Whatever muses there are in Australia's outback appear to have led Midnight Oil full circle, back to the days when the band was simply a cult phenomenon. "If you're real, that's what you've got to do," says vocalist Peter Garrett, referring to the approach the band took with Redneck Wonderland, the fourteenth studio release by Midnight Oil.
"If you stay in the mainstream, you're just going to become bland and washed out and end up on Oprah. We wanted to keep the essence of what the band was, but not have it sound like some kind of state museum piece. We just had the mics hooked up and we tried a bit of everything as we went. For us it's very much a case of, we've made something which we think stands up, so we'll just let it go and consider what to do next. We think it's one of the strongest records we've made this decade."
But even Garrett admits that the overall reaction to Redneck Wonderland, released in the U.S. November 3 and during the summer in Australia, has been lukewarm. The record replaces the band's punky, folk-rock sound with a latter-day industrial vibe. "We've certainly had a mixed response from the fan base," he says. "You know, everyone's got their own very subjective view of it, depending on which country they come from, how old they are, and what music they're listening to. For us, it was just a necessary thing to do, and we're very happy with the way it's come out."
Midnight Oil's popularity had been on a steady ascent since 1976, when Garrett joined Farm, a surf-punk band from Sydney, and they renamed the group. "The Oils," as they would soon be known to their fans, grew more popular Down Under until 1984's Red Sails in the Sunset created the necessity for their first international tour, bringing them into spotlights across Europe and the U.S. But now, many of the fans who discovered them with 1987's Diesel and Dust and 1990's Blue Sky Mining are wondering where Midnight Oil went.
"I think we're bloody-minded," Garrett says, using provincial slang to say the band showed little concern for its own well-being. "That's obvious because we could've tried to repeat the Blue Sky/Diesel sort of period, but we wanted to do very different things. We reacted against what we'd done and weren't interested in just becoming formula writers or performers. Ultimately, I think whatever changes have taken place, I can't tell what they are, because I'm in it, you know? It's just got older and grumpier."
Midnight Oil remains as politically and environmentally active as its politically charged crossover hit "Beds are Burning" (1987). "This record was mainly performed and written at a time when we were going through a really interesting period down here," says Garrett. "We were seeing kind of real right-wing people appear from over the horizon. Not David Duke, but not far off it, you know? That's subsequently run its course, but that was the political backdrop. Calling it Redneck Wonderland really reflects that."
Yet the shift is still evident, even from the new album's song titles, rendering Midnight Oil's music a series of intellectual vestiges of what it once was. The grunginess of "Concrete" and "Blot" has replaced the Australian worldview of cuts like "When the Generals Talk" and "Dreamworld."
"I think we still maintain a fairly healthy contempt for most mainstream pop," Garrett says, "and we're fairly immune to the constant fashion changes and hipness and all that stuff. We're just trying to pursue that meeting ground of musicians where we can come together on a piece of music and work on it, but we're hopefully not being complacent about it. We've kept trying to push things in different ways."
Unfortunately for the band, Australian radio hasn't been so excited about the makeover. "Yeah," Garrett sighs, "radio stations are killing us here. It's pitiful. All I can say is that we share the same complaints [as younger bands], because most of the mainstream radio stations in Australia won't play [the single] "Redneck Wonderland," even though they hammer our back catalog until it's six feet under. We get really expansive radio play in this country, and we always have had, but they're still playing stuff that fits their format. They won't play the new tune; it's frustrating for us."
Similarly, the band has found little need to tour outside Australia. "Well, I think we've reached a stage where we're putting out records which we feel are good. We live and work here. Our cultural and social and psychological contact points are here. Unless we're going to get really overwhelming response from radio and promoters and record companies, then we're not going to go away and sort of go through the motions of doing it. We're quite happy following our muses down here.