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Rob Hirst on New Material, Midnight Oil Reunion

In the second of our Living Legend interview series, the drummer discusses his latest collaboration, coal seam gas mining and, yes, the reunion of Midnight Oil.

Rob Hirst drives his ageing Citroen into the parking area of a photographic studio on Parramatta Road in Sydney and leans out the window grinning. “I never thought I’d spend 25 years of my life listening to Alan Jones on the radio – and [finally] agreeing with him.” The opinionated shock jock and the drummer from Midnight Oil and myriad other projects such as the Break and the Backsliders are unlikely allies – and it’s a union forged over only one subject: coal seam gas mining. It’s a subject explored in the song “The Truth Walks Slowly (In the Countryside)”, on which Hirst has collaborated with Nashville-based Australians O’Shea, featuring his daughter Jay and her husband, Mark O’Shea.

The release was, initially, the catalyst for this interview – an opportunity to discuss it, his career, and even mull the possibility of a Midnight Oil reformation. Then, less than 48 hours after it occurred, came the announcement that Midnight Oil were indeed reforming in 2017, 15 years after they split (though they’ve made two appearances in the years since; at WaveAid in 2005, and Sound Relief in 2009). Hirst agreed to a second interview in the light of this development.

To preserve the intent of each encounter, both interviews are included here.

You’ve recorded “The Truth Walks Slowly” before. Why a new version?
I wrote an original version which was much rockier, and put it on my 2014 album called The Sun Becomes The Sea. As usual I sent it to a lot of people, and Jay and Mark, without me really knowing it, took the song and reinvented it in a Nashville kind of way, slowed it down, added a chorus and got none other than [Midnight Oil bassist] Bonesy Hillman involved along with a brilliant fiddle player. And then Mark Moffatt produced it with Jay and Mark and that version appeared on their album.

The song is in part a tribute to Queensland farmer George Bender, who took his life late in 2015 after a decade long battle with coal seam gas companies. What else motivated you?
I have a little bit of land in Queensland, near Gympie, and that’s threatened by CSG mining. It’s a beautiful part of the Great Dividing Range, there’s a mountain on it and I have a caravan there. I go up and sit there and pull out weeds. But I have this recurring nightmare that I’ll go up there and there’ll be Origin Energy or Arrow or Queensland Gas on the property, and the nightmare would have come right to my backyard.

This is one of myriad projects you’ve been involved in since the Oils disbanded. Is it just that you get bored easily?
In the 25 or so years of the Oils we were mono maniacs. Our headspace was so totally involved in the writing, demoing, recording and playing of that music that there was no time to explore anything else. OK, I did the Ghostwriters with Rick Grossman, but the great joy of the past 15 years has been being able to work increasingly with the Backsliders, which is my main band, and more recently with the Break, which is enormous fun. Punk-surf-space-spaghetti-western-instrumental rock with Brian Ritchie, Jack Howard and our Jim [Moginie] and Martin [Rotsey] – in our spacesuits. Then I’ll go and do a garage band thing with Sean Sennett and record everything in one take and pretend we’re teenagers again. I just love exploring and going from one diverse project to another. And why not? It wasn’t stuff I could do when the Oils were happening.

Do you miss the Oils?
You know what I miss most? We had this marvellous canon of songs that we wrote over the years and I miss performing them. On the two occasions that we’ve played since Pete left in 2002 – which was Wave Aid at the SCG and then the Bushfire gig – what I really enjoyed most was playing really great songs with a crack band. And it’s really hard to describe if you’re not a drummer what it’s like driving something like that. It’s quite addictive. I see a lot of bands these days – young bands – and they’re great, but what they don’t have yet is 20 great songs that they can play one after the other. That’s not to be under-estimated.

Do you think it’s harder for young bands these days compared to when the Oils started?
It’s the best of times and the worst of times. There is an issue these days whether labels – independents or majors – are relevant. You can go about a career totally independently now which you couldn’t when the Oils started. Unless we were with a major I don’t think we could have cut through the massive industry block. You have other ways now. But it’s a very crowded place, the information super highway. The problem is still getting noticed. But I’m old fashioned. God am I old fashioned. I’m a fucking Luddite. But I really believe that talented people, if they can keep their heads straight and their bodies fit, will come through. It may not happen overnight, and they have to curb their impatience, but they will get there.

Were the Oils impatient?
Fuck yeah! [Laughs loudly] We took it out onstage every night. In those days we were playing an average of 167 gigs a year, five nights a week, in big beer barns to 800-2000 people a night, so we were sidestepping an industry that didn’t want to know us. So we played our way out of trouble.

There was a point in the mid-1980s when people were saying that either Midnight Oil or U2 would become the biggest band on the planet. What happened?
We lost! [Explosive laughter] Apart from the interest in big issues and politics I don’t think there were as many things in common with those two bands as people make out. I see us more aligned with the Clash. If you take the politics and issues and earnest bleatings of both bands out… Bono is a different kettle of fish. We love Pete [Garrett, vocals] deeply but he has a character vocal, and it needed to be reinforced by Bones and myself and previously Giffo [Peter Gifford, former Oils bassist] stepping up to the microphone. But Bono had that choir boy voice and they went for a different crowd. We were very happy at the level we were at with our sound – that blistering Antipodean attack – and that was a long way from the big anthem stadium thing that U2 were after, that everyman thing.

From the outside the Oils looked like a very unified out-fit. Was it in fact fractious?
Oh fuck yeah. We were together in planes, trains and automobiles, in close proximity, for 25 years. How many marriages – with just two people – last that long? A lot of credit has to go to the band for seeing the big picture and getting through a lot of things that could have fractured us. We were smart enough – or tired enough – in the Nineties and onwards to take long periods off away from each other. And then there was the power of the songs that dragged us back together again.

Were you friends?
We became better friends when the band stopped.

Peter has made a solo album. Were you surprised by that?
Not everyone was contacted… no. But that’s not unusual. Pete was writing his memoir and apparently that was the inspiration for the lyrics that became the songs. Martin [Rotsey, guitar] played on it. I can’t say more as I haven’t heard it.

What about an Oils reformation? Would you all drop everything to do it or is it just everyone’s fantasy?
Well it’s not my fantasy. I would be keen if we reached a point… Cold Chisel is a good example of this. I sat down with Don [Walker] at his favourite coffee place in the Cross a few months ago and had a chat and catch up. I also wanted to ask him how it had all been because they’re a bit like us – a five-piece rock band that went away for a while and came back. He said, in the lovely Grafton drawl of his, that the most important thing was having four or five new songs to rotate in the set. I think the band would have to be a creative force again before it happened.

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Antipodean Attack – Midnight Oil in 1980

I was still bound and gagged,” says Hirst with a nervous laugh, a week after that initial conversation. Midnight Oil’s reformation (this time without unofficial sixth member, manager Gary Morris) caught many off guard, particularly as Peter Garrett had only just announced his solo album. Details of the reunion are, at this stage, scant, with the band stating only that they will update their plans later this year, but that they would certainly include live performances in 2017. In this follow-up phone interview, Hirst reveals a little more about the band’s reunion.

So last week you said a reformed Midnight Oil would need new material before that was even considered. What, if anything, changed in two days?
That’s unchanged. I think we need to go out with new material. That’s the first and, for me, most important thing. As I told you I talked to Don Walker and he felt very strongly about that, especially for bands that have been away for a long time. I mean, there’s a lot going on out there – some of the things are unchanged since the Oils last trod the boards, some things have got a lot better, some things have got worse – but I think it’s up to us to rally the beats and the notes and try and reflect what’s going on in some way because that’s what we do best.

How long has the reunion been in the works? When we spoke I sensed you bristling at the mention of Peter’s solo album. Is it an issue?
I don’t think so, not at all. I’ve done my solo albums and had myriad other bands, as has Jim – I guess my only reservation is that if we are writing new music together I wouldn’t want that to go to another project, I’d want to keep the best stuff for the main game next year. To answer your question – its been in the offing for about six months. We’ve had about five or six meetings at our different places, just trying to figure out how it might go. And I think there’ll be at least another five or six before we finally figure out how it might go.

Is everyone excited?
I think it depends on how much playing you’ve done. Jim and I in particular have never stopped and we’ve got all these things out. I try – and fail occasionally – to put out an album of new music with different people every year. Just to keep it fresh. I know this sounds weird from the guy who was mainly responsible for the Midnight Oil exhibition, but I’m not nostalgic about stuff and I would hate to think that we just did the rounds without anything fresh – and that would apply to all the bands that I’ve been involved with. I’m much more interested in creating stuff and that’s the part I love most, and I would assume that Jim and I will join forces with the other songwriters and do that.

Why didn’t the creative process happen first to find out if the spark was still there? And if so, then announce plans for recording and/or touring?
Yep. I totally agree with you. I think that’s the correct way around . . . [uncomfortable pause] and I’m just assuming and hoping that the same sort of muscle memory we brought to our few gigs that we did in Pete’s absence when we got together for WaveAid and the bushfire thing will be applied to the writing.

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The Ghostwriters (Hirst, left) at Live Earth in Sydney in 2007.

Why was it announced so early?
I think it’s got to do with Pete’s album… it was the better way round rather than leaving it to the last moment. I think the extreme example of that is Prince, who left it to three weeks before his Opera House gigs to announce them and bang, he was there. Personally I like that.

The announcement was very vague about plans and the future. Why not wait until you knew? To be honest I wondered if there was another agenda – Peter’s solo album was announced on the weekend and under a week later comes the reformation announcement.
I remember Keith Richards’ album – he had it ready to go then the Stones decided on a giant tour and Keith decided to put his own album back. So you wait a few weeks and then come in on the coat tails of the main game. So in that respect it’s a bit topsy turvey.

Can you see Midnight Oil playing any songs from Peter’s solo album?
The Oils as a band I don’t think would play those songs – no more than the Oils would play Jim’s Electric Guitar Orchestra or my Backsliders stuff. I’m sorry, Stuart, we’ve known each other for a long time and I’m sorry that [in the first interview] I couldn’t give you the whole thing – but you know how it is with the juggernaut.

From Issue #776, available now.