Fifteen years can be an eternity in the music industry. It’s that amount of time that’s elapsed since Midnight Oil called it quits in 2002 after the band frontman Peter Garrett announced his decision to rejoin the world of politics. While the environmentalist/activist was elected to the House of Representatives as a member of the Australian Labor Party, bandmates Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Bones Hillman musically soldiered on, minus the Oils moniker. But given how politically conscientious the band has always been, the time seemed right for these Aussies to re-form while also delving into their extensive archive and releasing a trio of box sets: The Vinyl Collection (all their studio LPs and EPs), The Full Tank (all their CDs and music videos) and The Overflow Tank (featuring more than 14 hours of previously unreleased and rare material). For Moginie, Midnight Oil’s return only seemed logical, given what’s going on in the world.
“We’ve all been playing and so when Pete [Garrett] decided to come back, it was all intact. There was nothing that had really changed. We’d been waiting for him to push the reset button, but we weren’t surprised. I really think a lot of our contemporaries had died, because we’re all in our early 60s now except for Bones [Hillman], who I think is in his late 50s. We just wanted to get out there and play again and have a bit of fun,” he said. “Plus, I think the world has changed and gone so far to the right and it’s almost uncanny with the timing of what’s going on in America and Brexit. Things are more corrupt than ever and it’s also an opportunity to connect with our people again and what I mean are those that are more on the left. People concerned with the environment and issues having to do with indigenous people, which seems to be getting ignored by the powers-that-be. Politics just isn’t working. I think we had to come back and say something about it. There are lots of reasons and I think the main one is that we still can do it, we’re still here and we should appreciate and be grateful for it.”
With the opportunity to dig through 25 years of archives, Moginie said the band had the necessary distance from the material to look at it with fresh eyes and also come up with a few surprises along the way.
“It’s almost like emptying the larder. You empty everything out, throw it into the light and look at it. We have a CD of B-sides and demos that are good enough to put on a record. I don’t know why those songs didn’t get on albums. There’s some really good stuff there. Just looking through everything has taken a really long time,” he observed. “There’s a gig that we did in South Africa that we didn’t even know existed but there’s a tape of it that was recorded weeks after Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994. When you are in the trenches for 25 years, you’re probably not the best judge of what’s good because you’re living in the here and now. You need the benefit of hindsight to sort out the wheat from the chaff and to determine whether something is good because you’ve had that benefit of time. It’s really an amazing feeling, stumbling over things that you didn’t know existed. I think we tried to represent all the different eras of the band and we also had the luxury of being able to spread it out.”
Aside from a pair of fundraising gigs, one at the 2005 WaveAid concert for victims of the Indonesian tsunami and the 2009 Sound Relief shows for victims of Victoria’s February bushfire disaster, the quintet that makes up Midnight Oil was silent as a unit. For this current global jaunt dubbed The Great Circle 2017 World Tour, the band is hitting the road for six months, starting and ending with gigs in Sydney. In diving into the archives, the Oils have rehearsed roughly 170 songs, allowing them to change their set lists up from night to night to the endless delight of the band’s hardcore fan base.
“We did a couple of shows last week in Sydney that were just warm-ups. It’s very intense. But I think fans will get a deeper Midnight Oil experience from this tour because we had the ability to go back through a lot of our old material and it’s very different every night,” he explained. “Obviously we’ll play the songs that people want to hear, but we’re even doing whole albums back to back and we’ll throw them in randomly whenever we feel like it and make it more fun for ourselves.”
Describing Midnight Oil as being passionate is an understatement, given their proclivity for being vocal in their left wing views about the environment, the rights of indigenous and Aboriginal people and global militarism. Among the many memorable ways they’ve voiced their opinion was a memorable impromptu 1990 lunchtime set played on a flatbed truck in front of Exxon’s Manhattan headquarters with a banner reading, “Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick,” protesting the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. So for Moginie, the concept of the band channeling some of their outrage over the current state of the world into fresh music isn’t actually that far fetched when asked whether or not a new album might be in the works.
“We’re not particularly the harbingers of doom, but we’re good at reflecting back what’s going on. There’s always been a lot of great dialogue between the bands and the fans and not so much the industry side of it. It’s interesting talking to people about their experiences and if anything, we’re always a mirror of the world,” he said. “We see what’s really happening and it’s reflected in what we record. That’s how the band has always worked. We were very in tune with what was going on in the world. It’s not just a little tour up and down the highway—we’re going everywhere. So during this process, I think it’s inevitable that something will happen. One thing about this band is that there’s no lack of creativity in it. We’re all basically up for doing things. I’d be really surprised if we didn’t do anything. Nothing has come through yet. There have been a few things kicking about—it’s early days, so let’s see how we go. Without making any grandiose predictions, I’d be surprised if nothing came of it. I think the answer is yes.”
Midnight Oil will be appearing on May 13 and 14 at Webster Hall, 125 East 11th St. NYC. For more information, visit www.websterhall.com or call 212-260-4700.