Peter Garrett Midnight Oil

Interview – Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil

Peter Garrett NYC Midnight Oil 2017

Music can be a very powerful way to express your opinions and emotions when there seems to be nowhere else to turn. A tool also used to raise awareness or provoke a change in the world around you, perhaps one of the most steadfast Rock bands has been Midnight Oil. 

Out of Australia, Midnight Oil’s story began way back in the ’70s, leading into broader success in the ’80s with international hit songs like 1987’s “The Dead Heart” and “Beds Are Burning.” Very much possessing a Punk Rock spirit, Midnight Oil’s distinctive lead voice and lyricist has always been Peter Garrett. Garrett, someone with strong conviction in his beliefs, has always shown himself to be a thoughtful, perspective individual with a genuine concern for the future of humanity. Something he took with him into a political career before returning to music, now in 2024 Garrett unleashes his second solo album, The True North

Happening rather naturally for himself, with no pretense of creating new music, the result is something powerful, real, and thought-provoking. Happy to continue to express himself through the art of music, Peter Garrett took some time to discuss his work with Midnight Oil, the development of his album The True North, the dangerous path we are headed down, plus more.  

Cryptic Rock – Before we dive into your new material, it should be recognized that you have been involved in music with Midnight Oil for almost four decades now. Attaining success with Midnight Oil, you have also released solo albums, including this new one, The True North. All this said, how would you describe this really incredible musical journey that you have been on?

Peter Garrett – I think that it’s a bit of a “pinch me, did it really happen” thing, to be honest. You will hear this from other musicians too. When you start out, all you really want to do is try and get a gig in a little scungy club or a pub somewhere. You want to try and figure out how to write songs and make them work on a stage.

Those early formative years particularly in our case, partly because we were quite political, we weren’t very commercial. We were sort of Proto-punks in a way, but with lots of musical chops. We were just different, and that difference probably defined us ultimately. That mind frame stayed with us pretty much through our entire career. That was even when we really did become much more into the mainstream as a successful artist.

It’s just incredible that we were able to hold it together for as long as we did and that we were able to make as many albums as we did. We kept on returning to the Southern Hemisphere and to where we’d grown up. We needed to reconnect with our country, with our communities, and with our families in order to make sense of ourselves. Otherwise, in our minds at least, we just might have ended up as part of a bigger cultural thing. However, we might not have quite the strength or vigor in the music that we needed to have.

I had a stint in national politics here in Australia for a decade or so. Coming out of that, going back out and finding that the band still had that audience when we toured globally in many countries around the world, we were probably the most surprised of all. People were still interested in what we’re doing. Of course we’re all still interested in making music. It has all been quite amazing and totally unexpected.

Cryptic Rock – It is really exciting to see. As you said, when the band picked up again, when you came back after working in politics, there was a demand for Midnight Oil with dedicated followers. With that, the live shows that took place following the band’s big return were truly fantastic.

Peter Garrett – Thank you. I think we had something which any artist needs to have in order to stay the distance. That is stubborn conviction in what you’re doing. We also had a joy for music. We had very different personalities too. Unlike some bands where you’ve got one person who’s calling the shots, or you’ve got people who find themselves at odds with one another, we’re able to join up on this idea of what we thought Midnight Oil was. We could find that meeting point musically. It was always an intense period when we were writing songs. We weren’t fattish. We weren’t chasing the Holy Grail. We had very little interest in the media public fame/money side of things, probably to our detriment now, but never mind. (Laughs) 

It’s that classic old cliché… it was literally about the music. If you think about a band that is coming from such a long way away from the rest of the world. A band that is writing about things that might be uncomfortable for people sometime or is very place-based. One that is basically tearing it up every night, trying to control the venues, and trying to control ticket prices. A band that is shunning the sort of capitalist part of the music industry, although still being a part of it. And one still being very proud to try and hold that together.

Every year, once we got a year and a record done, it was a big sigh of, “Wow, we’ve managed to get that far.” By the time we started playing in ’21, ’22 again and did The Great Circle Tour, we were probably as content in some ways and as astonished as we’d ever been. As a consequence, hopefully, we were just playing like a bunch of kids let loose with amps, guitars, and drums.

Midnight Oil - Place Without A Postcard
Midnight Oil – Place Without A Postcard / CBS (1981)
Midnight Oil - Diesel and Dust
Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust / Columbia (1987)

Cryptic Rock – Right, and you released the high quality Resist album with Midnight Oil back in 2022. Now you are back in 2024 with your solo album The True North. Your second overall solo album, it is also your first in eight years since 2016’s A Version of Now. What was the work like behind The True North

Peter Garrett – I didn’t expect to make one. It’s not been a big part of my life. When I’m not doing Midnight Oil music, I tend to be involved in environmental issues and other bits and pieces.

It seemed like the adrenaline was still turned on though. There were a lot of songs around appearing, and I tried to create a little bit of space to allow that creativity to find some room to bloom and take hold. I Probably learned from mistakes of the past of jamming a lot of stuff into my working life. In this case, I sort of had a little bit of room and space just to let the songs unfold. There were plenty of them too. Martin Rotsey from Midnight Oil has recorded them with me. I had a few songs, and I said to him, “Well, look.” He said, “Well, look, you can make a record.” I said, “Yeah, I think I will.” We’ve just gone and done it. (Laughs) 

Cryptic Rock – It came out very well too. You have nine songs on this record and you could tell they are from the heart. That is obviously something you have always done, and you can feel that. Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the lyrics. We know that there is a lot behind all this. This is about humanity and the direction we are going. 

Peter Garrett – Yeah, it is. They’re weighty things, but they’re the things that I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning thinking about. Part of my life has been characterized by being an activist and, at one point, a senior politician.

I’ve always been interested in the world, frustrated by it sometimes, but also determined to recognize that the world is changed for the better by the people who turn up. In order to do this record and make it something which didn’t feel too premeditated, I really just walked around with my iPhone and my voice memo function on it. Whenever I had an idea, or saw something that intrigued me, I just either hummed a few bars into the iPhone… or just spat out some stream of consciousness lyrics. Then I’d come back and sit around with an acoustic guitar and see if I could make sense of what I had seen and felt. The whole idea was to make it something which was literally organic.

Of course we’re in a studio with computers, mixing desks and all the technology that goes with it. For me, I hear a lot of music and it sounds like it’s been made by robots. It’s music I just don’t like. I know there’s a market for it, and some people are very good at it… but robot music doesn’t work for me. My tastes aren’t particularly in Dance; even though some skillful things are happening. My tastes are much more in the openness and the warmth of solid body electric guitars or physical drums. You can add stuff onto that, but here, we just really wanted to keep it as organic as possible. It was not pretending to be recording in the Motown studios in the ’60s or ’70s, and using what we had with us. It was about bringing the mental frame that – it’s not actually about whether the Pro Tools has delivered you 50 different mixes, it’s not really about whether you’re applying analog generators to digital mixing systems, but it’s about the heart of the performance, the song.

I had the ideas, I had the songs, and gathered together musicians. It wasn’t a case of really teaching them or running through the songs musically. When you’re working at this level, these people are really fine musicians. It was more a case of saying, “Look, this song has a narrative. This is what it’s about. It expresses my feelings and thoughts about things. It might be a little bit more to chew through than you’re used to. But just have that in the back of your mind when you’re recording.” I’d lay down a rough guide and we recorded it live pretty much. Generally speaking, in a couple of takes, we had the guts of what we wanted to do.

I really appreciate you very much saying that you like that you can hear the sound of that in it. For me, that’s what it was all about. If I could get that sound of a bunch of humans reaching out to other humans through music…. then I’d be happy.

Cryptic Rock – You certainly have achieved that. It definitely has an organic feel to it musically and lyrically. It is interesting to hear how it all developed for you. You can also hear that stream of consciousness in a lot of the lyrics too.

Peter Garrett – I was in a band with very good songwriters. Sometimes we’d have some big wrestles about the lyrics; because words are my thing. I sometimes find that, not always the first thought that you have, which is the jewel, but quite often there’s something in that first thought. You might have to go away and spend some time on it though.

In my case, if you’re not just sitting in a room thinking, “I have to write something because someone is demanding it.” Rather, you’re actually out and about freewheeling, being with people, being in different environments, and thinking about what’s going on in other places.

I spent quite a bit of time in the north part of this country, you’d call it Northern Australia. The True North is partly about that. It’s partly a recognition that those far less inhabited reaches of our country, which are spectacular, and physically very beautiful, have got strong indigenous communities living around them. However, it’s very affected by the physicality of weather systems, escarpments and wild forests. We need to not make the same mistakes that we’ve made in Australia in the south, and really understand how to best protect and steward that area.

That was one of the thematics for me. You can hear that in that opening track called “The True North.” Some of the others are really things that you’d be familiar with from Midnight Oil times such as, I’m not likely to be sitting down and trying to work and write about teenage street life, drugs or superficial romantic fixations. I’m in another zone, and probably a very serious one, but that’s just how we are.

Peter Garrett - A Version of Now
Peter Garrett – A Version of Now / Sony (2016)
Midnight Oil - Resist
Midnight Oil – Resist / Sony (2022)

Cryptic Rock – That makes you and Midnight Oil what they are. You have some shows lined up for The True North as well. You have always been known to put on a really great live show. We always talk about how the audience feels at a live performance, but what headspace are you in when you are on stage? 

Peter Garrett – The stage is like my second home in some ways. I started on the road and never really came off it, except when I was in politics. For us in Australia, and even when we first came across to North America, we did it the way that people still sometimes do it. You had to do it then though. You’re in a van or a bus, you’re showing up every night somewhere, and you’re going out and spilling your guts on stage. That’s a rare and special thing.

I always think about it, not in a self-conscious way, because I don’t want to be self-conscious about performing. I just want to react to the sounds that are around me, what the band is doing, the atmosphere inside the room (whatever that might be), without much analysis and thinking about mirrors, angles, and effects. It’s a much more visceral, primal thing that happens for me. If you start to think about it and talk about it… then you might not do it like that.

The performance side of things for me is very special for me though. It will be when I go out this time as well. I relish the opportunity to be interacting with people in that way. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to articulate. I’m just thinking, “Hey, it’ll be loud. It’ll be fast. It’ll be slow. There’s songs that mean something. There’s a bunch of people that want to share them with you.” Given what’s going on around the world, including in the USA, let’s make the most of it.

Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Obviously you speak heavily about environmental issues in the music, and these are very important things. What is noticed with this record as well, it seems like you are also speaking of the human aspect and how that is affecting humans. Human’s disconnection with the environment and nature seems to be making them disconnect with one another as well. Everyone’s on their phones. Everyone’s disconnected from actual communicating and being grounded in reality. Would you agree?

Peter Garrett – Absolutely. You’ve said it really well. Thank you for giving me some thoughtful lines about what the record’s about… because that’s absolutely right. We evolved over millennia as physical creatures utterly dependent on the natural environment to feed us, to the air we breathe, the water we drink.

The more disconnected we become from it, and this idea that technology and growth are really the solution to our problems, the more we’re jeopardizing the survival of the species in any kind of reasonable way. Particularly for people younger than ourselves. It’s a massive and important existential issue for us. It’s something which many people wrestle with. We need to force the hand in a peaceful way of those who are allowing destructive activities on the planet to take place. We can’t keep on living like this, it’s madness. You only have to cast your eye into any part of the world, and you’ll see it every day.

Cryptic Rock – Yes, it definitely makes you very wary of the future and which direction we are going as societies as well and what we value.

Peter Garrett – Totally. We were an activist band, so we were prepared to step out. It’s not for everybody, but as I said before, the world is changed by people who show up. It’s to do with being clear about the fact that crimes have been committed in the name of economy and progress.

I started my life as a lawyer and didn’t last long; which is probably a good thing,  because I ended up on a stage. In criminal law, if someone is guilty of a crime, if they do a willful act, knowing that it’s going to cause harm. There’s plenty of legal, at the moment, willful acts taking place which are causing harm. Not the least, the burning of fossil fuels. Everybody knows, like they knew about tobacco back in the day, that it has a harmful effect on people. But it’s still permitted to happen.

By any measure, whether it’s moral rights that we have to leave the planet in a decent shape. Whether it’s the question about the fact that people who are most affected by the climate crisis are poor people. Whether it’s just a dumb thing to do and we’ve got better solutions, renewable energy and the like. We have to take this thing on to the best extent that we can. Whatever field that we’re in. Not everybody can go and become a political activist. In the USA, it’s probably about voting. In our country, it’s the same; who we vote for, what we do in our communities.

I do believe that work is the most important work that we can do. If there’s some music there that carries people through that, then that’s a good thing.

Peter Garrett - The True North
Peter Garrett – The True North / Sony (2024)

Cryptic Rock – Agreed completely. You pointed out how many view Midnight Oil as an activist and political band… so they may not be for everyone. However, that also ties into everything we are talking about. It seems as a culture of people, we have lost the ability to hear others out. That is a big problem. You may not agree with what someone has to say, but listening to them and hearing their point of view is extremely important. This is how we learn from one another.

Peter Garrett – Yes. That is how we view what we do. We never ever said when we wrote a song about indigenous land rights, that everybody had to sign up to the manifesto. This is what we were thinking. This is what we felt as songwriters, as people that weren’t numb to the world around us. Then you offer it up, and people could take it any which way.

In Australia, because of the length of the career, you’ll have pretty hardcore Midnight Oil fans that’ll say, “I didn’t agree with this era, but I still like the band.” When we went to play, we made it perfectly clear that it’s access to all areas at Midnight Oil; whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or anywhere else on the spectrum.

We have to be able to talk to one another and work these things through. Our music wasn’t compromised by that though, and what we were saying wasn’t going to be compromised by that. It’s an interesting dynamic, because you’re creating something. We’re probably one of the few bands that has tried to do it for that period of time. We’ve always been really pristine about the idea that – get the music and the song to work for us. That’s almost the whole job done. The next part is, it’s floating around in the universe, and maybe it’s going to land somewhere and take root.

Peter Garrett 2024 Tour Dates:
Mar. 28 – Apr. 1st, 2024 Bluesfest Byron Bay 2024 Tyagarah, Australia
Sat, MAR 30 ‘The True North’ Tour – Brisbane
For more on Peter Garrett: petergarrett.com.auFacebook | Twitter | Instagram 
For more on Midnight Oil: midnightoil.comFacebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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