It’s 28 years since Midnight Oil released their greatest album, Diesel and Dust, and alerted the world to the plight of Australia’s aborigines through politically charged singles like The Dead Heart and Beds Are Burning. If you listen to the lyrics, you know that the aborigines have inhabited the continent for 40,000 years, live in remote settlements like Yuendemu and Kintore East, and have been mistreated by the white man.
Diesel and Dust — Midnight Oil’s sixth studio release — was a global hit, to the band’s surprise. “When you think about us singing about dispossessed indigenous people, you wouldn’t think that would be a record that anyone would want to hear,” guitarist Jim Moginie, one of the band’s primary songwriters, told me. “But it turned out that they did. There’s hope for the world yet!”
Midnight Oil broke up in 2002 when bald frontman Peter Garrett decided to pursue an ultimately frustrating career in Australian politics. His former bandmates continued making music in various incarnations. Moginie and I spoke on the phone in April 2008 when Columbia Records reissued Diesel and Dust in a deluxe package with a DVD documenting the band’s 1986 Blackfella/Whitefella tour of aboriginal communities in the Australian outback.
Here are some edited highlights.
I DON’T KNOW IF YOU DWELL TOO MUCH ON THE PAST, BUT ARE THERE CERTAIN MEMORIES AND EMOTIONS THAT SURFACE WHEN YOU LISTEN TO DIESEL AND DUST?
Yeah. It’s interesting. Putting on the record for the first time (in a while), I was surprised how “un-rock” it is. It’s more of a — not a folk record — it’s quite a homogenous sounding thing. The lyrics, the sound of it all, the themes. It all seems to fit together quite well. It’s not a bombastic record at all or a record that hits you over the head with a message. It creeps in there. I think it’s nice putting in the documentary that was made the year before the record was made. Basically that experience with this documentary film is what informed the record. It’s nice to put them both together. They’re kinda mirror images, in a way, of each other.
HAVE YOU PERSONALLY BEEN BACK TO KINTORE EAST OR YUENDEMU OR WARAKURNA?
Yeah, the band went out there again in 2000, just before we did the Olympics in Sydney (where Garrett is pictured above). The same problems are still there. The petrol sniffing’s still pretty rampant, same poverty. Nothing much had changed, even in that time. The only thing now that’s changed is this apology that’s come through from the Australian government … Whatever really changed with the apology, who knows? But it’s probably the first stage in a process to get something happening. If you don’t apologize for what you’ve done, obviously the healing won’t happen. If anything will change over here, it’ll be sort of more recognition of the role that the aboriginal people have played in the making of Australia, and recognition of what they’ve brought to the culture. They’ve certainly brought a lot in terms of all the languages they have, great art they’ve come up, all the musicians that are out there performing. If we played a small part in that, and maybe with Diesel and Dust we did, then that’s great.
THE BLACKFELLA/WHITEFELLA TOUR MUST HAVE BEEN LIKE A BOY-SCOUT CAMP FOR YOU GUYS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT EACH OTHER IN THOSE PRIMITIVE CIRCUMSTANCES?
I don’t think anything we didn’t know about each other we didn’t know before because we’d been touring hotel rooms for 10 years. It was a radicalizing experience, though. It was a coming-of-age for us all as individuals. We probably bought a lot of the clichés that had been put out there about aboriginal people beforehand, that they were just a bunch of drunks, it’s hopeless, nothing’s happening. But we were very proved wrong with that. There were great cultural things that were going on out there hand-in-hand with things like high mortality rates and diabetes, things that are quite preventable. Higher diabetes rate than even TB when I first went out there. So I think we had our eyes well and truly opened. The making of the record was probably us trying to put that into words without actually putting out some longwinded statement, trying to do it with music and lyrics and trying to put onto the vinyl as it was in those days what we’d seen and what we’d felt and experienced. Much to our surprise, it was probably the record of all our records that connected with many different worlds. It was quite strange.
YOUR NAME WAS FIRST ON A LOT OF THE SONG CREDITS, WAS IT MOSTLY YOUR ALBUM THEREFORE?
The Oils had a funny way of writing, bizarre combinations of people at different times. Rob (Hirst, the drummer) is a very strong songwriter. He was there. Especially “Beds are Burning” was his sort of baby in a way, and we contributed riffs and melodic bridges and things that like that. And vice versa, he did that with my songs.
The actual making of the song (“Beds are Burning”) was very interesting, if you want to get into the clockwork. (Rob) brought in the chorus which we all liked, and I had this riff which was the verse riff. Pete just walked in with the lyrics, “The time has come to say fair’s fair, to pay the rent, to pay our share … … a fact’s a fact, it belongs to them, let’s give it back.” He said, “Just put this in the song,” and then he walked out! So then I came up with the bridge, and I think I might have come up with the brass tabs. Rob had some great verse lyrics and melodic ideas for the verse.
Like a lot of Oils material it was very much a collaboration with everyone in the room. Even Martin (Rotsey, guitarist), who doesn’t always get his name on the songwriting, he was very much a player in terms of an editor, an honest broker and sounding board for ideas. That sort of person in a band is just invaluable. Even to this day, he’s great that way. Our songwriting was never really one guy driving the thing, like Sting. It was more whoever had the best stuff is what we ended up doing. There was bloodletting and things on the cutting room floor, but that’s inevitable. I don’t think we were all that precious about it. I think we all understood that the best things are the best things, and that’s the end of it. Things that didn’t make the grade, you could recycle them and use them again next time, or whatever. We had a pretty healthy attitude toward songwriting, and the attrition rate that happens with songwriting too because you can’t always put everything on there.
HOW ABOUT “THE DEAD HEART”? WHOSE BABY IS THAT ONE?
That was interesting. That was commissioned by the community out at Uluru, the Mitijula people … We were all sitting around the room. Rob had some lyrics (“We don’t serve your country, don’t serve your king…”). I had this beat and this doo-doo chanting bit. Rob had the chorus, “We carry in our hearts the true country and that cannot be broken…” Those great lines. We just, again, wanted to summon up the feeling of being on a road that just goes literally into infinity, sitting in some 4-wheel drive, smashing along the road, bumping up and down on the road, this hypnotic repetitive rhythm, which is very much an Australian experience. If you want to go from Sydney to Melbourne, you get that feeling, let alone go out in the outback. We wanted to put some of that into the music. The experience of being in the desert probably made us want to do that even more. Pete came in at the end with the improvised rave (“Mining companies, pastoral companies…”). So he’s always very direct in his lyrics. So we had a nice balance. We had melodic stuff in the choruses, and then Pete would come up with a lot of raps and stuff that were very memorable.
DID YOU MAKE ENOUGH MONEY FROM MIDNIGHT OIL?
(laughs) Yeah, I think we did. I think we were lucky because a lot of Australian bands never made it overseas and we did sell a lot of records in other countries.
YOU OWN YOUR OWN PUBLISHING?
Yeah. All of that stuff’s all pretty healthy. I think we got away with it with our brain cells intact, not too brain-damaged from the road, probably with a bit of money in the bank account, certainly not to the extent that probably some people might imagine. We live reasonably well and can indulge in things we want to indulge in now as older more journeyman musicians. We did work hard, 25 years of solid slog on the road. Probably disappeared from view in the latter years. We certainly weren’t troubling the radio much in the latter years, but we were making good records. There are some jewels in there as well.
That can happen with bands. There’s always a point where they’re very popular and they have about five years in the sun, and if for some reason they don’t really want to join the circus, they probably head off to the hills and try and reconnect with the roots and their families. I think we made the decision in the mid-’90s to become more family men, as it were, spend more time at home rather than become globetrotting rock stars. We’re happy with the decision. I don’t think anyone’s really bitter about it, or thinks it could have been different or wanted it to be any different. I think it was a good time and a good story and we had a good journey with it.
DIESEL WAS MAKE-OR-BREAK IN A WAY AFTER THE RELATIVE DISAPPOINTMENT OF RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET, WHICH I LIKED, BUT MAYBE WAS A LETDOWN FOR MANY PEOPLE AFTER 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I think that’s true. You can’t always make great records. You make the records you make, if you’re honest. If you could bottle it into a formula you’d probably be your own worst enemy. I don’t think formula records are the way to go either. You’ve just gotta make what’s in your heart at the time. The Oils were always a band that did that, whether they were patchy or whatever. I stand here with my hand on my heart saying they’re all great. Red Sails was a more production in the studio sort of record, and I think we just wanted to make something simple, something we could get up and play without having a bunch of machines. The nice thing about the songs on Diesel is that they were more folk songs in a way. They had more of that strumming quality that you could sit down and play it in your living room to someone and they’d get it.
IT SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS MADE YESTERDAY
Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? It doesn’t seem to have the undesirable artifacts some of the ’80s records had made about the same time.
THE LYRICS ARE ALSO TIMELESS. A LOT OF POLITICAL RECORDS SOUND OUT-OF-DATE AFTER SIX MONTHS
If you are writing about this sort of subject matter you can’t be too direct. Some things you have to be direct, but not in others.
IT’S VERY VISUAL TOO
Thanks for saying that. It does have that iron fist in a velvet glove feeling in a way because it does deliver a bit of a punch in the message. But musically, I think we managed to make it reasonably palatable and simple in a way that anyone could enjoy it. It had a good beat, wasn’t too messy or complicated or ragged. It’s pretty focused. I think we managed to put a lot of heart into the record, and I think records with heart always stand the test of time. I think if they’re just being done as a kneejerk reaction against some issue, they never can last the test of time. They will date.
As I think about Diesel, it’s very much a performance record. We were very much all playing in the room at the same time even though it doesn’t sound chaotic. It’s quite focused. We did a lot of preproduction on that record, and a lot of rehearsing, a lot of figuring out what we didn’t want it to sound like. We didn’t want it to sound like current records. We wanted to make it sound honest and simple, and I think there’s a bit of poetry in that. Against our greater desires sometimes you make a record that connects, you do a good video, you do a good gig, you do a good single, a good TV appearance and suddenly everyone wants to know who you are. It was one of those with that record. When you think about us singing about dispossessed indigenous people, you wouldn’t think that would be a record that anyone would want to hear. But it turned out that they did. There’s hope for the world yet!
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2008, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING