Peter Garrett bursts through the door with the energy and intent of a man on the run. He offers his hand in greeting which, in keeping with his 6-foot 4-inch frame, feels like it swallows yours as you shake it, before quickly scanning the deserted downstairs area of this inner city Sydney pub and darting off in the direction of zthe toilet. At 63, there is nothing remotely senior citizen-esque about him, save, perhaps, for a few more lines carving their way indiscriminately across his angular face. Dressed in blue jeans and a blue collared shirt emblazoned with small, white rectangles, today Garrett's bald head is covered by a black flat cap, which he discards upon sitting down on a stool and taking a sip of his takeaway soy chai latte. He is personable if business like, small on small talk and big on attending to the business at hand. Which, on this sunny Wednesday morning in early June, is his debut solo album, A Version Of Now.
A week earlier, Garrett stood in the Hercules Street Studio in nearby Surry Hills, surrounded by record label people, management personnel and a select few media, for whom he hosted a playback of the record. For a man airing his first solo album – a man, let's not forget, who hasn't issued a note of music since quitting Midnight Oil in 2002 and taking up a position with the Australian Labor Party as the member for Kingsford Smith in 2004 – it must have felt like a loaded moment.
"No," he shrugs, cradling his Styrofoam cup. "I'm pretty chilled about it. Before Adam was a boy scout, I ceased worrying about what people think about things. And having been a pin cushion of sorts for years, particularly through political life, you very quickly come to realise that there's an infinite number of responses and understandings, perceptions, awareness, prejudices, that exist out there. So if you start thinking about that, or losing sleep about that, then you're going to be unhappy."
A curious mix of political realist and creative romantic, Garrett says he heard his acoustic guitar calling to him as he came close to completing last year's memoir, Big Blue Sky. "I was sitting there with my jaw on the floor as a song popped out of the sky and landed on my shoulder," he says, "and I thought I'd better grab it before it's too late and start working on it."
Today he thinks it was simply a matter of allowing space in his life for music and for song, which, given that the book process was wrapping up, he was in a position to do. The solo project gathered momentum around July or August last year when he took a trip north through the settlements of Papunya, Yuendumu and Kintore with Midnight Oil guitarist Martin Rotsey, Gondwanaland's Charlie McMahon, and one of his brothers, during which he played Rotsey a couple of songs. "Have you got any more?" the guitarist enquired.
Within a few months Rotsey had joined Garrett in Sydney's Oceanic Studio, owned by Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie, where they demoed four songs, which Garrett later played to producer Burke Reid (the Drones, Courtney Barnett, Sarah Blasko). Reid's response was a familiar one: "Have you got any more?"
Garrett continued writing over Christmas, and in January entered Rancom Street studios (owned by former Sherbet keyboardist Garth Porter) to start recording A Version Of Now. Having assembled a crack band of cross-generational musicians – Mark Wilson of Jet on bass, Heather Shannon of the Jezabels on keyboards, RocKwiz/Paul Kelly drummer Pete Luscombe and Rotsey on guitar (Bluebottle Kiss singer/guitarist Jamie Hutchings also contributed) – they laid down nine tracks in 12 days; songs which Garrett refers to as "simple folk songs, made electric".
"I was blown away by his energy and enthusiasm for the whole process," recalls Reid. "There was no nervousness, it was more like, 'This is fun.'"
This month Garrett will take the band on the road for a series of solo shows, with Western Australian solo artist Abbe May taking up duties as second guitarist, and Rosa Morgan (Red Ghost) replacing Shannon on keys.
For a man who's spent much of the past decade battling bureaucracy in the halls of Parliament House, the speed and organic manner with which the project has come together is something Garrett is clearly relishing. Over the course of a couple of hours, he speaks with childlike enthusiasm about the project, the cast of musicians and Reid, while also addressing his reunion with Midnight Oil – announced at the same time as his solo project – his formative years as a musician while studying at the Australian National University in Canberra, and life in politics.
On occasion, when deep in thought, he closes his eyes mid-sentence, as if reading the answers off the back of his eyelids. More than once he shifts on his stool in an attempt to relieve a nagging pain in his back. An enquiry as to its cause is waved away. "It's not an issue," he says. "It's not healthy to spend 15 hours a day sitting doing whatever it is you're doing. Which is why it's time to be dancing."
Save for a few dates with Midnight Oil, prior to 'A Version Of Now' you'd not sung publicly in over a decade. Was there a process of having to get your voice back?
Not really. I played the songs "in" myself, just sitting around at home, and singing them a bit and trying different things out as I was writing them. So I started singing again as they were starting to slip through the cracks. But no, you just go in and open up your mouth and hope that it's still there.
What was the process of putting together the studio band?
Craig [Hawker, Sony A&R] sent me some stuff and a few links to different people. He sent some new things that Mark Wilson had done, post-Jet, which I didn't know about, but I just loved his playing. Same with Heather Shannon. I knew the Jezabels, I'd heard a few things on Triple J but didn't know them that well. But I loved the keyboard playing, it sounded like she really had a handle on keyboard sounds.
Was it refreshing to surround yourself with young musicians?
It was deliberate. I didn't want to do it as a, "Rule One: get young players", but I thought, if I hear what I like and they're some young players I think it will be good, 'cause it's humanity at work. It doesn't really matter how old anyone is, yet there's no question what younger musicians bring...
It's not so much the playing, everything's just fuller when you've got those combinations. It gives it some freshness on the way through.
Lyrically, home is a recurring theme on 'A Version Of Now'. Is that simply because after years on the road as a musician and a politician you're finally getting to experience it?
I've come back to two types of home. My home with my girl, and my spiritual home, with music. I've been a troubadour, lived out of suitcases, essentially been on the road and on the move ceaselessly and never endingly, with some breaks, for most of my working life. And I tested the patience of my family in particular. But I think without doubt I've finally got myself into this thing called a house and a home, and sat there for more than a day or two, and I could really feel its arms wrapping around me.
Was it a big adjustment?
Sure, unbelievable. I've never had the normality of getting up and having breakfast and listening to the radio and spending the day working and having a cup of tea, dinner at night. I discovered Netflix for the first time with my wife! We're sitting there going, how cool is this? [Laughs] It's all a new experience!
"I've come back to two types of home. My home with my girl, and my spiritual home, with music."
The song 'Kangaroo Tail' contains very vivid Australian imagery: "The kangaroo tail glints in the sun/And the freckle boys paddle out at Curly/Mascot smells sweeter than eucalypt gum/I'm coming home to blue hills in the morning". Is it fair to say Australia remains one of your greatest muses?
It's always been important to me. It was always important to the Oils as well. We never made the call to lob elsewhere and stay there, in part because there was a row of pipes coming out of the continent into our brains, and if we had cut those pipes off I'm not quite sure what would have happened. The other thing is, I believe the physicality of Australia is so powerful, it's so elemental in the First People's culture, and I think it breathes. I think the land is a really important part of who we are as people.
"Only One" reads like a love song to your wife, Doris. Is that a new lyrical approach for you?
I'd say so, it is pretty new. There's the odd song in the Oils repertoire, but it's all a bit abstract. The louder, more upfront, big chorusy sort of stuff tended to sweep over whatever abstractions we managed to sneak on the records.
The thing about this stuff is, if you're doing it on your own terms, I feel comfortable about it 'cause I feel the song is true to my feelings and I'm quite happy for other people to listen to it. As opposed to someone prying into your life and wanting to exfoliate your private life for the purposes of selling something. This is my exfoliation. I'm comfortable with that.
Since you were last musically active the music industry has changed almost beyond recognition. What are you finding hardest to get your head around?
It's totally turned on its head, 'cause it's a digital delivery system. And songs and performances have become completely devalued in some ways, but are much more accessible and have the capacity to travel greater distances than before. I guess I'm comfortable with it because I have no choice.
Have the changes been good?
Apart from one aspect of it, which I think frustrates and saddens many musicians and artists, which is this idea that there isn't any intrinsic worth in what they do, and they can be commodified very quickly, and screwed over without a moment's pause. And there's a public who's loving the idea that they can get this music whenever and however, and the returns to the musicians to make even a basic living – I'm not talking about myself, I stress that – is totally of secondary consideration.
I believe copyright is still important in the digital age. I think the rubbish that I hear spewing from the mouths of digital captains of industry about "copyright's an old fashioned concept" is just greed in disguise. We have worth in what we do, as a writer would, as a sculptor would, as someone who creates something new. And I think that is disintegrating under the new model. The plusses of course are that you can do it all yourself, you can do it quickly and easily and cheaply, there's lots more live touring. And you can be creative across the platforms in ways that really mesh your creative ideas as an artist, and someone can be listening to it in Bolivia or Finland at the same time as they're listening to it in Brunswick or Rooty Hill. That's pretty amazing.
When we spoke at the listening session, you mentioned you'd had to disengage the creative side of your brain when you entered politics. Did it feel like part of you was missing?
I don't think quite in that way. It's inevitable that the more you engage with the mechanistics of social change campaigns and all of the nuts and bolts that go with that that the free, open space that you need for creativity shrinks bit by bit. And certainly by the time I got to politics it had shrunk down to the size of a cashew. I was vaguely conscious of the fact it was gone, but I never had time to worry about it.
While your solo project has come together very organically, the reunion of Midnight Oil has also been bubbling away, presumably in slightly less organic fashion. When was it first mooted?
I can't remember the exact order of events or timing. [The other members] dropped a couple of hints over the last year or two that they'd be up for it. I never thought it wouldn't happen, it was just a question of would the conditions be right, would the stars line up? Would the Ides of March essentially pause for a second and allow spring time to come through and get us all somewhere where we could talk about it and see if we wanted to do it, and if the answer to that was yes, which it is, then how are we going to do it, which we're still talking about. It's got the elements of the juggernaut and we want to turn it into a hot rod.
What stars had to align?
Availability of people. A sense of, what do we have to say, what have we got to do musically? How can we do it in a way which feels true to what Midnight Oil is as a band? And has it got a hard centre and some content and a bit of heart to it?
And do you have the answers to those questions?
Some of them I think, and we'll work our way through the others.
Have you played together yet?
What did you miss most about the Oils?
The hours. [Laughs]
And the company. The hours and the company.
Rob Hirst [drums] told us he thinks you all became better friends after the band split. Do you agree?
The five of us? Maybe that's right. [Pause] I think that holding a band together is never an easy thing for a long period of time, and I think the thing that's always bound us together pretty strongly was the music, plus add-on values. If you've got a singer who's thrown himself into a whole range of other things, but particularly something as serious and as big and potentially career threatening as politics, it's either going to finish you off all together, or bring you closer. And I think the fact that it's brought us closer is probably one reason why we can go out and play.
How did it bring you closer?
People would have known, because we've all spent so much time together, that I wasn't going to let them down in what I did, and that no matter what the day-to-day ratbaggery was, that ultimately someone would emerge out the other end of it who's still vaguely recognisable as a Midnight Oil person.
Even in the Oils' heyday you were involved in myriad political and social causes via your work with organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace. Did that give you a grounding to deal with the follies of the music industry?
Yeah, quite often it just looks like a silly joke, and people take themselves too seriously and carry on as though they're a cross between Rodin and Shakespeare, and they're nothing of the sort. By the same token, I'm never happier than when I've got a big loud rock band onstage and I can just jump.
You were in your late-30s when 'Diesel and Dust' exploded around the world. Did that also play a role in steering you away from the excesses on offer?
I think rumours of our semi kind of Amish characters are slightly exaggerated. [Laughs] I don't mind hanging out until 5 o'clock in the morning playing pool with a bunch of musos, drinking beer and carrying on, but just stay out of jail at the same time. [Laughs]
The Oils were always a very driven band, but at the same time quite contemptuous of success. You famously turned down an offer to play at the Grammys in 1988 to return home and co-host a reconciliation event. Do you think you could have been bigger had you played the game?
I think we could have, but I'm not sure we'd still be here today. And it wasn't going to be the right place for us to be as people. There's a stubbornness and a singularity about the character of the band that doesn't suit constant schmoozing and putting yourself out there and doing anything to get to that next point that an industry reckons is the place for you to be. And I think we derived so much of our meaning from what we were actually doing and what we were playing and how we were sounding and some of the things we were involved in, that you can feel it draining. The longer you spend out the more the tank is starting to be drained. And then eventually, once the tank is drained, one of two things happens – you've either got to fuel it up with other things, or you just end up on automatic. And the Oils were never a band that played on automatic. And if we ever heard it starting to creep in we'd think, where's that Qantas plane?
So what are you looking forward to with the reunion?
I haven't really thought that far ahead. Seeing Bones [Hillman, bass], I haven't seen him for a while, he's probably got some good war stories from Nashville. I think when we get in a room and put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on and start to play, that will be a distillation of a life in a moment. There'll be a period of quiet and then it will be incredibly noisy, but in that noise I'll hear and see the stories and the relationships and the character of music makers and performers and writers, who have been in a partnership for a long time. And I think from that point on it can only get better.
In 'Big Blue Sky' you write about the scene of which Midnight Oil was a part in the Seventies. It reads like a lawless place where promoters locked fire exits to overcrowded venues to stop people sneaking in, and alcohol regulations were almost non existent. Is that a fair assessment?
It was the outlaw land, and you had to be reckless and a little bit fearless, at least when you were in the moment.
Jimmy Barnes once told me a story about an Oils pub gig that was so hot, he was throwing full cans of beer at the windows to try and break them in order to get some fresh air into the venue...
[Laughs] I guess I'm at that stage of life where I do consider myself incredibly lucky to be alive, even though it wasn't like we were courting death. But we just pushed it way past the point that you thought you would go. But the music carried you there, and the crowd as well, and we were sharing something that you couldn't get anywhere else in suburban life. And particularly for people, in periods of high youth unemployment, this was it.
We weren't going to places that had been built for music, we were going to little places that had been built to drink beer in, so the fact that suddenly the walls are changing colour, and you've got your own internal ecosystem happening, and rain is falling from inside the room, and oxygen is literally getting sucked out and the air's getting all dead, but the sound is still there, and the amps are almost peaking themselves, 'cause that's all you've got left, the electricity that's coming off the stage into almost a cauldron of bodies. It is actually hard to describe.
But for me, even though I think fire regulations are a good thing to have and we were lucky more people weren't badly hurt, I think we've swung too far the other way now. And the tameness and the placidness of overly protective environments that we have to make music in... even national parks have got 75 signs telling you what you should and shouldn't be doing, and take care walking here, and look over there because there's a cliff. I find the nanny state aspect of mini bureaucracy and regulation across things like entertainment and the outdoors utterly stultifying. And I feel furious about it. I want kids to skateboard down mountains.
It feels like a peculiarly Australian condition at the moment.
We're more bureaucratic than you can ever believe, it's totally out of control. It's funny, it's the sort of thing that doesn't really go with our character, but it's certainly happening.
In things like the lock-out laws?
It's ridiculous. I came down to have a drink with my daughter and some friends at a pub [in Newtown], and a [bouncer], it has to be said a few years younger than me, asked me what I'd been doing and whether I'd been drinking or not. This is at 7 o'clock on a Saturday night. And I told him to get stuffed, it was none of his business. And then he wanted to say, "Well stand over here", and I said, "Under no circumstances! Furthermore, I'm about to give you a lecture on about 10 different subjects. Get your superiors here while we go through them." And eventually I had him, the manager, his supervisor, and I was just giving it to them, and they were like, "Oh, OK, Peter, we'd better let you in." There is no power or authority whatsoever. Where have the rights of the citizen gone in this nanny state that we've created in New South Wales? It's totally outrageous.
What do you think the solution is?
Two things. You've got to liberalise licensing laws, so that you get precincts that buy into the idea of civilised drinking, and you don't allow people to litigate against noise [and] music if they happen to come into an area and buy a house or a flat next to a pub or club.
But on the other side, we've got a long way to go with alcohol and alcohol culture generally, and that's an education process that's going to take time, and it requires us to change our attitude about what a good night out actually means.
In your book you write of seeing the Faces live in the early Seventies and being disappointed. Did that experience reinforce for you what you wanted to be as a live performer?
I don't think in a classic, a + b equals c, it was more [that] it reinforced to me that what I would want to do is do what I would want to see.
You also reference the fact that in the early days you weren't much of a singer. Is that why you threw so much at your live performance? To compensate?
I've never been under any illusions about my technical abilities as a singer, but I've also never bought the idea that I can't sing.
Not even in those early days when record companies were passing Midnight Oil by, ostensibly because of your singing?
No. That's why I ignored the singing teacher. In fact I think everyone can sing. And I think I'm evidence of that. I believe in the democracy of the voice, and of voices; that no one is tone deaf, no one can't sing. Some people can sing better than others, but it's really what you bring to that business of singing, and what you're singing about, that ultimately makes a difference. Give me a Welch choir singing about coal mines, give me the blues artists of the U.S. singing about coming out of slavery, and give me world music artists singing about their own country and describing what's happening there and the feelings they have for it and what they want to see happen, and I'll give you life.
"Where have the rights of the citizen gone in this nanny state that we've created in New South Wales?"
Who encouraged you when you were coming through the ranks? Was there someone who saw something in you and really encouraged you to keep going?
Not a lot. Greg Macainsh and Red Symons and the guys from Skyhooks I'd run into very early on when I was still in a student band in Canberra, and they were about the only people who ever encouraged me, in that period. But I am the kind of person who does have a reasonable amount of self belief. I'm not trying to second guess what people think. I love music, I've been listening to it all my life. I've sung in choirs, I thought the sound that the Oils were making was just cracking the place apart, so I knew I could be in the middle of it all, making it work. It was obviously going to take a while to figure out how to do that, and you've got to work at it. But no, I'm not somebody who suffers the anxiety of other people's opinions.
Who nurtured your interest in music?
Growing up in a house where music is played, for any musician, gives you a great starting point. And particularly if your parents have got pretty eclectic taste, which mine did. So I grew up listening to classical, blues, early rock & roll, Presley et al, Gershwin, and then the expanding popular music genres. That, and choral music, were my first two big loves. So on the one hand it's the classic thing: the devil's got the really good sounds, but sometimes the good melodies and the structures you find in the cloisters.
Were your parents supportive of you favouring a music career over law?
They were. They were pretty happy for me to keep going with it and give it a go. Parenting is so hands on nowadays. They just kind of let me do it: "OK, if that's what you want to do, go and do it and who knows where you'll end up."
In the song "I'd Do It Again" you make it clear you have no regrets about your move into politics. But are there things you know now you wish you didn't?
No, of course not.
I'm not suggesting you didn't go in with your eyes open. But were you prepared for the level of "twisted egos and ambitions" and "glory hunters... basking in false smiles" that you sing of in the song?
Well, I didn't expect to get Rudd as a leader. When I went into the Party Mark Latham was the leader. And there'd been leaders before that who I'd known well, and I liked Kim Beazley. I would have supported Beazley. With the benefit of hindsight I think he would have been a really good prime minister. But apart from those sorts of things, the what happens there and how it works, those people are no different to you and I. For some of them, politics has been a calling, and you could argue quite rightly it's made it a bit narrow, and it's not as inspiring as it could be, but it's not a bunch of people with horns. It's just a bunch of Australians who happen to be elected to office.
Can you understand why the public loses faith in those people? Politics often feels like it's been reduced to a slanging match between two major parties who aren't elected for long enough to make a real difference, fought out on the front pages of the papers, each of which has its own agenda and bias.
The democratic state is much more difficult to work in effectively, because of the things you've just pointed out. When Menzies was the Prime Minister of Australia he used to get on a boat and go to England. Chifley used to catch a train to go to work. Media stopped at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and started at 9 o'clock the next morning, and [now] it's insatiable. It's ever demanding, it's relentless, it's constantly critical, it's always looking for the worst and never the best. I'm not saying it's the problem, I'm just saying it's the character of the media now, or a lot of media.
The terms are too short. Government's a big, complex beast, and the kind of reforms that I rolled my sleeves up and got stuck into are the kinds of things that take years and years to get done. And the fact that we got some out the door was nothing short of a miracle, given everything that was going on around us.
Australians are too tough on Australia at times, because we're frustrated about the things that we want fixed now, and can see need fixing, and we want the system to deliver that, and we have every right to shout about that, and to vote for it, and to get on the streets for it. But we've got to balance that up at some time in our thinking with understanding what we have done that's been pretty good, why people want to come here, and what do we have that others don't and how can we build on it. And that's about participation, as opposed to just complaining. We just can't keep on complaining. I believe very strongly you've got to participate, in whatever way you can. And I don't mind if people participate and vote for the National Party. The fact that Barnaby Joyce is a goose who doesn't believe in climate change is actually not that relevant. At least get involved.
Do you think we as a country whinge too much?
I believe very strongly in the country, and democracy is not perfect, there's no doubt about that. It just happens to be the best system we've devised thus far. But it's not simply enough to continually criticise it and nothing else. And to sit and believe that at any time of the day, because someone says something a bit dopey, or makes a mistake, that this shows how the system is completely wrong. Well, you either have people who are human, or you have a general telling you what to do, or you have a wacko like Donald Trump, who's saying whatever he thinks 'cause he's playing to a certain crowd.
You mention the media – when you were in office how frustrating was it to see successful initiatives or achievements overlooked in favour of salacious headlines around intra-party squabbling, leadership challenges, and so on?
I think the key thing is you're not there to get something done, say like a new fairer funding system for schools, so you can have your name up in lights. You're there because you believe that this might make a difference to the country, and it will. But it is intensely frustrating when no one knows that you are doing it, and so either has no opportunity to agree or disagree, or provide input, because the daily colour and movement is all about conflict and inanity. And I certainly did find that frustrating. That's partly why I did the book, because I realised that people didn't know what had been done and what I was proud of and what I was proud of the government doing. And I'm honest about the things that went wrong for us, but I also thought that the ambition and the reach, of both governments, but certainly the Gillard government, was big, and deserved a little bit of oxygen.
In 'Big Blue Sky' you address the home insulation program and the fact that four young installers lost their lives, leading then Opposition leader Tony Abbott to accuse you of "industrial manslaughter". The book offers you the opportunity to explain your position and the circumstances surrounding those tragedies. The press didn't give you that chance at the time, which must have been more soul destroying than frustrating?
But once the media's made up its mind that it needs a scapegoat, particularly a pretty visible one, the facts cease to count on that issue very early on. You've just got to hang in and do the best that you can.
So you could just shelve your emotions?
If you're going to enter public office, you're not baulking at the first sign of grapeshot, you're there to get the job done the best that you can. And I think you have to be quite clear and focused on that, otherwise you will get swept off course.
In the song "No Placebo" you sing of being at ease with your mortality. How are you finding the ageing process?
You can't hold it off. And this idea that you should try and hold it off, and that when you get there it's just seven grades of shit, is craziness. There are plenty of people who've done their best work when they're well past three score and 10 years or five years or whatever the [saying] is. You're lucky if you clock up some years and get a bit of perspective on things but still have an appetite for doing more. So I'm not really thinking about the numbers at all, I'm thinking about the view. But the word retirement is a word that's not in my vocabulary. I don't like the sound of it – re-tire-ment. I like the sound of, "Can we record this now?" [Laughs]
So there are no plans to slow down?
Of course at some point you're heading towards six feet under, but it's what you're doing on the way. I've come across people who've almost been heading towards six feet under and it didn't look to me like they were much over 30, and I've hung out with a few that have been twice that, and it seemed to me that the party never ended.
What are you still passionate about?
Everything. My passions and enthusiasms are pretty much what they have been ever since I started thinking about life and responding to things around me. I don't think you change that much in life. Sometimes you've got to drag yourself, sometimes someone is underneath you, sometimes you sprout wings for half an hour and you flutter to this higher point, sometimes the wings melt and you crash. But that's life in all its beauty and ugliness, and all its joys and all its sorrows. The fullness of it, that's what the passion for living is about, and if you're lucky enough to still be standing, and you've got songs dancing around you, then you should record them and sing them.
And play them live. What are you expecting of your upcoming solo shows?
Playing WaveAid and Sound Relief [the benefit shows that brought Midnight Oil out of retirement in 2005 and 2009 respectively] brought home to me that we did such a phenomenal amount of relentless road work for so many years in that early period, and like any artist or any person, what you do at its most intense in your teens to your early 20s tends to stick with you. And that certainly had stuck to us. It's not like riding a bike, there's more chemistry at play, but it felt entirely right, and I think the stage has always been one of my hangouts. I didn't think I'd be hanging out onstage with other people, but that'll make it more interesting and more unpredictable, and that's a good thing.
From issue #777, available now. Main photograph: Daniel Boud.