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Midnight Oil: Still Loud, Still Angry

On the road with the Aussie rockers as The Great Circle tour winds its way home.

Peter Garrett does not look like a man who has spent most of the past week flat on his back. Midnight Oil are just two songs into a May 14th show at New York’s Webster Hall, and the band’s bald vocal giant is already soaked from the entrance: the shotgun indictment of “Progress” from the 1985 EP Species Deceases, and the title grind of 1998’s Redneck Wonderland.

Offstage, Garrett — who turned 64 in April — has been keeping to himself in hotel rooms, on an aggressive routine of rest, medication and doctors’ advice as he fights a viral infection that he picked up in Brazil during the opening leg of the Oils’ first world tour since 2002, a reunion marathon dubbed The Great Circle. But at Webster Hall — the second of two gigs here on a month-long run through North America — Garrett tears across the boards with his signature flair: that avenging-Frankenstein march with arms out straight and hands spread wide, a hard rain of sweat flying from his gleaming dome. And when the singer stops to address the sold-out crowd, he is hardly short of breath or lost for opinion.

“We learned a few, salient facts last night,” Garrett announces crisply, then rattles them off like rifle fire. “First fact: You guys have been faithful,” he says gratefully, acknowledging the 15 years since he, drummer Rob Hirst, guitarist-keyboard player Jim Moginie, guitarist Martin Rotsey and bassist Bones Hillman last played on U.S. soil. “The second fact: We believe in these songs and want to share them.” The crowd roars back with thanks. “The third fact” — Garrett shakes his head in disbelief — “a couple of you voted Republican, which blew our minds. I didn’t think there were any of them in New York.”

He is referring to an exchange the previous night when Garrett — cutting right to the subject of America’s 45th president, Donald Trump — saw a few hands go up at Webster Hall: Midnight Oil fans admitting they voted for the Twitter-mad archconservative in the 2016 election. “It’s called being on the wrong side of history,” Garrett warned before the Oils tore into an early anthem of resistance: “Don’t Wanna Be the One” from 1981’s Place Without a Postcard.

On the 14th, Garrett mentions something else he saw the night before: a father holding up his young daughter on the floor. That girl “will have the shits”, Garrett promises, when she grows up and sees how her elders “have stuffed up the planet”. Then the Oils jump to the crunching urgency of “No Time for Games” from the 1980 EP Bird Noises. It’s the first time the Oils have played the song on this tour, and Garrett can’t help updating the lyrics for the occasion. “No time for fake facts,” he snaps in Trump’s direction, “no time for Number 45.” There is a brief pause, then an extra kiss-off. “See you later, dude.”

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On February 17th, the band took to Sydney Harbour to announce their reunion and world tour.

The next morning, garrett is back on a microphone — with Moginie in the Manhattan studios of Sirius XM, the satellite-radio network. They are taping an interview for my program “The Writer’s Block”, one of a dozen conversations I eventually have with the Oils for this story: in New York and on the phone, from the morning of their epic April 13th club launch at Selina’s in Sydney (at 29 songs, still the longest show the band has done this year) to the eve of The Great Circle’s Australian climax in October and November. “It’s going to be a very emotional time,” Rotsey says of the impending shows. “People have grown up with us. They’ve spent their lifetime with Midnight Oil.”

Hirst noted this, too, at Selina’s: “the folks under 30” who were experiencing the pub-hardened force, progressive songwriting ambition and social mission of the Oils for the first time. “Maybe they were harangued by their parents — ‘You gotta see the kind of bands we saw in the Eighties, like Midnight Oil.’ But from the stage,” the drummer says, “we could see their eyes light up” as the band roared through the whole of 1979’s Head Injuries. “They’d finally got it.”

“History does repeat,” Garrett affirms brightly at Sirius XM, wearing a wide-brimmed bush hat and looking and sounding like he’s turned the corner on that virus. “I think it’s an extraordinary gift to find yourself at this stage in your career, to be in a band that’s got so much potency, where the on-stage experience has got so much grunt.”

Confessing his part in the hiatus, Garrett says, “I wanted to go off and do other things, and it was clear the band wasn’t going to be playing for a long time.” He spent a decade in the Labor Party as a representative in Parliament and Minister; published a memoir, Big Blue Sky, in 2015; released a 2016 solo album, A Version of Now, followed by an energising pub tour of Australia. There was always a feeling about the Oils, though, that the singer puts this way: “Not finished.”

Garrett was “always very confident”, he says, “that if we came back into a room and enjoyed the business of playing together, then it was going to work.” After the turmoil and treachery of Australian politics, “I couldn’t wait to get on a stage. ‘I’ll be the crazy man! Let me at that.'”

When reminded of the Oils’ concert history at Webster Hall, Garrett replies softly, “Wow.” They made their New York debut there, when it was called the Ritz, in April, 1984. The Oils — founded in 1976 in Sydney’s northern suburbs by Hirst, Moginie, Garrett and original bassist Andrew James (Rotsey, who went to school with Hirst, joined the next year) — had finally broken into the Top Ten at home with their fourth album, 1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, but were starting all over again in America as confrontational underdogs. The first song they played at the Ritz: “Knife’s Edge” from Bird Noises.

“You point the ship somewhere, and you don’t know where it’s going to end,” Moginie recalls. “We would never have expected to have a song that was hugely popular in America”, alluding to the Top 20 peak of “Beds Are Burning” in 1987. “Who would have known that in 1978?”

“The essence of making the best music you can,” Garrett says, “with the people you’re with, is to basically go for it at that point in time.” He remembers the first time he heard 1978’s Midnight Oil, the band’s first album, after the final mix. “I thought, ‘Great, we’ve made a record. I can play it to my gran. Now go and be a lawyer. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

This is what happened, starting at Selina’s, this year: The Oils, all in or near their early 60s, are playing the longest shows of their career at a new, physically explosive peak, drawing on 170-180 songs — the complete studio canon between Midnight Oil and 2002’s Capricornia, plus B-sides and unreleased songs from the recent rarities anthology, Overflow Tank. No two set lists are alike; Garrett writes the first draft each night with everyone suggesting edits and substitutions right up to showtime. Some changes are made on stage; the results resound like breaking news.

The Oils were at a venue outside Washington, D.C. on May 9th, the day Trump fired F.B.I. director James Comey, who was investigating Russian collusion in the real-estate mogul’s election victory; the band opened with the first-ever U.S. performance of “Profiteers” from Head Injuries. Three months later, the Oils responded to the August 14th rioting of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, including the death of a young woman run over by a car driven by a Nazi sympathiser, with volleys of shock and censure: “Redneck Wonderland”, “Put Down That Weapon” from 1987’s Diesel and Dust, the patriotism “going wrong” in “My Country” from 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon.

The band was half a world away that night, in Singapore playing for an audience largely made up of expatriate Australians. But, Garrett says, “You’re only a click away in the global village. You have to reach out for the thing that has the most punch and relevance and bring it on stage that night.” Moginie seconds that notion: “That’s what the band always did — echo and mirror what is happening in the world. The sad thing is the songs are the same ones.”

Sometimes the Oils just play things for fun. In Chicago on May 18th, Moginie’s 61st birthday, his present was 10, 9, 8… performed in its entirety. When the Oils returned to New York on August 21st, they marked what would have been the 65th birthday of an early inspiration, the late Joe Strummer of the Clash, with an impromptu blast of that band’s “London Calling”. And in Minneapolis, at Prince’s old haunt First Avenue, the Oils covered some homegrown pride, Warumpi Band’s “From the Bush”. “That’s the diligent side of the Oils,” Garrett points out. The Great Circle’s first Australian show earlier this month was in Alice Springs, “Warumpi Band territory. We needed to play that song to see if we could get through it to the other end without falling apart.”

After the turmoil and treachery of Australian politics, Garrett “couldn’t wait to get on stage. ‘I’ll be the crazy man.'”

For Hillman, the New Zealander who replaced bassist Peter Gifford in 1987, The Great Circle “has been more than a tour. It’s reconnecting with people.” After the Oils split, Hirst, Moginie and Rotsey kept playing together, forming the psychedelic-surf band the Break with Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie. Hillman emigrated to the U.S., working as a session bassist in Nashville and going on the road as a sideman for folk and country artists.

He says there were “a couple of e-mails every year” hinting at a full-scale reunion, beyond the charity appearances that dotted Garrett’s tenure in Parliament. “But I stopped thinking about it.” When the e-mails got serious and Hillman returned to Australia in late November, 2016, for the initial rehearsals, there wasn’t much playing at first. “We had dinner and drank beer,” he says fondly. “I concentrated on relationships, the dynamics we had as individuals. ‘Oh, I remember you. You’re a mate.'”

The Great Circle continues to be “a heightened emotional experience” for the bassist. In Paris, his guest list included “the first love of my life — she came with her husband to the show. I’ve had friends die while I’m on this tour. When we were going full steam, before we stopped, I just felt like we played gigs and moved on. I see it in a different light now. The band means so much more to people than the songs. It is a responsibility.”
Hirst calls it “the pushback”. Brexit, the red alert of global warming, the rise of the alt-right in America, the xenophobia of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in Australia: The Oils “seem to appear at these critical junctures in world history”, the drummer claims. “That obviously couldn’t be planned, but it worked in our favour. We feel a strong solidarity with our audiences, and we’re going to turn the world upside down, set it back on its proper course of kindness and compassion.”

On the radio, Garrett sums up the Oils’ return with a naval metaphor, likening the band to an ongoing voyage of discovery. “To use an expression of a friend of Jim’s and mine, you strap yourself to the mast, and you head out into open seas. Away you go.”

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Garrett being sworn in as education minister by Governor-General Quentin Bryce (left); The Oils’ July 4th setlist. Garrett prepares the list every night before the rest of the band suggests changes. No two set lists on The Great Circle tour have been alike.

The long road to The Great Circle began, for Moginie, in a hotel corridor somewhere on Midnight Oil’s 2002 tour, supporting their 11th studio album, Capricornia. “I was walking down the hallway with a guitar,” Moginie says, “thinking, ‘I’m 45 years old. And I’m still doing this?’

“There was a slight grimness toward the end,” the guitarist confesses. “We were trying to recreate the success of Diesel” — the Oils’ biggest album outside Australia, going Top 20 in the U.S. — “and feeling like our luck was running out.” Moginie could see “the political thing” growing in Garrett too. In December, 2002, the singer announced that he was leaving Midnight Oil. “I had plenty of mixed emotions,” he wrote in Big Blue Sky, “but relief was the strongest; I just had to let it go.”

Hirst reveals that there was “a call among some band members” at the time to do an official farewell, one more “turn around the country” with Garrett. “My view was that people had 25 years to see us. It would seem cynical to do a run ’round the traps to top off the bank accounts.”

Hirst notes that “I never actually said ‘yes’ to this reunion. At some point I must have stopped saying ‘no’.”

Earlier this year, in the British magazine Record Collector, Garrett was asked, “What’s the oddest circumstance that’s inspired a song?” “Getting knifed in the back,” he replied, “in 2010 by the then-Australian Prime Minister.” The result was A Version of Now — “the solo record that was never expected to be made”, Garrett says now. He describes the album’s stripped-down fortitude as “folk music with electric guitars” and his lyrical stand in songs like “I’d Do It Again”, “No Placebo” and “Great White Shark” (descended from an old, unused Oils demo) as “a gut-driven reaction to having spent 10 years in government, some of it under an extremely capricious and difficult person”: former Prime Minister and Labor leader Kevin Rudd.

“I had my nose close to the wall before,” Garrett says of his legal background, the Oils’ sustained activism and his 1984 run for a Senate seat under the Nuclear Disarmament Party banner. And he recognised that as a former rock star, he entered politics with a huge target on his back. “I knew that half the country wouldn’t look at me in the same way anymore. You get put in the stocks, everybody gets to throw stuff at you. I was determined to get on with it, to leave on my own terms with some things done that I’m proud of. I think I was able to do that.”

Hirst remembers a moment during Garrett’s time in Canberra, when the Oils played two warm-up shows there before their 2009 reunion at the Sound Relief benefit in Melbourne. “This shows how the music is deeply embedded in all of us,” he says. “Pete literally walked across the front lawn of Parliament House in his suit, shedding his coat and tie in the process, pulled on a T-shirt and went straight to the mic” in the Canberra Theater. “He started singing. And it was exactly like it always was.”

A Version of Now “set me up for making music again”, Garrett admits. Rotsey, who played on the album and tour, saw the evidence at those shows, a family affair that included Garrett’s three daughters on backing vocals. “I’d watch his leg and foot,” the guitarist says, “that involuntary movement when Pete gets on stage. He was getting into it, letting go. It was wonderful to see.”

The album also forced Garrett to resolve his future with the Oils. John Watson — the Silverchair and Cold Chisel manager who started working with the Oils after their longtime “sixth member” Gary Morris moved on in 2013 — recalls a conversation with Garrett while the latter was still “talking about doing a solo record. I said, ‘It’s important that there is some clarity about the band’s plans — or if there are no plans. Because when you go out with your first musical thing, post-politics, the first question you will be asked is, ‘What about the Oils?’ [A Version of Now] brought that to a deadline that might otherwise have passed.”

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Garrett, Rotsey and Hillman at New York’s Webster Hall on May 13th.

Back in April, a couple of days after the Selina’s show, Hirst is frank over the phone about his initial resistance to starting again. The “first serious discussion” was “an invitation to Martin’s place for lunch. I said to everyone, ‘To be honest, it’s not something I really want to do.’ I felt that for a quarter-century, the band had been our lives. We’d sweated blood here and around the world.” Anything less than that again, Hirst felt, tarnished the legacy.

There was another problem. “There is only one way of playing Midnight Oil music,” the drummer says. “And that is flat-out. You can’t play these songs of sturm und drang except with the same intensity with which they were written. I wondered whether we were physically capable of playing a couple of hours of music at that level.” Four months of rehearsal, including whole albums played in sequence, settled that issue — although Hirst notes that he “never actually said ‘yes’ to this reformation. At some point, I must have just stopped saying ‘no’.”

During our interview, Rotsey reminds me of the day in early 1990 when I caught an Oils practice session while on assignment for Rolling Stone in America. They were preparing for a world tour on behalf of Blue Sky Mining. And they were loud. “I always feel sorry for you,” the guitarist says, laughing, “when I think of you in that small rehearsal room in Sydney. We must have pinned your ears to the wall — ours as well. We play as hard in rehearsal as we do on stage.”

Hillman first heard that magnum force in 1979. The Oils were in Wellington, New Zealand for a gig, about to release Head Injuries. “I was staying in the same hotel with my band at the time,” the bassist says. “They checked in, and Peter was in the car park, kicking a soccer ball. We dribbled the ball around and talked about music.” That night, the Oils literally “parted the audience like the Red Sea”, Hillman says. “They were the loudest thing I’d ever heard. The crowd just dispersed left and right.”

“We weren’t a punk band, but we picked up on the energy of punk,” Hirst says of the late-Seventies Oils. “Seeing Radio Birdman and the Saints completely turned our band around. It turned us into this weird, schizophrenic unit” — a group of exploratory songwriters forged in the incandescent mayhem of the Australian pub circuit, making vividly argumentative records with a passion for pictorial, studio detail and a constant fear of repetition.

“We were always reacting to the record before,” Moginie concedes, a syndrome that cut into the Oils’ commercial momentum after Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining — the tempered, organic charge of 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon; the heavy-folk understatement on 1996’s Breathe; Redneck Wonderland‘s seething tension of loops and distortion. But those choices, “even though they were wrong, were made for the right reasons”, Hirst argues. “It was a band consistent in thought and principle.”

For Garrett, the breadth of The Great Circle set lists (the Oils played 39 different songs over the two May nights at Webster Hall, including “Whoah” from Diesel for the first time since 1994) affirms “the strong, narrative skeleton that holds everything that’s Midnight Oil together. It’s not just about saying ‘This president’s a lying jerk.’ That’s a little bit obvious. It’s much more about the deeper things that are at play — humanity’s journey, how we respond, how we work with one another and enjoy music together. The set tries to encapsulate that.”

Asked if he has learned anything about the power of song after returning to music from power itself, Garrett responds with battle-scarred certainty: “I think I understand power better than most people now, to be honest. It might sound vain, but I’ve experienced it in all sorts of ways.

“Music empowers us,” he goes on. “Power is the making of decisions, the execution of those decisions. Music’s great role is to feed people, enthuse them, save them. The exercise of power is a matter for the civil societies, the citizens of the day. And exercising that power, in a responsible way with a view to the future, is what current politics doesn’t deliver for us. I saw that close at hand.”

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Midnight Oil playing in Parramatta, 1977 (original bassist Andrew James in the background).

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Garrett commanding the crowd at the Colours of Ostrava Festival in the Czech Republic.

“It’s been an extraordinary time, to be out playing again,” Hirst says over the phone from Minneapolis, a couple of hours before his flight home to Sydney for a break after the second U.S. leg of The Great Circle. “None of this tour and the great houses we’ve had have been taken for granted by the band. We didn’t know how it would go, how well the band would be remembered. It has been incredibly heartwarming.”

The drummer’s only regret: “With the way the songs have reflected the times, we don’t have a new bunch of songs to take that history and bring it right up to date.”

This may be one reason why. Early in the planning for The Great Circle, the Oils held what Watson calls “the first proper band meeting. We talked about what we could do with this, do with that. This meeting went on for four hours. I’ve never had a four-hour band meeting in my life.” Watson’s conferences with Silverchair, in comparison, could be over in four minutes: “That’s cool. That’s cool. That sucks.”

That evening, Watson went to a benefit event in Sydney where Garrett and Rotsey performed a few songs. “Pete said to me, ‘We had a good meeting today. It just wasn’t long enough.’ I laughed. I thought he was being ironic.” It was “one of those moments in life”, the manager says, “when you laugh at someone’s joke, and then you go, ‘Oh, shit, he’s serious.’

“They’re all really bright,” Watson adds of the Oils. “And they all have strong points of view. They often disagree about things. They work them out in a mature way that is highly unusual for a rock band. But it takes time.”

Each of the Oils, in separate conversations, expresses hope for life together beyond The Great Circle. No one makes any promises. Because there have been “no discussions in depth yet”, according to Hillman. “The whole thing was to devote 2017 to this tour and see how it went,” Hirst says. “We just didn’t know.” The drummer has already lined up 2018 shows with the Backsliders, his blues band, and the Break will be “kicking along”, according to Moginie, who will return to his orchestral work as well.

Hillman, who still has belongings in storage in Nashville (and a car stashed in Wisconsin), may return to the States — “rent a place for a year”, he says, “somewhere in California, and just sit and breathe. If there is a unanimous decision to do more playing in 2018, fantastic. If they want to talk about a record, I’m up for it. If we just walk away, if that’s the end of The Great Circle, that’s fantastic as well.”

“What the Oils will do — I don’t think anyone knows,” Moginie says. “Maybe that’s the tension we need to keep it going.”

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Garrett leading Midnight Oil through their famous set at the Exxon Building in New York in 1990 (left); Hirst doing some writing in Cologne on June 21st.

One thing that is different about The Great Circle from previous Midnight Oil tours: There has been no songwriting on the road. “We used to use soundchecks to work up bits and pieces,” Hirst says. But as the band adds “wild-card songs” to the shows — such as the previously unreleased Nineties demos “21st Century Human” and “Heart Is Nowhere” that made live debuts in August — “we have to soundcheck them to make sure we can get from A to B.”

“I think there’s probably some stuff going on in the back room,” Rotsey suggests hopefully. “Every time Midnight Oil has immersed itself in an experience, something’s come out of it. When we went to the desert [for 1986’s Blackfella/Whitefella Tour], Diesel and Dust came out. When we were locked in London [in 1982], with all of the politics happening then, 10, 9, 8… came out of it. Playing to this audience, getting out to the world this year — we’ll see.”

Garrett insists that he “hasn’t thought much” about Midnight Oil’s future beyond the Great Circle’s final date, November 17th at the Domain in Sydney. “My creative juices are flowing,” he says, and he will “certainly produce more music at some stage”. Whether it is with the Oils or other members “in different combinations, if we all pursue other ideas then come back as a band to do the things we believe in — I’m sure some hours will be spent figuring that out.”

For the singer, his band’s return has been “essentially a confirmation of character. This is the way we play, this is how we work. This is the sweat we shed, and we’re still alive to shed it. We’re just doing that great Australian thing of having a go.”

Main photo by John Tsiavis.

This article features in issue #792 (November, 2017), available now.