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The resurrection of Midnight Oil

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Midnight Oil: Left-leaning politics and incurable accents. - OLIVER ECLIPSE
  • Oliver Eclipse
  • Midnight Oil: Left-leaning politics and incurable accents.

Politics and romance don't always make the best of bedfellows, whether in real life or in the somewhat more governable realm of music.

New Model Army frontman Justin Sullivan, for instance, once vowed that he'd never write a love song, reasoning that there are too many other subjects that need to be addressed. Australian hitmakers Midnight Oil have much the same mindset.

"We're not exactly a great wedding band, are we?" admits bassist/singer Bones Hillman. "We did have one song called 'Outbreak of Love,' on our Earth and Sun and Moon album, but no, that's just not an area that we mine. There was already enough of it going on."

That's no less the case today, as pop musicians seem largely oblivious to a world in political turmoil. All of which makes Midnight Oil's return from their 15-year absence — during which frontman Peter Garrett successfully pursued a career in Australian politics — an especially well-timed surprise.

The band has spent the last four months rehearsing its reunion tour, which will draw upon a two-decade-long repertoire of songs about indigenous rights, environmentalism and labor issues.

"I think the timing is right," says Hillman. "I haven't turned on the news this morning, but North Korea is really not that far from where I'm sitting right now [in Sydney]. Are they firing any missiles up there yet?"

Despite left-leaning politics and incurable Australian accents, Midnight Oil found unlikely worldwide success during the Reagan and Bush years. Hits like "Power and the Passion," "Beds Are Burning," and "Blue Sky Mine" showcased the group's postpunk energy, with tightly synchronized guitars and awe-inspiring arrangements, all driven home by producer Warne Livesey's cutting-edge production values.

Through it all, the band's not-so-secret weapon remains Peter Garrett, an imposing figure with his 6-foot-4 frame, bald head, quirky dancing, and declamatory vocal style. Hillman credits Garrett's larger-than-life persona with giving the rest of the band a relative air of anonymity in ordinary life.

"We have an incredibly iconic frontman who takes the flak on everything," says Hillman. "The rest of us can walk around and not get recognized and maintain really normal lives. When Peter steps out, he's got to really consider where he goes and how he goes there."

But if Garrett is Midnight Oil's lightning rod, his bandmates have never shied away from occupying the same rooftops.

During the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics — which was telecast to an audience of billions — the group performed in black clothing with the word "sorry" printed in white, a reference to their prime minister's refusal to issue an apology to Aboriginal Australians for two centuries of mistreatment.

In the wake of the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill, they gave a guerilla performance outside the company's headquarters on the back of a flatbed truck. They've also recorded with indigenous bands, raised money for numerous charities, and politicized the pop charts with songs like "Blue Sky Mine," which summed up the plight of asbestos miners with the line "Nothing's as precious, as a hole in the ground."

After the Oils disbanded in 2002, Garrett devoted all of his energies to the world of politics. With Labor Party backing, he was elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 2004, and was later appointed Australia's Government Minister for the Environment, Heritage & the Arts.

While the rest of the Oils — guitarist/keyboardist Jim Moginie, guitarist Martin Rotsey and drummer Rob Hirst — pursued various music projects, Hillman moved to Nashville to become a session musician. He also records and tours with Elizabeth Cook, a Loretta Lynn-style country artist whom he believes will someday become "The Queen of the Opry."

Garrett, meanwhile, released his first solo album last year, and it wasn't long afterward that the band decided to do a reunion tour.

All of which begs the question: Is there a new Midnight Oil album in the works? "We haven't recorded any new material at all," insists Hillman. "We're just focusing on relearning our catalogue and getting this thing on the road."

And after that? "I honestly don't know," he says. "I've heard a couple of riffs fired off between songs, and the odd melody, so there's always that possibility. If it's something that we're all passionate about, then we'll pursue it. But if not, then we won't."

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