Editor’s Note: Midnight Oil has had an unconventional career that has spanned for decades creating their own brand of Aussie punk rock. Their songs have captivated imaginations and have served as a call to arms demanding political, environmental and social change throughout the world. A lot of critics have said that Midnight Oil have been ahead of their time from a musical standpoint. In this candid interview, drummer Rob Hirst of MIdnight Oil sat down with Mark Dean for Madness To Creation, who also contributes for Antihero and Spill Magazine. They discussed anything and everything ranging from their 1994 concert in South Africa after apartheid ended, to the European tour coming up to a potential new album in the works. Check out Mark Dean’s other work on his socials:
Mark: The band have had a few breaks over the years -do they now feel rejuvinated and have the breaks actually helped the band?
Rob Midnight Oil: So we had a break, but we didn’t have a break from music, because all the members of the band had other bands to go to, and formed other bands. And Jim, and Martin, and myself at Midnight Oil had a band called the Break, an instrumental band. Like a surf punk Spaghetti Western instrumental band. So we never took a break from music. In fact, we had lots and lots of bands that we were playing in, so by the time we got back together again in 2016, and then did that world tour of the Great Circle in 2017, we hadn’t really ever stopped.
To answer your question, I think actually getting out of our own band and playing with all the other different influences, really was great, because we could bring all that back to our own band. I think the band benefited from that.
Mark: Yeah. I have noticed, in your fan-based group on Facebook, a lot of negativity regarding ticket sales, with the recent dates you’ve announced.
Rob Midnight Oil: I just saw that today, too.
Mark: Just wondering if there’s anything in this day and age that the band themselves can do, to kind of reduce that, or prevent that sort of thing?
Rob Midnight Oil: Look, it’s a good question. On the Great Circle tour, we were aware that all the scalpers and the unscrupulous, those big machines, those companies that sell tickets, we knew that some of our fans were being incredibly disappointed, and having to pay too much, and all this, something that we take very seriously, as so many other bands do. And so much so that we actually kept a whole lot of tickets that … you could actually queue in the old-fashioned way. You know, before tickets were available online?
You used to be able to queue of a night round the block, you know? So we kept a whole lot of tickets for people who didn’t mind queuing, but knew then that they would have a good seat, and they knew that they wouldn’t pay anymore. We also tried everything possible to try to make the scalpers as only partially successful. I think what you’re referring to, today, was there’s a couple of warm-up shows we’re doing before we come to Europe.
These shows only hold about 1,000 people, and so we knew that there would be quite a demand, and so we’ve done everything we can, to try to … fans that came on out on our shows in Australia a few years ago had priority. But because the gigs are quite small, I guess they sold out really quickly. And inevitably, there’s a little frustration. But we’re not the only band that faces this, and we really try to overcome it.
It’s really difficult, unless you posted every hard copy ticket to everyone … Certainly, some bands do that. But we’re not sure exactly how you overcome it entirely.
The last album from the band was released way back in 2002. Million dollar question is, do the band have any new songs? Will there be a new album?Rob Midnight Oil: It’s a very timely question. I’ve just come today from three or four weeks doing new demos. So yes, there’s a whole bunch of new songs. And we really hope … I’m not sure we’ll be playing them in the European tour, but we really should hope that after the European tour, which ends in mid-July, that we’ll get back in. And then hopefully do some recording before the end of the year, and maybe have an EP or an album or even more, around early next year. Well, that’s certainly what we hope.Mark: What sort of direction will that be taking? I mean, you mentioned the other band members have had different musical projects going on. Do you think it’s going to bring out a different sound from Midnight Oil?To be fair though the band have always been very difficult to categorise or define in terms in terms of musical style and genre.
Rob Midnight Oil: Well the band, actually, over the years, we weren’t one of those bands that really stayed in a rut.
You know, some of the albums, like ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, ‘Diesel and Dust’, and then ‘Blue Sky Mining’, all the albums went different directions. And even more so now, because we’re all playing with different influences and different people. I think the band has actually become quite a musical broad church. And so I think there will be, if you like, typical kind of Australian punk rock, Midnight Oil. But I think also there’ll be stuff on completely different grooves, bringing in lots of different atmospheres, different instruments. I think it’ll be a … I mean, hopefully, from what I know now of the demos that we’ve done, hopefully it’ll be an album that some will like this. It’ll bring in new people. Maybe it’ll bring in some of the kids, with different grooves, and something a bit more modern. That’s what we hope, anyway.
Rob Midnight Oil: … visual and sound, yeah, from that show. Yeah, sadly.
Mark: I just wondered when the fact that it was different cameras and that involved, if there was enough footage for that release? But no?
Rob Midnight Oil: No. I think we’ve actually picked the eyes out of it, Mark, and so I don’t think … But we have discovered, I don’t know if you were aware, but two years ago, we put a kind of rarities and stuff that was never released, stuff that we actually just came across and found, we didn’t know even existed. One of them was a complete show of our tour of South Africa, which was in 1994, which was only a few months after President Mandela came in. And for years, we knew that there was people who wanted to see our band. Obviously, we waited until the end of Apartheid, and then we went as soon as we good. There was a show in Johannesburg that was recorded. It was lost in the vault for ages, but it’s actually a really cool show, and that was released on the rarities stuff that we released two years ago. So there’s bits and pieces we’re still discovering.
Mark: Okay. For the forthcoming tour, that’s including those you mentioned, a couple of dates in the UK, I just wondered if the band are ever tempted to unearth some of the older classics? ‘Powderworks’, maybe ‘Is It Now’? Or do you have no interest in sort of revisiting some old songs?Is it something that the band enjoy revisiting and reinterpreting other and older songs?
Rob Midnight Oil: Yeah. We played those at our shows on the tour, including … in fact, what happened was, we decided, for better or worse, that we would rehearse before that Great Circle tour, for about four months. And we ended up playing ever song that we’d ever recorded.
… we’d actually only ever recorded and never played live. But we just decided, we should be able to play everything. A bit like a massive chocolate wheel, so if someone yelled out for a song, we could play it. And that was easier for some members of the band than others. For example Bonesy, our bass player, being our third bass player, he didn’t play on that early stuff.
So he had had a massive time. But in the end, we actually could get through every song, including Tom’s from the first album on ‘Powderworks’, and ‘Is It Now’ from the second album of ‘Head Injuries’. And all the other songs we could actually play. And I think pretty much now, if someone yelled out something, we could play it. That’s the idea for this tour, to play, to fill in the gaps, and to make every show different. So the Manchester show that we’re playing could be quite different from the Brixton Academy.
We were lucky, Mark, to have … We were very lucky, sorry to cut you off, very lucky to have found the right chemistry very much from the get-go. I think, as you know, I think when bands are all operating on all … you know, when they’ve got a good head of steam and they’re operating on all cylinders, they are inevitably stronger than solo acts, or duos, because you’ve got … And we’re lucky enough in our band to have songwriters, we have a great frontman. We have arrangers. We have people who are great in the studio, studio wizards. We have people that are actually amazingly good with kind of career, and money, and you know, all that shit. So we actually cover all the ground that we need, within ourselves, to do what we need to do.
A band is a multi-faceted kind of thing, you know? You might see the hour on stage, but there’s also a huge amount going on behind the scenes. You need people that are good at different things, and we were lucky to have that from the word go.Mark: When you’re not recording or playing live, how do you relax? What do you do in your spare time?
So on tour, I will seek out the closest botanical gardens, and go for long walks. Also, I’ve got an interest in plants, and botany, and birds. I also go to art galleries, which are the other places which are usually very quiet, and beautiful. They’re the places I seek out.
Mark: Obviously you said earlier the band have been doing other things, musically. I just wondered, when you’re writing and doing music for Ghost Riders, for example, do you have to adopt a different mental mindset, when you’re writing for a different band?
Rob Midnight Oil: The stuff that you do on your lonesome can be a bit more personal? I’m really aware, when writing for Midnight Oil, and when Jim and I are collaborating, that we are writing for another singer. So I’ve always got that in the back of my mind. I’m thinking, “What can Pete get behind? What could he sing with conviction?” That’s always been … that’s different than writing for yourself, because you know intrinsically what you can do, yourself. It’s a bit different when you’re trying to put yourself in the frame of mind …
But having said that, we know each other really well, and we are all, you know, thinking about the same things. We’re thinking about Australia. We’re thinking about all the issues of Australia. For example, we’re about to have an election year, on May 18. It’s just been announced. Hopefully the conservative government will be thrown out, and a more progressive government, particularly in terms of renewable energy and the environment, will be voted in. And so, you know, we’re ever optimistic, although sometimes the songs must seem a bit bleak
Mark: Outside of Midnight Oil, do you think there are any other Aussie bands that you would have liked to have been a part of?
Rob Midnight Oil: Oh, sure. Fantastic bands here. I mean, John Butler’s Trio band, where he mixes different styles Do you know John?
Mark: I’m not aware of him, but following this I’ll go and check him out.
Rob Midnight Oil: Yeah, I mean, you get someone like John Butler who’s just got a fantastic mix of music and politics. He’s on the side of the angels, great players. He’s had different bands over the years, but remains very steadfast in his championing of First Nations people here, particularly, and the environment. Also, there’s an act called William Crighton I really like. They’re from the Riverina, it’s a regional area on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. He’s a fantastic act. There’s also some hip-hop acts. I’d urge you to seek out Briggs & Trials, a very strong indigenous act of political … Lots of great new First Nations bands, actually, who are not only making great music, but they’re getting chart number ones.
Everything’s changing here, you know. There’s a really strong mix of music coming from not just traditional whitefella bands from the cities, but from blackfella bands in the bush. Also, many more women, coming in. Also influences from everywhere from New Zealand, from the Islands, from Southeast Asia. Its becoming a real blend. A very interesting time.
Mark: So even though you like to seek solitude in your spare time, you still like to keep in touch with current musical trends, and influences?
Rob Midnight Oil: Always do, yeah. I mean, we’re not one of those bands that’s always thinking about stuff from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. All that’s obviously the music we grew up. But we’re fascinated by what’s happening now. Not just in Australia. The greatest thing that ever happened to me, personally, was internet radio. So I’m getting stuff. I’m always looking for stuff, from everywhere. It’s great having, in my case, daughters that are always bringing in new music. Going, “Oh Dad, have you heard this? Have you heard that?”
There’s a huge amount of music and you can’t take it all in. I’m always missing stuff, but there are some great radio stations here. There’s also amazing stations that I’ve found internationally, as well, which I’m listening to stuff and going, “What the fuck is this? It’s amazing.”
Mark: I’m neither. No. Just a fan of music, basically. I don’t play, myself.
Rob Midnight Oil: Such a great question, because the dynamic of the band has changed completely, from when we were playing with Andrew James, or the Bear, from the first two albums and EP. Now, Andrew was like a lead player on bass. His hero was people like Chris Squire from Yes.
You know, the music was much more complicated as a result. Then Peter Gifford, old Giffo, came in for the middle years. He played a much more traditional bass if you like, but also he was a fantastic player. He also loved people like John Wetton, King Crimson. But he also loved punk rock. An amazing combination of grunt, and [inaudible 00:16:27]. Then in came Bonesy. Bonesy was hired for his bass playing, which, like a lot of Kiwi bass players, was very McCartney-esque, Paul McCartney, but also because he had an amazing voice. So suddenly, we could do vocal harmonies we were never able to do before. So each has added and and brought different stuff in it. Each of them falls on a different side of my beat. My kick drum is ahead of the beat, my snare is on the beat.
It’s a bit like, you know, all bands have their own chemistry, and it changed a bit. But I think we’d go, “Yeah.” But the chemistry we’ve got now is really cool. And we can do vocal things now that we’ve never been able to do before.
Mark: Okay. Just a couple to finish. What would be the most important lesson you’ve learnt about yourself, as a musician and a person, over the years?
Rob Midnight Oil: That’s a great question. You mean within the band?
Mark: Yes, Exactly.
Rob Midnight Oil: What the influence of the band had, and all that?
Mark: Correct, yeah.
Rob Midnight Oil: Alright. Okay. Well, to be completely honest, I’ve learned that these kind of chemistries that we were lucky enough to have from our mid teens is not something to be taken for granted, and some musicians look for that forever. We’re so lucky to have the combination of players and personalities in our band that we had. Obviously, we’ve had our moments. We had a thing with… and sometimes even a danger of falling apart.
But mostly, we were able to get past that and think, you know, the most important thing is, anyone can leave a band any time, but the hardest thing is to stay. And to get past that, and to see actually the strengths of the band rather than frustrations … So speaking for myself, I think I’ve learnt to actually not push people’s buttons. To actually think a little bit before saying things that might be construed as inappropriate, or even cruel, and actually just try to actually see it from everyone else’s point of view a little bit more. That’s my hope, anyway, that I’ll be able to achieve that.
Mark: Just a final one, then. If the rules were reversed, who would you personally like to sit down in an interview?
Rob Midnight Oil: From any musician, you mean?
Mark: Not necessarily a musician. Maybe somebody outside of music, somebody that’s been a personal hero, or inspiration.
Rob Midnight Oil: Oh, someone else?
Well, most of the people I would have liked to have interviewed have actually passed away, before I had a chance. But sorry, just leave that with me for a bit longer?
Mark: You could make it a musician, if that’s maybe easier.
Rob Midnight Oil: No, I actually probably wouldn’t choose a musician. I think I’d, you know, people like … I don’t know whether you ask this question from a lot of people. They probably give you the same answer, but you know, the chance to interview someone like Mandela, or Barack Obama, or some of the people that actually have exhibited true wisdom over the years, rather than putting themself forward. I think that people like … it would have been extraordinary, for example, to have interviewed someone like Muhammad Ali.
You know, who along with James Brown and others, was just so incredibly strong, at a time of civil rights in the United States where people were looking towards someone like that, who was so charismatic, so talented, but also so brave, and what they were saying, and changed the world forever.
Mark: Rob, that’s good. Thank you very much. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to meet up with you personally in Manchester. Thanks again.
Rob Midnight Oil: Yeah. I hope someone gives you a laminate, and we can have a chat. I’d love to say.
Mark: Hopefully, we can get something sorted. That’s great. Thank you very much for taking your time, today.
Rob Midnight Oil: Okay. Have a good day, Mark.
Mark: Great. And you. Thank you again.
Rob Midnight Oil: Bye.
Mark: See you, bye.