Rob Hirst – The Sun Becomes The Sea

 Rob Hirst
Rob Hirst has a new solo album out – released under his own name instead of one of the innumerable musical units that he’s part of.
The Midnight Oil drummer and songwriter celebrates his new songs with an unexpected collaboration with his artist daughter, Gabriella Hirst.

Rob Hirst oozes ‘proud dad’ as he talks about the achievements of the offspring of some of his bandmates.

“We’ve all got very talented sons and daughters now, all very grown up, and my daughter Gabriella is now in Berlin after finishing her courses at COFA in Sydney and the National Art School. She did very well, got a travelling scholarship and went to Berlin.”

Gabriella Hirst’s art is, indeed, striking and beautiful. And perhaps unsurprisingly, her work seems to share her father’s social and environmental concerns.

“She was looking out over a wasteland where she was in north-west Berlin, went for a walk in the afternoon and asked one of the locals why it was so deserted. He told her that until recently there had been a poplar forest full of birds but that despite the protests of locals the little forest that had acted as a buffer between quite an industrial area and the local residences had been levelled to put in a department store or factory.”

“But he also told Ella that he’d gone for a walk on the day they cut the trees down and found 24 birds’ nests. He sent them to Ella and she painted them as part of her Berlin projects in watercolours on silk flags, which the man then attached to bamboo poles and put back where the forest once was as a symbolic gesture to remind people of what was lost. Being ephemeral artworks, she expected them to be souvenired, which they quickly were, but they fly now from the balconies of neighbouring apartments overlooking this area.”

Rob’s album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, features 24 of his daughter’s bird artworks in the hardcover booklet version of the album, which he had made to protect Gabriella’s artwork but there are a few of them online.

“I was just finishing a bunch of songs that I’d been doing over a couple of years down at Jim’s (Moginie) studio and I thought for the first time that I’d put it out under my own name rather than under the Ghostwriters or whatever. It’s just one of those lovely synchronicities where she was finishing her artwork at the same time and agreed that I could use these beautiful watercolour birds for the sleeve of the book and for the new website which finally links the Oils, the Backsliders, The Break, Angry Tradesmen, Hirst and Greene, Willies Bar and Grill, etc.”

Unusually, Rob made the decision to make all of the songs on the album available online for free.

“I just thought it would be a nice gesture and I had such fun making these songs.”

I point out that a similar ‘nice gesture’ recently backfired somewhat for U2.

“I would never be so presumptuous as to upload these 11 songs on people’s iTunes!” Rob laughs, “It’s available for those that seek it out and like it and there’s the option for people to go to a few of those old-fashioned record stores that still exist, and which we really want to support, and get the hardcover booklet with all of Gabriella’s birds and other information on it.”

The exhibition of Midnight Oil’s incredible place in the Australian music industry was a huge success at the Sydney exhibition hosted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum and will be hosted by Newcastle Museum early 2015. How does Rob Hirst feel about his life’s work being treated as a museum piece?

“We had so many people come through and they were pleasantly surprised. I think they thought, ‘Oh Rob’s dug out a few old posters and stuck them on the wall with blu-tack’ or something. In fact, we spent about two years working on it; this is me, curator Ross Heathcote, Virginia Buckingham, Wendy Osmond who did the art direction on it.”

“We’ve got a special film which runs an hour and fifteen minutes made by Rob Hambling about the making of ’10 to 1′ with Nick Launay producing back in London all those years ago, and we’ve sourced all this film from 1984 of the band backstage in South Australia at Memorial Drive, and at Main Beach on the Gold Coast. There’s a lot of home movie footage, the Exxon banner from New York City, a full stage set-up of the band with the exact drums, guitars, amps, backdrop, lights and even the PA to be authentic from 1987 to 1989 which we toured on the back of the Diesel and Dust album.”

“There lots of little early recordings that have never been heard, a song we’ve never released before, and the pièce de résistance is a replication in a box which has sticky carpet, three screens when you walk in and a curtain you pull behind you. It has footage of the band playing at the Tanelorn Festival in 1981 and there’s two sets of headphones you can choose from – one is loud, the other is really loud – and you can stick to the carpet. There’s elbows that come out from the side of the box so that you can be elbowed in the ribs. What I was trying to do was replicate what it was like coming to see Midnight Oil back then at the Mawson Hotel, the 16 Footers or the Ambassador or whatever.”

I enquire as to whether the box also has the special scent that some of our more notorious venues had. Rob Hirst assures me it does.

“I’ve poured so much Tooheys New into that carpet, you’ve got no idea, and I’ve ground some lemon chicken and sweet and sour rat or whatever into it. Remember in NSW in those days the liquor laws stated that the pubs had to pretend to provide a meal if they were serving liquor late. No-one would ever touch those meals but they’d be knocked off the bar and into the carpet. So after three months in Manly it’s getting quite fruity in there!”

“It’s funny, one of the last surviving venues down here (Sydney), The Annandale, has just ripped up there carpet. The carpet was legendary. It was despicable. They could have scraped it for a new form of penicillin! But they shouldn’t have thrown it out. I’d have taken a square metre of it and put it in what became known as ‘Rob’s Folly’, but is now known as ‘The Royal Antler Room’ which is the Narrabeen pub that Midnight Oil first started playing all those years ago.”

“The curator, Ross Heathcote, named it ‘Rob’s Folly’ because he was bemused by the idea. He didn’t think I’d ever build it, but over six months with a couple of hard-working, underpaid friends we actually made it. It looks like a giant road case but it’s big enough for two or three people to cram in and get blasted by Midnight Oil at the Tanelorn Festival.”

Rob describes the opening of the Midnight Oil exhibition at the Manly gallery with great affection and it’s obvious that he still finds great joy in every tiny connection that his career has afforded him – from those with names to the ‘unknown’ members of road crews. Indeed for just a moment he sounds a bit misty when reminiscing about the night of the opening and the loyalty of the huge crowds who were not only Midnight Oil fans but turned out in droves to see the exhibition. I gently accuse him of getting mellow and soft in his dotage as he describes this ‘gathering of the tribes’. This quickly turns his thoughts to Newcastle.

“Newcastle will be the same. After all, Newcastle meant so much to the band. We went time and time again until we finally did a huge gig on Redhead Beach. We expected to find maybe a couple of thousand people, but there must have been 25,000 or 30,000 people on the beach. That kind of paid us back for all the hard work. We’d spoken to The Angels and (Cold) Chisel who’d just preceded us a little bit, and they said, ‘If you get places like Newcastle you’ll get the most loyal audiences on earth’, and that’s what happened. And of course a few years later was the earthquake benefit and we were lucky enough to be on that bill as well, and that gig goes down as one of the great shows we’ve ever played.”

Midnight Oil, of course, achieved success with not just a lot of hard work, but what Rob Hirst describes as an ‘anti-plan’.

“We’d heard all these terrible stories of bands that we’d loved that ended much too early, before their time, through no fault of their own. They were brilliant musicians, songwriters, performers, but through management or lousy agency deals or record company stuff-ups they hadn’t fulfilled their potential. So we looked at them and because Pete and I had done law – Pete finished law, I didn’t – but we knew our way around a contract a little bit. So when we signed with an independent label, even though we were being chased by the majors at the time – that made us too anxious, so we signed with an independent label which we called ‘Powderworks’ after the first song on the first album and gradually eased ourselves in.”

“I think that stood us in good stead because we were able to build this very loyal live crowd – initially in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong and then interstate. But because we took it softly, softly, I don’t think we made the horrendous mistakes that some of the other great Australian bands had done.”

I point out the obvious that Midnight Oil weren’t trying to seduce an audience with songs of sex and drugs and rock & roll like every other band, but were insisting we have a look at contemporary Australian issues.

Again, Rob is amused, “Yeah, we were decidedly unsexy and we didn’t take anywhere near enough drugs although I was on ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for about 15 years.”

“Probably two of the most maligned rock managers of the time were Gary Morris who looked after us, and Chris Murphy who looked after INXS, although Gary also looked after INXS initially but then just us once he realised we were more than a handful.”

“Those managers were much feared and not very liked in the industry, but they were fiercely loyal to their bands and Gary not only was a real strong-arm, Rottweiler kind of manager which you need to protect a young band that has big ideas but no money in the bank, but he also threw all these crazy ideas at us all the time. One in every 100 of his crazy ideas was brilliant and we’d actually do it.”

“The best bands seemed to have been the most unlikely bunch of people – and I include their management in that – all thrown together and all providing different talents to an end that make the sum much stronger than the individual.”

“With Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, for example, the songwriters weren’t the singer. In the case of Chisel it was Don Walker writing for Jimmy (Barnes), and with the Oils it was Jim (Moginie) and myself writing for Pete (Garrett). There were others in the band that were great performers – Pete was this extraordinarily charismatic singer, Jim was a whiz in the studio, Martin (Rotsey) was great with arrangements … and everyone kind of had their place.”

“Back in those days you actually sold albums, they weren’t all pirated or downloaded for free so we could quickly pay back that poor bank manager in Chatswood and get going and make our own career even thought we didn’t play Countdown and we didn’t play the industry game.”

They most certainly didn’t. And I suggest that to a then-young and female Australian music-goer, Midnight Oil could appear a bit intimidating. A bit cranky.

“We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards back then and, yeah, we were cranky all the time. If you look at photos from that time we look really cranky. A lot of bands want to look cranky but we were actually cranky because we were tired and probably hungry and pissed off about something.”

Yes, I detect Rob Hirst pulling my leg a bit, but only a bit. He admits that if you were anywhere near the front of the stage during a Midnight Oil gig, or The Angels, or Rose Tattoo, Cold Chisel, whatever, you were a member of a fairly tough breed. I assure him I was happy at the back of the room but I suspect the safest place may have been behind the drum kit.

False rumours have just done the rounds that Robert Plant had knocked back $500-$800 million to reform Led Zeppelin. Big numbers. What would it take for Midnight Oil to perform together again?

“Robert Plant. I really admire the man, he keeps reinventing himself. It’s long not been about the money for people like that. But it’s one thing cruising around the pubs and just playing a medley of your greatest hits and a lot of bands fall for that trap. But I think Midnight Oil is among that bunch of bands that would be much too musically curious to have ever done that.”

“If we were ever to get back together, it would almost certainly be with new material and we’d have to feel we were contributing something rather than just some nostalgic act in sparkly jackets doing the clubs. Whether that will happen I have no idea.”

Rob Hirst’s new album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, is a beautiful personal work recorded in memory of his later mother, Robin, who ended her life a few years ago after decades of living with depression.

In a recent interview Rob pointed out that it’s important we talk about depression, that we acknowledge the importance of mental health in order to help people.

“It’s not just my mum, there are other members of the family who have suffered from it and it is as strong as any other inherited disease. And possibly more lethal because we don’t talk about it and don’t address it.”

Rob and his daughters sang ‘Someone Scared’ at his late mother’s funeral and he suggests that this song was the catalyst for the full album.

It’s a terrible thing to admit, but as a high school work experience kid I spent a week at Powderworks when Midnight Oil’s ‘Bird Noises’ EP was being pressed on to gooey black vinyl. I simply wanted to know how music worked.

I wish I hadn’t been such a good kid and had actually nicked one.

And frankly, I’d have pinched one of Gabriella Hirst’s beautiful silk birds from the poplar forest, too.

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