Midnight Oil Champions Aboriginal Rights on ‘The Makarrata Project’

On October 30, iconic Australian rock band Midnight Oil will release The Makarrata Project, a seven-song mini-album that is the first new music they’ve released in nearly 20 years. Despite that lengthy break from recording, drummer and founding member Rob Hirst says it was easy for the band to pick up where they left off. “It felt entirely natural to get back and record new music,” he says, calling from his home in Sydney. “It was actually a real joy to finally get back into the studio.”

In fact, it was such a joy for the band to record again, Hirst says, that they not only finished The Makarrata Project, they also completed a full-length album, which will come out in 2021. The reason they decided to release The Makarratta Project separately, Hirst says, is because the band wanted to continue their tradition of using their lyrics to bring attention to various socio-political issues, and they felt it was important to focus specifically on Aboriginal rights in Australia with this release.

“We decided that we would dedicate the mini-album to something called the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which is a document that was presented [in 2017] by the First Nations people in Australia to the federal government as a way forward to reconciliation between the First Nations people and non-indigenous Australians,” Hirst says. “But unfortunately, our conservative government [has] basically refused to proceed with any of the recommendations. We are more than two centuries down the track [since European colonization], and basic rights for indigenous people in this country still hasn’t been served properly.”

Championing Aboriginal rights is nothing new for Midnight Oil, however. “We’ve been going out to the Australian Outback since 1985 and making friends there, including lots of great First Nations musicians who ended up playing on this album,” Hirst says. Those guest musicians run the gamut from Jessica Mauboy, who is a major star in Australia, to relative newcomers such as Tasman Keith. All of them, Hirst says, “have made, without exception, these songs so much more powerful.”

Even with numerous guest musicians appearing on The Makarratta Project, Midnight Oil’s distinctive hard-driving but melodic rock sound still shines through. Hirst believes there are two factors behind their ability to resurrect their familiar sound: “Our band personnel hadn’t changed for so long,” he says, noting that the “newest” member, bassist Bones Hillman, joined in 1987. Also, Hirst says, “We had our longtime producer, Warne Livesey.” Livesey previously worked with Midnight Oil on their albums Diesel and Dust (1987) and Blue Sky Mining (1990), which made them international superstars; he also produced their last full-length album, Capricornia, in 2002.

As for what inspired Midnight Oil to record again, Hirst says it came as something of a surprise even to the band members themselves. They had decided to get back together to do a world tour in 2017, but their expectations were modest: “We weren’t sure what the response would be after so long [away],” Hirst says, “so we asked the agents to book smaller venues – and then literally within 15 minutes, the entire world tour was booked out! That was an amazing thing.”

At those shows, the band rewarded fans by playing their hits such as “Beds Are Burning,” “The Dead Heart” and “Blue Sky Mine,” but they also dug deep into their catalog. “We decided that we would learn to play every song we’ve ever recorded – even b-sides and outtakes,” Hirst says, noting that it came to about 200 songs altogether. “It took a long time to relearn all the material.” He says it was worth the effort, though. “We can put in these obscure songs that our fans could enjoy. They can talk to each other: ‘They actually put that song in? I never thought we’d hear them play that song!’”

The response to that 2017 tour was so enthusiastic, Hirst says, that the band did another round of shows across Europe last year. That, in turn, “inspired us to then say, ‘As long as the [new] songs are as vital and strong as they always were, then we should get in and record.’”

This triumphant return comes nearly 50 years after Hirst first met guitarist James Moginie in 1972. “We began the band [originally named Farm] while we were at school all those years ago and immediately struck up a songwriting rapport which remains to this day,” Hirst says. “I can always take a song of mine to Jim because he has such great musical knowledge and experience. He can weed out the stuff that’s good from the stuff that’s not so great, and do it in a way which means we can remain friends for all these years. When you’re writing songs and you’re baring your soul, it’s quite tricky. You want someone who you trust and can ease you into a position of strength, rather than just knocking you sideways.”

By 1975, the band had changed their name to Midnight Oil and they started relentlessly working the club circuit across Australia. They released their self-titled debut album in 1978, and have since become one of the most celebrated bands to emerge from Australia. They have won numerous ARIA awards (the Australian equivalent to the Grammy awards). Through it all, they have remained unapologetically political – and that is why they took such a lengthy break, as lead singer Peter Garrett switched to a political career when he was elected as a Member of the Australian House of Representatives in 2004. He remained in Parliament for nine years.

With Midnight Oil now reunited, Hirst says that the members appreciate that they still get along, both personally and musically, just as they’ve always done. “We’re lucky to have this incredible chemistry which we’ve always had between members whereby all the sum of the parts really does add up to a much better and greater whole,” he says.

Hirst wants fans to know that Midnight Oil are as strong as they’ve ever been. He points out that The Makarrata Project is hard rocking, and that their upcoming full-length album is the same. “We all know bands that have been away for a long time and then they come back with an overproduced, pretty boring piece of work. We wanted to go the other way: we wanted to sound like we were taking up where we left off all those years ago,” he says. “We haven’t gone gently off into the night!”

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