Midnight Oil have had a stellar career from their beginning as ‘Farm’ in 1972, changing their name in 1976.
With 11 studio albums and 2 EPs worth of musical meanderings, I spoke with the band’s drummer and songwriter, Rob Hirst, on the eve of the launch of Essential Oils.
“We began by thinking we wanted at least one song from each of the albums and EPs, and we wanted it to be chronological so you go on a musical journey with the band from 1978’s ‘Blue Meanie’ as we call it, to 2002’s Capricornia. Then we realised we had 170 songs we had whittle down to 36 and everyone lobbied heavily for their own favourites, emails were exchanged, carrier pigeons sent out and shot down and eventually we managed to get this order which I think now, with some objectivity, runs really well and does give you a good idea about what the band was thinking about at the different ages and stages, the different sounds of the studios, and what the producers brought to bear, also the different locations. We recorded everywhere from Tokyo to New Orleans to London to Sussex to Sydney to Melbourne so those places and the studios brought something different to the band.”
How was the very Australian lyrical content of Midnight Oil’s music received internationally, particularly when working with international producers to whom the angry political intent might have seemed a bit over the top?
“Yeah, the poms never really got us,” said Rob. “I remember we played a series of shows at the Zig Zag club in North London before we made the 10 – 1 album in 1982, we basically had to drag people in off the street because we had this empty hall but then the Aussies found us and they alienated all the locals because they drank too much and were way too tanned and healthy-looking, and they were singing along heartily to all the songs they knew and the Poms at that time were probably more interested in The Clash or Elvis Costello or The Jam would sort of come in and then escape before they were pummelled by our audience, so it was a weird kind of stand-off.”
“It was only a little bit later that we realised we were actually in the wrong country because shortly after we were really embraced by France, and Germany, Sweden … so we realised that the food was better over there, the climate was better, there was a willing audience, the NME and Melody Maker wouldn’t patronise us every week, so why are we here? So we crossed the ditch and everything was happy after that.”
Growing up in the Midnight Oil heartland of Sydney’s Northern Beaches I point out to Rob that the Oils were the band my brothers would go to see, the blokes’ band.
“Yes, it was very blokey back then, it was a very brave woman who would enter the Royal Antler Hotel! There were some women there but they were very brave and had lots of tattoos. Seriously, the pub period was great for bands like ourselves, in spite of the danger to our female audience, it was a great testing ground for us. Not just the Royal Antler at Narrabeen which became a kind of home base, all of those northern beaches venues – Millers Manly Vale, Avalon RSL, and there was The Flicks in Manly which had a sloping stage and was operated at one stage by a fellow called Larry Danielson who we knew just as Larry and then later on people knew later on as the Woolworths Bomber – gives you an idea of the kind of people who were operating venues back then.We were playing 180 shows a year for the first five or six years, you could do it back then and they were big places, beer barns and enormous clubs.”
“We started off in Sydney and moved to the other states and we used to road test the songs at the venues as well so if any of the songs had any weak moments you could easily see people drifting off or start to throw things at us or something, so it was very good for the music as well.”
“We became road-tough in the tradition of bands like AC/DC who were just before us, and even the great Cold Chisel who started about 18 months before us, and the Angels. It was a busy time and that’s all people did then, they went to see their band. Each band had an incredibly loyal audience who would turn up to all of those pubs and clubs around the place, and the occasional festival and that’s all gone now, although the festivals are many more in number.”
“Back then, there was only a few festivals, there was the famous Sunbury which we didn’t go to but we did go to Tanelorn in 1981 (near Stroud) played with Split Enz and a few people. These days there are so many festivals which partly compensates for the fact that that amazing pub scene is no longer. It’s a shame in regard to toughening-up of bands.”
“I always thought that bands that survived that pub circuit of the late-70s and until the mid-80s when fire regulations and noise restrictions and dance music and other distractions came in and killed off the scene. I always that that was the golden age of bands, it was quite gladiatorial to play them, you were fed to the lions every night and you either toughened up and really learned how to play or you got out!”
I pointed out to Rob that being a spectator could be tough at times, too. “It must have been,” Rob laughs, “I used to joke that I only joined the band to get out of the Midnight Oil audience. It was only partly a joke – I wouldn’t have wanted to come and see us!”
I actually did work experience in early high school was at Powderworks Records in Brookvale when Midnight Oil’s Bird Noises EP was being pressed.
“Wow, that’s fantastic!”, said Rob, “Yes, we started out as an independent band on an independent label, which was Powderworks, and ironically our studio now, the studio owned and operated by Jim Moginie, is just around the corner in Brookvale from where we signed our first deal.
“Later on we signed with CBS, which became CBS Sony, which became Sony, which became Sony BMG and now Sony Music so we’ve been very loyal to the one record company ever since but from the first two albums and EP we were on this independent label, and it was that kind of fierce independence and determination not to repeat the mistakes of bands we admired but had ended their careers in tears way too early, it formed the early ethic of the band.”
How do you maintain that independence when you’ve signed to a corporate monster?
“You get a rottweiler as manager for a start, I don’t think Gary Morris would mind me referring to him in that way, he was fiercely loyal to the band and was much admired/loathed by the industry because his job was to interpret what the band wanted to do to a very staid and often arrogant and unwieldy industry that only saw one way of going about a career. We saw different ways which meant not appearing on Countdown, not playing gigs that we felt were unsafe to the audience or we thought we might be ripped off.
“That actually stood us in good stead because we managed to survive those early years and then go on to play theatres and bigger gigs and eventually head overseas. We haven’t lost any members of the band, which is great.”
Rob Hirst continues making music with a variety of projects and roles, “I’ve got a band called The Break which features Jim (Moginie), Martin (Rotsey) and myself from the Oils, and Brian Ritchie who played bass with the Violent Femmes and now lives in Tasmania and curates the MONA FOMA festival down there every January. We have a new album coming out next March (2013) and features Jac Howard from Hunters and Collectors playing amazing surf mariachi trumpet, which adds a whole other dimension, and I still play with The Backsliders most weekends. Jim’s got a marvellous Irish band called Shameless Seamus, but Midnight Oil was always the main game so who knows, we might do a couple of gigs down the track sometime.”
In 2002, Midnight Oil disbanded after singer Peter Garrett announced that he intended to more fully pursue a political career, but the band have done a few select shows since then including the 2009 Canberra show which was a warm-up for the Victorian bushfire relief concert.
“We needed a couple of warm-ups before going onstage in front of 81,000 people at the MCG in Melbourne, but it was great, it was quite life-affirming to feel that muscle memory come back as you approach different parts of a song and think, ‘what the hell comes next’, and then suddenly your hands and fingers and mind suddenly went to the right place. So we did two really energised shows at the Theatre Royal in Canberra which were recorded, thank heavens.”
Rob Hirst sounds like a contented man who’s been able to make a living out of what he loves.
“I hope I’m contented, but I hope I’m not smug because I haven’t forgotten what it really took to get the men to stay together in all those rehearsals and backstage and buses and planes for 25 years. There were six members of Midnight Oil, including Gary Morris our manager, and there were times that everyone was on their way out the door.
“I think the great thing was that there was something in the back of our minds that the sum of us was always going to be greater than us individually and as long as there were some new songs that Jim and I could write and present to the band, new challenges live and some benefit shows to do, which were greater than just a band going out and playing songs, it needed to become part of a musical fraternity helping people out whether the tsunami benefit or the bushfire one, there was always something to look forward to. But we always took a lot of time off from each other just to defuse. We were kind of like a pressure cooker and eventually if you let enough steam out and get back together you can see the big picture again.”
The pressure at times in Midnight Oil must have been considerable given it has always been a group of outspoken socially and politically minded individuals who made their statements very publicly, like their performance during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
“There was debate pretty much until five minutes before we went out in the Sorry suits still figuring out if this was the right thing to do. There was only a couple of other people who knew we were going to make that statement. One was David Atkins who was producing the games, and of course a few close confidantes with Midnight Oil, but as soon as we walked out in front of that massive audience and this huge, thunderous cheer went up, we realised that people got it, understood the statement we were making. We were followed by the great Yothu Yindi playing Treaty which must be one of the greatest songs, not just protest songs, but greatest songs ever to hit the Australian airwaves and certainly by an indigenous band it’s had the greatest impact so far. We felt we were in great company.”
It was a beautifully subversive moment.
“There was, in typical Midnight Oil fashion, a lot of questioning and debate. We actually went out to the desert a few months before the Olympics to talk about it. We went out to Papunya which we’d visited all those years ago on the Black Fella, White Fella tour with the Warumpi Band, and we sat down in a creek bed for about three days and we spoke about the Olympics and the future of the band, lots of things under those amazing stars, to get out of the city and clear our heads.”
“We’ve had amazing experiences collectively, it’s been an incredible life. When I finally sat back and listened to the 36 songs on Essential Oils, all these memories plus others came back, good and bad, and I found myself getting quite tired and emotional hearing it all.
“We’re not really nostalgic as a band, we don’t comb over the past and we’re much more interested in new music and new bands coming up in Australia and overseas, we’re still musically curious and not wedded to the past but having gone back on the journey again I’m always amazed by just how much there is in it. Much more than just a band, a bunch of egos and some songs.”