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Cover Story: Midnight Oil • “The Last Dance”

| March 31, 2022

Midnight Oil (Photo: Robert Hambling)

As combustible as ever, Midnight Oil is again doing what they’ve done better than anyone else. At home and abroad, the band is rocking with furious post-punk energy and pop-savvy while agitating for change on social, political, and environmental issues. Like its biggest hit, “Beds are Burning,” the Oils’ 2020 release The Makarrata Project advocated for the rights of First Nations people at home in Australia. The new album Resist turns the band’s attention toward a world running headlong toward climate crisis. “Every child put down your toys and come inside to sleep / We have to look you in the eye and say we sold you cheap,” sings Peter Garrett on the unflinching “Rising Seas.” Promotional artwork for Resist shows a human hand gripping a world on fire.

The message is not subtle, but the band’s vibrant sound reveals nuance and inimitable character. Multi-instrumentalist Jim Moginie and guitarist Martin Rotsey intertwine their instruments in dazzling and melodic counterpoint. Drummer Rob Hirst plays with power, musicality, and precision. And for one final time on record, not-so-secret weapon Bones Hillman plays body-moving bedrock bass guitar while singing crystalline-high harmony. Having moved to the United States in 2007, Hillman died at home in Milwaukee last November due to cancer.

In addition to its politics, Midnight Oil has long maintained a titanic reputation among rock’s most potent performers. Following a lengthy hiatus during which Garrett served as Environment Minister and Education Minister in Australia’s Parliament, the band traveled the world during 2017’s Great Circle Tour. That run brought them to Chicago’s Vic Theatre for a rare performance of 1982 breakthrough album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The Resist tour brings the band to the Riviera Theatre on June 10, and it’s not a show to be missed. For a host of reasons, Midnight Oil has announced that this will be their final tour. The bandmembers stake their reputations on their songs, convictions, and word, so fans shouldn’t expect to find the Oils touring through Chicago again. IE’s Jeff Elbel spoke with Garrett, who called from his home near Sydney. Plans to tour beyond Australia had not yet been announced. Thanks to Bronwyn Tasker at Sony Music Australia for arrangements.

IE: It makes sense that a band like Midnight Oil would make its final tour in Australia, but do you have a message for your fans abroad?

PG: I think we might get across as well. You can never say anything with a great degree of certainty, but I think we might also make it through to Europe and North America with a bit of luck. We hope to see you.

IE: Are you currently in a gap between Australian shows?

PG: Yeah, we played a couple in Tasmania as a part of a big arts festival that they do down there in January. We managed to sneak in and get those done in the largest cities of that small island. We kick off again in about ten days.

IE: You must be taking care of your laundry in between.

PG: There’s not a lot I can do with smelly black T-shirts, you know?

IE: In your memoir Big Blue Sky, you described seeing heroes like John Mayall and Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters while you were at college in Canberra. You wrote about learning the importance of having the music exit your head and take up residence in the gizzard. There must be a compromise of that rule for Midnight Oil. The band is a ball of fire, but part of your musical identity is undeniably cerebral. How do you explain that balance between the brain and the gut?

PG: I don’t know that I can explain it. It’s one of the unanswerable questions for a band like Midnight Oil to have been able to continue to make music that has got meaning but is also a celebration of performance and the live experience of being in a room with people and just sharing what you’ve got. I think it’s partly a tension between those two facets. The yin and yang, if you like. In a more scientific response, it’s the left and right-hand sides of the brain, wrestling one another and coming up with stuff.

IE: I first read about these Australian agitators Midnight Oil as a teenager when 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 was released in 1982. Albums like Red Sails in the Sunset and your first book Political Blues started me thinking about the world beyond my own borders and led me to care more about what happened in my backyard and being electrified by the music. I think that’s evidence of that head and heart combination, although it’s not much of a question.

PG: No, but thank you for the comment. We’re gifted with some really strong songwriters, and with these incredible songs that keep coming through Rob and Jim, we’ve got a foundation upon which you can do just about anything else. To that, you add the way that we play and the way that we approach the business of putting a song together and taking it onto the stage. And then onto that, we add the dimension of “let’s be primal, let’s be wild, let’s see where tonight takes us.”

On top of that is, what is it that we’re singing about? What do we care about? What do we want people to have a listen to, and can we do something about it? I mean, it’s got ambition. [Our music] can be very over-serious at times and weighty, but when we make it work, it’s probably in a different category from whatever a metal band down the road is doing in some club.

IE: With that opening riff, the howling vocal, and the hammering kick drum, “The Barka-Darling River” launches with pure adrenaline. I believe Rob wrote the first movement, with the opening line about “Standing in the house of the founding fathers.” It seemed like it could have been Rob’s contribution to your post-Parliament solo album A Version of Now, which was an interesting idea since that record seemed acutely personal. Was he writing to reflect your own time in Parliament?

PG: Yes, Rob was writing for my experience. It’s a really unique thing to be in a band where that can happen. I mean, people can often write for the experience of falling in love or something like that. But the experience that’s embedded in Barka-Darling includes my own role when I was a Cabinet Minister. I thought that was really a bit of ambitious songwriting. Jim’s provided most of the wild riffs, and Rob’s provided most of the word and melody side.

IE: The second half of the song is soothing and melodic musically, but it opens with one of the most Midnight Oil-y lines ever. “Who left the bag of idiots open?” encapsulates the band’s uncompromising criticism of abusive power. I tried to imagine you singing that lyric for the first time.

PG: I thought it was wonderful. I think especially Rob’s writing method was very much about collecting ideas, having notepads on the go. And he saw that expression on a wall as a bit of graffiti. From memory, I think it might have been in Berlin. I think he said to himself, “Someday, I’ve got to try and figure out how to put this in a song.” He ended up doing it masterfully.

IE: The chorus includes the line “When the world becomes one, the country comes undone.” That connected to what you wrote about decades ago in Political Blues, describing a loss of culture due to globalism. Does that thread exist?

PG: I think you’ve got a little further than I’d managed to, but that’s fine. You’re always in choppy water when you start to explain yourself too much; you know what I mean? Part of what we do is like making sausages. The other part of it is this weird alchemy and unexpected explosions of light and sound. Some of it is very reductive; if a government would do this, then the world would be a better place. Other material is about liberating the human soul and the human spirit–just to be fully human, which we’re all trying to do.

It’s an enterprise that we’re all involved in. Ours just happens to have been a little bit more public because we’re artists, and we’re producing music. But in another era, I probably would have been a lawyer or politician. The other guys would have been scientists and historians, architects, bricklayers, or whatever. We just managed to get ourselves into a band that made it work.

IE: On an album full of pointed criticism, “Nobody’s Child” seems like a spiritual successor to “Outbreak Of Love” like a bolt of warmth and positivity in praise of beauty, love, truth, and compassion. The vocal performance is outstanding. Is that one going into your setlists?

PG: Yeah, you bet it is. It’s a co-write. Jim had a strong sketch already developed with quite a lot of the chords for the verses but really just had the chorus, which is a personal reflection for him. He was an adopted child, and it’s a reflection in part on that experience. As is often the case with our songs, it became the case of, “Well, where do we take this as an Oils song?” I’ve really just sort of thrown the verses in and added a power chord to kick it along. It’s almost like the collective or planetary response from a Midnight Oil perspective. Whatever situation or state you’re in and wherever your hurt comes from, or whatever it is that’s getting you agitated or anxious, don’t forget that this is the stuff that really matters.” It might sound like one of those Hallmark cliché cards, but actually, that is the real thing.

We demoed that in Jim’s little clubhouse. It’s actually a studio called Oceanic, but it became a bit of a clubhouse for us where we were hanging out and just seeing whether we could make songs work. And some of that vocal towards the end is me singing it for the very first time as we were demoing.

I’m not one for rehearsing much, and I’m not one for blowing my trumpet about it. But I think that quite often the best that you can do with something is your initial gut response or your first point of entry. It’s the moment when the lights go on, and you think, “I’ve got to grab this and run with it and see where I end up.” Warne Livesey, who produced the album, and Jim somehow got ahold of [the demo performance], and it’s in the track. It’s nice when you get one done, you know?

IE: “At least that’s out of the way!” The first time I saw the band was in 1988, touring for Diesel and Dust, which was Bones Hillman’s first North American tour as Midnight Oil’s bassist. With no disrespect for anybody who came before, or Adam Ventoura now, he was the true-blue Oils bassist in my experience, with great presence and musicality from ’88 through 2017. I know you made Resist with Bones, not knowing he was fighting cancer at the time. When I first heard the fuzz bass solo in “We Resist” and his gorgeous vocals on “Lost at Sea,” those were poignant. Can you tell me about this record as a testament to Bones?

PG: Yeah, no, he’s all over it. He played wonderfully on the record. As anyone who has seen the band live would know, Bones was the best singer in the band, if the truth be known on that count. We had a sense that he wasn’t 100% only because when we’d actually finished recording, normally we’d take a day or two off and get together to sit around and have lunch or go out at night and have a few drinks and just sort of talk about what we’d done and do some post-mortem yarning.

He demurred. And we said, “Oh, should we go out tomorrow or the next day?” And he said, “Oh no, I’m going back.” He lived in the States as you know, and he said, “I’m going back to my dog. I want to be back at home.” And we went, “Really? Straightaway?” That’s not like him to not knock back a beer, you know? As it turned out, of course, he knew, but he had said nothing to us about that and was incredibly stoic through the whole thing. When he did get back, it became apparent what was going on, but trying to get information out of him was like trying to get water out of a stone.

IE: Did he know that The Makarrata Project went number one?

PG: Let me think. That’s a really good question, actually. We can clarify that by looking at dates.

IE: I know he passed on November 7, 2020, and the record was out just before then. I don’t know how fast the charts respond or how communicative he might have been by then.

PG: I think it might have been December for the charts, but I’m not 100% sure. In any event, he knew that the record had been well received and that his last job and his last round with us had been really fully realized. He was a light, not to our darkness, but maybe our seriousness. Bones was very happy-go-lucky, with a nature’s gentleman sort of presence. It’s so obvious and trite, but we miss him more than terribly. We miss him very deeply.

IE: Not to dwell in this area, but many fans thought that The Great Circle Tour and The Makarrata Project and Resist might represent the band’s reignition rather than a final surge. Was that unrealistic given your ages, or did losing Bones change the thesis of the band’s reunion and lead to the decision to stop touring?

PG: There’s probably an element of all of those things and others involved in it. I think that at the end of the day, we would have reached this point anyway, even had Bonesy lived. The touring cycle for a band from where we live, of our size and reach, and also attention to detail is about a four or five-year cycle. By the time you’ve written the songs and gone through the whole process of recording and mixing and preparing the material and going out touring it, you’re giving away four or five years of your life.

We have a very strong conviction about what playing Midnight Oil songs means. And the viscerality of that exercise, the physicality of it, the combustiveness of it … you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re going to be doing that when you’re in your mid-70s. Everyone’s got to face up to the onward march of time and do it in a way where, to the extent that any of us can, we have a little bit of control over it.

It’s very typical of us; that’s what we’re like. We don’t like other people determining what we do, including Father Time.

IE: “Rising Seas” was the perfect song to release ahead of COP26 [the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference]. Did it connect as intended?

PG: I think it was a song for its time, and we hope that it had a wide broadcast. The climate crisis is real. Amongst many other things that are happening in a slightly wild planet, it’s the thing that we really do need to get on top of. We were pleased that we could get it out but less pleased with the fact that our progress is nowhere near the speed that it needs to be.

IE: At one point, you sing, “Wall Street is jumping.” It’s another way to sing the line from 1984 on Red Sails in the Sunset, “Who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made?” These things come around and around, but the consequences are compounding.

PG: Totally.

IE: I read about the January shows you mentioned at the Mona Foma festival in Tasmania. Those must have offered nice venues for playing “Tarkine” since it’s inspired by the Tasmanian home of Australia’s largest rainforest. The song combines issues that are close to home for you but are applicable abroad with thoughts about the environment and heritage of indigenous people.

PG: It’s a sweet song but also bittersweet. We did get a chance to play it there. I think one of the things that is a bit more clear at this stage of our career is how many songs we’ve written over the years that reference places that we’ve been or issues that have been dear to our hearts. When we’re able to play them, it’s hopefully providing a point of reference but also a lift for everybody. The responses to those shows was very, very strong. And yeah, it was good to be able to do that song when we were there.

IE: I’ve seen your #savethetarkine entries on social media.

PG: Those little things on Tarkine were very beautiful. It’s still got a ways to go, but I think that campaign could well be won, which would be great.

IE: “At the Time of Writing” is another pointed eco-anthem. You sing, “old king coal is dying; he was never gonna last the long run.” I wondered what you thought of the recent Jet Laboratory breakthrough in nuclear fusion, even though that’s a clean energy concept that won’t help solve a greenhouse problem in the near term.

PG: No, it won’t. Look, I’m very sanguine about new technologies, but we’ve already got existing technologies that could do the job. They’re called wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, and energy efficiency. It’s so straightforward and basic that subsequent generations will look back in wonder at what a profligate, ignorant, and greedy generation and political framework we all operated in that continued to pollute the planet and turn the world into a blazing inferno. We need to reduce emissions and look at serious abatement now.

In the photo, L-R: Jim Moginie, Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL. May 18, 2017 Photo by Jeff Elbel

IE: One fundamental message of Resist is to challenge corrupt authority and greed, which is consistent with Midnight Oil’s longstanding effort to motivate people to exercise the basic tools of democracy. “Let’s kick the crooks out of the kitchen” is one rallying cry on the album, but there has arguably been an effort at the highest levels of this country’s government to undermine certain people’s ability to vote. Most people wouldn’t have imagined it before 2020. It’s international news for you, but have you had an interest in this story?

PG: It looks like a terrible horror show. I think from our perspective; we have to recognize that simply expressing your view once every couple of years and putting a few likes or dislikes on Facebook or shouting at the television screen isn’t enough. The generations that have [the] capacity and resources that have had the benefit of the economic booms that are now starting to peter out, these generations have got an undeniable responsibility not to look for young people to come and provide the engine room of change but to be the people who make those necessary, historical changes now. That means stepping out and being brave. And there are many people who do it–you saw a lot of it in Black Lives Matter, and we see it in different places in different parts of the world.

But it’s only by us reclaiming our world from the greedy, from the nasty, from the violent, from the corrupted, that we can bequeath something of value to all of those kids and those members of our extended families who’ve gotta come along and be here as well. And they’re there already. So, it’s rediscovering that political tradition of participatory, non-violent, direct action and really strong “wherever it is and whatever it takes” engagement.

IE: Midnight Oil is such a tremendous live act. Was there a band that impressed the early Oils enough to say, “They’re great; we want to be that good?”

PG: I think when we started, we knew what we didn’t want to sound like, which was most of the pale imitations and cultural cringe bands that surrounded us who were just pretending to be an Australian version of an American or English band. The Oils have got very varied taste, so there wasn’t any one band that we wanted to sound like. I don’t think there’s ever been one band that we’ve gone to see that we’ve all really said, “Yep, that’s the business.” We wanted to do our own thing from the word go.

IE: When we spoke about The Makarrata Project, I asked about bands that mattered to you in your younger days. It was fun to become familiar with Skyhooks. I wondered if I heard a whiff of their sound in Resist track “Undercover.”

PG: “Undercover” is really a little bit more Booker T and the MGs and Elvis Costello, probably as much as it is Skyhooks. But usually, I’m happier with your analysis of what we’re doing than my own. [laughs]

IE: When I think of Midnight Oil’s signature songs, I imagine songs like “Power and the Passion,” “Blue Sky Mine,” and “Best of Both Worlds.” Of course, the list is topped by “Beds are Burning.” Some bands can become trapped by such a massive hit, but 35 years later, “Beds are Burning” seems to be a pretty good calling card. It’s got interesting sonics and intertwining guitars, a bass and drum groove that you can’t shake, and an urgently sung message that reflects your local experience but remains relevant worldwide. How do you feel about having moved the needle of public perception on such an important human rights issue on a global scale? Are you still happy to sing that song? Does it make you sorry that the message still applies?

PG: You never really know when you’re going to get a song like that. No band really knows that a song is going to jump across bridges and span generations. When you’ve got one, it’s very precious and very real, and I’m certainly not tired of singing it in any way. We think it has moved the needle to some extent here in Australia, at least. Certainly, it’s provided some soundtrack and some solace for those people involved. That campaign has a long way to go in Australia for us to have our First Nations people dealt with fairly and compassionately. So, the song still has a great deal of relevance, but it also is the kind of song that is both celebration as well as commiseration and reflection. So, it’s combining lots of different qualities within it. It’s defiant, but it also has some expectations because it’s asking the question. The only people who can answer the question are the people that we’re playing to, so we’ll keep on playing it as long as we’re standing up.

Midnight Oil appears June 10 at The Riviera Theatre, Chicago

-Jeff Elbel

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