“Even if you are pushed to the wall for things you believe in, you don’t give in” – Peter Garrett.
Australia has a past it shouldn’t be proud of, and Australian band Midnight Oil have always placed themselves firmly at the forefront of that discussion. From shutting down Sixth Ave staging famous protests in New York City, to performing in front of the world at the Sydney Olympics wearing ‘sorry’ suits—a statement directed towards the government’s mistreatment of Australian indigenous people.
Forming in the 80s with a ‘we believe in this and fuck those who don’t’ kind of attitude, the band has never kept quiet when they believed things needed to change, and will forever remain one of Australia’s most influential bands for the role they’ve played in both music and activism.
The group decided to take a break come early 2000s, however recently came to the decision that the world is in a scary place right now in regards to politics, and might just need a dose of The Oils. We sat down with frontman Peter Garrett, who gave us an insight into why the group reformed and the impact that the Oils have had on him throughout the years.
Peter! Feel good to be back together with Midnight Oil?
Yeah, it’s amazing. The sound is massive, you know in some ways you don’t notice the passage of time. Time is a tricky little creature, you forget that you have done some of these things even in another century. That’s a pretty crazy thought, but we have been out there since we were kids.
That’s a crazy thought. You were all very young when Midnight Oil starting gaining traction, it looked like it was taking off overseas and then it all stopped?
Yeah, we reached a point at the end of the 90s where if we wanted to do anything else, it really meant relocating. We were just too bound to our cities, too bound to our homes—the thing about Australia that kind of makes us tick as people. When I did come out and say I wanted to go and do some other things, pursue some different avenues like getting involved with activism and whatever else comes next, I didn’t think it would be a big surprise to anybody. But apparently it caught the audience by surprise, because we were never talking about that stuff.
At the moment politics seems to be a touchy subject with people throughout the world. Did the current state of politics have anything to do with reforming the band?
You’re absolutely right. I think right now it’s a crucial time for a band like Midnight Oil or any band that wants to sing out about stuff that has a little bit of grit and a little bit of comment in it, but that wasn’t the prime reason. I think the prime reason was that when we got together we had something special. When we jumped into a room and played it was obvious something was still there. The fact that we have songs that uncannily work in the current era, particularly the Trump era; it just means it has a little more edge to it.
Exactly, it seems like there are some pretty scattered views on what’s going at the moment. If Midnight Oil didn’t agree with things that were going on they would get out and tell the world about it, I think it’s a perfect time for sure.
Yeah, it feels like it. We were never afraid to go out on the street and actually get in people’s faces. Quite often artists will sing about it and that’s good definitely, but then that would be it. They would go back to what they would normally be doing. Whereas Midnight Oil would always take the next step. We have sung about it, now we are here to talk about it.
The New York protest you organised is one that will always stick with me. Is that the reason you joined the band in the first place? Were you just fucked off and wanted change and thought that was the best way to go about it?
Not really. The band always starts as a musical entity, that’s the most important thing. Any band has to link up in the way they want to play, perform and write. The political nature of the band got a kick up when I became the singer because for me, that was always really important. Talking about things that mattered, that counted, and that were relevant and would relate to what people were seeing; what my mates and me were experiencing. We were connecting to that part of our audience that have an activist streak to them and we were going along as their soundtrack. Over a period we developed a capacity to do that stuff, of course culminating with the Olympics and so on.
The Olympic performance is one that also has stuck with me, when you were wearing the ‘sorry’ suits. I remember being eight years old and watching with my family on TV and it being a really big deal! Whose idea was that and was there any backlash?
Yeah, you would have been very young back then! We got some kickback from the guy that was Prime Minister at the time, John Howard. He was a very unhappy camper. I said to the Oils, “We should do it. It’s a strong statement and we won’t be able to talk about it without somebody sticking their head up and saying something.” And it was Howard who stuck his head up and said something, so of course we had to respond. We always knew that if we were going to play on a global stage like the Sydney Olympics, that we would make a statement. The statement would probably be about the fact that we were still kicking around Aboriginal and Islander people. Howard at the time was not prepared to recognise that if the country wanted to move on we had to say sorry. We went out to the bush and talked about it for days as to what we could do and that’s what we came up with.