Al­most 20 years since it last re­leased new mu­sic, Mid­night Oil re­turns with fiery in­tent and a re­mark­able cast of col­lab­o­ra­tors on The Makar­rata Project, writes An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - The Makar­rata Project will be re­leased on Oc­to­ber 30 via Sony Mu­sic.

When­ever the five mu­si­cians com­pris­ing Mid­night Oil were faced with a big de­ci­sion, they would try to carve out some time for them­selves to head to the desert, gather around a camp­fire and talk it out.

Com­bined with a lack of dis­trac­tions, the vast in­te­rior en­cour­aged a clar­ity of thought that al­lowed them to see the big pic­ture with keener eyes. As well, the si­lence of those wide open spa­ces al­lowed them to hear one an­other much more clearly than they could any­where else.

In 2000, they trav­elled to the Indige­nous com­mu­nity of Pa­punya, about 240km north­west of Alice Springs. On the side of a stony hill that looked out across the pur­ple MacDon­nell Ranges, the mu­si­cians de­bated an of­fer that had been put be­fore them: to per­form at the clos­ing cer­e­mony of the Syd­ney Olympic Games.

Four of the five mem­bers had been work­ing to­gether since 1977, while bassist Bones Hill­man joined the group in 1987. Their shared history ran deep, and that camp­fire meet­ing in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory was a typ­i­cal Mid­night Oil dis­cus­sion, where each pos­si­bil­ity was weighed and each dif­fer­ence of opin­ion was care­fully con­sid­ered.

“It prob­a­bly went for hours; some­times they can go for days,” says gui­tarist Martin Rot­sey. “Ev­ery­body ar­gues very pas­sion­ately about what they want to say, and be­lieve in, and we lis­ten to each other. How else can you stay to­gether for as long as it’s been?

“Bands are a very tran­si­tory thing. Even the great bands just last a few years, but for some rea­son, some­thing’s gone on that’s made this last for a long time. It must be part of that re­spect we’ve got for each other.”

Grad­u­ally, painstak­ingly, they worked their way to­ward a de­ci­sion on what sort of state­ment they wanted to make. They set­tled on which song to play, what to wear and how to keep their sur­prise un­der wraps, but even five min­utes be­fore show­time at Sta­dium Aus­tralia on Oc­to­ber 1, 2000, the mu­si­cians were still de­bat­ing whether what they were about to do was a good idea.

Mo­ments be­fore step­ping on stage to per­form their sig­na­ture song, Beds are Burn­ing, the men re­moved black cov­er­alls to re­veal the se­cret they’d kept since their Pa­punya camp­ing trip. Out they stepped, wear­ing a hid­den layer of black over­alls with the word “sorry” boldly em­bla­zoned in a large white font that couldn’t be missed, no mat­ter which an­gle the cam­eras were point­ing. For those four min­utes, be­fore an es­ti­mated global au­di­ence of two bil­lion peo­ple, the Oils dis­played the word that John Howard re­fused to say to Indige­nous Aus­tralians, de­spite a pop­u­lar groundswel­l of sup­port for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that had seen about 250,000 peo­ple march across Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge in May.

“Our prime min­is­ter cer­tainly wasn’t do­ing any­thing about it, and wasn’t go­ing to do any­thing about it,” re­calls gui­tarist Jim Moginie. “So guess what? We had to take the law into our own hands and go to the world, by­pass­ing Can­berra and all the po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses. Some peo­ple [watch­ing] would have said, ‘Sorry – what’s that? A cloth­ing line?’ But just hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, that’s what the whole Mid­night Oil thing’s all about.”

Five city slick­ers known for play­ing noisy rock ’n’ roll don’t just end up throw­ing their swags down on the side of a stony hill near Pa­punya by ac­ci­dent. That camp­fire meet­ing in 2000 con­tained echoes of an­other trip un­der­taken 14 years ear­lier, when Mid­night Oil paired up with Indige­nous Aus­tralian rock act Warumpi Band for a tour of re­mote com­mu­ni­ties.

Named Black­fella/White­fella, af­ter the ti­tle of a Warumpi song, the 1986 trip be­gan in Alice Springs and went as far west as Warakurna be­fore the tour­ing group flew north to the Top End of Arn­hem Land.

Given the quin­tet was one of the most pop­u­lar rock bands in the coun­try at the time, hav­ing blazed a trail from the Syd­ney pub cir­cuit to the na­tional stage, the re­mote na­ture of this trek was un­heard of. But its mo­tive was straight­for­ward and pure: the mu­si­cians wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand the lives of Aus­tralia’s First Na­tions peo­ple, who lived in a nether re­gion that was essen­tially out of sight and out of mind. Be­cause it had never fea­tured in their for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, it was a place be­yond their imag­i­na­tions, which is why they wanted to see it for them­selves.

“It changed us all, I think, quite pro­foundly,” says Rot­sey. “We got taken out into the coun­try a bit, and it just opened a whole new world for us. We recorded [1987 al­bum] Diesel and Dust af­ter that, but it would never have been the al­bum it was if we had never [been there]. Af­ter that, we just main­tained that con­nec­tion. You just can’t for­get things like that.”

Singer Peter Gar­rett was the only one who had pre­vi­ously vis­ited Arn­hem Land, early in

Mid­night Oil’s ca­reer, and that first dose of strong Yol­ngu cul­ture was a true eye-opener that whet his ap­petite for fur­ther learn­ing.

“Diesel and Dust was strongly in­flu­enced by that ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Gar­rett of the Black­fella/ White­fella tour. “For a bunch of white, mid­dle­class mu­sos from the sub­urbs of Syd­ney, that was some­thing not to be an­tic­i­pated, but it re­ally has added im­mea­sur­ably to our sense of both what we are as a band, and also our place as cit­i­zens in Aus­tralia.”

The rev­e­la­tions from that desert trip res­onate today, which is why the band is about to re­lease its first new mu­sic in 18 years. It’s a mini-al­bum of seven tracks grouped around themes of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and fea­tur­ing a raft of Indige­nous Aus­tralian mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Its ti­tle, The Makar­rata Project, fea­tures the Yol­ngu word mean­ing “a com­ing to­gether af­ter a strug­gle”. The ori­gins of its in­tent, how­ever, can be traced back di­rectly to what the band saw, heard and felt in those re­mote lo­ca­tions 34 years ago.

“I think some­thing went down in the desert with all of us, and this new EP is cer­tainly a con­tin­u­a­tion of that,” says Moginie. “But I think it’s got a newer, fresher ap­proach about it. It’s got a more now flavour to it, es­pe­cially get­ting the artists them­selves on board. We had ideas for songs, and the songs changed as the peo­ple found their way around them and im­pro­vised things or changed words.”

The sur­prises come thick and fast: this re­lease marks the first time the band has col­lab­o­rated with a hip-hop artist (Tas­man Keith in open­ing track First Na­tion); the first time the band has handed the lead vo­cal to an­other singer en­tirely (Alice Skye in Ter­ror Aus­tralia) and the first time the haunt­ing, oth­er­worldly voice of Ge­of­frey Gur­ru­mul Yunupingu is posthu­mously paired with a Mid­night Oil ar­range­ment (Change the Date).

“We’ve al­ways been pretty much a closed shop,” says drum­mer and song­writer Rob Hirst. “We’ve had guests come in oc­ca­sion­ally and do bits and pieces, but we al­ways thought be­tween the five of us, we can make it work. But ev­ery­one who came in to­tally got the project, and com­pletely added to the fi­nal thing. I can’t imag­ine Makar­rata now with­out all of our col­lab­o­ra­tors. They just upped the ante to such a de­gree, and made the record­ing so joy­ful, and such a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us as well.”

With 11 stu­dio al­bums un­der its col­lec­tive belt since adopt­ing the name Mid­night Oil in 1976, the band came to an end in 2002 af­ter the re­lease of Capri­cor­nia, an al­bum over­seen by Bri­tish pro­ducer Warne Livesey, who also worked on Red­neck Won­der­land (1998) and Diesel and Dust.

While his band­mates con­tin­ued col­lab­o­rat­ing un­der a range of mu­si­cal guises, Gar­rett pur­sued a ca­reer in pol­i­tics that saw him rise within the La­bor ranks to be­come min­is­ter for en­vi­ron­ment pro­tec­tion, her­itage and the arts (2007-10) in the Rudd govern­ment, fol­lowed by a stint as min­is­ter for school ed­u­ca­tion, early child­hood and youth (2010-13).

Dur­ing that time, the Oils re­united for two char­ity fundrais­ers in WaveAid (2005) and Sound Re­lief (2009), both of which were well­re­ceived and proved a cou­ple of things: age had not wea­ried the band; and its bat­tery of well­known songs — Beds are Burn­ing, The Dead Heart, Power and the Pas­sion and Dream­world, to name just a few — had lost nei­ther vis­ceral punch nor emo­tional power.

Those ob­ser­va­tions were only un­der­scored when Mid­night Oil re­grouped in 2017 for a world tour that touched down in 16 coun­tries. The con­certs were at­tended by about 500,000 peo­ple, but per­haps the most im­pres­sive as­pect was the level of com­mit­ment the mu­si­cians brought to the task at hand.

Rather than re­hears­ing 20 or so great­est hits and trot­ting them out night af­ter night — an op­tion which would have suited most fans just fine — the play­ers chal­lenged them­selves to take a deep dive into their ex­ten­sive back cat­a­logue. Across 77 shows, more than 100 songs got an air­ing, with a cover of Yothu Yindi’s 1991 sin­gle Treaty, co-writ­ten by Gar­rett, fea­tur­ing in most of the Aus­tralian shows in 2017.

In the same year, a doc­u­ment named the Uluru State­ment from the Heart was de­liv­ered to the fed­eral govern­ment af­ter its con­tents had been care­fully crafted and ul­ti­mately ac­cepted by more than 250 Indige­nous del­e­gates who at­tended the First Na­tions Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion at Uluru.

“We call for the es­tab­lish­ment of a First Na­tions Voice en­shrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion,” wrote its au­thors.

“Makar­rata is the cul­mi­na­tion of our agenda: the com­ing to­gether af­ter a strug­gle. It cap­tures our as­pi­ra­tions for a fair and truth­ful re­la­tion­ship with the peo­ple of Aus­tralia and a bet­ter fu­ture for our chil­dren

As firm sup­port­ers of the text and its in­tent, each of the band mem­bers ex­presses to Re­view his frus­tra­tion at how lit­tle progress has been made in this area in the three years since the state­ment was pub­lished.

“The Uluru state­ment had ini­tially been treated con­temp­tu­ously by the govern­ment of the day — and by [Mal­colm] Turn­bull when he was prime min­is­ter — and essen­tially spat back in the face of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple,” says Gar­rett. “It de­served to not so much be given an­other hear­ing, but it de­served to be heard, and for peo­ple to be able to re­spond to it.”

On The Makar­rata Project, the full state­ment is read aloud by Stan Grant, Pat An­der­son, Adam Goodes, Ur­sula Yovich and Troy Cas­sar-Da­ley, whose voices have been care­fully mixed and in­ter­cut by Livesey, while Moginie and Rot­sey play an at­mo­spheric sound­scape that evokes a windswept plain.

Un­hur­ried, com­pelling and au­thor­i­ta­tive, its pres­ence on the EP is in­dica­tive of the great re­spect Mid­night Oil holds for these words. As well, the band is putting its money where its mouth is, as prof­its from its re­lease will be do­nated to or­gan­i­sa­tions which pro­mote rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and raise aware­ness of the text and its vi­tal im­por­tance to the place of First Na­tions peo­ple in mod­ern Aus­tralia.

“It would be nice to think that be­fore we hang up our sticks and picks, we can push this whole State­ment from the Heart a lot fur­ther down the track than it is now, be­cause the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple of all back­grounds, colours and races in this coun­try want it, and they want it in the con­sti­tu­tion,” says Hirst. “At the mo­ment, that’s off the agenda, and we’ve got to put it firmly back on the agenda.” based on jus­tice and self­de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

The Uluru State­ment from the Heart ap­pears on the fi­nal track of The Makar­rata Project, but as Goodes, Grant and co come to­ward the end of their shared read­ing, a rum­bling Bones Hill­man bassline is even­tu­ally met by a Hirst drum­beat that leads into the fi­nal song proper.

Named Come on Down, it’s a de­cep­tively sim­ple ar­range­ment writ­ten by Moginie and sung al­ter­nately by Cas­sar-Da­ley and Gar­rett that draws on the camp­fire mo­tif that has been so cen­tral to this band’s story and world­view since that first trip into the desert more than three decades ago.

“Faces are glow­ing, strange mu­sic plays / Smoke adds dis­tor­tion in a mag­i­cal way,” sings Cas­sar-Da­ley. “Time passes freely, we’re all pass­ing through / A night round the camp­fire’s gonna do it for you.”

Af­ter some of the emo­tion­ally heavy and barbed lyri­cal con­tent that pre­ceded it, Come on Down is an ap­peal to our com­mon­al­ity as hu­man be­ings try­ing to live the best lives we can in our al­lot­ted time on this planet.

Given the band’s un­usu­ally long life and shared history, Moginie has found that his re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the en­tire cre­ative process has only strength­ened over time.

“Now we’re all in our 60s, and it sounds a bit [like] we should be put out to pas­ture, but in a way it’s more im­por­tant now than it ever was,” he says. “The en­ergy of be­ing in the en­gine room of it is quite a spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, and some­thing that I don’t take for granted at all. I think we’re all a bit like that: none of us takes it for granted, be­cause it could all end to­mor­row. Who knows?”

The gui­tarist, key­boardist and song­writer re­calls play­ing first sin­gle Gadi­gal Land to his son for the first time. Fea­tur­ing Dan Sul­tan on gui­tar and vo­cals and Gadi­gal poet Joel Dav­i­son speak­ing in lan­guage, among other guest vo­cal­ists, it is a force­ful Hirst-penned song fea­tur­ing a prom­i­nent horn line and writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of Indige­nous Aus­tralians watch­ing Euro­peans ar­rive on these shores.

“I played Gadi­gal Land to my son and he started cry­ing,” says Moginie. “I said, ‘Why are you cry­ing to that one?’ There’s prob­a­bly other ones that are a bit more emo­tional, in some ways. He said, ‘I just can’t be­lieve you got all these peo­ple on this track. It sounds like a whole group of peo­ple from all walks of life, all work­ing to­wards the one re­sult.’ ”

It’s thanks to an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­bi­na­tion of artists that The Makar­rata Project has been el­e­vated be­yond the in­di­vid­ual tal­ents of this sin­gu­lar band of thinkers and feel­ers into some­thing truly mean­ing­ful, mo­men­tous and far­sighted.

But look­ing to the fu­ture, it will be or­di­nary com­bi­na­tions of peo­ple — from dif­fer­ent walks of life, work­ing and walk­ing to­gether, in the same di­rec­tion — that will even­tu­ally see the un­fin­ished busi­ness of the Uluru State­ment from the Heart ful­filled, once and for all.

Main: Jim Moginie, Martin Rot­sey, Peter Gar­rett, Rob Hirst and Bones Hill­man in the desert; and right, the Oils in their Sorry suits per­form Beds are Burn­ing at the clos­ing cer­e­mony of the Syd­ney Olympic Games, Oc­to­ber 2000

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