Forty years after graduating from ANU, Peter Garrett returned to discuss his new book.

From full stadiums to Parliament House, ANU alumnus Peter Garrett AM has always lived life with power and passion.

As frontman of Midnight Oil, he took Australian music to new heights and used this fame to progress political hot potatoes, including rights for Indigenous peoples and conservation issues.

From this, a political career ensued and led to him becoming a Minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

After leaving politics, Garrett has taken the time to write about his life in Big Blue Sky: A Memoir. He returned to ANU to launch his book.

What’s more important, the music or the message?

Music, for a band at least, must come first, then you start to pick things up.

I did my arts and politics degree here at ANU and then finished up at University of NSW and, through those years, I started to interact with people.

It’s a process of osmosis in some ways, you’re not starting off trying to write a manifesto and you’re not seeming like you have all the answers.

Because we weren’t interested in the idea of getting into the charts or going on TV, like other bands were, it was different for us.

We were more besotted with the idea of how five quite different individuals can wrestle our sound together and then add some words in so it worked for us.

We then wanted to maybe take it out and do something further with it.

You had many of your formative musical years in Canberra and at ANU, do you miss it?

Much of my musical life is bound up in this town and subsequently when we began to play here.

As some of you will know, even at the time when we were achieving a great deal of popularity, we still wanted to come and play at the places like the ANU Bar where we were a bit closer to people because the energy of the audience and what was happening on stage were so palpable.

It lifted us as a band.

Can you explain how you became the frontman of Midnight Oil after answering an ad in The Sydney Morning Herald?

Yeah, that says something about me. What self-respecting rebel without a cause is reading at 9am?

I then turned up at 11am on the dot to do the audition and I only really succeeded because there were no other applicants.

As I write in the book, the Oils said ‘you’ve got it’ and we went on a tour of the NSW South Coast, down as far as Batemans Bay. The band then went back to Sydney and I came back to Canberra to keep studying.

They went on and tried to look for another singer. It wasn’t until a year later until I moved up to Sydney full time when things clicked.

Midnight Oil. Photo: Oliver Eclipse

You write in your book about your early musical experiences in Canberra, what were your favourite?

It’s easy for us to look through the past in rose coloured glasses but, gee, there was a lot of music around here at the end of the ’60s and start of the ’70s.

Many people came through to play and I think for some of them they wondered why they were here.

[US blues musician] Muddy Waters played in a circus tent at Lyneham. It was an unbelievable show. To this day, all our popular music is still rooted in the blues.

It does really help if you can get that close to somebody who’s truly so immersed in what they were doing. I was mesmerised.

How much of an influence on Midnight Oil was Slim Dusty?

We thought we marched to the beat of the same drum, in part because we discovered Slim was the first person to play in towns where we thought we were the first.

He was an influence because he wasn’t pandering to the American sound. You still hear it, most performers were in effect mimicking overseas performers, primarily American.

I think Slim had a genuine authenticity to him, even if the music wasn’t exactly to our taste.

Environmentalist Phillip Toyne was a great mentor to you. How did he convince you to move into politics?

Apart from the impact of family and friends, whatever I’ve been involved in has been the product of other people’s efforts and engagement working with me.

I’ve been very lucky working with the Oils. I was very lucky working with Phillip Toyne as part of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

He was a lawyer who grew up in Victoria and spent time in central Australia. He was part of the team that negotiated the handback of Uluru.

During the Hawke and Keating governments, I came back to Canberra and there was a lot of big synchronised movements happening. This was particularly around the issues of forests.

Phillip was smart and switched on and as soon as I’d finished my music career he was on the phone about my political career.

Why the Australian Labor Party?

As the Oils, we’d been an unofficial Labor campaign base in a very Liberal seat on Sydney’s north shore.

[Former Australian Greens leader] Bob Brown had approached me and I was approached by the Democrats at one stage too.

I felt Labor would suit me and that if I looked at Australia’s modern history – there’s still a big gap with reconciliation – but most of the social reforms have come through Labor governments.

It was the right place for me to go and I don’t regret it at all. We got a lot done, even though it was difficult with the Rudd-Gillard stuff.

Top image: Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett. Photo: Dania Distortion

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