Midnight Oil Gushing Over Return To Political Rock

Aussie-activist group imbues pop with electronic effects to come up with 12th album, Redneck Wonderland.

The members of Australian politico-rock band Midnight Oil have never been subtle about their passions.

Take, for instance, the title of their recently released 12th album, the hard-hitting Redneck Wonderland.

"Most pop music is structured around the idea that 'I want you to like me and like what I'm saying and buy my record,' " bald, towering Peter Garrett, the band's lead singer, said.

"But our M.O. is very different from that. When stuff is going on that is intolerable, and which makes us think things are out of balance or lacking wisdom, we will respond to it very strongly."

On the 12-song Redneck Wonderland, they respond with a rock sound more strident than their two previous albums, while lacing a few tunes with some futuristic electronic effects.

The new recording marks a return to the outspoken activism of such landmark Midnight Oil albums as 1987's multi-platinum Diesel and Dust and 1990's Blue Sky Mining.

Redneck Wonderland first was conceived during 1997. Garrett and drummer Rob Hirst, the band's primary songwriter, said they watched in horror that year as their country began what they described as a move toward more conservative politics with racist overtones.

"The name of the album is a direct reaction to what was going on," Hirst said. He added that the title was inspired by a piece of graffiti the group saw on a wall in the Australian town of South Yarra.

"It was a period in Australian history that has taken us back to the 1950s," Hirst continued, "just at a time when the Aboriginal people were about to get some natural justice and when we thought racial antagonization was something left in the past."

The band's reaction is immediately apparent on the album's title track (RealAudio excerpt), an electronica-meets-rock number wherein Garrett spits the lyrics, "Emergency has gone/ Apathy rolling on/ Time to take a stand."

The song is one of several on the album that reunite the group -- Garrett, Hirst, keyboardist James Moginie, bassist Bones Hillman and guitarist Martin Rotsey -- with producer Wayne Livesey, who was at the controls for both Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining.

At the same time they were returning to their most successful artist/producer relationship, Midnight Oil stretched into a new direction with such tracks as the haunting blues tune "Safety Chain Blues" -- on which the band was assisted by the in-demand, experimental Australian producer Magoo (Regurgitator, Front End Loader).

"I think that experimental thing has always been there," Garrett, 45, said, pointing to the group's use of samplers as far back as the 1982 album 10...1. "But Magoo is really open to taking chances, and so are we, and, frankly, I don't think we went far enough."

While Garrett said he makes no claims about pushing the envelope on the album, several tracks feature the group experimenting with a sound that goes beyond its familiar, political-rock anthems.

"White Skin Black Heart" (RealAudio excerpt) -- a song featured on last year's greatest-hits collection, 20,000 Watt RSL -- is a visceral, pointed commentary on hypocrisy and racism. Garrett said the song simply fit the mood of what he and the bandmembers felt was going on in their home country.

A seething piece with a pile-up drum crash and buzz-saw guitars, "White Skin Black Heart" has the feel of a remixed dance track. The song also features a style Garrett said is old hat for him -- rapping.

"I was rapping before [Blondie leader] Deborah Harry," Garrett said, pointing to his work on the 1985 anti-apartheid benefit album, Artists United Against Apartheid.

Continuing with the type of activism rife in such new songs as the environmentally themed "Concrete" and the urgent rocker "Cemetery in My Mind," Garrett recently returned to his role as the "figurehead" leader of the environmental group the Australian Conservation Foundation.

"We, hopefully, are not completely immune to seeing with our eyes and hearing with our ears," Garrett said of the mix of politics and pop that is Midnight Oil's lifeblood.

"We have never subscribed to the pop-escape thing. Part of the fuel that makes Midnight Oil combust is what's happening in the media and the public discourse.

"At the same time, it's not the job of the songwriter to tell you how to think," he added. "It's a mistake to think that just because you sing about X, people will think X is true."