Peter Garrett: 'I Am Feeling The Greatest Sense Of Urgency Right Now'

15 March 2024 | 10:00 am | Noel Mengel

Midnight Oil might have reached the end of the road, but Peter Garrett’s creative drive is as vigorous as ever as he delivers a new album and tour with his band, The Alter Egos.

Peter Garrett

Peter Garrett (Credit: Kane Hibberd)

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One door closes. But you never expected Peter Garrett to give up the fight, did you? 

Midnight Oil played their last shows in 2022, after a run of touring performances as powerful and emotionally charged as any they had delivered in 50 years as one of the most exciting live bands on the planet.

And the sense of purpose that always fuelled their music is still front and centre with Garrett’s second solo album, The True North.

The album draws inspiration from the natural world and Australia’s northern regions. Some songs directly address serious issues; others have broader brush strokes. But the call to action in Garrett’s music is undimmed.

“I am feeling the greatest sense of urgency right now,” Garrett says. “Maybe it's my date of birth; maybe it's partly because of what's around us. And I am still trying to sum it up in a song that works musically.”

Meltdown is just the kind of lyric that could have driven an Oils anthem—“We’re now living in a very wild world/ We’re boiling frogs.” So is Innocence Parts 1 & 2, calling out the empire builders, short sellers, rich listers, and tax dodgers. There is room for hope, too: “It’s never too late” is another recurrent theme throughout the album.

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“I really do believe that as much as we live in weird and sometimes dangerous times, at the same time, humans have always shown this capacity to get past the bad that might be happening to create something good,” Garrett says. 

Innocence Part 2 is a spoken-word piece: “I had to say in a narrative what we’re witnessing at the moment, particularly the moral cowardice of much of our political institutions, and the criminal negligence of some of the companies that are causing the problems.”

“Weary of heart and mind”, the song concludes. “Not I.”

Garrett is keenly aware of the fine balance in crafting a song with a polemic message and delivering it in a way that can reach beyond the already converted.

“People who have followed my career know pretty much the things that I feel are important. At the same time, I want to make music that's really compelling, where someone new might come to it who doesn't know anything about what we're doing and maybe even doesn't care. 

“I feel lucky to have been in a band of musicians and activists and writers so we could share the load. But I was always over-committed in a way and I had to provide a bit of space for myself outside that to let the creative juices flow.”

He does that with The Alter Egos, with Martin Rotsey from the Oils on guitar, Heather Shannon (The Jezabels) on keys and guitar, Evan Mannell on drums and bassist Rowan Lane. Peter’s daughters, May and Grace, added backing vocals, and Grace provided the striking cover art. 

The method of working with his old friend Martin remains unchanged.

“It's probably a bit of a mystery to the producers and other musicians in the studio, but somehow we seem to agree on things without talking much,” Garrett says. “That’s pretty much what the Oils did too.”

The album’s title tune shimmers like a tropical sun on water and sums up another of Garrett’s enduring themes: This place is precious. We have to look after it.

“That northern expanse of Australia is a place of great cultural importance and significance for first Australians and a place of immense natural beauty. There's a lot at stake in our stewardship of a place unlike anything else in the world. It's a really important part of our country and I wanted that to be reflected in that track and in the album as a whole. 

“This is why we sing these songs. We're not in a Marvel comic or just sending a bunch of selfies out on social media. We're looking at the nuts and bolts of our existence, the social and political aspects of our existence. We’re wrestling with that and trying to remake them.”

While he knows the north well, Permaflow is one of the songs from closer to home: “I do a lot of walking around the streets at night. People are bumping into me because they're on their phones, couples not talking to one another in restaurants because they’re on their phones. Going past apartment blocks, seeing the flickering lights coming from the windows and knowing that many people in there are totally connected to a world but alone.

“Most of these songs came about that way. I was looking for the immediacy of the moment and trying to capture something. It’s a little bit like holding the sand in your hand and trying to hold on to as much of the precious metal as you can before it gets washed away.”

Paddo came from the street too.

“I was walking towards the Sydney Cricket Ground, getting ready for the footy, and there was an election on. I was picking up on the sights and sounds and trying to take an imaginative leap to marry those powerful forces into a tune.”

All winning streaks end the same way, the song says. And not just the ones on the sporting field. 

“It's another way of trying to come to the unthinkable without saying it in a way that no one wants to think about,” Garrett says.

“It's the paradox of creativity. If you do want to stay connected to your time and not just be navel-gazing endlessly, then you always get to those forks in the road with a piece of music. Hopefully the music will lead you out the other side. I feel all of these songs do that.”

Garrett’s career has been unlike any other in Australia: activist, politician, Minister in government, and member of one of our greatest bands. Does he rate Midnight Oil as his most significant achievement?

“I don’t weigh them because they are all their own thing. You could say Midnight Oil’s greatest achievement was to survive for so long. We weren’t the kind of people who were chasing the Holy Grail. But we were certainly chasing the sweet spot of music-making, ideas, and lyrics and trying to get them in our form and then play them as strong as we could.”

The wins elsewhere could be just as sweet. Garrett’s two terms as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation saw additions to national parks, and as Environment Minister, he was closely involved with the International Court of Justice case against Japanese whaling. As a result, the whale population in the Southern Ocean is now much healthier. 

Like politics, maintaining a successful touring band can be a massive undertaking. Was there a sense of relief at the end?

“I think it just felt like the right time,” Garrett says. “Every night, we had to summon up that energy to make that show as much of a visceral, physical, total experience you possibly could. It was what the music demanded of us; there's no other way to play a Midnight Oil song. That sounds simple, but that’s the truth of it.

“So there is massive gratefulness for having had that working life in the band with those people, but now I’m enjoying a bit of open space to see where the songs take us, getting on a stage with different sorts of musicians and letting them do their thing. You know, out of one frying pan and into another!”

The True North is out now via Sony Music Australia - buy or stream the album here. Peter Garrett is now touring – you can find tickets here.



with special guests

Thursday 14 March - Canberra Theatre, Canberra

Friday 15 March - The Factory Theatre, Sydney**

Wednesday 20 March - Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne**

Friday 22 March - Hindley Street Music Hall, Adelaide**

Saturday 23 March- The Regal Theatre, Perth

Thursday 28 March - Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns***

Saturday 30 March - The Tivoli, Brisbane


Sunday 31 March 2024 - Bluesfest, Byron Bay (Tickets here)

All ages except ** 18+ and *** 15+