Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Peter Garrett talks solo album, life post-politics, Midnight Oil reunion

The Midnight Oil frontman and former Australian Labor government minister has followed his memoir with a solo album that shows he hasn't lost the urge to rock - or rap. And yes, he's sorry about that time he wrecked Auckland's Gluepot
Peter Garrett attempting not to be a solo singer-songwriter.
Peter Garrett attempting not to be a solo singer-songwriter.

First impression of the album would be: That sounds like a man re-energised by something...

It's obviously got a bit of that in it. Even I can hear it. I didn't know what it was going to sound like, to be honest, because we did it pretty quickly. The one thing I did know from many decades of music making is don't faff around.

You were in a band for a very long time. Were you scared of going out under your own name, musically?

I really felt when I came out of the House, when it came to creative stuff, I would just do it. And if politics teaches you anything - and it does teach you a bunch of things - but it certainly teaches you that the immediate response to what you are doing is no measure of its worth.

Unpopular policy, unpopular leaders unpopular governments - 10 or 15 years later are considered to be less unpopular.

I thought the Oils [reunion] would happen eventually and nothing would happen between the book and the Oils thing. But coming out of doing the book, songs just kept dropping in.

Recently there have been autobiographies by the likes of Rod Stewart and Keith Richards which have been forerunners to decent solo albums. Did writing the book seed the new songs?

You don't have to tell someone who writes that it is such an interesting kind of opening up cupboards and closets in your mind exercise. By starting to commit words on to the page or screen, it ends up loosening all these other ties inside you.

Yours would be the first rock memoir which discusses in length, say, the funding policy for state and private schools.

Rather too much. It's one of those things you realise that you are writing something that is going to end up in a library somewhere, or at least online. So you need to do it justice. But you don't want it to be overly wrought with policy. But who knows where the balance lies with that?

Writing about the early days of the band is inevitably what is going to excite fans the most.

That's true of all rock memoirs. And of all memoirs generally I reckon most people can crank out a decent one for the first 25 years because that is when it is all happening and everything is fresh and you remember it vividly.


Were there things you wanted to express in the book that were better expressed in songs on this?

That's a pretty good question. I don't want this to sound ridiculous, but I really decided to write only one book but I knew once I started I knew I could have written more and I needed to try and fit everything in. I could have done 300 or 400 pages just on the first 21 years. It might not have been as spicy or interesting as what we ended up with. So there are probably some things that I didn't get a chance to really get into.

But one of them is about what home means and homecomings. Home in the big capital "H" sense of the word, when a whole lot of people don't have one, or they are trying to find another one, and in my case I was lucky enough to have one but I was never in it. So that was obviously a big part of it.
But the butterflies that landed on my shoulder were the ones I was trying to describe.

There's a bluesy song in there and even a rap vocal on the closing track but it's essentially a rock record and a rather loud one. But maybe the expectation might have been that a solo album by former politician Peter Garrett would have been a reflective acoustic singer-songwriter thing. Was that ever a possibility? Could you have done that?.

No I can't do it. A) I am not compelling enough a guitar player and B) I didn't want to bore myself.
Four more verses of plaintive guitar and plaintive lyrics? You don't really want that. I am the original strange mixture of wildman of rock and overly studious politico law student. I am that funny mixture. I don't like sleepy music. That is not what I listen to.

And the hip-hop touch at the end?

I realised what I like listening to and what I think is the most exciting music happening at the moment is not rootsy music. It's not rock. It is actually hip-hop. It is not that I suddenly wanted to put the hip-hop t-shirt on. But I was just interested in exploring a little bit of that and seeing where I might end up.

And it rather suits somebody that is a bit wordy. Some of it I hate, but some of it I think is incredibly good and transportive. It's also the kind of music that is talking about the stuff that is going on.

Your daughters sing on the record and the touring band you've put together for the album, has women in it. Is this an oestrogen adjustment after the testosterone of the Oils?

Look, the Oils weren't a very male hard rock band. We were a hard sounding band and, in fact, I think I write about it in the book - trying to find different zygotes to go with the music. But we never succeeded in that. I just ended up working a lot with women when I was in ACF [Australian Conservation Foundation] and when I was in politics. I enjoy the balance.

Peter Garrett on stage in Auckland in 1988 (Herald archive).
Peter Garrett on stage in Auckland in 1988 (Herald archive).

So your kids grew up with Dad as a rock star then Dad as a cabinet minister. How was that for them?

When they interview people who have chosen busy lives or lives that take them away a lot they always get the same answer back: "I wish I had spent more time at home. I wish I had spent more time with my family. All pollies talk about it as well. On one hard it's a monstrous cliché and on the other hand it's the existential truth. It's both things. And for me it was the thing that I missed the most and the thing I valued the greatest.

Given the Australian election, are you missing politics?

Well I don't miss it like some people might think. I don't not miss it. I didn't leave shaking the dust off my heels saying never again. I am not intending to enter formal politics. I am extremely clear about the fact that the jaundice and venom that gets landed on current politics is partly totally understandable and partly completely misplaced.

We had a chaotic election. But no one got killed and you have got to count your blessings. I looked at it and thought there were moments when I could have weighed into the debate. I was furiously texting some of my mates saying "don' t forget X, don't forget Y".

But one of the laws of leaving is try to keep the humbugging down to a tolerable level so I have tried to do that.

Must say, Australian politics viewed from New Zealand ...

You can use any adjective you want.

I find John Clarke, who, of course is one of us, is a good guide to translating Oz politics with his interview spots. Did he ever do you?

He stayed away from me which I was very happy about.

You're planning a big Midnight Oil reunion tour next year. Will you come here?

I'd like to. I don't see why not. It's close and we've got friends here. It would be good to play here.

Why are you getting back together?

I think for two reasons. The last couple of times when we played the big benefit things that we did -the one for the bushfire and the one before that - were actually better than anyone expected.

Wow we haven't done this for a long time and it still feels pretty good. The other reason is that we didn't get the chance to say goodbye. The manner of my departure was more abrupt than anyone was ready for.

And everybody has kept playing and there is a lot of people who really want to see you play and then you've got to ask yourself: Why don't you play?

And there is a little bit of I don't know whether I would call it a vacuum. But there is not a lot of stuff that is very pungent. I think there is a pungency in what we are about and how we perform that can make as much sense as 1997or 1983 or whenever.

I remember seeing the band in Australia once in the late 80s and seeing the front rows of Aussie blokes in their singlets just going for it, just as they would have been in front of any Oz rock band. Do you think your message got through to those guys?

I think that it is impossible to give you a generic answer because each and every person responds to what they see in different ways. I can tell you it's like the spectrum. Some weren't affected at all . And other people's lives were completely changed and I have met both. I meet them all the time because they are all in their 40s and 50s now and I actually love it because you hear people's stories and they tell about the night they saw you and what they did afterwards. And then you run into a bunch of people who say I remember when you played such and such and we went out and had a great night.

You just have to go out and throw it at people and if they catch the ball and have a look at it and think of it in a certain way, that is great. If they don't, then that is life.

And you've been coming to New Zealand on a regular basis for many years. The last time for the writer's festival but the first time, legend has it you destroyed the ceiling or the floor of the stage at the Gluepot.

I think that is a legend that is based on fact. Yep, took it out, actually, in frustration, in the exuberance of performance.

It was the roof?

I think it was the roof.

I imagine in becomes a blur after a while, the bits of remodelling you did on the pubs of Australasia in the early days. And in your book you write about the band being chased by Black Power guys in Hamilton, probably on that same tour. We have an entire comedy industry devoted to making fun of Hamilton. Is there an equivalent town in Australia?

We don't really have one. Maybe Dubbo. But talking of Hamilton, I snuck in here when I finished my term and we went to Hamilton where they have the statue of the guy who wrote Rocky Horror Show which also happened to be the wifi zone. We were sitting there going: "Hamilton has really come on."

Peter Garrett's album, A Version of Now is released on July 15.

- NZ Herald

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