STATEMENT FROM THE HEART
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
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