On Midnight Oil's politically charged 1978 self-titled debut, singer Peter Garrett pounded his musical pulpit. He continued doing so throughout the band's career, most notably, for United States audiences, on the album Diesel and Dust, which included the apocalyptic environmental MTV hit "Beds Are Burning," and then on the record Blue Sky Mining.
The group dropped four more albums, including the excellent Capricornia, before Garrett parted ways in the early 2000s to focus on political and environmental advocacy work and eventually take a post in Australia's government. While the band never officially broke up, it hasn't toured the world in more than two decades and has rarely performed.
In 2016, Garrett released a solo album, A Version of Now. By February 2017, the group announced a world tour with its chart-topping lineup: Garrett, drummer Rob Hirst, bassist Bones Hillman, guitarist Martin Rotsey and multi-instrumentalist Jim Moginie.
Westword caught up with Hillman, in advance of Midnight Oil’s May 23 stop at the Paramount Theatre, to talk about the band's history and future.
Westword: What led to the decision to tour after so long?
Bones Hillman: I think it was a subtle, slow progression, to be honest. It wasn’t like it came out of the blue. There’d been insinuations regarding it flying around for a few years. I just think that we never really found the time frame or the window that was adequate and honest; I think fifteen years apart was that time frame. When it was raised this time, everyone responded positively. Prior to that, it was always someone’s got something else they’ve got to do or there were restrictions on it.
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What is it like to have such anticipation for this tour? Lots of the tour dates are sold out, and all of the U.S. shows (except one festival date) are apparently sold out.
We had to – how do I say this politely – the industry changed a lot since we were last touring in the United States. A lot of the promoters that we had established relationships with and worked with over the territories over many years had subsequently retired or moved off to do something else. So we found ourselves in quite a unique situation where people go, “Okay, we know there’s this history,” and these young guys came, “Well, we’ve never seen you play.” So it was a new testing ground for us. It was like, “Oh, we have to come back to the United States and re-evaluate who we are and prove that we are worthy.” Then, when these shows sold out so far, they’ve all turned around and gone, “We need more! We need more! You need to go to a bigger place.” We’re like, “No. This is what you’ve signed us for; this is what we’re going to do.” Obviously, Australia is a completely different story, because there are about 18,000 to 20,000 fans for the show.
You haven’t done any shows in New Zealand for twenty years, and that’s where you’re from. What’s that going to be like for you?
I’ll have a lot of ugly cousins and cousinettes that I’ve never met in my life. My family status will grow and my popularity will seem to grow. The Facebook social media for the last ten years is like, “Well, hi. I’m your brother’s brother Bob’s gardener,” so it’s like, "Okay, all right, here we go." There will be a lot of rediscovery for me going back there. I have lifelong friends there I’ve known since I was five. I really look forward to seeing them and hanging out with them. For the last ten years, I’ve been living in the States, so my guest list will be busier in America and subsequently rather quiet in the Southern Hemisphere, apart from New Zealand.
You joined Midnight Oil after the Diesel and Dust album came out, which launched the band into superstardom. What was it like to join the group at that time?
I approached it as a tradesman. I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to learn this album, that album and those EPs, and I’ve got X amount of days to do it before the first show. I just focused on that.
Obviously for them, they’ve had this career that’s been going for a long time, and then all of a sudden it internationally spikes. That must have been incredibly exciting for them. I just kind of came in – not grandfathered, that’s the wrong term – I just came in focusing on the songs. It didn’t really dawn on me what was going on until probably halfway through the tour because the workload is so intense. There’s so little preparation time. It always seems to be the way with this band. This time, though, we’ve got so many songs and so much preparation time. This is probably the most armed we’ve ever been to go out on the road with stuff that we have the possibility of playing. Also, we’re not promoting anything. Normally a band tours promoting a record [the band is releasing two boxed sets in the coming weeks]. Automatically you have seven or eight songs that are in the set because of the new record, and then you choose twelve more around your catalogue, and that’s your show. We’re not promoting anything; we’re just playing, so it’s an open slather, and it’s a brain-fry, without a doubt.
The Capricornia album did a great job of capturing multiple styles that you guys covered over the years. It had the really aggressive musical punch, but it had all the great pop hooks. When you recorded that album, did you know it would be your last?
If we’d gone into the studio knowing we were making our last record, I don’t know whether we would have ever finished it. It’d still be going on, because people would still have songs that they wanted included. So, no, we had no idea whatsoever.
It sounded like it was a more relaxed record. Everybody seemed to express themselves a bit more. Was that intentional?
We were at Festival Records [in Sydney], which was this old facility, and they had a vinyl pressing plant, and it was just chill. No one was sort of coming in; no Artie Fufkins hanging in the foyer listening for the next big hit. We just got in there and plugged in and did our thing. It was very relaxed and a lot of fun, too. Warne Livesey's an amazing producer to work with. He was at the helm, and he steered us through it. I think we did a good job on it, and it sounds great when I listen to it.
You have a unique bass-playing style; it encompasses the low end so well. How do you construct your bass parts?
That’s a good question. Sometimes my initial idea will be the best; other times, some things I have to work out a lot more. The more you record songs over your career, the more danger you fall into of repeating yourself as a player stylistically. It’s always a challenge to come with another approach to it. You can’t tie your hand behind your back, because it doesn’t work. Just try and stay fresh. I think one thing I’ve learned over the years is just leave some space; leave some space for the singer and the words. The other thing I’ve learned is that guitars do better solos than basses [laughs]. And just lock in with the drums. Look, I’m the third bass player; they’ve all been completely different stylistically. Andrew [James, who] they had from the first record, was all riffs and double stops, but their songwriting changed as well. The band became more chordal, and the arrangements and the way they wrote songs changed. All the playing changed around it. It’s a weird TARDIS that I live in; I flash from different styles of music, from one song to the other in the same show — bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, just sounds, just channeling these different things.
Do you have any plans to record a new studio record?
Not that I know of. We’ve kind of talked about it a little bit, but there’s certainly no time in the calendar this year with this tour that now runs through November 18, I think it is. I think we just need to hit the road, do some shows and let our relationships with each other unfold and develop. Subsequently, if we feel that there’s an urge to do that and it’s warranted — and that we have some good songs — then we possibly might, but then we might not.
Are you officially back together?
I don’t know that, either. I know what I’m doing up until November the eighteenth, and I’m open for any options after that period of time. I probably imagine after doing this, the first thing we’d want to do is take six months off from each other. But who knows? I think that the moral of the story is that you should never break up. A lot of bands just stop working: “Well, have you broken up?” “No, we’re just on hiatus.”
I don’t think you guys ever said that you had officially broken up.
Well, Pete [Garrett] officially left the band, and I moved overseas. Martin [Rotsey], Jim [Moginie] and Rob [Hirst] continued working together with a few various smaller little entities that they had going.
Midnight Oil has always had an environmental, social and political conscience. What are the things that concern you most these days?
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Well, global warming — it’s a pretty massive issue. The planet is changing a lot. I wasn’t there for winter this year in the United States, but the previous winter with those polar vortex things snapping off and ice storms, freezing cold and then the whole tornado/hurricane season getting all twisted around. [We’d] just have cyclones come through here, and there’s flooding and monsoons. It rained here for nearly a month every day.
That was in Australia?
Yeah. The polar icecaps are melting, people. And the planet is getting hotter. And as a result, things are seriously changing. I was looking at old David Attenborough last night — a documentary on turtles — and they were saying how the sex of a male or female turtle is determined with the egg on the temperature it’s getting in the sand. Now, with the planet warming up, they’re not breeding many male turtles anymore, so there’s all these female turtles that can’t mate. Things are changing, and some people acknowledge it and some people don’t.