Jim Moginie, (seen here second from the left), Australian musician and guitarist with Midnight Oil, chats with Kevin Cooper about writing socially aware lyrics, Peter Garrett’s foray into politics, their latest album Armistice Day and their forthcoming live dates in the UK.

Jim Moginie is an Australian musician. He is best known for his work with Midnight Oil, of which he was a founding member, guitarist, keyboardist and leading songwriter.

The group formed in Sydney in 1972 and was founded by drummer Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie and bassist Andrew James and were originally called Farm. Lead vocalist Peter Garrett joined the following year and in 1976 they changed their name to Midnight Oil. Guitarist Martin Rotsey joined the following year.

They issued their self titled debut album in 1978 and gained a cult following in their homeland despite a lack of mainstream acceptance. That changed with the release of 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 in 1982 and two years later they achieved their first Australian number one with Red Sails In The Sunset.

But it was their 1987 album, Diesel And Dust, that brought them worldwide attention, especially their singles The Dead Heart and Beds Are Burning which illuminated the plight of the Indigenous Australians.

In 2002 the band disbanded but announced a full scale reformation in 2017.

During the hiatus and continually since then, Moginie has played live dates with his band The Family Dog, which released the four track EP called Fuzz Face. Their latest album is called Bark Overtures. He has also released three solo works which includes 2006’s Alas Folkloric.

In 2018 APRA AMCOS announced that Midnight Oil were to be the recipients of the 2018 Ted Albert Award for Outstanding Services to Australian Music at the 2018 APRA Music Awards.

Having announced three concert dates in the UK, Midnight Oil are about to embark upon a tour of Australia. Whilst busy preparing, Jim Moginie took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Jim how are you?

Hi Kevin I am very well my friend, how are you?

I have to say that I am feeling great thank you and before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s a pleasure, thank you for talking to me. It’s good, so thank you.

I have to say that you have made me feel rather old today.

(Laughter) I’m sorry about that but remember, you are only as old as you feel. But please do enlighten me.

I first saw Midnight Oil some twenty-two years ago now.

Oh dear, okay, let’s think back. Twenty-two years so that would have been back in 1997. So tell me, where was that?

It was on the 29th March 1997 at the Equinox Festival which was held at the Macquarie University in Sydney.

Oh my god, that’s right, with Tool (laughter).

And Skunk Anansie.

That’s right, Skunk Anansie were also around at that time. In fact I actually do remember them (laughter).

A good day was had by all.

I have to agree with you on that, it really was a great day. It really was fun. We realised that we had to pull-out all of the stops in an effort to try and blow Tool off the stage. I don’t know whether we did or not but it really was fun anyway (laughter).

Coming right up to date we have to talk about the new Midnight Oil album Armistice Day: Live At The Domain, Sydney together with the forthcoming tour, but before we do can I just say that I really do love your last Jim Moginie And The Family Dog album Bark Overtures. I think that it is a great piece of work.

Oh that’s great, so you have heard it have you. Thank you, that really is great to hear.

At the moment I have got three go to tracks which are In The End, Journeys To The Inner Stick and Blind Devotion. I personally think that they are all fantastic.

Thanks my friend, that really makes me feel very young (laughter).

(Laughter) well in that case, perhaps you could repay the compliment later.

Don’t you worry, the cheque is in the post as we speak my friend (laughter).

Well let’s for now put the mutual appreciation society to one side and talk about the latest album from Midnight Oil, Armistice Day: Live At The Domain, Sydney.

That’s right, it’s a live album that we recorded mainly at The Domain in Sydney towards the end of 2017. We released it in November 2018 and it’s a double CD and a triple LP (laughter). We are going back to the days of prog rock (laughter). We had a discussion about the album and we just thought that we would put everything on there that we had played on the tour that was good so we actually ended up with quite a lot of material for it.

Before that you released Essential Oils the double CD greatest hits which I personally feel is a great introduction to the band for anyone out there who is wondering just what Midnight Oil are all about.

We decided to put together everything in a chronological order more or less which really does make a certain amount of sense as you can see that the first half of the band’s career before we did Beds Are Burning, is an interesting coming of age sort of stuff from the rawness of the live concerts to the studio and onto the live album, which was our first album, leading up to Species Deceases which again is a pretty rough sounding record. And then the second disc starts with Beds Are Burning as we thought that we really should hit the listener over the head with it right at the beginning (laughter). I totally agree with you, it is a good collection actually; all of the tracks have been remastered and they really do sound much better. It really is a good little package for anyone who is wanting to get into the band, then that is most probably the album that I would recommend them to get hold of.

Did it come as a shock when Peter (Garrett) left the band in 2002 to enter politics?

No, not at all. Midnight Oil were playing actively for around twenty-five years probably before Peter went into politics as you say back in 2002 which is when the band went into hiatus basically. We all ended up running off and doing other things. For example, I started Jim Moginie And The Family Dog which was one of the weird and wonderful projects that we all had on at that time. In fact Peter was the only one who left the music business; we were all still playing in various forms, sometimes together, sometimes with other people. It was a great learning experience for us all I think. We appreciate the band a lot more now because we had to do things differently especially carrying your own gear into a gig (laughter). I had never had to do that before so my gear got a lot smaller really quickly (laughter).

Everything shrank until it was really tiny (laughter). It was really interesting that we all did different things rather than the inevitable solo albums and that sort of stuff. I found myself getting more and more into Irish music together with movie and TV soundtracks. I even found myself at one point playing the guitar in a Chamber Orchestra in The Barbican over there in London. I have simply done a million types of different things in the meantime. It really was a great opportunity for me to dip my toe in the water because the band had been together for ever since I was a kid really. So it was a lovely time for me in my early forties to sort of go off and do other things and learn about other people because the band were quite cloistered and we were very intensely involved with each other until that point and then suddenly there was nothing. This huge void opened up for us to try other things. It really was an interesting time.

The band got back together in 2017, just how did that feel?

It really was amazing. It has made us appreciate the band even more now than we did back in the day. For us, getting back together and the 2017 tour, which I have to say was hugely successful, it has made us all realise to a certain extent just why people rate us so highly. I know that it sounds awful for me to say that but we played to well over a million people on that tour; it was extraordinary. It was a lovely thing for us to come back and see that our fans were still there. It really was great to know that they were still interested in just what was happening with Midnight Oil.

Looking back what would you say has been your favourite period with Midnight Oil?

Firstly, I have to say that bands are funny. When you like the band that you are involved with then you tend to do good work. You make a good video, your record a good album and everyone likes everyone in the band. However, there are periods that bands go through when they will think that they are a bit out of fashion, or they will think that they are a bit on the nose, they will feel that they have been around too long and that they have outstayed their welcome. Having said all of that I think that one of my favourite periods with Midnight Oil would be around 1983 when we were in London and we made an album called 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 which was a great period, a difficult period but we still managed to make a good record.

There was also the period where we went out to the Western Desert and learnt a hell of a lot about Aboriginal Australians. We spent some time travelling all around the Western Desert west of Alice Springs and that really was an amazing time. I actually do see my life as being in two halves; the time before that and the time after that. I actually started to realise that there was actually a country within a country over here in Australia. It really was an amazing experience for me to see that. I had no idea that we had that in our country. It was during that time that we wrote the songs for the Diesel And Dust album which as you know included Beds Are Burning. Miraculously an album about Aboriginal land rites was the one which took off all around the world. Who in their right mind would have thought that; certainly not me.

On that point, did Midnight Oil deliberately set out to be a socially aware band?

To be honest with you I think that we realised that there was an opportunity to not do Be Bop A Loo La, La La La type of songs. There was a period in Australia, when we were first breaking through as a band, when a lot of songs on the charts were Americana really. A lot of the bands in Australia were dressing like (David) Bowie (laughter). Australian guys with long hair and makeup is not quite David Bowie (laughter). Then you had this Americana which was all about trying to make the songs sound American simply by dropping American place names into the songs (laughter). That really was quite a popular thing here, a hell of a lot of Australian bands were doing that.

We all looked at each other and thought ‘hang on, we have got a great opportunity to actually say something here’ and so from that point on we decided to use our music as a platform in order to say something that we believed to be relevant. We never intended to hit anyone over the head with a message necessarily but simply get them to discuss or at least have a conversation about what was going on in the world. Nothing more than that. A lot of people think that we are leftie, educating, Marxist, neo whatever but it is more about a conversation, that’s all that we have ever tried to do. We soon realised that we could sing about where we are from, and that’s cool.

It’s not like the corked hats and, I had better not mention Rolf Harris had I (laughter). You know what I mean when I mention some of the lazy assumptions about Australia, in that its all kangaroos and koalas. So we just decided to write and sing about just what was happening in our neck of the woods. And miraculously people around the world seem to have taken Midnight Oil to their hearts; the songs seem too resonant with them in a strange sort of way which really is quite remarkable. What we do is really not in the rule book is it, but we found it better for us just to remain ourselves and not try to be someone else.

Having taken that decision did you face any resentment or opposition from within the music industry?

Yes we did, we really did. At the beginning people really didn’t get it. It really was one of those things that the pop scene was really big here in the beginning and so record companies were forever saying to us “you really should make a pop record” and to be honest, we really wouldn’t know what that was. We were just coming through the punk scene and the prog rock scene in a way and our early album really was prog rock sped up (laughter). We were playing in the pubs where people would be throwing things at you if they thought that you were playing too slow. They really would blast you with a can or two half full of beer (laughter). So we were coming from that.

I personally honestly do believe that we were right to stick to our guns because soon after bands like XTC came through along with a lot of other bands who had come though the punk scene who could really play. Then, that sound that we had naturally, was THE sound. More importantly, I think that because we did things independently, more importantly we put on our own shows and we developed an audience without the gatekeepers of record companies or radio. We did everything locally with the help of our manager, who was an absolutely wonderful bloke called Gary Morris. We put on our own shows and suddenly there were over a thousand people at our shows. It was at that point that both record companies and radio stations began asking, “hang on, what’s going on here. How come these guys are attracting so many people?” (laughter).

We had never been on the radio and come to think of it at that time we didn’t even have a booking agent. So we did things our own way right from the start which really did make us unpopular. It really did make people fear us; they all thought ‘these guys really are serious’. However, it was better that way because no one was ever going to hand it to us on a plate; we really did have to fight for it. Even without TV or radio coverage we played in everyone’s town for years and years going round and round until we actually won an audience. Each time that we would go back to those places, more and more people were there until we found ourselves playing stadiums. We put it down to a lot of hard work and perseverance really. Let that be a lesson to all of the young people reading this. Listen to me, I’m starting to sound like someone’s dad now aren’t I (laughter).

Young kids and bands simply won’t do that today; they all want instant success.

What’s wrong with that (laughter). Being serious for a moment, I think that there is a serious risk that they might lose themselves in the process if the stardom comes too quick. They really are not in control of what is happening to them. I really do feel sorry for bands who have had a meteoric rise and suddenly they have no idea as to what has happened to them. Everything around them changes; all of the people around them change. The success changes all of the other people around you and not necessarily yourself. What they need to do is go down to the local pub and get themselves a residency.

If they play every week on a Thursday night then by the end of six weeks they may find that they have a crowd there if they are any good. It’s all about going straight to the audiences and avoiding the gatekeepers like we did. If you can achieve that, and you seriously can nowadays with social networking, then if you are any good you are probably going to win. I really do believe that. You can’t fool anyone, people know.

Going back to politics if I may, do you all share the same political believes or is there a clashing of heads whenever the band get together?

(Laughter) you are asking me if there are any Tories in the band aren’t you (laughter). Well we are all frightfully over educated, leftie, middleclass boys coming from Sydney (laughter). We won’t thump each other if there is a disagreement. We all feed off our anger and wait until there is an opportunity to make your point, and that’s when everyone’s defences are down (laughter). Politically we are all very much on the same page. Because we all came up through all of that together playing lots of benefit gigs, mixing with people like Bob Brown, the former Senator and former Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Greens, together with people involved with the Anti-Nuclear movement along with great environmentalists, a hell of a lot of these people are our friends.

So it is inevitable that some of what they believe in would have rubbed off onto the members of the band. All of the lyrics to our songs are about serious issues, but we also realised that you have to have a good tune to go with them. It simply couldn’t be like a folkie thing, going on for an hour telling you just how fucked up the world is. We really did need some good tunes to go with it. The band is a funny mixture of politically minded people who know what is going on in the news and what is going on in the world who just so happen to be mad musicians (laughter). There are also mad creative types who are all trying to come up with something brilliant every time and who explore and experiment with things.

How would you describe the songs of Midnight Oil?

In all honesty I would have to say that, in my opinion, the songs of Midnight Oil are big tunes with intelligent lyrics really. That’s what the whole thing is really.

From an Australians point of view, would you say that attitudes towards the Indigenous Australians are now finally changing for the better?

Yes they are, I am pleased to say that finally they are. I like to think that Midnight Oil did their little bit in an effort to get people talking about some of the issues at least. Within the bigger picture the Aboriginal Australians were given the right to vote back in 1967 and they were given their land back in the early 70s. After that there were bands coming through which were black fellas and white fellas playing together which really was a great way to advertise reconciliation. We had our songs and then in the early 90s there was a song called Treaty which was written and recorded by an Aboriginal band called Yothu Yindi who were from the Northern Territory, which again made some inroads. There is a lovely Aboriginal singer called Christine Anu who in the early 2000s began to say a few things in her songs and music.

So we are now seeing some Aboriginal people doing great things, and who are really talented. They really are no different from everyone else. And then on 13th February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, finally apologised to the Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations and for the way that Australia had treated the Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people still do not have a treaty here in Australia, unlike the First Nation people in America, or the Inuit’s or the Mauri have. They currently don’t have anything like that here in Australia, so there is still a long way to go. Some things have changed whilst others haven’t. There are still abysmal mortality rates in Aboriginal communities out in the desert and in other areas. More work needs to be done.

It is a really hard subject and the problem is that the issues and the awareness seem to change with each new generation. The simple answer is that these things will not change overnight. The good thing about the band is that some of the things that we did back in the 80s and 90s are still relevant today. Some things still haven’t changed, so songs like Short Memory are still as relevant today as they were when we wrote and recorded them. Some of the same things keep happening over and over again and we don’t seem to learn anything from the past, we just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. So it really is an interesting thing for a band like us, because up to a certain extent the sentiment of the songs is timeless. We could just keep coming back forever I suppose.

Just how special is Peter Garrett?

Peter really is an extraordinary character and he is a father figure to me in many ways. Peter is very articulate, intelligent, and quite a driven sort of guy. Going into politics really was hard for him. He wasn’t like the white knight riding in on a horse saving the world like people thought that he might be. He went into a political party and he had to abide by the rules. Having said that he did a lot of good things whilst he was there, a lot of which some people don’t even know about. Peter is the last person who would try to sell himself on his political record. He really is an amazing character and he is cut from a different cloth from the rest of us to a certain extent because he has developed in a different way.

He is a political animal, he really is. Despite all of that he likes a good tune, he likes a good sing, and he loves to play the harmonica, he loves being on stage so it really is nice having him back in the fold.

On that note Jim let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been fantastic.

Kevin you are a legend. Thank you for that. Are we going to be seeing you over there somewhere?

I will be at the O2 Apollo in Manchester on Sunday 9th June photographing and reviewing the show.

That’s great, that’s the first show. We will be as rough as guts (laughter). We will be having a ball so please make sure that you come and say hello and we will grab a beer or two after the show. That will be unreal.

Thank you. You take care and I will see you in Manchester.