Album cover artwork for Midnight OilMidnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst talks Murray-Darling River madness, his musical kinship with the late Bones Hillman, anger as energy, and the magic behind the new album of rallying gems for our ever-thirsty ears, Resist.

The very first lyrics you hear as the curtains open on Midnight Oil’s new album describe what’s at stake in the crusade of climate change: “Every child, put down your toys/ And come inside to sleep/ We have you look you in the eye/ And say we sold you cheap.”

That there’s a creeping trauma settling into younger Australians who feel powerless to affect change is something Rob Hirst feels deeply – and understands personally.

“It must be incredibly frustrating for people who are younger,” the drummer says. “They’ve got big dreams and high ideals, and they see – both in the state and at a federal level – opportunistic politicians on a short electoral cycle, looking after their own insignificant little careers over the fate of this country. It’s the same frustration, I should add, that bands like ourselves and people of our generation felt coming up when we were in our teens and ’20s, as well.”

He cites the Oils’ lauded 1982 album 10, 9, 8, 7 , 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – recorded in England with venerated producer Nick Launay – as the point when he and his bandmates were “at the peak” of their incredulity: “Political opportunism, destruction of the environment, the rich getting richer and the poor getting swept under the carpet,” he nods. Same sh-t, different era.

Over the course of the ensuing decades, we have of course seen major changes in the landscapes of Australia and the band itself. For the country, we can point to the mid-2000s mining boom (“People have been hoodwinked by mining companies that spent a few million dollars on a propaganda campaign to convince Australians of their indispensability, and that has meant billions of dollars pouring into their coffers, most of which is then spirited off overseas to the headquarters where these companies actually are,” says Hirst), and the blue-green algae outbreak in the Darling river in 1991 (which, after a series of federally-decreed protections and then the dismantling of those protections, resulted in 2019’s horrifying fish kill in the Menindee Lakes).

As for the band, amongst fervent activism for the environment and Indigenous causes, one of their own made waves in an official political capacity: in 2007, vocalist Peter Garrett was appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts for the Gillard government. He would eventually leave politics altogether in 2013, after the leadership spill and three months before Tony Abbott became Prime Minister.

On bewitching album stand-out The Barka-Darling River, Garrett in fact sings directly about his experience in the cabinet, the rallying cry of his voice as lithe and sinewy as ever: “I took my place at the Murray-Darling chamber/ I saw no friendly face, I was a stranger/ There was a secret plan, a plan to hasten slowly/ There was a show of hands, I was on my only.”

The song was written by Hirst and guitarist Jim Moginie (“Jim’s riff at the beginning!” Hirst enthuses; “He’s a riff-meister”) is beautifully crafted. It has three distinct sections through which it twists just like its namesake waterway and surrounding land, the aorta of lifeblood for 40 different First Nations, 35 endangered species of animal, and 40% of Australia’s agricultural produce.

“The parts all just seemed to work together as this strange trilogy,” Hirst says of the song, which moves from a rollicking rock section to a gentler piano-led belt and on to a final, poignant coda which knits it all together. There’s a beautiful moment in the first segment, when – as Garrett sings the line “The days when the river was running free” – we hear the bass fling upwards in a wild little run of hope and sweetness. It’s the sound of Bones Hillman, bassist with the Oils from 1987 until his death – from cancer, at the age of 62 – in 2020. The entirety of Resist was recorded with Hillman, and it’s difficult not to feel poignancy pulsate through the artist’s basslines and backing vocals. At the time of recording, says Hirst, the sessions were “full of joy”.

“[On] all the albums since he came in in the late ’80s, he added that marvellous, fluid bass-playing, and that absolutely distinctive voice of his,” Hirst smiles. “Live, I used to only have Bones in my monitor wedge because I knew that he would hit that note bang-on every night. We’re an unusual beast, Midnight Oil; we’re a hard-rocking band, but there are a lot of harmonies in most of the songs, in the choruses. So when Bones joined, it gave us a opportunity to really lift that melodic aspect, and sing material that we hitherto couldn’t. Of course, we miss him terribly, and we’re very fortunate to have spent those few months in rehearsal and recording that album together before we lost him.”

You’ll hear Bones’ unique vocal painted across the album, including during an interesting few moments the very end of Undercover; after Garrett sings “Keep pretending”, Bones repeats the phrase “Everything’s okay” to fade-out while an electric piano ‘dream scene’ glissando bubbles up around it. It sounds precisely as if to say, ‘Everything’s fine? Sure, buddy, keep telling yourself that!’

“I think that was suggested by our producer Warne Livesey, who has been working with us for so many years and manages to add these extra touches, which surprise and delight us,” Hirst reveals.

Another of these ‘extra touches’ comes in Lost at Sea – about the plight of asylum seekers arriving by boat – in which we hear creepy, hissing clangs ring out from Hirst’s kit. “Yes! That sound is made by me running the tip of a drumstick very fast over the top of a big ride cymbal,” he explains. “It gives a kind of swooshing sound… Warne placed it around the track, and it [gives] the sense that you’re in the boat, you’re a refugee, you can see the Australian coastline. The boat is foundering, water is already coming in, and you fear the worst.”

Just like the precious equilibrium of the river, Resist counteracts the quieter or vulnerable moments with unadulterated fury, not least from Garrett’s vocals: see him scorn our leaders’ “coal-fired erections” in Reef, or question “Who left the bag of idiots open?” in The Barka-Darling River. Resist is, Hirst agrees, as full of power and passion as any of the Oils’ older records.

“We’re one of the few bands I can think of that has carried that anger through our entire career,” he says. “What’s that old line from Johnny Lydon? ‘Anger is an energy.’ And we really believe that.”

Resist by Midnight Oil is out now via Sony.

Read our extended album review of Resist.

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