“We’re part of the pushback,” says Rob Hirst. “We’ll just be out there singing the same songs but some of them have a new relevance in what’s happening now.” The Midnight Oil drummer is referring to the recent political upsets – Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK.
Ever since their debut in the late 1970s, Midnight Oil have been synonymous with causes – the environment, indigenous peoples and economic inequality are the main ones. The fact that all these issues are fair square on the public agenda again has added fuel to Midnight Oil’s return.
In 2002, the band abruptly stopped while playing the northern NSW coast during an Australian tour. At that point they were faced with dwindling ticket sales and lacklustre albums sales. But, as Joni Mitchell observed, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone’ and the two Oils charity gigs proved that they still have it.
In 2009, Midnight Oil played a benefit in Canberra. Lead singer Peter Garrett was unable to rehearse much because of his schedule as a Federal Minister. He dashed from the Cabinet room to the stage and delivered an impassioned show. It seemed as though he had been unleashed.
“You’d think that years in rock and roll would prepare you for almost anything,” said Hirst at a recent press conference.
“… but not for Kevin Rudd,” quipped Garrett.
Over the past 17 years Rob Hirst has been in about 100 bands including the Ghostwriters, the Backsliders and the Break. His most recent recording was with long lost daughter Jay O’Shea. Their song “The Truth Walks Slowly” is the true story of a tragedy caused by CSG mining. In a strange twist of fate, Jay had developed a friendship with the Oil’s bass player Bones Hillman as they both live in Nashville.
Drummer Rob Hirst and his daughter Jay O’Shea went viral with their emotionally charged music video for 'The Truth Walks Slowly'
Bones has been working with a bunch of songwriters. Jim Moginie, like Hirst, has about 100 different projects. Peter Garrett has even returned to the boards with an album, A Version of Now. So clearly the juices are flowing and they all have something to say.
It was partly because of all this activity that the Midnight Oil reunion has been slow in coming. The idea was first mooted when Triple J offered the band the headline spot at their January birthday party in 2015. Hirst has usually been the hold-out. His view is that, “you write new songs otherwise you become just one of those bands that’s going around the traps and playing”.
Time appears to have healed any wounds that may have festered over Garrett’s abrupt departure. There’s a lot of talk about new material. One person who sat in on a session says that the Oils are rehearsing songs from the beginning of their catalogue, but he has also heard bits of new material.
Meanwhile there is a fire sale of all the old stuff. A series of box sets are due for release on May 5. The first is a complete collection of 11 Oils albums on vinyl. This will be the first time and many LPs have been available in this format.
There is also a set called The Overflow Tank with 14 hours of previously unreleased and rare material. This project had been slowly coming together for more than 10 years. Then there is The Full Tank which contains all their LPs and Eps remastered.
14 shows on The Great Circle 2017 Australian Tour have already sold out
The global swing to the right seems to have worked for Midnight Oil. Their Great Circle tour sold more than 200,000 tickets in less than 20 minutes across the USA last month. Almost all Australian tickets were snapped up instantly and more dates are urgently being added in Australia and Europe.
The Australian leg of the tour kicks off on October 2 in Alice Springs and winds up in Sydney’s Domain on November 17. The group is going to unusual lengths to prevent ticket scalping by issuing paper and not digital tickets and policing venues and scalpers. With most of the box sets – some costing over $900 each almost sold out and most tickets also gone it would appear that demand for Midnight Oil is greater now than when beds were burning almost 30 years ago.
Perhaps it is, as Garrett puts it, “Your musical heart never stops beating even if you're doing other things.”
Midnight Oil is touring nationally. For tickets and information, see www.midnightoil.com.
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Photography: Oliver Eclipse