark existential challenge of dangerous climate change inevitably means you are going to respond in one way or another, short of sticking your head in the ground like an ostrich and not pulling it out until it’s all over.
I think for us we see it particularly in things like the Great Barrier Reef, the state of the Great Barrier Reef, we’ve had a couple of really severe coral bleaching events which happen really when the water gets too warm on the reefs. This is one of the great natural wonders of the world, it’s the kind of place lots of English tourists would go and visit if they come to Australia and they’d come back replenished and recharged. It’s a major employer of Australians, particularly young Australians, it can be seen from outer space, the astronauts could see the Great Barrier Reef when they’re blasting around in space.
So we want to highlight, to some extent, and connect with, the groups and the people who are working on these issues as we travel through South America and America and into Europe. At the same time we’re not coming out and saying we’re specifically going to do x and y just yet, there’s enough big mouthing going on in the world. It’s important for us to connect with people who are working on these issues and find ways of working constructively with them. So we want to go to places first and touch base with people and then we’ll work out what we’re going to do but it’s inevitable that we’ll do things, and in Australia particularly of course. There will be a lot of what I think are pretty basic sustainability principles attached to our touring, offsetting our emissions and those sorts of day to day things. But much more importantly it will be about challenging the powerful forces who seem intent on committing suicide on the planet, they need to be confronted whenever and however.
(((o))): Thank you, that ties in with another question I was going to ask actually. There is a book ‘Inventing the Future’ by Srnicek and Williams, in it they write that political change often has to be preceded by cultural change (3) – I think in the UK you can start to see the emergence of some bands that will maybe bring about that cultural change, band like Sleaford Mods, Gnod, Idles and there have been some books, like Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution. And I wondered do you see Midnight Oil as part of that smashing of what Gramsci called the ‘cultural hegemony’ of the neoliberal right? Do you hope that Midnight Oil can disrupt that top down discourse?
PG: I think we always have, almost from the start, I don’t think we necessarily fall into… I don’t think we’re easily categorized, in doing that because part of our response has come about as singers and performers experiencing something and then reacting to it, as opposed to analysing something and then articulating a response. There is a difference between those two things and the line is blurred between them, in some ways, but certainly I think that is what we’ve always done but as much from the point of view of a link between us and the people that we’re playing to and our audience have seen, as it were, what is affecting the both of us.
One way of answering this question, or elucidating this question in an answer is to point out that when we began playing in Australia we had a brief period when we were playing in the inner city areas, the critics and the taste makers were supportive of the band and we appreciated their support, but we didn’t stay there for long, we went into the suburbs very quickly. Because we felt that that’s where most Australians, and most young Australians, were and we felt that’s where our natural affinities lay, and I think in doing that we were, in a sense, saying we are not about providing an artistic or cultural viewpoint that we then want to join up with others to essentially educate or hector or get caught up in a cult of intellectualism. We were really saying if we join hands with people or if we make music with people, if we share sweat with people in a place, we’ll each come to understand one another better and then we’ll call things the way that we see them.
(((o))): So something like the ‘Black Fella/White Fella’ tour?
PG: Well, that’s one good example, yeah. And of course we‘ve worked with groups, NGO groups and others. I was the President of the big national environment organisation here, The Australian Conservation Foundation, I did two terms with the ACF and we had big campaigns where we were taking on the government and taking on the forest industries and others and in some cases we had some losses but we probably had more wins than losses at that stage and that was mobilising people on the ground to be out on the street and to be involved in political action and campaigns. That’s been a big part of our extra curricular activities and a big part of mine but I think from the point of view of the band it is still about ensuring that the way in which the music is created and what’s happening in the performance space is almost like the hallowed ground that you have to occupy first.
(((o))): What can we expect on the tour, have you been adapting existing material at all or will you be road testing new stuff?
PG: Not sure yet haha
(((o))): Any chance of a new album anywhere on the horizon at all?
PG: Well, we’ve got a big re-issue coming through, we managed to find some songs that didn’t end up on some of the earlier albums, so there’ll be a little bit of new material in the sense of material that people haven’t heard before. Jeanie has spent a lot of time collating tapes and stuff’s been remastered and it’s looking pretty good actually, I have to say it’s the kind of thing I would probably like! It’s a creative band and people will want to record, whether we do or not I think will depend on how we go for the first run of the tour, it may be that we just do a couple of things which feel right at the time. And in terms of material we’ve had about eight hours worth of material, we had about 160 songs that we’ve been toying around with so we’re just paring those down now. We will circulate a lot of material through the set and I think that they’ll be quite expansive nights but we don’t really know yet because we haven’t played to anybody. We’ll figure it out!
(((o))): And what have you been reading lately, what books can you put us on to that would be helpful?
PG: Well, it’s funny, again it’s a terrific question, but I actually haven’t been reading that much, I think that’s partly because I did a huge amount of reading and a lot of reading of dense kind of material especially when I was Education Minister and I needed almost to completely strip off a layer of skin and sort of almost try and find a way of going back to being a bit more like a blank slate again, just absorbing things around me. And I actually travelled out into the desert with Martin Rotsey from Midnight Oil and a couple of other people and that’s where I decided actually to write some songs myself and I did a little project last year and we toured it and it went well, (the album) A Version of Now which I never expected to do, a completely accidental record y’know! I certainly didn’t want to start a solo career or something like that, I wasn’t thinking like that at all! I guess the gist of what I’m saying is I wanted to come back and essentially be much more open to the pulse of the landscape and the sense of people talking to people, spending time with people.
I read a bit of The New Yorker and I’m reading a couple of local books of authors that I like, who are Australian writers, there is a writer here, guy called Tim Winton who I like a lot, his latest book ‘Island Home’ is worth reading if you are interested in a good writer growing up in Australia. But I haven’t been reading much else along the way.
A big thanks to Peter for his time and to Ben Pester and Dan Salter for organising.
Photo courtesy of Midnight Oil.
- Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’ Verso. London and Brooklyn, NY.