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Midnight Oil Come Full Circle

With final album 'RESIST' arriving alongside their final tour, Australian rock legends Midnight Oil have ensured they end things as strongly as they began.

It was a little over five years ago when Midnight Oil did what many fans deemed impossible, announcing their first large-scale tour since their disbandment in 2002. What followed was an immense run of shows that resulted in 77 sold-out concerts across 16 countries, not only cementing Midnight Oil’s status as beloved Australian musicians, but proving that even as members forged into their sixties, they were an unstoppable creative force.

In early 2020, the band announced another milestone, revealing that new recorded material—their first since 2002’s Capricornia—would be arriving later that year. Sadly, even the best laid plans were unable to overcome what would happen next, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold and disrupting their intentions for the release of two new albums.

Ultimately, the chart-topping The Makarrata Project would arrive in late 2020 (with live shows following soon after), while 2021 would end with the announcement of a new record and the final tour from Midnight Oil. The end of an era.

But before we look at the record that closed out a five-decade career as one of the country’s most beloved bands, one needs to take a trip back in time to where their latest recording plans began.

It was in April of 2019 that Midnight Oil confirmed rumours of new material, revealing their intention to record following the completion of that year’s UK and Europe tour. In February of 2020 (just one month before the pandemic took hold), the band announced they would release two new albums in as many years, with plenty of local and international touring complementing their arrival.

Though wide-scale touring plans were unfortunately disrupted, Peter Garrett explains the group felt somewhat empowered by the fact they had new material up their sleeves—material which had, in true fashion, made itself known to the group as soon as they had finished their world tour.

“I don’t think any of us really thought we’d end up playing more than half a dozen or a dozen shows,” the polymath/frontman/politician/activist recalls of their exhaustive Great Circle tour. “It was more just for the sake of getting the exhilaration of being on stage together, the camaraderie, the weird chemistry, or whatever it is that makes bands work. And if there were people there, fine. But we really didn’t expect to be going off to play in South America, the States, Canada, and Europe and all that—that sort of flowed on afterwards.

“When we got back, it was a case of, ‘Well, we’re able to play, people are bound to have songs, and it’s been a while since we’ve been in the studio, so let’s just see what happens when the songs start dropping out and we’ll have a go and see if we can record them or not’.”

When it came down to the recording of this new material, it was very much like falling into old habits, despite there being quite a while between sessions for the group. While all members of the band had spent time writing and recording, Garrett had utilised the band’s break to once again enter the realm of politics.

“‘Quite a while’ is a beautiful understatement,” Garrett says with a slight chuckle. “It felt fine. I mean, everybody kept working, the boys kept on writing and recording when I was banging down the doors in Canberra, and I’d gone off and done my own project as well. If we hadn’t been on the stage, a lot of us had been in studios for however long, so it was fine—it was just like getting back together.

“I don’t think there were any surprises left as to how we would be personally, but there’s always surprises when you attack the music, and that’s the fun part.”

The first part of this new music, The Makarrata Project, had initially been set for launch at Splendour in The Grass’ 20th anniversary celebrations in July of 2020. Ultimately, lockdowns and cancellations saw this planned launch put on hold, with the record arriving in late October instead.

Tragically, more bad news was forthcoming for Midnight Oil, with longtime bassist Bones Hillman passing away just one week after its release. Having been ill for some time, the group had made peace with Bones’ imminent passing, and had received a blessing from him for the band to continue on without him.

“He was very clear about the fact,” Garrett explains. “He knew us well enough to know that the only thing that gives you oxygen is to be able to do what you love doing, if you’re lucky enough to be in that position.

“You never expect anyone in a band to die. It’s incredibly sad, and even though we knew it was coming by the end, you’re still not prepared for it. But you get up in the morning, have your muesli, and keep walking.”

Ultimately, The Makarrata Project was a powerful record. Not only did it give Midnight Oil their first chart-topping release in 30 years, but it featured collaborations with a number of First Nations artists (including Dan Sultan, Tasman Keith, Alice Skye, Kev Carmody, and others), while also furthering themes of reconciliation, including the Uluru Statement from the Heart (a 2017 statement which campaigns to “provide a voice for Australia’s first people within the national government”).

A decidedly different record than what they had previously worked on, it was pure Midnight Oil, and it was soon followed by a handful of shows which saw the band bring their Makarrata Live show to fans around the country during a brief period of COVID respite.

“It was definitely bittersweet in that we found these collaborations with First Nations colleagues which had really worked well,” Garrett notes, “and we’d managed to have something out there which was very like us in some ways, and not like us at all in others, but quite true to the heart of the band.

“My only thought about it is that I just wish we could’ve done it for a couple of years and taken it to every corner of the country. We were lucky,” he says of the shows taking place amid COVID, “we just slipped through, and having all those other performers on stage was quite a liberation.”

Despite being unable to bring their collaborative live show as far and wide as they would have liked, the result was a resonant one, with the live performances adding extra context and meaning to the songs which had already been so well received.

“Normally we’re not wanting to specifically be directive about songs, even though clearly lots of them have strong views attached to them, but I think in this case we did want to be directive,” Garrett explains. “We were hanging off the Uluru Statement and everything we sent, by the time we got it back it was better. It jumped up the Richter scale a few notches, and it had more depth, more character, it had more honey in it but it also had more lemon.

“So to get out onto the stage, to get people singing, and to have Alice [Skye] singing as she’s playing with Jim [Moginie] on the piano, or having Tasman [Keith] take possession of the stage, or hanging with Troy [Cassar-Daley] at the back or whatever, the whole thing was actually quite an amazing experience. And it’ll never be replicated. We’re lucky we got out through the door and got some shows in.”

Of course, with the announcement of two new albums, fans followed on from The Makarrata Project with anticipation of what was to follow. In late 2021, the group announced their thirteenth album, RESIST, would be complemented by one final tour. Much like their previous record, it too was slated to arrive much earlier, was recorded in the same sessions, and was heavily thematic; this time with a heavy focus on environmentalism and climate change.

“I think that you never really know what’s going to pop out, especially when people have been sitting on songs for years,” Garrett says of the sessions. “Or not, depending on how long they’ve been around.

“But it was almost like an urgent symmetry that brought those songs to the fore, and meant that they were the ones we ended up doing, because they hung together very strongly. They resonated with what was going on both in our world and also right around the planet, in the planet’s atmosphere, in people’s dreams and fears.”

The first track released from RESIST was the Rob Hirst-penned “Rising Seas”, a track which—despite the delayed release—managed to boast a bit of synchronicity when it was released just days before the annual United Nations Climate Change conference in Scotland. While Garrett explains that Midnight Oil don’t necessarily stress over how their material is released, he says it’s impossible for them to ignore the “mechanics of what’s happening in local and world politics”.

“We did actually want to be playing in Glasgow at the time, so we thought the record would be out then, but we thought we’d be playing ‘Rising Seas’, and other songs at the front with all those citizens and all those people that were there making their voices heard,” he recalls. “So we never got to go and do the shows, but we had the song ready.

“And we jumped it out because it needed to be heard, and there’s always going to be issues for people to focus on and to chew on and think about and react to, but this was probably one of the first times where we’re seeing certain sections of a country or a policy or an economy literally driven so fiercely by greed and contempt and disrespect, and indifference to the facts.”

At its core, RESIST is an album that provides a visceral experience to the listener given the current world we live in. Other tracks such as “Tarkine” feature anger directed at a potential new tailings dam proposed for the titular Tasmanian rainforest, while “Reef” discusses the Great Barrier Reef’s status as the “most important bit of nature in the world” and how “it may as well just be a garbage depot where we’re leaving trash”. 

But with such powerful messaging, and the record serving as a call to action, will the public listen? Does Garrett, himself a former politician, have faith that politicians in Canberra will actually listen to their message, given that many who would gladly listen to “Beds Are Burning” often seem reluctant to the idea of Indigenous rights and reconciliation?

“I think the short answer is that nobody knows, and you can’t intuit the motivations of anybody,” he explains. “You can [see it a little better] with politicians because they’re public figures and they’re elected to do a job, but there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in the world.

“A lot of people used to listen to songs like ‘Beds’, ‘The Dead Heart’, or ‘Blue Sky Mining’, and they never would’ve thought about worker’s rights or reconciliation when they were 25, but when they’re 35 or 40, they go, ‘Oh!’, and they have another look at what we’re saying.

“But it’s not up to us, we’re not writing a cookbook where you have to follow a recipe. We’re artists, we’re just performing and writing songs and saying what we think and doing what we feel is important, and we’re really just letting the confetti land on the dance floor when the wedding’s over.”

However, if any artist is inspired by Midnight Oil to go out there and take action after listening to an album like RESIST, Garrett agrees it’s simply the icing on the cake.

“I wish everyone was writing songs like this, because we need as many songs like this as possible, in all sorts of idioms from all sorts of artists wherever they might be, we need the airwaves to be full of it, we need the atmosphere to be full of it. We need them to be coming out of the clouds, and we need our music to reflect what it is that we’ve got to deal with and to inspire us to go on and get the job done.

“Everybody has strong convictions and you can listen to a thousand people sitting on an armchair telling you how the world should work, but you really have to act on it where you can, in a way that uses your attributes and capacities,” he continues. “You’ve got to find your way into it, but that’s what it’s about—it’s about action. It’s not about commentary and meditation and reflection; it’s about action.”

Ultimately, the release of RESIST spells the end of an era for Midnight Oil. While it doesn’t spell the end of creativity for the individual members, it will indeed be complemented by their final tour—something the band intends to stick to without falling into a John Farnham-esque series of reunion tours.

“With all respect to John and to others, if we say it’s the last time we’re touring like this, it is,” Garrett explains. “We wouldn’t say it otherwise. We don’t need to say it to sell the tickets.

As for the reason behind the decision to cease Midnight Oil operations, Garrett notes the typical album cycle is far longer than people realise. An average process would consist of writing, jamming, recording, rehearsing, and repeating it all, before heading out on the gruelling global promotional circuit, with countless gigs taking up to four years for each album. Though he admits it’s not necessarily a tedious process, it is however a long one, and not one the band wants to be doing in their early seventies, especially given their undying desire to always perform at their peak.

“I think if you go four years from the end of 2022, that tells you the story,” he notes. “We definitely won’t be packing our bags and kissing the gumtree and heading off somewhere to be in some far-flung corner of the earth playing to anybody in 2026; it’s just not likely to happen. It’s not something we’d want to be doing, and it’s not something we’d necessarily be able to do easily.

“There’s a sunrise and there’s a sunset, and you have to get off stage before the sunset. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be writing songs at night time, it doesn’t mean that people won’t go out and play them—of course they will, some of us will be playing literally until we get dragged off the stage by a shepherd’s crook, or go down in the middle of the middle eight.”

So what does the future hold for Midnight Oil? With touring wrapping up, fans won’t have the notion of gigs to look forward to, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of the band’s members.

“It won’t be the last chance they get to hear people write music,” Garrett explains. “I mean, everybody will be writing and recording through different connections and Rob will do a record with his daughter [country musician Jay O’Shea], Jim will do a record with somebody. But that’s definitely it in terms of touring.

“This is the end of a cycle in Midnight Oil’s life where we did big large-scale tours.”

Midnight Oil’s RESIST is out now.

Midnight Oil: Resist – The Final Tour

Remaining Dates

Wednesday, March 30th
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide, SA

Saturday, April 2nd
Darwin Amphitheatre, Darwin, NT

Wednesday, April 6th
Convention Centre Arena, Cairns, QLD

Saturday, April 9th
Sunshine Coast Stadium, Sunshine Coast, QLD

Wednesday, April 13th (Sold Out)
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD

Tuesday, April 19th
Stage 88 Canberra, ACT

Thursday, April 21st
Qudos Bank Arena Sydney, NSW

Sunday, April 24th (New Date)
All Saints Estate, Rutherglen, VIC

Sunday, September 25th (New Date)
Nikola Estate, Swan Valley, WA

Tickets available via Frontier Touring

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