The ’80s were an extremely politically conscious time in music history, with the world’s biggest rock and pop stars raising awareness and funds for various causes through benefit singles like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” “We Are the World,” and “Sun City” and all-star charity events like Live Aid and Hands Across America. But few ’80s acts put their money where their mouths were like anthemic Australian activists Midnight Oil.
Many of Midnight Oil’s signature protest songs have focused on issues specific to Australia — “The Dead Heart” was about the mistreatment of indigenous Australians; “Beds Are Burning” advocated the return of native Australian lands to the Australian Aboriginal group Pintupi; “Blue Sky Mine” was inspired by the plight of Wittenoom asbestos miners; “Truganini” was about Australian drought — their music connected on both sides of the equator, with the band going platinum and gold in the United States (with 1987’s Diesel and Dust and 1990’s Blue Sky Mine, respectively) and selling more than 12 million records worldwide.
However, famously fearsome frontman Peter Garrett wasn’t content to just comment about politics from behind a microphone. Not only did he serve as the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1989 to 1993 and 1998 to 2002 and on the board of Greenpeace International from 1993 to 1995, but also he became a bona fide politician. He was the Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives from 2004 to 2013, and he also did stints as minister for the environment, heritage, and the arts; as minister for school education, early childhood, and youth; and as an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
Now Garrett has returned to music — reuniting with Midnight Oil for the “Great Circle 2017” world tour and releasing the Overflow Tank boxed set collections (which feature more than 14 hours of previously unreleased and rare material) — and this development could not have come at a better time. Garrett’s music and message resonate as strongly and globally as ever in these politically tumultuous times, and in this new chat with Yahoo Music, it’s clear that the “Power and the Passion” mouthpiece is still passionate after all these years – especially when it comes to his thoughts on the environment and Donald Trump.
Yahoo Music: Many of Midnight Oil’s songs were about issues that were very specific to Australia, at a time when not a lot of bands were breaking out of that part of the world. And yet, you found a wide international audience. Why do you think that was?
Peter Garrett: Well, I think there is a side of the human experience where it doesn’t matter where you come from. My experience has been that people are pretty much the same from anywhere; I mean, we’ve evolved from the same bloodlines. So maybe some of the political edge of some of the songs could find a resonance in other countries anyway, even if it was written out of experiences in Australia or wherever it might have been.
I think it was because many of your songs had to do with the environment, which is of course a universal concern.
I would agree with that.
So I want to ask you about that topic in particular, because that obviously — no pun intended — is a hot topic right now. What are your environmental concerns about our planet in 2017?
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right about calling it that. It’s the hottest topic in the world, particularly in relation to global warming and climate change. That’s the reason I went into the Parliament, by the way. I went into the Parliament because I was so fed up with the fact that our equivalent of Republicans [in Australia] were either denying it or sitting on their hands. I sensed an urgent need to get cracking. I still feel that, as I know many people do. I think that Trump’s presidency, including the stuff that they’re doing with EPA, is an opportunity for us to recognize that bold, necessary steps can be taken, and that new economies can be driven on renewable energy and energy efficiency and low-emission technology. It’s time to reframe and recast our relationship to the planet.
It gets more and more urgent every day, and for us [Australians] there’s an added potency in all of this because obviously that Great Barrier Reef had two incredibly serious bleaching events that’s pretty much caused by rising seawater temperatures — and you know, this is the largest living organism in the world. It’s one of the great natural wonders of the world. I think we’re really at the junction point on this stuff. It’s just too important not to act, too important not to speak about it.
Are you and Midnight Oil planning to do any new music that will address your current-day political or social concerns?
Yeah, we will inevitably be [making new music], but it’s important for me to say we’re not sitting down to write a song about climate change or toxic waste or whatever it might be. I think that stuff has to evolve in a natural way for it to work naturally. I think it’s inevitable that we will, but we’re not sort of having a formal meeting saying, “OK, day one: Write about this [political subject]. Day two: Write about that.” Stuff will emerge, though. … It’s inevitable.
So a lot of people theorize that politically dark times foster great music — that socially conscious music, angry music, protest music, rock music comes out of it. Examples are the punk music during the Thatcher era or the grunge and hip-hop of the Bush administration in the ’90s. What is your take on that? Like, do you see the Midnight Oils of our generation reacting to what’s going on right now around the world, or do you think that will happen?
Yeah, yeah, I can really see bits of it happening already. I mean, a lot of it is subterranean and not in the mainstream, but that’s fine. I think we’re going to see more of it. In whatever they are doing, when your backs are to the wall, you’ve got to step up, and crises tend to bring out the noble and the brave and the committed. And that’s what we need everywhere. So yeah, I think we’re in for a big period of creative and strong civic and public activity. I think we’ve got to breathe life back into democracy, and we need to do that as much as we need people on the streets.
Of course, a concern that I think a lot of musicians have is they’re afraid of being too preachy or putting people off. How do you strike that balance of making music that is politically conscious but isn’t ramming it down people’s throats?
I think the main thing — for us, at least, as a band — is you’ve really got to believe in it. You can’t be sitting around in a bar and everyone goes, “Wow, Trump’s a terrible human being, we have to fix up the planet. Yeah, let’s write a song about that,” and “Right, job done! Now we are going off to party!” [Laughs] I think you’ve got to live this stuff a lot more, and people can tell whether you do or don’t. And in our case, certainly in Australia, they could tell that we lived it.
I think the other thing is that you’ve got to be sure and clear about your philosophical underpinnings, what your view about music and politics and writing is. I hear people saying things about music that in some way I wish were true, but I know that it’s not: “Music changes the world!” Well, actually, that’s bulls***. It doesn’t. People change the world. People, by voting, you know? If enough people had voted in America, you wouldn’t have that idiot running the place. It’s basically as simple as that. We do need music; I’m not underplaying it, not undervaluing it at all. And we need music for our times, music that innovates and makes us angry and agitated and gets us out. But Midnight Oil has never written to convince anybody else of anything. We have to convince ourselves — that’s the first step — and then we lay it out there for people. We have never said to an audience, “You’ve got to believe what we think or say.” We’ve never said, “Here’s our agenda, here’s our way forward.”
You say you think music is important but that it’s not what changes the world. Is that why you decided to become a politician yourself — because you wanted to facilitate change more directly?
Not exactly, although that was a part of it. I think that music is part of the change, but the question is, where do you most effect change? You can certainly do a lot as a musician, though, because you’re providing a soundtrack for people. You’re providing songs that might become talking points, and that’s a terrific thing.
Of course, the U.S. has a former reality star as president right now, and actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan have held high office. But celebrities usually aren’t taken very seriously when they enter politics in America — and very few rock stars run for office here. Did you have issues being taken seriously as a politician in Australia?
Well, I’d already run for office before [I was elected]. The first time around, I was on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket [in 1984], and I was definitely not taken seriously at all — you know, public ritual media humiliations and all the stuff that goes with it. But we ran a very strong campaign, and eventually people can tell what you’re like. I think people knew, even if they didn’t agree with me all of the time, that I was very serious about my politics.
And then I did a lot of work when we had big environmental campaigns in the ’80s and early ’90s: I was in the middle of all of that, negotiating agreements with prime ministers and all that. Of course, that was at the sacrifice of Midnight Oil’s career to some extent, because I couldn’t write as much. Fortunately, [my bandmates] are obviously very strong writers, so the music kept coming, but it did end up being desecrated in some ways — which I think inevitably led to me sort of taking that [bigger] step into politics.
But you know, the final thing to say very quickly on this is, who gives a s*** what people think? I mean, if we worried about what people thought, we’d never do anything, you know?
True, but if your fellow politicians — the people you’re working with — don’t take you seriously, then it’s difficult or impossible to actually get anything done.
Yeah, and you know, there’s half an hour in that story alone. On the one hand, people expected me to sit and behave like a “rock star” — and I was a politician. You can get away with more in America because you have such a strong entertainment culture, and we don’t have that here. But no, I was a serious policy wonk. I was a minister in the Cabinet. I drafted policies and spent money and changed budgets and did all that kind of stuff.
So what would be your advice to other artists out there who don’t necessarily want to run for office but still want to make a difference?
It’s pretty simple. Pick the thing that you feel the most passionately about, whether it’s in your own backyard or in another part of the world, whether it’s in politics or activism or in community. Go find out who’s working on it. Ask them, can you work with them. Ask them how you can help. And if that gets reflected through your music, fantastic.
Midnight Oil’s upcoming tour dates:
Aug. 19 – The Greek Amphitheatre, Los Angeles
Aug. 21 – Terminal 5, New York
Aug. 27 – House of Blues, Cleveland
Aug. 29 – First Avenue, Minneapolis