Show 'n' tell: Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil

Throughout its 25-year history, Midnight Oil has never taken the easy or obvious road. In the process, the socially conscious Australian outfit has recorded 14 albums of edgy no-nonsense guitar rock that defiantly espouses activist themes in its melodic and memorable choruses. Charismatic, bald 7-footer Peter Garrett is the Mr. Clean of rock frontmen, his flailing, riveting stage presence adding further intensity to Midnight Oil's angular songs. Their audience has dwindled since its '80s run of MTV popularity; its last U.S. release, 1998's scrappy Redneck Wonderland, didn't graze the Billboard charts. But they've never stopped working and remain dedicated to the smaller, more devoted fan base outside their home continent. We spoke recently with the always-articulate, dry-witted Garrett, who is not only a rocker but also an attorney who launched a failed bid for the 1984 Australian Senate.

Creative Loafing: What have you been doing since you toured the States nearly five years ago?

Peter Garrett: Well, mate, we have our own idiosyncratic and completely non-career-related time-clock that propels us through life. We've been busy making music, releasing albums and touring a great deal. But we've chosen to do most of it in Australia for the last few years. We felt it was important to maintain that connection with where we live and not get stuck on the conveyer belt of pop. But at the same time, we realize that if we didn't get back out and reacquaint ourselves with our audience, the "where are they now?" file would get closed.

How about a new album?

We just finished recording [Capricornica] with Warren Livesey, who we did Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining with. It comes out worldwide in the new year. We're testing some songs on this tour.

Why do a tour before the album comes out?

Midnight Oil has had an amazingly turbulent and visible-then-invisible career, but it's a career that has sustained us, in part, because we've always had an audience to play to. We feel it's important to get down to the gut essential, which is the connection between the troubadour who comes to town and the person who finishes work or school and wants to go out to be entertained and stimulated. The churn-and-burn aspect of the record industry is extremely punishing and grueling for us. It was better to be back in people's faces, to pull those out of the woodwork who really want something of substance instead of the predictable pettiness of pop, and also to get industry people to check out the band and understand where we're at. We'll bring the album in after that and do something more extensive.

After 25 years, what keeps you fresh as a group?

Probably a lack of conspicuous phenomenal global success. We've also given ourselves space to do other things and not be tied to the band. We haven't been fixated on where we sit on the charts and have been much more interested as a bunch of people who first had the hairs on the back of their heads stand up because of the noise we were making. That still happens. We're still doing it because we love it. Also, we haven't been fad- or fashion-driven, but driven as people who believe that we've got a social and political part of our bodies that needs sustenance as well. We've played to an enduring audience that feels the same way. At the end of the day, music has a capacity not only to move other people, but also to move the people that make it. So we go out and do it all over again.

How have you been affected as a band by the events of Sept. 11?

We were grieved and shocked by what happened, but we certainly didn't consider canceling the tour. In a sense, not being intimidated, cautious or fearful is a better response than anything else. We're for peace, but at the same time we feel there should be a just reaction to what happened. But it goes further — that it not become a vendetta but an opportunity for examining the issues that lie behind those dreadful acts. Obviously that includes matters between the Palestinians and Israelis, but it also includes the relationship between the lack of democracy in the Gulf and the supply of oil from those areas. Yet it's not our job to come out as foreign policy analysts. We've got a reaction as musicians, so we've played with the set, adding songs that either resonate with us or are part of the catalog, and playing new ones to make everyone have a fully satisfied and music-inhabited night.

Midnight Oil plays Wed., Nov. 7, at EarthLink Live, 1374 W. Peachtree St. Show time is 8 p.m. $26. 404-885-1365. www.earthlinklive.com.??