It’s fair to say that 2020 was much more of a difficult year for Midnight Oil than first planned. On paper, it should have been one of celebration, of new beginnings, and of showcasing exceptional music. In reality, it was a year riddled with more disappointment and sadness than anyone could have expected.
As the year began, the band revealed that following an Australian tour in 2019, they had reconvened in the studio to begin recording their first new music since the release of 2002’s Capricornia. Teaming up with producer Warne Livesey, the band revealed that they had recorded 20 songs, with eight of these (which “shared a strong focus on the issue of indigenous reconciliation”) set to be released on a mini-album titled The Makarrata Project.
With another album under their belts as well, The Makarrata Project was set to receive its official launch at the 20th anniversary edition of Splendour in The Grass in July. Of course, this was not to be, with a global pandemic throwing something of a viral spanner in the works.
While Midnight Oil would eventually release the record in October, going on to become their first chart-topping record in 30 years, a period of sadness soon followed, with longtime bassist Bones Hillman passing away just one week later.
Not content to sit by and let the sadness swallow them up, Midnight Oil heeded their late bandmate’s desire for them to continue their plans, and to continue to push the Uluru Statement from the Heart by returning to the stage as soon as possible.
Thus, it was in early December that Midnight Oil plotted their Makarrata Live tour, with many of the First Nations artists featured on the record joining them onstage at the small run of shows. With shows kicking off this week, the Makarrata Live experience is set to receive its official launch at the WOMADelaide festival next weekend.
In anticipation of their return to the road, Rolling Stone spoke to founding guitarist Jim Moginie about the record and their new live show.
What’s the response to The Makarrata Project been like since it was released? Obviously there was a great performance on the charts, but – most importantly – what have the fans been saying?
I think they really liked it. I get the impression that a lot of people were rather moved by it, and they weren’t sort of expecting that – I think they were expecting a big ‘rock-out’ or something. But there is definitely a couple of big rock ones on there with “Gadigal Land” and “First Nation”. But there’s quite a lot of atmospheric pieces and spoken word stuff.
There’s a beautiful performance with Alice Skye just singing at a piano. When she was in the studio with us, the hairs at the back of the neck just all went up. It was just such an incredible, beautiful performance that… I mean, Indigenous and First Nations people can say these things, y’know? They can sing with these emotions and it’s the sort of thing that we’d never really heard much.
So we were really grateful to be part of the project, and some of the songs we wrote, some were ones we co-wrote, and some of the songs were changed when people put their input in. Like, several were, “I can’t sing that, but I can sing this,” and it was like, “Great, just sing what you want to sing.” It was much more collaborative than us telling people, waving our fingers; it wasn’t like that. We listen, and we wanted to understand more about the whole thing. It was great.
“We’ve always done left turns, so I don’t think people were terribly surprised if we [do something unexpected].”
So yeah, the reaction’s been pretty good. I think Oils fans expect us to do different things all the time anyway now. They don’t expect us to come back with the same thing. I mean, look at the difference between Redneck Wonderland and an album like Breathe, or the difference between Place Without a Postcard and 10 to 1 [1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1].
We’ve always done left turns, so I don’t think people were terribly surprised if we [do something unexpected]. It’s good for us, because it means we don’t have to live up expectations, because people aren’t expecting anything [laughs]. They’re expecting music and songs, but the style is very up for grabs.
A reception like that must make it all the more special given the overall theme and goal of the record.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, people weren’t expecting to hear other voices on it, but when they did they were so blown out. I mean, I don’t know, you just make them and put them out, and hope people listen. But I think it’s the Uluru Statement from the Heart that really drove the whole idea of this new – well it’s not that new; it’s a few years old now. But I think the Liberal Government turned it down as a way of Indigenous people [not] having a voice in the parliament; to have a voice in the political arena, which has been denied of them.
And this document actually enshrines a lot of the hope for the future. I think a lot of younger people can really get into this idea of it. It’s basically saying, “Look, you’re part of it. First Nations people are part of the Australian culture, we want to learn from you. We want you to be part of it, and we want to learn about traditions; we want to learn about music; your art, your culture; what they bring to the table.”
The idea is to bring it to the political arena which just seems so bereft and so mean and nasty, and all of that. Mining companies, and Murdoch, and all of this nonsense – we just get away from that now and just have a reasonable conversation about the future. Because that is the past, and those people are going to be on the wrong side of history. This is an attempt, this document, to make this country… well, make Australia great. Not like Trump, but making Australia really great. Not just saying, “We’re great”, and then not doing anything about it.
It’s a thing that if people get behind it, it will come into law. It’s just a matter of time. It just takes a long time, but we have come a long way since the ’60s, and when Aboriginal people got the vote. Y’know, piece by piece it’s progressed through the acceptance of… Y’know, all the great culture, and Aboriginal art movement and painting in the ’70s, and then people like Christine Anu and people like that coming through… Yothu Yindi – their great music, and Cathy Freeman at the Olympics. All the way through to the apology in 2008. But there’s a lot of lip service being paid. Nothing’s really changed in a sense. Until there is really a voice for Aboriginal people in parliament, it’s all sort of just talk.
It’s basically just been small steps which should’ve been taken a long time ago.
We’re making progress, but it’s sort of like… When Kumanjayi Walker got shot in Yuendumu [in 2019] by police and killed. When Rio Tinto blew up sacred sites this year. It’s a lot of rubbish going on that doesn’t seem to sort of change around this whole issue. So there needs to be… It’s getting people into it and I think music can be a good way to do that – it’s sort of like a Trojan horse message.
I think that we tried to do that on this record, but I think this felt like more of a collaborative project coming from underneath rather than coming out the top with some statement. We wanted to work with the people, talk to them, and make them feel like they’re really a part of it. And the show’s going to be like that, with Alice Skye, Dan Sultan, Troy Cassar-Daley, and the other artists who are part of it. They’ll be all part of the band.
Everything for the new album was originally set to launch back at Splendour in The Grass last year. Was it originally set to take place in much the same way, with the same artists involved? Or did things change along the way?
I think it’s kind of the same. Obviously people’s schedules [changed], but there’s so much uncertainty with gigs and how they’re going to run and what the new normal is going to be. It really has been a tricky time, but I think all of the gigs are all COVID friendly, and it’s all pretty much normal production. So I think we’re going to be okay when we do it. It’s only six or seven shows, but I think it’ll be great to get out there and play and have a bit of a run and see how we go with it.
We’ve been rehearsing and it’s sounding wonderful. The new stuff is great, but it’ll be good to juxtapose it with some of the old chestnuts, like songs from Place Without a Postcard and to have a bit of a showcase from the band’s career to show everyone we’re still here, and we’re still making noise [laughs].
With circumstances changing, what made you decide that WOMADelaide was the perfect launching point for the album’s live experience?
Well we were at the first WOMAD when it came to Adelaide in the ’90s; we all got a plane down there and saw it, because we were so interested in the whole concept of ‘world music’, as it was called back in those days – music from another culture is what it really is. And we were there under the tree listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing for about four or five hours, going into chanting and it was sort of like our version of going to see the Maharishi, just going to hear that sort of music in that beautiful outdoor environment.
And then we actually played some WOMAD shows in America; we did the tour with Peter Gabriel in about ’93 or ’94. So we’re kind of part of that thing, so I think in a way, WOMAD just wants to showcase other cultures and to try and bring that sort of stuff into the mainstream. And also it shows where a lot of our music comes from, African music especially, all the music from India, and nothing was off the table with WOMAD and highlighting other cultures, bringing them into the mainstream, and attempting to educate people. That’s a bit of a strong word, but hoping that people will enjoy it and putting it in front of them. So we feel like we’re a part of that whole thing by the relationship we have with people anyway.
I grew up in Adelaide, and it was always great to see the diversity in the sort of artists that WOMAD would bring to the state.
We drank the WOMAD Kool-Aid, y’know, we went into it, and our music sort of changed around that time. We went into more of that area and I think our experience with Aboriginal Australia opened our eyes to other cultures in a similar position. Seeing how Indigenous cultures are struggling; Native Americans, people in Canada, and we went down that road instead of being a head-banging rock and roll band, which in the ’90s with the whole Seattle thing, we went in the other direction. So this feels right to launch this idea in Adelaide, and I think the crowd will be fairly open to the contributions.
“I think our experience with Aboriginal Australia opened our eyes to other cultures in a similar position.”
And y’know, it’s a music thing really, it’s sort of about politics, that’s true, and we’re very passionate about that, but I think it comes down to the music with this band. We’re always taken so seriously, but it’s a funny group of people who have different skills we all bring to the table. So you need a band who does push and pull sometimes; towards politics, towards music, but I think at the end of the day you have to stand out there and play the stuff, so we’re really happy [to do that].
And also having lost Bones, our bass player, due to cancer last year… That was a real slap in the face for us, so this is a chance to honour him, because he said, “You guys have to come and do these shows, no matter what.” So he’s not going to be around, but we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway. We’ve got a new fella on board, Adam Ventoura – Ace Ventura, we’re calling him – so we’re just going to go ahead and honour it, and honour the statement and make this glorious noise around it.
I imagine that would be a little bittersweet, and a tad different given that you’re not just celebrating a new live experience with new music, but you’re also honouring a close bandmate.
Yeah, it’s been funny, it’s felt a little bit like dragging your heart around. In the final throes of his his life, he was very lucid, and he said, “Look, you guys need to keep going, the message doesn’t stop. No matter what, you need to keep going.” And he was very clear about that. I mean, he’d been in the band for 30 or so years – there was a bit of a break when Peter went into politics – so I can’t even remember a time when Bones wasn’t in the band. I know there were times before he was in the band, and we had two other great bass players before him as well.
So having a fourth player, it’s feeling a little bit like the Spinal Tap drummer [laughs] in one sense. But on the other side, Adam is wonderful, and what he brings to the band – he’s a bit younger than us – with his experience from playing with so many wonderful people… He really gets the Midnight Oil thing. There’s something primal in his playing, and we all really thought, “That’s what we need.”
It’s funny, we had auditions for bass players, and you close your eyes and go, “I don’t know why this one is better, but it feels better; it feels right.” It’ll be good, it’ll be fun. At the end of the day, we’re creatures of the stage, really. So it’s good to have a stage to play on now, even with all this COVID nonsense going on.
Midnight Oil & First Nations Collaborators Present ‘Makarrata Live’
Plus First Nations collaborators Dan Sultan, Alice Skye, Troy Cassar-Daley, Tasman Keith & Leah Flanagan With Bunna Lawrie also joining Midnight Oil for March 8th WOMADelaide show
Sunday, February 28th, 2021
(Plus special supporting sets from Troy Cassar-Daley & Leah Flanagan)
Sirromet Wines, Mount Cotton, QLD
Saturday, March 13th, 2021
(Plus special supporting sets from Troy Cassar-Daley & Alice Skye)
Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW
Wednesday, March 17th, 2021
(Plus special supporting sets from Dan Sultan & Leah Flanagan)
Stage 88, Canberra, ACT
Saturday, March 20th, 2021
(Plus special supporting sets from Dan Sultan & Alice Skye)
Mt Duneed Estate, Geelong, VIC
Tickets on sale now via Frontier Touring
Also appearing at:
Saturday, March 6th 2021
(Midnight Oil headline performance)
WOMADelaide, Adelaide, SA
Monday, March 8th, 2021
(Makarrata Live performance)
(Plus a special supporting set from The Teskey Brothers)
WOMADelaide, Adelaide, SA
Tickets on sale now via WOMADelaide