Music

Midnight Oil: Reunions, Aussie rock and Beer Barns

The beating heart of Midnight Oil, drummer Rob Hirst, talks to ANDREW P. STREET about nostalgia, playing beer barns and… a possible return

It’s somewhat unfair to say this about a band that really only had one line-up change in decades of operation, but let’s be honest: Rob Hirst is The Other Person You Can Name From Midnight Oil. He was and remains a powerhouse drummer, but while the rest of the band tended to defer to frontman Peter Garrett in public Hirst was one of the main songwriters and did almost as many interviews and clearly took an active role in the band’s political direction.

The band split up in 2002 when Garrett announced he was joining the Labor Party, becoming the member for Kingston-Smith in 2004. They played a single show for WaveAid in 2005 and for Sound Relief in 2009, but haven’t been active since – although, as you’ll see below, that might yet change…

With Garrett semi-retired after his bruising period in the ill-fated frontbench of Kevin Rudd’s Labor government, Hirst has become the de facto spokesman for the band. That’s why he’s chatting about the DVD release of Black Rain Falls, Midnight Oil’s 1990 live video of their guerilla gig on the back of a truck outside the New York headquarters of Exxon. The impromptu concert aimed to draw attention to the Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled as estimated 750,00 barrels of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989. While Garrett has been concentrating on politics the rest of the Oils have stayed active in music, with all of the Australian-based members playing in The Break while also pursuing other projects. So Hirst admits that looking back is a little weird for him: as he explains, “we’re not really a very nostalgic group of men.”

I was watching the Black Rain Falls DVD and reflecting on the issues that you were railing against back then and thinking how relevant it all is today: global warming, pollution, nuclear waste dumps, indigenous rights. It could have been recorded this morning.

[Exasperated laugh] Yeah, sometimes you do get that impression of everything just going around and going back in the same place. But it’s inspiring in one way, I s’pose, in that everyone’s out in the streets again and being really vocal about things, which I haven’t seen in a long time.

So how are you feeling within yourself, with the DVD and the reissue campaign and the retrospective exhibition? There must be a lot of emotion.

Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re not really a very nostalgic group of men. We’re still really involved in our own new bands and listening to new Australian music, as we always did, but a couple of things happened. First of all, with the Exxon DVD we’ve been wanting to put it out for a long time, and there was a chance that we were going to put it out last year along with the Essential Oils collection that came out. And that got put off, but the exhibition that is opening with all our stuff at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum was the next opportunity to coordinate some sort of release – just finally getting it off VHS and onto DVD and sounding so much better. It’s been a nice synchronicity.

The DVD is also a nice reminder of something it’s easy to forget with the Oils, that aside from the politics and the issues and stand-taking and the significance and the influence and everything, you were also just a really fucking tight band.

Yeah! [laughs] Well, that always had to come first. That’s a very good point, actually, because often the other stuff is magnified, but we really spent most of our time in rehearsal rooms, Jim [Moginie, guitars] and I writing songs and arranging the music and just waiting, waiting, waiting for action, like an army does. And that’s what the band was essentially about: Five guys starting in a garage in Chatswood, New South Wales, [who] start playing around, get a few gigs, get a few harbour cruises, the occasional dance at one of the unis, and then just go from there.

It’s as easy as that?

Well, what we did have, I think, which was so fortunate was that we arrived at a time when loud, fast, strong, original Australian music was all people wanted to go and see – or it seemed to us. Before [electronic] dance music, before the internet, people just wanted to go out and follow [Cold] Chisel, or the Angels, or [Rose] Tattoo, or even back to AC/DC and Chain. They just wanted to follow their bands and go out and see live music. And of course that still happens, but it mainly happens now at festivals, whereas for the first six or seven years of the band it was in big pubs and clubs and RSLs and we could play around the country and really toughen up our act over those years, so when we finally went overseas we were a pretty tough bunch of bastards.

One thing that I’ve often thought about is the way that the golden eras of Australian bands was that it was happening at a time when people weren’t working 12 hours a day. People could actually live on Austudy or the dole, and workers weren’t too exhausted to go out and see bands because they didn’t get home until after dark. Not only did that mean more bands had space to develop, it meant there was an audience available to support that industry.

Exactly. Everyone’s on all the time now, and if you’re not available every 15 minutes people think you’ve been drowned in the harbour. Back in the day people used to disappear for weeks! Months! Years, even! [laughs] And the weekends were totally an escape: that was when you went out and “raged”, as we used to say, to bands.

And that’s what the exhibition in Manly is about as well: I’ve uncovered posters dating back to the mid-70s, back when the band was still called Farm, and that was the way you advertised your gigs back then: street posters and flyers and street press and word of mouth, before the internet age all those things were really important. And I’ve managed to hang onto all of that stuff and it tells the story of our band, but it also tells the story of this incredible fertile period of Australian music that is probably not coming back, but we were lucky enough to surf that wave.

“I feel sorry for bands not having that night-after-night-after-night experience of toughening up their act”

It was also the period of big suburban venues out in the suburbs.

Yeah. We had surf pubs like the Royal Antler Hotel on the northern beaches – that’s always been our spiritual home.

These days venues are clustered around the inner cities, with the odd room in the larger towns.

Well, take the northern beaches again: there used to be the Fix in Manly, which was an old theatre, the Royal Antler where we first started to draw a real crowd, the Avalon RSL, the Palm Beach RSL, this massive beer barn called the Manly Vale Hotel, and a bit later the Dee Why Hotel. And these weren’t small pubs: they had [live rooms] with 1200 to 2000 people squashed in.

You talk to kids about playing pubs and they immediately think of the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne or something like the Annandale in Sydney, and you have to say “no, we’re talking about these massive beer barns where you’d have a predominantly male and an extremely courageous small female audience coming to see bands, all squashed into this kind of anthropological evening out, where there was a body count at the end of the night and the sticky carpet and the smoke – it was a visceral form of entertainment”.

And you do get that at festivals, but I feel sorry for bands not having that night-after-night-after-night experience of toughening up their act. Because it’s invaluable and I think it’s why Australian bands were known for being such great live acts back then. Those were the halcyon days.

Festivals are often the first time that most bands ever get to play on a big stage to a big audience. It’s a different discipline, playing to 2000 people compared with 250, and if you can’t translate your performance to that kind of setting it’s an awfully public way to fail.

Yeah, yeah. That’s right. And in our case we played so many different stages – outside, inside, barns, front bars, festivals, halls, clubs, whatever, so by the time we got to New York City for that show in 1990 on the back of a flatbed truck it seemed almost natural that we would do that right after being pulled out of bed after playing Radio City Music Hall the night before. We were playing to a lunchtime Manhattan crowd with the sun directly above and people pouring out of the Rockefeller Centre and the Exxon Building – but it just seemed like another gig to us. It would have been very daunting if we’d suddenly gone from the Hopetoun [Hotel, in Sydney] to that. It would have been terrifying!

I have to ask: it does sound really, really tight – was anything, shall we say, cleaned up in the studio, as per INXS’s Live Baby Live?

No, that’s the sound desk recording. And that’s the same mix [as the video cassette release], but it’s been remastered. You can hear a lot more than you could hear on the original tape.

What went through your mind when you watched it again?

I really remembered that day and what it was like, from the cops wanting to close us down after one song and then starting to move a little bit when we’re playing ‘Blue Sky Mine’, and thinking [puts on charmingly terrible New Jersey accent] “deez guys from Australia, they’re alright! We’ll give ‘em oe more song!” And it literally went from song to song because we created such a huge traffic jam in central Manhattan at lunch hour, which is something you never do in New York. And you can see all these really tough cops gradually softening, and even laughing as the Exxon banner behind us unfurled as we played. They got it. It was a moment.

And Billy Bragg was a cameraman, according to the credits.

Really?

Well, that’s what it says on the DVD.

Might be a different Billy Bragg! [laughs] But it’s great story!

And watching this, you must have felt an itch. Are the Oils ever going to play again?

We might, yeah. We might.

When?

Well, Pete’s writing his memoirs at the moment, so that might take a while. Bones [bassist Bones Hillman] is in Nashville, and from what I hear he’s playing better than ever, playing sessions of upright bass, so the calluses on his fingers must be enormous by now – so he’s ready to play! And of course Martin [Rotsey], Jim and I play in the Break, I play in the Backsliders, Jim’s got his new guitar orchestra that he’s doing, so everyone’s around and everyone’s up for it. So we’ll just see down the track.

Well, you know, none of us are getting any younger…

Hopefully we won’t wait so long that we can’t put on the kind of shows that we’d like to put on, you know? And that is always the last show that people remembered – you know, someone will go “oh, I saw you at Penrith Leagues in 1986,” or whatever, and then Pete’s like “OK, we’ve got to put on a gig as good as Penrith Leagues!”

Midnight Oil’s Black Rain Falls DVD is out now through Sony. The retrospective exhibition runs until September 7 for free at Manly Art Gallery & Museum