On stage, Midnight Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett cuts an imposing figure. Bald, six foot four, bestowed with an intense stare, he’s prone to flailing his limbs with wild abandon while singing passionately about politics, the environment, racism, militarism, and nuclear disarmament. In conversation, he’s thoughtful, articulate, and just as passionate. He has strong opinions on everything from climate change to legacy bands that go out and play the same 15 songs over and over, night after night.
“I can’t believe how boring and predictable and corporate the whole thing’s become,” he says of the current live music scene, “particularly artists that have a lot of well-known songs. I cant believe that it’s much fun for them.
“You want to encounter something new when you come onto a stage and you want to share it with an audience. But actually it’s really about the selfish act of trying to push yourself somewhere that you haven’t been before, and you can’t do that if you’ve got a Roneod setlist and a teleprompter.”
So when, in 2017, Midnight Oil embarked on their first world tour in 20 years, they went straight back to doing things their own way.
“The business is so constantly market-driven, market-tested, teen-focused, and even when we started out we were almost obnoxiously anti all of that. We still pretty much are as people, we’re not that interested in who’s zooming who, we’re really interested in the music that we’re making,” Garrett points out over the phone from Sydney.
“So we didn’t really hang around and think how could we play Beds Are Burning three times. We just eventually put up all the songs on a whiteboard in the rehearsal room and started to work our way through them.
“And I think we played something like 70 or 80 songs on the tour. That was a way of honouring what we’d done. We’ve had a long career where we’ve always tried to push hard and it was nice to find there was still room for those songs to come to life when we got them on stage.”
“Push” and “hard” are words Garrett uses more than once, and with good reason. Anyone who witnessed one of the over 70 shows on the band’s The Great Circle world tour knows that, even after 40 years of doing this, the Australians aren’t coasting.
“From a performing point of view, it’s important just to try and push yourself to the limit of what the song can live up to and what the performance can be. So whilst we’re quite rational people, like I’m talking to you and answering your questions quite rationally, I think the business of actually losing yourself in the music on stage and really just trying to find somewhere else to go to that’s a little deeper or a bit more on the edge, without it becoming a pretence, is the goal.
“But having articulated it you don’t want to articulate it, you want it to be unconscious, so you don’t really want to talk about it at all,” he laughs.
You don’t really want to have too much fun either, it turns out.
“Sure, of course playing music loud to people who like what you’re doing is fun. But at the same time, there’s a level of intensity in what we do where sometimes it isn’t fun. It’s just like boring towards the centre of the earth and hoping that you find it.”
Mobile phones, a rarity when Midnight Oil last toured so extensively, didn’t always make that easy.
“I tried not to let it bug me. It did at times, and it seems a bit surreal,” admits Garrett of the sea of screens in the audience. “I tried to look at people who weren’t holding up their phones.”
He picks his words carefully, belying his time as an Australian government minister from 2007 to 2013.
“The truth is the boomers and millennials have got a shocking phone addiction and it’s lobotomising people. It’s turning them into passive low-octane curators of their own life, but without any meaning of connection.”
And making a connection, particularly through lyrics, is important to the singer.
“I don’t think music changes the world by itself. I think people change the world, very clearly, but music is a great partner for people and sometimes it can provide that little pinprick, sometimes it’s the uplift you need or the confrontation that you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s the solace. That’s the beautiful thing about it, it still has this mighty power to be able to transform across and hit people’s synapses and ears in ways that I don’t think we fully completely understand.
“But certainly the times need music and musicians need to reflect the times they’re in. And those musicians who’ve got a political sensibility will write things that reflect the time and that will impact on the time and influence the times,” reasons the singer of lines like “Collected companies/ Got more right than people/ Got more say than people.”
“We certainly have got very strong views about things,” Garrett points out, almost unnecessarily. “We’ve maintained a way of thinking about the world which acknowledges that we are political creatures. And there are some things that we’ve sung about which nobody else has bothered to touch, and unfortunately there are some things that we sang about 25 years ago that are even more relevant today.
“But we’re writing songs that make sense to ourselves, that sum up what Midnight Oil is. We think we are a real band, this is what we do. We get in a space and we play music and we write songs and we try and work out what we want to say, listen to one another’s ideas and words and we do editing or whatever because that’s what we want to do.
“And of course we’re aware of the fact there’s an audience. Some songs might reach people more easily than others. Some words, a chorus if it’s expressed in a fairly straightforward way, might touch people more than, say for example, some of our early, almost rap-type stream of consciousness things which have got a lot of words.
“All of those words are important, but they’re important to us. We’d like people to listen to them and have a think about them,” he continues.
“We’re not a particularly abstract band so you ought to understand what we’re singing about. You’re at absolute liberty to agree or disagree with it, but at least you’re not left with any misgivings about what it is we believe.”
But it must be tough to know that songs written 25 years ago are still relevant.
“There’s a sad and desperate aspect to it, because your art has got the capacity to have an epitaph quality about it. On the other hand, even though in music industry terms we’ve now been around for quite a long time, in the span of history it’s the blink of an eye, and it’s better to be relevant than be ignored.
“So hopefully people will get on to what it is and it’ll spur people into thinking and maybe acting. There’s still time for us to do something while the world swings a little crazily on its hinges and I’m very happy to be part of the soundtrack, whether the song was written 10 minutes ago or 10 years,” Garrett reasons.
Ten minutes may not be as much of an exaggeration as it seems: Midnight Oil are taking a “suck it and see” approach to writing new songs for our troubled times.
“We’re still finding our way through,” reveals Garrett. “There’s no shortage of ideas. As to whether we can come into a room and ultimately get some songs down or not and be happy with them would be an interesting question, an interesting test.
“If you think about it, the majority of bands that last as long as we have, generally they just make worse and worse records over time. Or they can’t make them at all. And why is that?” he asks rhetorically.
“So if we’re going to do it, we’ve somehow got to break the curse, and I think we’re prepared to give it a go. It might mean pushing things around a little bit, we’ll need a bit of alchemy and probably a bit of luck, maybe some radical approaches, but I think we probably will have a crack at it.
“Without sounding too Walt Disney about it all, we’re still in this extraordinary position of not doing a commute, or sitting in an office, or slumming it in the corner of a pub playing some crappy songs on a jukebox or watching a bit of sport or someone ranting on Sky News.
“We’ve got the opportunity to make music together, so we should. We’re doing it on stage so we owe it to ourselves to see if we can get something down.”
Meanwhile the band are preparing for a European summer tour, which includes shows at Manchester’s Apollo (9th June 2019) and London’s Brixton Academy (13th June 2019). And, although he’s not been Australia’s Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts since 2010, Garrett’s still tackling climate change.
“This issue’s been building and building for the last 50 years and it’s clearly reaching something of a crisis point. I do think many people are ready for setting something in train that whoever’s coming around the corner after us doesn’t hold their head in horror and say: ‘What the hell have you done?’
“In Australia we’re particularly climate change vulnerable, we’ve got really extreme weather here, we are rather literally either in a drought or a flood it seems half the time. I think the physicality of our continent makes it a little bit more tangible for us, but there’s massive issues around security, equity, international relations, future economies, and I see an economy and a society where we are much less reliant on central delivery of power, central delivery of food, and so on and so forth.
“So I think power and energy are the first step down that road. There’s much innovation happening – renewables are building at a mighty rate and it’s a bit of a race against time. So that’s a big issue for us here and it’s one that I’m quite involved in.”