Midnight Oil laces music with messages that mean something

Daily Herald Music Critic

Midnight Oil started 24 years ago as a surf punk band from Australia. Although American audiences mostly know the band from its politically charged single, “Beds Are Burning,” from 1987, the band has consistently made quality album, culminating with its 11th, “Capricornia” (Liquid Records), which is its most pop-minded album to date.

Long before Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi and Pearl Jam, Midnight Oil spiked its music with a subversive political bent, championing environmental band worker rights causes and working to support the rights of Australia’s aboriginal population.

And the band is also the first with a lawyer as a lead singer. Frontman Peter Garrett holds a law degree, but holds court best onstage. He talked from his home in Sidney about his band’s history and where it goes from here.

Q. I read that your new album started out as a concept album, but you threw out the concept. How did that happen?

A. We live in the city, but we work in the remote bush areas. There’s not a lot happening out there so you talk and you dream and you scheme. And a couple of us realized we were big fans of (Xavier Herbert’s 1938 novel “Capricornia” about the relationship between the Europeans and Aborigines) and we thought if we like the book so much, let’s do an album of it and make a film as well. It took us five years to get the rights, but eventually the film world became highly convoluted and we went off and did (the Oils’ 1998 album) “Redneck Wonderland” and stuff was moving ahead so slowly, we could see ourselves in another five years time in the same place. So we bailed out of that fairly quickly. But some of those songs hung in our heads and we decided to make different versions of them, which became the foundation of this album.

Q. What was the band’s role in the movie going to be?

A. We were going to produce it, we had a couple scripts and we went through the whole schtick. We spoke to the widow and niece of the original author and it actually was an interesting experience to see how it all works. But I think at the end of the day, we’ve seen Sting and his science fiction film (“Dune”) and we’ve seen Bowie (“The Man Who Fell To Earth”) and we thought, musicians should be musicians, you know?

Q. Except at one point they think they’re actors.

A. For us it was very much a case that no one else had (filmed the novel). We didn’t want to be in front of camera. I should emphasize that. We wanted to be behind it.

Q. With “Capricornia,” there’s a really strong Byrds vibe, with all those 12-string guitars.

A. I see the Byrds influence as being a little more Travis. But you’re right. Look, essentially you can either load stuff up or pull it back and quite often if the body of the song is well-defined, then you can pull stuff off it and it can still stand up. We’ve never been a band that wore its musical influences on our sleeves particularly. Certainly the pop Beatles-era thing has been something we’ve come back to again and again just to listen to and I think a lot of that has seeped through on “Capricornia.”

Q. It’s also a perfect way to reconnect to an audience that hasn’t heard from you in a while.

A. It wasn’t totally conscious to that extent but we certainly were not so dumb to realize that we needed it, that it would be good if we felt the songs that we had were the kind of songs that people would be able to come to easily.

Q. At your show in Chicago last fall, they also seemed very playable.

A. They’re very playable. Listen, this is the unique visceral experience of two guitars, a bass drum and a voice and no Bill Gates (laughs).

Q. There’s a lot of imagery of cows on the album and I think of the meatpacking industry in “Capricornia,” which is the northern part of Australia. I’ve read that there’s a lot of union activity there and the plants are fighting the unions to introduce 10-hour working days and six-day working weeks. Is that the connection?

A. That’s an interesting one and it’s certainly a true one. I think it’s as much as a motif for the kind of head butting that’s gone up in that part of Australia recently. It’s their recent history. It’s a bit like settling Alaska. We were interested in those head butting clashes that take place. When people are basically wrestling over their identity and their land. We’re more interested in that as an inspiration and especially because you can extract stuff from that which is very contemporaneous with what’s happening in our country in the moment and frankly with what’s happing in other places as well.

Q. It’s interesting that, starting with “Beds Are Burning,” you can have people from another side of the world singing along to a song they have absolutely no idea what it’s about because they don’t live in the part of the world the song’s talking about.

A. And you know what, that’s absolutely fine. That’s the sort of hall-of-mirrors thing. You can be looking into the mirror back at yourself as someone from Chicago or you can look past the whole mirror and look into another dimension. Hopefully it’s an interesting exploration for people. The bottom line is, it has to work as music and you’re drawing people in essentially through the arrangements of your notes and your melodies and your rhythms and whatever falls into after that. It’s a genuine discovery for somebody who chooses to take it.

Q. It’s really a subversive process that’s taking place.

A. That’s kind of a neat little insight isn’t it? Because in some ways the politics of what we do and where people are at for us hasn’t shifted that much. In the external world, it’s probably gotten more conservative. So for us, it’s an interesting question: where do you find anyone who is going to listen to what you’re saying?

Q. In the band’s songwriting, how do you find the middle ground between talking about something literally and making it more abstract?

A. With six-packs of beer and long nights on coffee, I guess. It’s not on the forefront of our thinking about it. Some people tend to be more literal than others, i.e. me. Fortunately, others can sway me away a little bit. I think occasionally, you have to call a spade a bloody shovel. But with this stuff, they had implicit meanings, but they’re all a little subtle about land and people. It’s almost about human potential if you’d like. Not the Anthony Robbins variety, but something that’s going to last you a little longer. In that sense, we were happy to go with something which is not quite as literal because a lot of people know what we’re about and you do not want everyone to put on the blinders and say, I know where I’m going and I’m not going to listen. So it’s affecting us. But I do think if you want to come out and say “war what is it good for/absolutely nothing,” you should say it.

Q. You’re almost 7 feet tall and onstage, get inside the song like no other singer I’ve seen. Did you always get so possessed by the songs when performing them live?

A. I think it was pretty much like that from the word go. We were playing, ironically, in really hostile circumstances when we first started. Our necks were on the line quite often, night after night. It was the height of punk. We were playing shows that were deregulated in every sense of the word, just wild pubs full of tanked-up surfers, bikers, the whole thing. And yet we weren’t conforming to the expectations of just screaming for three minutes and stopping. Our first album had a seven-minute guitar solo on it and yet we were a surf-punk band. People were singing about deconstructing the system and mimicking what was going on overseas and what we were writing songs about what was happening in our own country and trying to control the environment we were playing as well running the shows and controlling the ticket prices. We really had to come up with a way of totaling the performance so there was no choice for people except to respond to what we were doing. Australian audiences are very tough. The Bee Gees often said that the time spent in Australia was the most important time in their career because it taught them how to deal with a tough audience. But by the same token, it’s not something that you happen to think about so much. It’s born out of a disparate need to survive, you know.

Q. What rock is really about at its core.

A. Oh, totally. I think at this stage of your career you must feel that or you shouldn’t be playing.

Q. What happened to that punk ethic? Ticket prices have gone crazy and bands you started out are obviously into it just for the money.

A. I think the interesting thing about the punk ethic is that the music could be exhilarating but what was underlying the ethic was worth chewing on because it was saying something and there’s no doubt the business has totally bloated out. It’s a tough business now because of downloads. But I don’t see any different between the CEO of Exxon and General Motors and Coke and half the major acts at the moment. They’re just doing the same kind of thing. It’s a bit of a sideshow as people get richer.

Q. Is it due to the fact that rock is as corporate as it ever has been?

A. I think so, yeah. Now the biggest challenge for us is to be ourselves in a business that has a capital “B” surrounding it and no music in it. I mean no real music. It’s got plenty of sound bytes and the choices are twofold: you either take the outcast road and hang out there and draw your audience to you or you make occasional forays into enemy territory and see if you emerge unscathed. Which I think is what we do.

Q. But you pay a price. Your last album (“Redneck Wonderland”) wasn’t even promoted.

A. Sony didn’t want to know about it. The marketing and A&R corporate mentality is so dominant that a record that we were so passionate about never saw the light of day. You accept with huge amount of resignation that commerce and art are going to beat each other up and commerce is probably going to leave you on floor. So we recorded the rest of the contract out and now we’ve got a smaller label that’s going to honor what we do and we feel much happier about that.

Q. A lot of bands are doing that these days.

A. A lot of them are and there’s really no choice. To be honest, at the end of the day, what’ll last is the conduit between the emotion of a human and outpourings of another human, who happens to be a musician. It’s going to be that conduit, that direct line, that charge between two ears and two sets of feelings that is going to continue.

Q. At last summer’s Olympics in Sidney, you played the closing ceremonies. And during “Beds Are Burning,” the entire band opened their jackets to reveal the word “sorry” printed on your shirts, obviously directed at the aboriginal people that the song sympathizes with. Did you get flak for that?

A. Well, it ended up on the front page of the paper, which was the idea. We got some criticism from the prime minister and a couple of the senior ministers and some of the shock jocks, but we basically got majority support from the media and the audience.

Q. That always seems to be the case, doesn’t it? When the people on the street love it, but it’s ignored on official channels.

A. That’s right. But as we played in the stadium, we weren’t entirely sure what the response would be. They had a number of those big screens up and it wasn’t until the camera got close and we heard this huge roar from 127,000 people and all the athletes from different countries came running across the field to where we were playing and it was at that moment I thought, “OK, people are onto this and they know what we’re doing.”

Q. Not to sound grandiose, but was it the height of what the band’s career stood for at that point?

A. I would count it as a highlight. But you’re right, I think at the end of the day, it was an opportunity to show that songs still have life, purpose and meaning. For us, that was the most significant part about it – that a song and this action can happen here. I allowed myself a small pause to take it in, I must say, because I thought, “I won’t be up here again!” (laughs)

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