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December 4, 2006 | Author: Greg Phillips

petergarretAs lead singer of Midnight Oil, one of Australia’s most political yet successful bands, Peter Garret had always managed to keep his integrity intact. When he joined the Australian Labor Party via the safe seat of Kingsford Smith, a question mark hung over his head as to how he might balance his well documented views on the environment with some of the more moderate policies of his political party. In September, as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Reconciliation and the Arts, Garrett was guest speaker at the Australian Music Association Convention Breakfast, where he spoke of the need to nurture Australia’s creativity. Greg Phillips caught up with Peter Garrett soon after and spoke about Midnight Oil’s early days, the current state of play for artists, and what kind of things a government might do to assist musicians.

GP: What were the dreams and aspirations of Midnight Oil when you started out?
PG: Even though it seemed way out of reach, I think the dreams were nevertheless make a living through making music, to have enough money to feed ourselves…. have a couple of road crew and to be able to afford reasonable instruments… and maybe get into a recording studio and record a couple of tracks that we could hang on our mantle piece when we got old.

GP: What sort of barriers did you come across in the early days, either cultural, economical or political, that you’d like to see change, or even as a politician could have a hand in changing?
PG: Well I think some of the things we came up against, probably politics can’t change. That would include a lot of record companies looking for a sound that equated to what was already successful. Particularly what had already been successful overseas. The Oil’s sounds was quite distinctive, very Australian. A lot of resistance to the vocalist in particular (laughs). Additionally there was a strong feeling, a strong message that was given to us that things should be done in one way … of surviving and making it with the band. Even at that early stage, we felt that there were other ways, including ways where you showed yourself and tried to remain true. So that’s cultural stuff as much as anything. Certainly there was a provision in that early period for Australian music to be played on radio, but it wasn’t played to the extent it is now. I think the regulatory framework that exists for the provision of local content has been really healthy for the industry. I wouldn’t want to see it disappear, even though I think a number of stations meet their quota and more. I think the only other thing that was clearly difficult later on was trying to get your music to be heard outside Australia, travel costs, promotional costs, budgets. If you do get the opportunity to jump in a plane and get over there and do shows, it can be punitively expensive. There’s probably an argument for providing support for people when they do that now, and that’s an area that the government probably could and should look at.

GP: As someone who was in a band that did have a world wide profile, what were the most important factors which lead to the band achieving that level of success?
PG: Analysing your own success is a little bit like passing judgement on your own cooking you know. It best to leave that to others. I think a couple of the things that were obviously a key to us finding success in other countries was that the band was strong live, that we had a very distinctive sound, in some ways a very distinctive Australian sound. We tended to play in places that we could reach at that early stage. We didn’t just get on a bus and go across America six times and end up in the bush one night in front a bunch of Republican music lovers wondering what we were doing there. We tended to play the east and the west coast … a lot of the college circuit and developed relationships with community college radio, which at that time was pretty important for bands starting out.

GP: In your speech at the AMAC breakfast you mentioned that the band used to put a lot of money back into buying gear, how important was that to the band’s development?
PG: I think it was pretty important. We certainly always felt that the best thing to do was to be able to have the best technology, whether it was old Gibson guitars or new Roland synthesisers, just to really get the best stuff that was as good as we could afford. It was important because that sort of set the benchmark for the sounds that you are capable of making. I don’t think that we were necessarily obsessed by it, you certainly needed good songs, but it was certainly a feature of the way we approached things. It was the same in the recording studio. We wanted to use the best of the technology that was available, to then make creative decisions instead of NOT being able to make creative decisions because you were limited by NOT having the technology.

GP: Also at the AMAC breakfast you discussed the comparison of an Australian band’s recording budget as opposed to a major international act. What needs to change for our bands to have a level playing field?
PG: Look, that’s a really good question. Bands need to be able to see the full amount of the royalties that come in that they are owed regardless of where their music is played or heard. They need to be given the opportunity in terms of there being plenty of accessible places to play in the early stages of their careers, so that they can develop their whole approach to playing and their skills in front of people because they don’t have the luxury of sitting in a recording studio for six months making their first album. I think there are some industry development issues which I won’t go into great depth here, although I am happy to talk to you later on about this when we actually address it from the political end in a couple of months time, but it’s always going to be hard for an Australian act to compete with somebody who has a budget many times yours. Just like in film, just like in sport, you know, we’ve got to do the best we can with a little bit less.

GP: What’s something you discovered about politics that you didn’t know before you went into it?
PG: How long the hours were (laughs).

GP: One final question. Jim Moginie from the Oils has just released a fine solo album. Is that something you’d ever consider doing?
PG: No I haven’t considered it. I’d certainly at some later stage and if time permitted, enjoy making music with other people … maybe even some of the Oils or the Oils, that’s never totally out of the question. Certainly is at the moment with the job I have got. No I don’t have a burning desire to make a solo album, but I certainly encourage people to have a listen to Jimmy’s. I think it’s a really sweet piece of music.

Midnight Oil were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame on October 29th. Their 18th album, a compilation  ‘Flat Chat’ is out now.
Peter Garrett at AMAC Breakfast. Pic by Bob Kenned

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