Off the Leash

This was used in “Off the Leash” for publicity for Neil Murray and myself’s Darwin gig at the Darwin Entertainment Centre, September 2013.


Q: Tell us about the first time that you and Neil met?

I know I met him before this, backstage somewhere like Selina’s, but the first time we really spoke was on day 1 of the Blackfella Whitefella tour, out at Yulara Resort. We were throwing swags and amps into the back of the truck. The Warumpis were a bit late getting there, a day or two, but in the bush that’s kind of acceptable. Things happen, you know? I said ‘Where have you guys been?’ I think he looked a bit frustrated by the silliness of the question, and by his lateness as well.

Q: What were your first impressions of Neil?

Being a guitar player, they tend to bond better with each other than those alien creatures, the lead singers or the drummers.
I liked his country ways: laconic, laid back, dry humour, and he’s very honest. Neil will look you straight in the eye in conversation and call a spade a spade if necessary.

Q: In 1986 you and your band mates in Midnight Oil headed to the Red Centre to tour with the Warumpi Band … what was the aim of the tour?

We wanted to see the conditions out there as whitefellas from the Sydney suburbs. We’d heard all the usual things about all the problems there, but wanted a closer look, going with the Warumpis was brilliant because we loved them as a band and suddenly we were on their home turf and we were way out of ours. To our amazement we found the country was full of art, humour, ancient tradition, beauty, great people and an amazing landscape. The experience was distilled onto the Diesel and Dust album, an attempt to record our impressions of our experience in that place and with those people, an album that was given rites of passage all over the world. Who would have thought?

Q: What were your thoughts on seeing Warumpi Band play for the first time at Docker River?

I loved them, they were rocky but their music was kind of inclusive and was about something, something good. Songs like ‘Gotta be Strong’ I loved that one. They had only done that one album at that point, ‘Big Name No Blankets’ I think. Warumpis had a punky, Oz rock and reggae influenced sound, but with anthemic rock and country type songs. Their lead singer was a force to be reckoned with, an amazing presence. I could really relate to Sammy Butcher, the guitar player who hid in the shadows and to Neil’s cut off shirt and Stratocaster type guitar.

That was the first real gig of the tour. Our dinner got eaten by crows because we left it on some soccer nets to avoid the dogs getting it. There were dogs and campfires in front of the stage and the local people huddled around them with blankets draped over them.  It wasn’t our usual environment, which was drunk people and broken glass on the floor of the suburban pub. It was a dry community. Red dirt and kids running everywhere.

Q: You hadn’t had much contact with Aboriginal Australia prior to the tour – how did life change for you after that experience?

No, as a suburban boy I had never met many Aboriginal people.

Well the first thing that happened was Midnight Oil became a world band on the basis of that one song ‘Beds are Burning’. So life became very much more hectic. Somehow it was the karma of the song and the sound of it that gave us rites of passage onto the world stage. We were wanted everywhere all over the world, and this was our big chance. When it comes, you have to grab it with both hands but it’s hard to maintain it for a long time. We toured solidly from 1988 through to 1995 overseas. We had a great run for many years after that too.

I always say my life is divided into two parts, the part before that desert and Top End tour, and the part after. It really was like some kind of acid trip. Nothing was the same afterwards, the whole world looked different through the prism of that experience. What it means to be Australian, what it means to be white.

Q: What did you learn about Neil on that tour?

I learnt he was a decent and unassuming bloke and a good bushman with all his time out at Papunya, with a true understanding of Aboriginal ways and language. It was a load keeping Warumpis going but he and Cookie did as great a job as they could so there was a toughness there.

I could see he was a great writer. I saw him playing for the singer for the first time, ‘My Island Home’, which Neil wrote for him as a coastal man living in the Western Desert.  I lay on a hammock on a tropical late afternoon up in Maningrida listening. Neil loves rock too, but there always has to be a tune.

Q: What quality do you most admire in Neil?

His dogged nature. He is a force, the quality and output of his songwriting, performances and book writing would put any one else to shame. As careers go up and down, he doesn’t give a rat’s about that and pursues the work. That is the epitome of cool.

Q: Has Neil changed much over the course of your friendship? If so, how?

I don’t think he has changed at all, if anything he’s become more sage like and philosophical like most of us! He’s a stoic, and a bit of a Scot at heart. But he loves a drink and a chat.

Q: In your opinion, when’s Neil happiest?

After a good gig where a few people turn up and he’s appreciated for who he is. He’s an artist who is on a path and is completely true to himself…but it’s also good to be loved.

Q: You’re both coming to Darwin in October to perform – what should the audience expect?

A lot of good songs which we’ve rehearsed and the odd story unrehearsed. I love playing on Neil’s songs. They’re wide open and magical to me. We’ll be playing some from my back pages as well. It’ll be like playing songs around a campfire, but onstage. I’ll be providing textures, ambiences, and the odd fiery lick.

Q: There’s a new Federal Government – what are your greatest fears and hopes regarding the new leadership?

The fear is that they will take us back to the Stone Age. The mining port in the Barrier Reef: the winding back of marine parks etc. As you get older you see the cycles of it, a social progressive government who then wear out their welcome, to be replaced by a conservative government who might get the books in order, who then wear out their welcome to be replaced by a socially progressive government. The pendulum of democracy. The hope? That they don’t stuff up too much, and they give encouragement by their example to young people who care about the country to get into politics and shake it up.


Q: How did you come to know Jim? On the 1986 Blackfella Whitefella tour. It was when George suggested we should have keyboards on “My Island Home” – which we were playing live at the time but hadn’t recorded yet. We didn’t have a keyboard. Jim did.  So we asked Jim to play keyboard with us on that song. The first time was at Wadeye, and he did so every night from then on for the rest of the tour. It was no trouble to him.  He played on the recording too.

Q: What were your thoughts on Midnight Oil prior to your 1986 tour?   I thought they were a mighty powerful band. I admired their principles. They achieved a level of success the way everyone would like to – on their own terms, without compromising.

Q: Did the Warumpi Band / Midnight Oil tour in 1986 change or deepen your friendship? How?   Certainly started a friendship, as before that tour – apart from the usual perfunctory back stage intros – I didn’t really know Jim.  I think once he played with us, I began to see him as a genuine, approachable person. It helped break down the rarified air around the Oils, because prior to Jim getting up with us, we thought they were a bit distant.

Q: What did you learn about Jim on that tour?  I learnt that he was affable, unassuming – a quiet, humble bloke – with a prodigious musical talent that he wasn’t the least bit precious about.   That tour impacted on Jim deeply, all of them really.

Q: What quality do you most admire in Jim?   His enthusiasm, his willingness to give his time, his astute, considered thoughts. His sympathetic, yet encouraging ear. His honest response. His interest. The fact that he appreciates and respects my work.

Q: Has Jim changed much over the course of your friendship? If so, how? Not really – he’s stayed the same to me. Steady. Reliably brilliant. I know when elsewhere in his life wasn’t so smooth, he still seemed remarkably resilient and philosophic or at least gave a wonderful impression!  Since the Oils ended, he’s expanded his musical horizon.

Q: In your opinion, when’s Jim happiest? When he’s playing an instrument deep within the moment. His playing speaks for us all. Either that or mowing the lawn or cooking eggs.  Could be all three.

Q: You’re both coming to Darwin in October to perform – what should the audience expect?   A seemingly haphazard journey picking off landmarks and exploring secret pools and gullies, arriving at familiar and unknown destinations until a sudden invocation gives rise to a dear and precious thing, an emotional shift, intoxicating to the senses….. well, that’s what we aspire to.   To make something great happen in front of an audience.

Q: There’s a new Federal Government – what are your greatest fears and hopes regarding the new leadership? My greatest fear is that we’ll go backwards for a few years and hard fought reforms and gains will be repealed or stripped back.  My hope is that it may stimulate more of the population to take an active interest to compel a future leader to emerge with a fresh, inspiring vision so we can truly become a clever country.