ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 15, 2001
By Steve Newton
Midnight Oil is one of the most politically motivated and socially conscious guitar-rock bands in the world. Although best known for embracing Aboriginal land-rights issues in its native Australia via the 1988 hit “Beds Are Burning”, the quintet has always kept an eye out for international causes to support. In the early ’90s, the group took it upon itself to vociferously protest the logging of Clayoquot Sound, outraging B.C.’s forest workers in the process. And on the 1982 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, the band made a serious case against American military interventions with “US Forces”.
When the Straight contacts Oil’s drummer, Rob Hirst, en route to a gig in Detroit—with a concert at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom scheduled for one week later—he’s asked if, in light of recent world events, his band is still actively pushing the antiwar cause. “Well, we’re certainly pushing antiviolence messages,” reports the outspoken rocker, “particularly when it comes to violence directed at innocent people. That would certainly be a constant. As far as the New York show goes, of course, it’ll be a very different kinda show than the one we would have done before September the 11th. We’re taking the view that people are getting on with everything, and life goes on, but we’ll obviously make that a special show, considering the circumstances.”
Although Midnight Oil may be tailoring its New York gig to fit in with the prevailing mood in the bruised but unbowed Big Apple, Hirst confirms that numbers like “US Forces”—and other antinationalist songs such as “Short Memory” and “One Country”—have not been deleted from the current tour’s set list. When the band plays the Commodore on Thursday and Friday (November 15 and 16), it will include a smattering of such tunes from its ’80s heyday, plus selections from its overlooked ’90s releases and its upcoming Capricornia CD. The latter album, due out in February, was helmed by Matthew Good Band producer Warne Livesey, who was also at the controls for the Oil’s top-selling Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining discs. But Hirst—one of the most prolific songwriters in the band—points out that Capricornia isn’t nearly as politically driven as past efforts.
“It’s not really a cause-based kind of album,” he relates. “Thematically, it was tied with a famous Australian novel of the same name by Xavier Herbert, which some Australian schoolkids read when they’re younger. It’s got some good stories about the interaction at the top end of Australia a hundred years ago between the first white settlers and Aboriginal people up there, so that provided the context for some of the songs. But other than that, it was just a product of the writers getting together and making an album of songs which we hoped would be stronger than anything we’ve done before.”
Although the next Midnight Oil album might not include as much outraged finger-pointing as usual, neither will it be a frivolous chicks-’n’-cars romp. The band is still quick to lay its concerns on the table when it comes to contentious issues—like the recent assignment of Aussie fighting forces to the war in Afghanistan.
“Australia has a history of putting its hand up first to offer young Australian men and women to go and fight in whatever war,” Hirst asserts. “It’s been going on since the Boer War—actually, I believe it might even have been before then; I think we sent some troops to the Crimean. My own view is that we could have waited a while and offered our support without necessarily sending in troops.”
The last time Midnight Oil made big political waves on a worldwide scale was when it performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, its members sporting black outfits emblazoned with the word Sorry in bold white lettering. The idea for that far-reaching stunt came while the band was staying in the Australian outback with some of the ripped-off Natives it feels are owed an apology.
“We were sitting out there at a campfire near Papunya,” Hirst recalls, “tossing over the whole idea of whether we should appear at the Olympics at all. Then we found out that Yothu Yindi—who actually toured with us all those years in North America—were coming on directly after us and singing ‘Treaty’, which is clearly a land-rights song from a major Aboriginal band in Australia. So we decided that to maybe give some meaning to the Olympics we should actually go further than we normally would have.
“We weren’t sure how it would be received until we walked out,” he adds, “but immediately we had such an enormous roar of support from the people in the stadium, and got such an overwhelmingly positive response from people—except for a bit of the lunatic right in Australia—that we felt vindicated by wearing the suits and playing our land-rights song, ‘Beds Are Burning’.”