Inside Midnight Oil's Triumphant, Timely Return

As they gear up for a North American reunion tour, members of the beloved Australian band reflect on their legacy – and their "prophetic" back catalog

In advance of an American tour, Midnight Oil open up about their history, their reunion and why their old songs feel more relevant than ever. Credit: Oliver Eclipse

"We were there as the road crew ran in the gear and you know what? They haven't done anything to the place in years," Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett says with cheerful astonishment over the phone from Sydney, Australia. It is a mid-April morning there. In a few hours, his band formally opens its first world tour in 15 years on familiar ground: Selina's, a landmark rock pub in Sydney's Coogee Bay Hotel. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Midnight Oil repeatedly tore the place apart – and the heaving crowds within – on their way to international notoriety.

At the club, during load-in, "I think I saw the imprint of my face on the carpet when I collapsed there last time," Garrett adds with a hearty laugh. The Oils' bald colossus, now 64, is not surprised. The band has had "more near-death experiences" at Selina's, he claims, "than anywhere else in Australia."

But that night, the Oils – Garrett, drummer Rob Hirst, bassist Bones Hillman, and guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey – turn Selina's into resurrection city with a marathon show of 29 songs drawn from their long-march canon: 11 studio albums of whiplash dynamics, bold songcraft and ferocious topical commitment between 1978 and 2002. The set list is solid with Aussie favorites and worldwide hits including 1983's "Power and the Passion" and the double-shot from 1987's Diesel and Dust, "Beds Are Burning" and "The Dead Heart." The Oils reach deep too, into the later challenge of 1998's Redneck Wonderland (the title track's grunting-riff menace) and 2002's Capricornia (the folk-drone stomp "Luritja Way"). And they play nearly all of their Australian breakthrough, the 1979 riptide Head Injuries, a raw set of thrilling confrontation with song titles that read like hard times come 'round again: "Cold, Cold Change," "No Reaction," "Stand in Line."

"Did we burn the place down? Pretty close to it," Hillman, 59, affirms a few days after the gig. "I felt it the next day – put it that way." A couple of nights before torching Selina's, the Oils did a low-key benefit show for Greenpeace, the bassist says, "with a very eclectic set list that probably went right over their heads" as well as a quickie date at the Marrickville Bowling Club "with a very basic format. We've built up to this. But here we go, riding the beast again."

"You walk in and the carpet is the same, the smell is the same, and the Eighties are suddenly writ large again," Hirst, 61, cracks. "But the band had a really good night" at Selina's "and it's given us the confidence to go ahead and start playing these gigs" – more than 60 dance-hall, arena and festival shows across the rest of 2017 in North and South America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. (The U.S. and Canadian leg opens May 6th in Atlanta.)

"There is something about this band," Hirst goes on, "an Australian-ness that is born of a time that I suspect is gone and not coming back, when great guitar bands like the Angels, Cold Chisel and Rose Tattoo were playing in this country night after night." The Oils were in the thick of that "massive surge," as the drummer puts it – founded by Hirst, Garrett and Moginie in Sydney in 1976 as Garrett was completing his law studies there. Rotsey joined in 1977, completing the core four on 1978's Midnight Oil. Hillman, a New Zealander, followed early bassists Andrew James and Peter Gifford, joining in 1987.

"We were lucky to come up at that time," Hirst says, "honing our craft in this incredible circle of pubs and clubs. We know rock bands are an endangered species," he concedes with something between a laugh and a sigh. "But the kids that came to Selina's the other night, the folks under 30 – maybe they were harangued by their parents: 'You gotta see the kind of bands we saw in the Eighties, like Midnight Oil.'

"But from the stage, we could see their eyes light up as we launched into Head Injuries," Hirst says, laughing again, this time in satisfaction. "They'd finally got it."

In December 2002, Garrett – the primary voice and imposing public image of Midnight Oil's political activism and environmental mission – left the group for a solo career: in politics. "I thought that was it," says Moginie, 60. "Pete was going off into that world, and we couldn't really do it without him."

Garrett had thrown himself into the ring before, narrowly losing a 1984 bid for the Australian Senate on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket. He won a seat in 2004 aligned with the Labor Party, entering a near-decade of service in the brawling turnover of Australian government, including spells as Minister for the environment, arts and education. "Many of the things we got on the books are things that can stand the test of time, that are good for the country," Garrett insists. "It doesn't mean it was always pretty."

The Oils reunited for major charity shows in 2005 and 2009, and friendships remained intact as the other members continued in music. Moginie produced records at his own studio; Hirst had a blues band, the Backsliders. They and Rotsey formed a progressive surf-instrumental band, the Break, with Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, who had emigrated to Tasmania. Hillman moved the other way – to Nashville, becoming a session and touring musician for country and bluegrass artists.

Garrett left politics in 2013 and wrote a memoir, Big Blue Sky, that triggered what the singer calls "a propitious, creative burst of songwriting" that produced the first album under his own name, A Version of Now, released in Australia in May 2016. That month, the Oils became a working band again, announcing that they would tour nationally and overseas in 2017.

Hillman remembers "a couple of emails every year" while he was in Nashville "that would lean towards it: 'Maybe it could happen.' It never did. I stopped thinking about it." Moginie says there "wasn't much point in getting into it until Pete made his move." The solo album, the guitarist notes, "was a good sign. He was getting his head out of that political jaw. The great thing about Pete is that he is fearless – he is ready to get up and do anything, if he believes in it."

"Perhaps all of those years in politics were years he didn't love," Hirst suggests, coldly referring to "the group of assassins" that turned on Garrett during his time as Minister. "Perhaps, while he was being viciously attacked in Parliament, he was thinking, 'Actually, I really enjoy being in a band.'"

"I'd never said it wouldn't happen," Garrett says of this reunion. "I just wasn't sure if it would or not, whether the circumstances would be right." He admits to two counts of "eye-opening surprise" as the momentum built. "One is that when we got back into a room together and started to play, it just sounded so poweful. All the bits were where they needed to be. It's weird if you overanalyze or talk about it too much. But it was still there – whatever it is.

"The other part of it," Garrett continues, "is to find the audience was still there." Most of the Australian shows in October and November sold out in a flash; so did the theater and ballroom concerts in the U.S.. For Selina's, which holds about 700 people, tickets were sold by lottery; there were 26,000 applications. "We're lucky to have that connection with people," the singer marvels, "that it's still there."

The songs, in turn, have come to life again in a world – Brexit; the 2016 American presidential fracas – that the Oils didn't expect when they agreed to play together again. "I don't want to be too grandiose about it, but they have a strong, prophetic strain about them," Garrett says, citing "Arctic World" from Diesel and Dust, "Tin Legs and Tin Mines" on the 1982 countdown, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and the dark grind of Redneck Wonderland's "Safety Chain Blues."

"In some ways, it's very depressing," Garrett acknowledges, "but also very intense, because it means what you've said in the past, you can say again – with more weight attached."

On May 26th, following the May 5th kickoff of the Oils' American tour in Atlanta, the band is issuing new box-set collections of their catalog. A special edition dubbed The Overflow Tank – as it comes in a facsimile of Hirst's signature percussion instrument, a rusted water tank – includes four CDs of live and unreleased material and eight DVDs of vintage concert films and documentaries. The drummer estimates that over their five months of rehearsal for the 2017 shows, the Oils played every song featured in that Tank – about 170 songs including B sides and outtakes – at least once. They then performed a close to a quarter of that bounty, almost 40 different songs, just at Selina's and Marrickville.

"The idea," Hirst says, "was that we should be able to play any of our recorded songs, so we can mix the sets up to such a degree that boredom would never set in – either for the band or the audience." That meant considerable extra homework for Hillman, who did not play on the Oils' first five studio albums.

"It's fun to discover lines that bite you when you sing them, bits of music that lift you up in places you haven't remembered going to before." –Peter Garrett

"The first two days," at a rehearsal facility near the Sydney airport, "we launched into 30 sings," Hillman remembers. "We didn't even stop. We'd just start playing, warts and all, mistakes, the whole bit. If someone forgot a part, we'd just go, 'Don't worry, you'll get it.'" The list of tunes in Hillman's journal includes "Lucky Country" and "If Ned Kelly Was King" from 1981's Place Without a Postcard and two songs, "Feeding Frenzy" and "Now or Never Land," from the Oils' striking, introspective turnaway from their usual fury, 1993's Earth and Sun and Moon.

Garrett says the band is "discovering some songs that weren't as prominent" in old set lists but "really nail this moment, some of the feelings we have." He doubts if the Oils ever performed the title track of Earth and Sun and Moon outside of the recording studio. "Now we find this song lifting us up. It's fun to discover lines that bite you when you sing them, bits of music that lift you up in places you haven't remembered going to before."

The singer reveals that those rehearsals also produced some new fundamentals – licks, riffs, fragments of tune – that could go into new material for the stage or potential release. For Moginie, "There's always been the sense that the band has to come back and bring something new to show that we're vital. Trying to create the next big rock anthem – that could be a real mistake. You have to be careful and do it right, get all the initial conditions set. Then, OK, off we go. And I don't think there's a lack of things to say either, especially in what's happening in the world. It's just putting it in the right form."

"It's early days," Garrett confirms, in a record business that "is no longer there at all." For the time being, Midnight Oil have become exactly what they were when they first ripped into Selina's in the late Seventies: a working live band. "You don't have much choice," Garrett contends. "You're either going to find your way through the entrails of digital media and online delivery and emerge with the tentacles hanging off you for a brief moment – or you just get out there and do it.

"For us," the singer claims, "it's as natural as hearing kookaburras in the morning. This is what we do."