Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett Talks Reunion Tour, Calls Trump 'Palpably Unfit for Public Office'

Peter Garrett, 2017
David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns

Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil performs at L'Olympia on July 6, 2017 in Paris, France.

The frontman spent 10 years in Australian politics after the band split in 2002.

In May 1990, the members of Australian rock band Midnight Oil parked a flatbed truck on across from Exxon's Sixth Avenue headquarters in midtown Manhattan and gave an unannounced six-song mini-concert atop it, beneath a banner that read, "Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick." The guerilla performance was staged as a message to the oil giant that it was not doing enough to clean up the massive oil spill that had happened a little over a year earlier when the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. "We can't treat the world like a garbage dump and there's more to life than profit and loss," the band's imposing, bald frontman, six-foot-four Peter Garrett reportedly told the crowd at the time.

Fast forward 27 years and the former CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson -- who was a general manager at the the time of the Valdez spill --has become America's 69th Secretary of State, his boss, President Donald Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord and, thanks to his provocative rhetoric, North Korea's Kim Jong Un is threatening to beat American "to a jelly." In other words, it's a good time for a reunion tour by Midnight Oil -- its first live outing in 15 years -- a band whose anthemic, angular agitrock, powered by the feral howl of Garrett's vocals and his spasmodic dancing, has taken on issues such as environmental desecration ("River Runs Red"), the exploitation of blue collar workers ("Blue Sky Mine") and nations' disregard for their indigenous peoples, whether they be Aboriginals or Native Americans ("Beds Are Burning). Asked if he ever imagined the political and cultural turmoil that currently spans the globe, Garrett said, "No, not in a million light years. You couldn't predict this stuff." 

Garrett spoke to Billboard about what it's like to face Midnight Oil's fans after a 15-year absence, the continued relevance of the band's songs almost 30 years later (its prodigious recorded output was recently re-released in two CD and DVD sets that come housed in replica oil cans) and, of course, President Trump.

Garrett was careful to note that his opinions on Trump were requested, not volunteered, but he is more qualified than most artists to comment on the subject. The Sydney native left the band in 2002 to concentrate on a political career that spanned 10 years: From 2004 to 2013, he was an Australian Labor Party member of the House of Rpresentatives, and, after his party won in the 2007 election, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Garrett Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. In 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard altered his oversight somewhat to Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts and appointed him Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth. 

Billboard: Midnight Oil hasn’t toured in 15 years. What's different this time in terms of energy, fans and your relationship with your bandmates?

Garrett: The extraordinary thing about this exercise is that it started off as us getting together in a room in Sydney to play a few songs and maybe do one or two gigs. We now find ourselves in the middle of a global tour where the audiences have come back with a vengeance; the band is playing with more energy and spirit then I can recall; and we are totally blown away with what is happening. Lifting the roof off places and connecting with people again is incredible.

You’ve stated that Midnight Oil got back together because you missed the music, but you have to admit that -- in terms of your band's political bent and the state of the world -- your timing is pretty damn good. 

I think there is something in that. When we started to run the songs down, we were surprised at how some of them sounded like they had been written for today -- especially in your country! But look, we’re not writing a set of political manifestos to convince the world of one point of view or another. We’re talking politics and we're not pulling any punches because we think it’s part of a life that we all live and trust these things need to be said. There’s no doubt that audiences are connecting with us right now not only because of what the band has put forward in the past -- and what we stand for today -- but also because people are finding themselves in times that they didn’t expect.  

I would love to know what you think of President Trump right now and America's volatile political atmosphere right now. 

Well, I want to preface this by saying that you asked me this question. I doubt that there is anything that I can say that hasn’t already been said by many Americans, but from the perspective of an outsider, the American presidency is still an incredibly powerful position in the world, so it’s startling to see someone elected who is so palpably unfit for public office across every dimension of his character -- whether it’s truthfulness, understanding politics, underlying values and the ability to lift people and make them see a better future. Trump is an aberration in so many different ways. He’s dangerous to some extent and it’s highly depressing to find someone who has got such a high does of narcissism and such a low dose of statesmanship. The best you can say is, hopefully, he’ll cause Americans who don’t share his view to organize and rise up to prevent him from taking a great country down the plughole of history in an outpouring of bile and nausea and hate.

Trump’s rise has been compared by some to the rise of Hitler. Do you think that’s an exaggeration?

Yeah, I do. I don’t think it’s necessarily about the H word. One of the things that happens is people walk away from mainstream politics and the void is filled by extremists. The fact of the matter is that if a larger number of the Baby Boomer generation, which is the generation that essentially holds the upper hand in most Western countries, had voted in the United Kingdom or the United States, we wouldn’t have Brexit and we wouldn’t have Trump.

If Trump had run for Prime Minister of Australia do you think he could have won?

We sort of had our own mini Trump -- a former conservative leader called Tony Abbott [Australia’s 28th prime minister from 2013 to 2015]. We still do. He’s not as excessively ill-suited to office as Trump is, it has to be said -- he spent a lot of time in politics -- but we had a mini moment here. In the case of the actual Trump, I’d like to think it’s unlikely he would have gotten elected here. You know why? In Australia, we have compulsory voting.

Trump played to middle America’s anger better than the Democrats did.

The Democrats got lost in identity politics to some extent during the campaign. I’m not saying it's not an important issue, but people in the kind of places like Cleveland, Ohio, where we play and where we’ve got an audience, are focused on their jobs and on feeding their kids and they have a suspicion of media in general. Speakers like Trump play to that very strongly. But it’s a more substantial issue, really. If it hadn’t been Trump, it would have been someone else. Unless you completely reconfigure your economic system so you don’t have large numbers of have-nots, the odds are increased that a crazy will get his or her hands on the steering wheel. It's astonishing to us that in a country as wealthy as the States, people don’t have access to reasonable health care. It’s astonishing that the schools aren’t the best in the world. I don’t want this to sound like I’m having a go at your country because we love to play there, and we think that there are many many things about the country that still extraordinary. But economic inequality will always see the rise of tin despots and magic-potion dealers who pretend they have some kind of solution. And in Trump’s case, cast in highly vicious overtones.  

Why did you get out of politics?

I had two terms in government. The first term I was environment and arts minister; the second term the prime minister promoted me: I took her portfolio, which was education, youth affairs and a bunch of other things. But we were bedeviled by the kinds of conflicts that can happen to leadership in political parties when a prime minister is removed then comes back again and enacts a kind of Shakespearean revenge. I determined not to support this person so when he came back, I said, it’s time for me to go.  

Do you think what you’re doing now -- performing your political aware music for tens of thousands of concertgoers -- is more influential in some respects? With music, you don’t have to compromise the way you have to in politics.

I don’t think one is more or less effective than the other, to be honest. They are just very different kinds of callings and I’ve been in the unique, incredible and slightly bloody position of having done both. I really appreciate what artists can do; how they can speak to the emotions of people as well as to call things the way that they see them; and I think music's got an incredible role to play in that sense. It’s the soundtrack of our times. It's the beat and the rhythm that people need when they are going out on the street or going into a state legislator's office or when they’re going to work or to a club. At the same time, someone's got to do the work and the business of politics is unyielding. In the modern era, it’s extremely hard to get things moving forward, but when I look at what the governments I was involved with in Australia were able to do, I’m very very proud. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If you’re interested in political and social change then it's inevitable that you’re going to interact with politics one way or another. And if you’re going to try to get something done, it might look messy, it might look incremental and it might involve compromise at some stage. But when you look back, you can see that a difference has been made.

Despite the turmoil going on in the world, you seem optimistic.  

I’m sunny by nature -- you know I come from Australia (laughs) -- and I don’t like the idea of the awful stopping me from thinking and acting wonderful. I resent anything that can pull a black curtain across my vision of what Jimmy Cliff called a “bright shiny day.” At the same time I think we have reached quite an incredibly crucial junction point on a number of issues because of the health of democracy, because of inequity and because of the rise of figures like Trump. Just to name one: We are on the cusp of a terrible climate crisis because we are not reining in greenhouse gas emissions, we are treating the planet like a garbage dump and we can’t keep doing that.

Let's get back to the music. What have been some of your favorite songs to perform on this tour?  

You know, sometimes you start playing a song that you haven’t played a lot or isn’t one of the bigger records and it comes alive in concert. For me there are a couple: One is a song called “Now Or Neverland.” It’s on Earth and Sun and Moon. It’s a song about growing up in the South Pacific -- in a different part of the world -- and yet, even though we’re almost in this forgotten end of the planet we know that we’ve got to buss it up and build it up as well we can. The other one is “Blue Sky Mine.” Originally, it was about asbestos miners and what they went through here [in Australia], but we can see the application of that song in so many different places. Every time we kind of launch into it, we feel this tremor of recognition from audiences, whether its in North America, Europe or even South Africa.

You’ve said that Midnight Oil is not going to become a legacy greatest-hits touring band and will record new material. Have any songs materialized on tour?

At the moment we’ve just really been swept away with The Great Circle [tour], so we haven’t really sat down. Whether we will do something and in what format and combination will happen when we finish the run. We’re still catching our breath.

Here are the U.S. dates for the latest arc of The Great Circle:

Saturday, August 19 | The Greek Theater | Los Angeles, CA
Monday, August 21 | Terminal 5 | New York, NY
Sunday, August 27 | House of Blues | Cleveland, OH
Tuesday, August 29 | First Avenue | Minneapolis, MN?