Interview: Peter Garrett Midnight Oil


image credit: Tony Mott

Midnight Oil need no introduction to our Aussie readers, but for the rest of the planet will probably only know tracks like "Beds are Burning". Midnight Oil are one of Australias most succesful touring bands and we were delighted to talk to front man Peter Garrett about life on the road, politics and activism.

So, being a Brit, my experience with Midnight Oil is fairly limited. I mean we've obviously heard Beds Are Burning, and we know that track very well. But, what would you tell the uninitiated like me about Midnight Oil?

Well I think the first thing obviously is that no one was more surprised when Beds Are Burning got played on the radio back in the day than we were.

We essentially started life as an alt-punk band, or new wave band, with a very strong political do-it-yourself ethic. And obviously, particularly drawing really strongly on the place that we grew up in, in terms of Australian culture and spent many years playing clubs and surf-clubs, and town halls and school and art halls and pubs all around Australia. And it took a very long time for us to be played on radio in our own country, never mind in other countries, and for us to feel that audience.

But, the short answer is that the band got over 100, songs under its belt and is still, amazingly to us, getting as much out of it if not more than we ever did.

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image credit: John Tsiavis

Yes, I mean there's always been a pretty strong political or environmental message in your music, and clearly it seems to have fallen on deaf ears because the world's pretty much gone to shit. We're not making much progress. But are you still optimistic for change?

Well, I'm an optimist by nature, and I think that if you do potentially surrender the pessimism or cynicism, then you're letting the dopey bastards who are trying to trash the planet win, and that's unacceptable. So from that point of view I don't think we've got any choice but to resist, and any choice but to fight. And I'm confident, particularly at the moment where we're seeing some massive changes take place and the way people are responding, particularly on issues like climate change, that we will see a change, but it's gonna mean a lot of leather on the pavement, a lot of people out of the pubs and onto the streets.

We have an election here as you probably know in a couple of days, so it will be good to see whether we do get a change of government, because our current government is sat on it's hands. It's a rightist government; it's not Trump-ian, but it's been very ordinary, and people are talking about this as being the Climate Election. Many young people are now starting to demonstrate. We are seeing a renewal of social political activity that we haven't seen for some years, which I very much welcome. I'm pretty confident it's going to change direction down here and hopefully in other parts of the world as well.

Absolutely. And also censorship, I mean obviously you were subjected to a form of censorship as your music wasn't getting the airtime that perhaps it deserved to it's popularity. But I think it's become a massive problem globally and seems to have extended beyond politics and the media, and the general public are now becoming even easier to offend, and broadcast their offense on the internet, and this is obviously ... I suppose amplifies smaller issues. I mean what's your take on this type of internet phenomena of objection to people saying their minds?

I think it's ridiculous that we've let it go this far and that is that there are obviously, understandably implied or explicit restraints on freedom of speech that are put in place to protect the good of the whole. And there's a common sense line that you apply and in some countries there are legal lines as well. But underneath that, this is just simply expressing yourself or taking umbrage with what someone else says is a part of discourse, it's a part of toing and frowing of conversation.

I don't participate too much in it online to be honest, even though obviously I do have a twitter account and a lot of followers, and I may use a line about certain things but I don't get into that and all those things that go on. And I think that it's a great pity that energy people are putting into not liking or liking, or being offended or not offended into going out and making the world a better place.

Absolutely. I mean moving on from that, I will get back to music soon, but you've had such an interesting life, I can't avoid talking about politics and other issues around the world.

So you went on from music to a successful stint in politics. And whilst we try to avoid the P-word, it's not really our bag, but how has that affected your view on activism? Because obviously you started off with a very strong voice, and a rawer sort of presence with how you presented your dissatisfaction of disagreement with how things were going. How did your time in politics change your viewpoint? Did it change your viewpoint?

Look, it may come as a surprise to some people but it did not really change my viewpoint. I think there is a place for activism, in and outside of the tent.

A lot of the campaigns and calls for fixing things up, for getting the world in the balance, for looking out for the planet, our calls for governments to do that, and that's the expectations that they have. And when I look back on particularly the Gillard Government that I was a member of, I think that there were a lot of things we got out the door which were genuinely proven, in the way in which Australia at least, was going. So, I'm proud of my time there, even though you're always under attack, particularly from the right-wing press and the processes are sometimes slow and not particularly pretty; that's one way of affecting change.

The other governments spend a lot of money on things for example, and I've spent as much money as I could get my hands on, trying to fix up the environment and look out for things.

On the other hand, having done that, I'm as strongly committed to activism outside of the mainstream political sphere as I was previously going into Parliament. I don't think society has had both those things happening. You need to have strong participation by civil society, which puts itself out on the street and makes it's demands heard. Otherwise, one thing I did find within politics is how easily the processes can become pulled down, simply because vested interests are constantly rolling themselves into the parliament and lobbying their hearts out to try and stop change taking place.

So I'm proud of having served in the Government, I'm a very left-wing patriotic guy if you like, but equally I'm pleased to be back out on a stage and tearing it up whenever I can with The Oils.

Absolutely, well let's get back to The Oils. What can you tell us about your upcoming tour? What can people expect from the tour in general and specifically the UK leg?

I don't know, we're changing it up every night, so we've got to keep ourselves surprised.

I think when we went out in 2017 we didn't quite anticipate the level of interest and the audience demand that came with it, and it's a pretty welcome thing to happen for us, so we're essentially going back to finish off, particularly across parts of Germany.

But it gives us a chance to come back with aplomb and we've got that much material that we've got over the years, that we've recorded songs that seem sometimes in way, a bit alarmingly, but nevertheless truly as relevant as when they were first written. It seems to us there's never been a more important time to be in Midnight Oil.

And so I think we'll bring that real commitment and edge to what we're doing, we'll mix it up as we go, and we'll try and make every night a 'take off' night, like we've always done.

Absolutely. I mean talking about an edge, you're bringing a band, an Adelaide band I believe, called Bad Dreams? They're coming along for your UK stint I believe? They seem like a fairly raw, slightly bogan bunch? They seem to represent Australian culture fairly well from what I've experienced! What can you tell us about them?

Well, I think you've summed them up pretty well! You know, it's gonna be a knock-about night!

Yeah absolutely, definitely. So what's next for The Oils? Are you in the studio? Have you got any plans to continue to create new material? Or, have you got other visions or things still on the bucket list?

Yeah well, I don't have a bucket list, I think we are always surprised to find ourselves where we actually do at this point in time. But there are lots of songs people have been working up over time, and we've started to sit down and have a bit of a muck around with those. And I think we will start and go recording. Which shape or form it takes is still a little bit open-ended, but it's essential that you do have new material.

I mean no one will ever break it to us that the old stuff isn't as good as the new stuff, but for now we've still got to do it. We've still got to write, but to my ears some of what we've been mucking around with sounds as strong as anything we've ever done. I don't feel obligated to say that, I genuinely feel that, it's genuinely what it sounds like to me.

And in any of it, I've got to be excited. I'm the first port of call.

You've got to bring the energy I guess.

I've got to find that place that I know that we can go out and just have absolute conviction in what we're doing and Rob has sort of been doing a lot of writing. Martin and I have been working up ideas of songs and bringing them in as well, and so there's plenty of material, and that's a healthy and happy place for us to be.

Definitely, I mean I've spoken to lots of artists that have perhaps taken a career break, or have had some sort of politics within the band and disbanded, and then reunited years later, and have found this sort of renewed excitement for being a band and for performing and writing, and without all the pressures of an up-and-coming band that have expectation placed on them, and they sort of find that freedom and creativity there; are you finding that feeling now?

Yeah, I think that's a really good way of putting it. That's definitely right. You don't have anything to lose, you don't have anything to prove, except to yourself, and it means that all the issues around the business of being in band are secondary to the core business of being in the band; which is to make the best music that you can. As is enjoyed for what it is and to bring people into station that then enjoy it as well.

I've got a little quickfire round for you if you're up for it?

Yeah, away you go Matt! I'm ready for you.

Okay so, the internet is desperately running out of space, and you can only keep one Oils track on it; what would it be?

Power And The Passion.

Okay, and your Ipod also ran out of space, and it can only now play one track; what would that be?

One track of music completely?

Yeah, I know it's hard isn't it?

I feel like I'm a cliché and I need to think about that.

It's a quickfire round, you can't take this long!

Blowing In The Wind.

Okay, and final question, you've got 10 seconds to say something to everyone in the world, what would you say to them?

Love is more important than hate, giving is more important than receiving.

Sounds pretty good to me; good way to finish, thank you very much!

You can catch Peter and the band play across Europe and on two UK performances - www.myticket.co.uk/artists/midnight-oil