“The time has come, a fact’s a fact, it belongs to them, let’s give it back,” sang Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett in the veteran Australian rock band’s 1987 breakout song, Beds Are Burning, about aboriginal land rights.
Who could have predicted some 35 years later, we’d all still talking about the same issues and more — like the abuse done at Christian-run residential schools — as governments try to right the wrongs done to aboriginals.
“I think the two countries (Canada and Australia) are similar in some ways,” said the Sydney-born Garrett, 69, on the phone from Down Under recently.
“The institutional abuses are the things which have left obviously the longest legacy and been the most destructive for First Nations people. I think the most that can be said about it is that we know about it now, and we know that we have to make amends. It’s disgusting now when you think about religious institutions treating people in that way. We certainly had a similar situation.”
And, not only did Garrett talk the talk, but he walked the walk, leaving Midnight Oil — which started touring again in 2017 and are now on their farewell tour that hits Toronto’s Massey Hall on June 13 — to serve as a politician for the Labour Party from 2003-14.
We caught up with him to discuss everything from his political life to the Aussie band’s latest album, 2022’s Resist and more.
Q. What did you make of the Australian government’s response to COVID-19 given live music was one of the last things to come back?
A. Bands, large and small — we were the last train to leave the station. We in the music industry were pretty much left behind. The government was content to facilitate a bunch of slobbering sports fans drinking beer and shouting at one another, but they wouldn’t be caught be putting 1,000 people in a space that could fit 5,000 people. We had a very frustrating time here, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. In terms of handling the pandemic itself, Australia probably did as well as was to be expected. There were quite a few missteps along the way, but at least we’re not too prone to sort of nutty, anti-vaxxer stuff.
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Q. Did the reality of being a politician meet your perception of what holding elected office would be like?
A. It’s always a rocky occasion for anybody because of the nature of politics in the modern age. And the nature of the media. But throughout all of that and coming out the other end of it, and having served for two terms as a cabinet minister (environment, heritage and the arts and school education, darly childhood and youth), being involved in the affairs of the country, I was really pleased that I was able to do it. And at the same time, to liberate myself from the expectations and responsiblities, if you like, of mastering politics and coming back and shaking it up on stage.
Q. As a 6-foot-4, bald man with major dance moves, you’ve always been hard to miss on stage. But is it different performing at age 69 than 29?
A. I think it’s pretty much the same. Give us that old Spinal Tap analogy. We like to be on “11.” That’s how we are as a band, and that’s how I am. No one’s kidding themselves that you’re doing the same thing as you did when we were in our ‘30s, hanging off the chandeliers, and all of that. Although I’ve always had theatrical impulses. The business of performance is something that you can’t overthink too much. You have to, I think, just open yourself up to whatever’s happening in the room, or on the stage, or in the song, and completely surrender yourself to that experience. And essentially not be a rational thinker at all and let (your) musical heart start pumping.
Q. What did you make of U2’s Bono and the Edge showing up to perform at a Ukrainian subway station following the Russian invasion, particularly given your new album (recorded in late 2019) is called Resist?
A. We could have never predicted something like the war in Ukraine. I’m not sure, apart from
wishing the angels every strength against the devils, we have much more to do than to play to people, and get together and obviously offer the support to people in the Ukraine whether it’s fraternal support, financial support or political support or whatever and that includes the thing that Bono and The Edge did. That was good thing to do. People there would have appreciated it. It’s an incredibly difficult situation. I’d never thought we’d find ourselves in 2022 talking about the potential for us to go into a really serious world war.
Q. Why is Midnight Oil getting off the road after this trek?
A. Partly losing Bonesy (long-time bass player Bones Hillman died of cancer in late 2020). It was a bummer. Partly a recognition that the standard that we’ve set for ourselves in terms of when we go out, what we want to do. Some people still pretend that they can (still play) and try and compensate with lights, sound, but that’s not our thing. We’re still a raw, live experience. That’s our food. That’s our water. That’s our nourishment really — is to play like that. And it’s just an acknowledgement that at some point, either you’re going to be called, or you call it yourself. We wanted to call it ourselves.
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