Admit it – it would be impossible to chat with Peter Garrett for 30 minutes and not talk about politics. In fact, the singer of Midnight Oil even stepped away from music for a while to serve in the Australian Parliament. Garrett spoke to me this week to promote The Makarrata Project, Midnight Oil’s first album in 18 years. We spoke about the album’s political origins, socialism and a little election that’s just around the corner and how it impacts the world. I’m proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Peter Garrett.

I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview here with me, Peter.

No worries at all. We appreciate the fact that you can still do interviews in the middle of your mad elections.

I am actually half-tempted to talk more about politics here than the new record you have coming out. Apologies if the questions veer into the political.

No, that’s okay. Do you think Biden is going to come in over the line?

I hope so. All the polls are saying so but back in 2016 we never would have thought that Trump would have won then.

Fingers crossed!

Your new album, The Makarrata Project, comes from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which I think is something we could learn from as Americans in regards to our attitudes towards Christopher Columbus Day. How hard was it to reach that step in Australia? I mean, Ayers Rock was eventually renamed Uluru. How did you get to that point? What needed to be done?

Well, we kept at it. I think our indigenous people kept on calling out for justice and demanding recognition. There’s a pretty significant body of Australians who wanted to see that happen. There is still a number who don’t. It has been part of our political history, in a way. We’re a younger country than, in a sense, the States are in relation to European occupation. Aboriginal people are literally the longest continuing culture and habitation of people on the planet. As a band we played with Aboriginal people in the deserts and in remote communities where no one else had been for the most part. It was a terrific benefit for us to share and to see that living culture and get an understanding of that history which, in a sense, was Australian history but not through the prism of popular media. Out of that came our conviction to stay with that issue over time. We’re very different than the States, where you’ve got institutionalized racism. We certainly do have some of that here but it’s more about the mechanism of disadvantage and the fact that we need to properly recognize the first Australians. We need to do that so the country can be unified.

We don’t like changing our laws here. You guys had the Port Arthur massacre back in 1996 and your gun control laws immediately changed. Here, we have things like that happening regularly and no one is doing anything.

That’s right. Even though, in some ways, we would like to have a Bill of Rights here we see how hard it is to remove the alleged right to bear arms from your Constitution. You’ve got a really significant problem with that. But really, whatever country you’re in, part of the thing you’ve got is historical sensibility. You don’t want to simply write aimless love ditties. People react to what they find around them. And this is what we happened to find in our own backyard, hence The Makarrata Project. The big difference, of course David, being that we simply didn’t want to write the songs and have the songs performed and produced speaking about First Nation people’s experience. We wanted to do it with them. So we invited a lot of artists, both people we’ve known a long time and popular, mainstream artists, to come in onto the record. I think that’s given it a lot more weight and a lot more spirit.

Yeah, it’s a seven-track album and they all feature a guest. Some tracks have multiple people on them. It’s more than just a Midnight Oil record.

Exactly. People brought a lot to the record, whether it was just a vocal performance itself. Quite often it was a vocal performance plus language. Sometimes it is a perspective we might be able to write about and others it’s not our perspective. We had the skeleton in place. We had the architecture but when it came to that final bloom that a song might need, particularly the guest vocalists stepped up.

For some reason, Aboriginal artists have a very small footprint here in the United States. Why do you think that is?

A lot of Aboriginal actors and musicians do get exposure here. But I think there is one basic reason for [not getting a lot of exposure in the States]: most Aboriginal people prefer to remain very strongly connected to their family and to their place. They’re not given over to spending a whole lot of time in other countries. They’re not globalists in outlook. They’re much more bound to country. I’m generalizing a little bit but I suspect that’s certainly part of the reason.

It has been 18 years since the last new record from Midnight Oil. Was this new album something you were planning on doing for a while or did the Uluru Statement from the Heart galvanize its creation?

I don’t think we really knew what would happen when we regrouped. We just really enjoyed playing together. That was really step one. We did the Great Circle Tour and we really didn’t expect there would be that many people out. We were really genuinely taken aback by the number of people who came to see the band. We were also surprised at how strong the chemistry of the band was. It was still there. Then the question arises if you can record or not. Whether you should and, if you do, whether you will be trashing your legacy. We were confident we could get the songs up. What happened was we had lots of songs and some of them were focused in this particular area. So we decided to concentrate on those first and then invite other indigenous performers to come and join with us. Make it a standalone and use the Uluru Statement from the Heart as one of the links in that record. It all happened pretty organically and reasonably quickly. We work in Sydney on the east coast. Sometimes we had people coming in to sing on the tracks but other times people like Frank Yamma or Sammy Butcher live in other parts of Australia. Plus, with COVID, we just had to send the track over and just wait to see what came back. Everything that came back just added immeasurably to what we had. We realized, once we got all the contributions in, that it should go out.

You mentioned the Great Circle Tour. I saw your show here in Portland a couple of years ago. What I really appreciated is that you took the time recognize some of the stuff that was happening here at the time. Just to remind you, we had that guy on the train who was harassing those girls and then slashed those three guys who stepped in and killed them.

I do remember that!

A lot of artists would just come and play but I appreciate that you, coming from so far away, were so attuned to what was going on here. There was definitely gratitude in the audience.

It’s funny, we were just talking about Portland a few weeks ago because of what has happened since. We played there back in the ‘80s and ‘90s as well. It has always been a good town for us. I don’t want to sound too holier-than-thou about it but I think we’re just the kind of people who are interested in what’s going on in the places we’re in. We’ve got a political frame that we look at things through. We’re not prone to wallowing in cliché and self-absorption for too long, which is what contemporary music is pretty much all about. I think we’ve been humbled, if you like, over the years particularly by the work we’ve done with Aboriginal people and by being political activists at the same time. Our values are very different. That doesn’t make us any better or worse than others, it’s just different. It comes from a place that recognizes that we do share a common humanity whether we’re in Portland or Idaho or Uluru. With something like climate change it’s very obvious. And when you have a mad president like you have. Hopefully it’s not for too much longer. It affects us too. Not directly like how it affects you, but the world is a small place.

Yeah, I’ve seen musicians come and say, “Good evening, Seattle!”, so it means a lot.

We made a deliberate decision to not be a just one-setlist band and give play to nostalgia [on the tour]. I cannot remember what we played in Portland but the point being, we had over 120 songs at our disposal and we didn’t play the same setlist twice. Obviously, some got more of a go than others. But we wanted to come back at as though, in a way, this is everything we have to offer. We weren’t seeing it as an exercise in pleasing an audience and then getting out of town and getting back to the hotel and thinking we can wash our hands and take our money and run. I think that extended itself through to what an amazing opportunity when you’re somewhere and something has gone on that you need to say something about it. You don’t have to agree with it, but you should say something. We’re not in a bubble.

I’m looking at the setlist now and you opened the show with “Redneck Wonderland.” That was interesting for me because the first time I saw you was at the Alexandra Hills Hotel in Queensland on that Redneck Wonderland tour.

Aw man! You’re kidding me? [laughs] Oh wow!

I lived in Australia in 1998 and back then, Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party were making in-rounds in politics. So you guys had your own flirtations with white nationalism. It didn’t really get too far. How did you beat that back and what recommendations do you have for us here in the United States?

It’s interesting because she did end up getting a senate seat after a couple of goes. At one point, particularly in Queensland which is the equivalent, as you would remember, of some of your Southern states, she did have a bit of following. But I think if you are serious enough about politics you stand against nastiness whenever you can. We had an active set of alternative voices, including from the mainstream parties. Our Conservative party flirted a little with One Nation. But unlike the devil’s deal that your Republicans have done with Trump, ours ultimately walked away from that to some extent. Our center sort of held a bit more strongly against Hanson. It has been feted by some sections of the media but most Australians have seen through it. Which is good.

I just took my son hiking up at Mt. St. Helens this past weekend and even in the states that are considered “blue” we’re seeing Trump signs all over the place in the hinterland and in the rural areas here. I don’t understand how anyone could still be a fan after all this time. It’s terrifying for us.

Not to sit in political judgment after the event, but I think where the Democrats missed was Clinton’s remark about the “deplorables.” A whole lot of people felt, for one reason or another, they were being ignored, left out, talked down to, treated with condescension, unable to secure their economic future, whatever it might be. Along with that, tinges of American isolationism and protectionism. And in some places, hostility towards people of color. Trump just tapped it within seconds. People in your economy, as you know, are much more vulnerable than in ours. Even though our union movement doesn’t have as much members as previously, we’ve still got quite a strong union membership. We’ve got a regulated wage system and we’ve got a social security safety net. It’s much more precarious in the States.

Yeah, if you come down with a serious illness you won’t be bankrupt probably like we would be.

No, that’s extraordinary here. I don’t know if you remember and I may not have said it in Portland, but I spent a lot of time saying really basic stuff to smart people… But we’ve got a system of socialism in Australia in our health system that’s called Medicare. Everybody pays a levy. Of course, if you earn more, you pay a bit more. But anyone can go to the hospital and get treated. It just seems so basic to us. The way that healthcare, for example, is being totally perverted in what’s really a great country, is still a bit surprising.

Yes, my employer pays for mine and I have a “good” plan and it’s $25 to see the doctor. But then I’m on the hook for the first $3,000 and that renews every year.

That’s insane. Oh man.

I pay $215 per month for my son and we’re on the hook for the first $8,000.

[gasps] Oh my god. That’s unbelievable.

To finish, you said you switched up your setlists on the Great Circle tour. It says here that you played “Sins of Omission” in Portland for the first time since 1998.

[laughs] I know! We had fun doing that. Not everything stands up to the test of time but we were pleasantly surprised to find that most of it stood up pretty well and we enjoyed playing it. So, we thought, why not?

Which songs were your favorite to revisit?

I really enjoyed “Now or Never Land.” For some reason, it took on a lot of character for itself and became a bigger song, if you like, in many ways. There was another one called “Gunbarrel Highway” which we played a little bit but never really dug into the groove of it and that came out well. Then there were songs like “E-Beat” from Breathe that we always toyed around with. Like everything else, the more that you find the soul of the song, the better it’s going to sound. Sometimes it takes a while to find it. You gotta take the audience with you on that journey. You have to push yourself a little and that means you have to push the audience a little bit. But I think if you don’t do that, you become a caricature and you just get frozen in time. You may as well charge people $50 to go to a waxworks museum and just see you go through the motions. We had to go the other way and in going the other way we, as you said, probably played some songs that we hadn’t played in 20 years.

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