A lot of attention has been paid to Australian bands in the last few years, and for good reason. What is not often mentioned is the abundance of excellent drummers who are responsible for the strong and danceable rhythms so characteristic of Australian rock. Such drummers as Jerry Speiser of Men At Work, John Farriss of INXS, and Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil may be changing that. Contrary to standard procedure, it is difficult to find a review of a Midnight Oil album or concert that does not mention Rob Hirst in glowing terms. What distinguishes Hirst upon first listening is the sheer forcefulness of his drumming. Yet repeated listenings reveal the fact that Hirst is also a surprisingly inventive and versatile drummer. Whether he’s spraying the sonic terrain with heavy percussive artillery as on “Only The Strong” and “Somebody’s Trying To Tell Me Something” or simply controlling the rhythm section in his distinctly economical but stylish way (“Power And The Passion,” “Read About It,” “Short Memory”), Hirst commands the listener’s attention. On stage during one of Midnight Oil’s incendiary performances, it is Hirst who is the co-star with 6’5″ bald vocalist (and former lawyer) Peter Garrett, not the guitarists as one might expect.
Hirst formed Midnight Oil along with guitarist/key boards player Jim Moginie in Sydney in 1977, and over the next five years, the Oils (as they’re called down under) made their way to the top the hard way—by touring the east coast of Australia incessantly and winning over tough Australian pub audiences. With the release of their fourth album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, in late 1982, Midnight Oil established dominance of the Australian rock scene. The album’s convincing blend of primal power rock, psychedelia, quasi-folk textures, pop acumen, and the astonishing production of Englishman Nick Launay wielded an impressive commercial clout: The album stayed in the Top Ten for over six months and was still in the Top 40 as well over a year later, having gone quadruple platinum. 10-1 was released late last year in the U.S. by Columbia Records to critical acclaim and received heavy air play on college and alternative radio stations across the country.
Midnight Oil is perhaps most notable from a drummer’s point of view for being the only band in recent memory to feature a drum solo as the centerpiece of a song, as they did on “Power And The Passion, ” their breakthrough song in Australia and their first single in the U. S. Part of the reason for this is that Hirst is not only one of Australia’s finest drummers, but he is also a first-rate songwriter and lyricist as well.
I spoke with Hirst while the band was in Los Angeles during their first brief U.S. tour, and found him to be far more accessible than the band’s semi-reclusive, anti-hype image in Australia would suggest. Hirst is friendly, articulate, and outspoken— but most of all, he is a team player, not the “star” drummer he seems to be at home, where he has won the “Best Drummer” honors in the leading rock magazine’s Readers Poll for the last three years. As Hirst said to me, “I see myself as a part of Midnight Oil. I’m just a cog. I’m aw Oil, mate “
BW: What do you think are the advantages of living and working as a musician in Australia, as opposed to being English or American?
RH: I think there’s a sense that, if you’re in Australia, you’re still working in a country that’s just developing its music, its film, and its theater. There’s a lot of excitement there. Also, Australians are very discriminating. Australians have had a lot of bad music dumped on them for years and years, so they know when something is good and when something is bad.
BW: Is there something unique about being a musician now in Australia?
RH: Yeah, for the Oils there is something very different, because our history goes back to the surf pubs of North Sydney, and that’s a very Australian environment. I’ve been to quite a few places around the world now with the band, and there’s nowhere similar in environment to that area. They were some of the hottest, most aggressive shows. You would have the male contingent in the audience all with their shirts off, their fists raised, sweat pouring down, beer flowing, and broken glass everywhere. It sounds like hell but it was fantastic. That’s our background; that’s our environment. Nowhere else I’ve been is like that. So obviously, our history and background are very distinctly Australian, and the songs that we write as a result are very Australian songs. It’s very hard to describe to you what an Australian song is, but it basically means that we’re not writing about things we know nothing about. We’re writing about our environment. There have been other Australian bands which have decided to take the easy road to success by writing about American or European places, things or life-styles. Whereas, to be honest, we can’t write about those things because we don’t know anything about them, so we write about Australian subjects.
BW: Tell me about the recording of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Obviously, something was different about it, considering what a departure the album was from the previous records.
RH: We were looking for a producer who could be more creative in the studio. When it came time to record the 10-1 album, we decided that we should go for someone perhaps much younger and with some fresh ideas. Through a mutual friend, we met Nick Launay, who had already worked with some other Australian acts, like the Birthday Party. We went back to his place in Fulham, near London, and he played these tapes of the stuff he’d done. We were knocked out by his different sounds and approach. Jim was particularly impressed at that stage and said, “I think we should record with this guy, and we should record in a state-of-the-art studio—one with a great sound.” Fortunately, Nick’s studio,’ which he’d been using for all his other projects, the Town House Studio #2, was available, and it’s known to have a great drum sound. So we went in there and recorded 10-1. It was a difficult time for the band. We’d been in London for about four or five months, we’d used up all the money from our Australian touring, we didn’t have a record company except in Australia, and we were really thrown back on our resources. We were taking a gamble with this producer who didn’t have the background of someone like Glyn Johns [producer of Oil’s 1981 album, Place Without a Postcard], but we thought that he’d be the guy. Although it was a painful album to make, it really tested the band’s ability to adapt to a new environment. The result was the best-sounding record we’ve made.
BW: Nick Launay has a reputation as a drummer’s producer/engineer. How did you enjoy working with him, and did he have an effect on your playing in any way?
RH: Nick was great with drum sounds. He opened up my eyes to a lot of drum ideas. For instance, we recorded the drums without cymbals initially because we found a great room for drums in Town House Studio #2, but it’s a terrible room for cymbals; the cymbals just explode all over the top of the drum sound. Nick’s miking consisted of putting microphones well up into the ceiling, well away from the band, to get the natural room sound. That’s why you get that sound which other drummers have used, like XTC’s drum sound on some of their later records and, of course, Phil Collins. So we recorded all the tracks without cymbals. However, I needed something to beat, so we wrapped up cymbals with blankets so I could still beat away on them without making a sound. When it comes to overdubbing cymbals, you realize that you don’t need as many cymbals anyway, so you’re more likely to use a variety of percussion instruments. That made things more interesting. Then we took cymbals into a much deader room and overdubbed them.
Also, Nick opened my eyes to Simmons drums. I was probably quite conservative in that respect. I was a bit reticent to use electronic drums, but we said, “Oh, let’s get them in anyway.” So he brought them in, set them up, and we started using them. I liked them straight away. I don’t play them on top; I play them on the rim. I find them much “faster” than drums anyway. With normal drums, especially if you tune your toms low, it slows your playing down if you hit really hard, which I do. I like the idea of using Simmons as well, because they are a small company, and they work out of a small factory in St. Albans, north of London. I went up there and had a chat with them. They were very friendly. Although they’ve become quite popular, they were limiting their stock to what they could do without selling out to some enormous distribution company. I liked that attitude because it was very similar to the Oils’ attitude. We never do any sponsorships for anyone. In fact, I don’t like talking about brand names for drumkits or cymbals or anything like that because, as far as we’re concerned, the fact that we use those instruments should be enough of an incentive to musicians if they like our sound. I’ll always take the bass drum front head off if it has a name on it, and the guys do the same with their amps. We’ve all been offered sponsorship deals, and they’ve all been rejected. It’s all part of the band’s thing of having control. Once you’ve let yourself be seen as associated with such-and-such company, it doesn’t give you a chance to change companies if they cease to deliver the goods or you change your mind about sound. Also, you start losing control of your destiny: They start telling you to turn up for photo sessions. The band will never do a sponsorship for a tour with anyone, because that would associate us with a particular company. We would lose our credibility.
BW: Was there anything else unique about 10-1 from your standpoint? When I first heard it, I was struck by how much the band seemed to be experimenting, and by how successfully everything seemed to work.
RH: We hadn’t used rhythm machines to play along with before. “Power And The Passion” was a song where we used a Linn drum as a backing track. I thought it would be great to use for the purposes of that track, which was supposed to be— right from its inception—a dance track. But everyone came in and said, “Uh-oh, what are you using?” It was just a case of opening our eyes to the possibilities of what’s available in the studio. We had been playing live for so long and working a great live act that we hadn’t spent enough time in the studio. The only consideration that’s important to us now is whether it’s a valid musical contribution.
BW: Does the need for being visual affect your playing on stage?
RH: I’ve never thought of it that way, because that’s the way I’ve always played. It’s part of my personality; I’ve always played in a flamboyant way. People can listen to the records, but Midnight Oil is basically a live band. So we have things to look at.
BW: You have a very athletic approach to your drumming. Do you view drumming as something athletic that you stay in shape for?
RH: Yes, very much so. I simply cannot do the sort of drumming I want to do without keeping in shape. I play tennis, and I play squash, which is like racquetball in the United States, and I play a very violent variety of both! [laughs] I also go jogging and try to eat really well. We have the advantage in Sydney of a fantastic lifestyle and climate, which allows you to go swimming, surfing, and running on the beach to keep fit. It’s an outdoor society.
BW: How would you describe the rhythm section of Midnight Oil?
RH: We don’t have a “rhythm section,” because a rhythm section is traditionally a bass player and a drummer who play together. I don’t play with him and he doesn’t play with me. I play parts which I think are appropriate to the song, and the band plays parts which they think are appropriate to the song. But the idea of a rhythm guitar/lead guitar/rhythm section sort of thing doesn’t really have anything to do with our music. No one overplays or carries on unless the part needs that.
BW: You’re one of the band’s major songwriters and lyricists. Does being a drummer cause you to approach writing differently?
RH: Yes, I think it does. Since I don’t have any fluency on a guitar, I have to think of another approach to songwriting other than sitting down with a guitar and writing songs. The way I do it is to work basically from a vocal melody point of view. In other words, I come up with a vocal melody and I’m constantly jotting down lyrics; wherever I am, I have my pad with me. Then I combine the two. I’ll normally get a lyric that I like, a melody I like, and a rough arrangement. Then I’ll go to Jim, and use Jim’s prowess. Jim is the most complete musician in the Oils. He’s the sort of musician who can pick up many instruments and play them fluently after a short amount of time. He’s the “musician” in the band, and he’s great to work with. Also, because we probably go back the longest in the history of the Oils, we work together well. Some of the betterknown Oil tracks have come from that liaison—songs like “Power And The Passion,” “Read About It,” “Short Memory,” “Only The Strong” from 10-1, “Don’t Wanna Be The One” and “Armistice Day” off the Postcard album, “Run By Night” off the first album, and “No Reaction” off the Head Injuries album . All those sorts of songs are songs that we’ve gotten together. Then there’s the other avenue where Peter will either come in on songs that I’ve written with Jim and add a lyrical contribution, or he will have another set of lyrics which he might work out with Jim and Martin. That’s the normal way the songs are arrived at. Then, of course, Peter Gifford will add his contribution in the studio, as well as his playing. That avenue of songwriting is one that I very much enjoy. As a band, we work out a lot of the career aspects together as well, so there are a lot of things apart from playing our instruments that we do.
BW: What influences your writing the most?
RH: Anger. When I was at Sydney University, I was fortunate enough to be taught by an American tutor from New Jersey. She turned me on very much to American history and America, and it has fascinated me ever since then. I’d also done a lot of reading on Australian history. So that was a time when I started to become incredibly interested and often angry about the way Australia had been used as a dumping ground for this and that, and used as a puppet in the political and economic sphere of the world. That’s the sort of thing I want to write about. I feel sometimes that I’ve even got a mission to write about these things and to use the position the band’s got to get to people. I know Peter feels the same way about it. I don’t want to ram things down people’s throats or stand on a soapbox and proselytize, but simply to point out certain things which people can assess on their own. People do tend to take our music seriously. We’re not telling them to live a certain life-style or anything. All we’re doing is throwing out ideas that we’re really concerned about and perhaps getting people to talk about them. Our subject matter is quite intense, as you can gather. And the reason it’s intense is that the major songwriters—myself, Peter and Jim in the lyric department—have our own obsessions which basically can be divided into me—historical. Peter—political, and Jim—philosophical. And it’s these obsessions and outlooks on life which shape the Oil lyrics.
BW: Your drum setup is very distinctive. You sit above your set, your toms are flat, and your cymbals are placed very high. Could you tell me about that?
RH: I use flat toms and low toms because I use gravity to come down on them from a great height, so I can hit them harder. I use high cymbals and flat cymbals because I can give them a great wallop. And I use big cymbals as well. I went through a stage in which I used smaller cymbals that all cracked very quickly. So I’ve ended up using at least 20″ and possibly 21″ crash cymbals, which I can give a great big wallop to and which need to be hit hard to sound great. Since I’ve gone on to big cymbals. I’ve had no problem with the cracking. Also, I don’t actually hit them directly. I side-swat them. I use thin sticks, which bend a hell of a lot, but I use grips so I can hold on to them. They’re toweling grips used for squash rackets, which I wrap around my sticks so they don’t fall out of my hands. I’ve also used the Simmons drums a bit differently. For instance, I’ve used the bass drum as a ride. I ride with my right hand rather than just using a floor tom. A lot of our stuff just belts away on the beat. So instead of using the Simmons bass drum, I swap that around, and I just belt away on that program. You get this “thud thud thud thud thud thud” sort of thing. I find that more natural.
BW: You have a very spare bass drum technique anyway.
RH: Yeah. I think that came from all those itchy-footed drummers who I started to despise in the ’70s, all sort of flippity-floppiting with their bass drums. I decided I didn’t really want to go that way. I prefer to play on top of the kit. Using the Simmons in that way sort of gets away from that problem. There are two things you’ve got to adapt to: You’ve got to adapt to your style, and you’ve got to adapt to the musicians you play with. Drummers can’t be a law unto themselves. Otherwise, no one’s going to get anywhere. The music isn’t going to sound any good. After all, you’re making music. No one wants to listen to a bloody drum solo. People want to hear great songs, great playing, and great interaction between members. It’s up to the drummer as much as anyone else to make sure that happens.
BW: Do you use different kits live and in the studio, or the same one all the time?
RH: No, it can be quite different. Once you’ve got a basic drumkit, the most important thing is not the drumkit; it’s the room that you use to record it in, and having a fantastic engineer who knows how to record drums. That’s basically it. I’ve never heard a great drumkit sound that I liked recorded in a flat room. Even a really shoddy drumkit can sound fantastic if it’s well miked in a great-sounding room. On Place Without A Postcard I think Glyn Johns really got a very good drum sound. But I think on 10-1, with Nick Launay, we got a more abrasive sound—more the sort of drum sound I like.
BW: Tell me about your background. How did you become interested in drums? What kind of training did you have?
RH: I was interested in the Beatles before I was interested in drums. When I was just a whippersnapper, I went to a skating rink, and I heard “Love Me Do” by this new English group called the Beatles. I realized that my destiny was to play that cymbal break that Ringo does in “Love Me Do,” and I fell in love with the band. Then I got a pair of drumsticks when I was seven and started playing along on the carpet. I was given the first Beatles EP with “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” and I just started belting along with Ringo, who was my hero at that stage. He was a great drummer, but a very underestimated and much maligned drummer.
I just kept on playing on the carpet. I graduated to chairs, then to knives and forks, and eventually, under great duress, my parents relented and bought me this green Star three-piece drumkit from a Sydney retailer for $190. Actually, I remember I bought the drumkit to join a band along with Jim. I was about 15.
There was one period I missed out on telling you about. The school I went to was very old-fashioned, and they believed that young men should learn to be good army recruits. I was horrified at this idea, so the only way out of it I could think of was to join the band, because the band has this reputation of being incredibly slack. While everyone else was firing off 303’s into the bush and acting like clowns, the band had a reputation for just lying around, drinking beer and having a great time. But actually, it did me some good, because they gave us the basic rudiments of drumming on this drummer’s course.
BW: Speaking of your education, you were studying to be a lawyer as well, like Peter Garrett, weren’t you?
RH: I was doing arts and law, which is a five-year combined course. I ended up hating the law when I was supposed to learn to love the law, but I became obsessed with the arts subjects I was doing, particularly history. So I did a final year in that. Then the band came along, which was a great relief, because I didn’t have to go to law school anymore. I ended up doing a four year honors course in history plus all those law subjects. Peter went the legal way.
BW: Getting back to drumming again, I’m curious as to who your favorite drummers are.
RH: I enjoy Australian bands primarily, because you can go out to a pub and see them all the time, and because Australian bands do have a freshness and a power sometimes lacking in a lot of the so-called “great” overseas acts that we get. There are a lot of great bands like the Divinyls, the Models, Machinations, INXS, and Cold Chisel. I think the guy with Do-Re-Mi, Dorland Bray, is good. He uses a very different kit, with a lot of woodblocks and cowbells and things. There’s another Australian band called Matt Finish with a fan tastic drummer named John Prior, who has so much feel and so much technical virtuosity together that it’s amazing. I really like Jon Farriss from INXS as well; he’s a great drummer. There are many, really. Steve Prestwich of Cold Chisel is also a great “feel” drummer.
BW: Which Midnight Oil tracks do you feel best represent your drumming?
RH: I think you’d probably have to listen to the first song on the first album, “Powderworks,” and then listen to “Power And The Passion” off the 10-1 album; they’re the two opposite extremes. “Scream In Blue” part one, where the drums are pushed right to the background and the other instruments keep the beat, is a style of drumming I really like. The opposite of that would be something like “Tin Legs And Tin Mines,” where the choruses are actually propelled directly by the drum beat. “Only The Strong,” “Read About It,” and “Somebody’s Trying To Tell Me Something” are the songs where perhaps my influence from great ’60s drummers like Keith Moon is evident.
BW: Does the fact that you are a star of sorts in Australia, being the best-known drummer in the country’s most popular band, have any effect on you?
RH: That doesn’t have any influence on me at all. All I would like to have known about me is that I am a member of what I believe is a great Australian rock band. That whole star syndrome or being famous doesn’t occur to most Australian musicians, who are more content to make sure that they can forge a band sound and a band identity. With Midnight Oil, we don’t focus primarily on the songs. We focus primarily on the fact that we are a band with certain things that we want to say and with music that we like to make as a group. We do it as sincerely and as strongly as we possibly can, and hope people will respond to it.
BW: Nevertheless, many young drummers in Australia and perhaps even the U.S. now look up to you. Do you have any advice for them?
RH: The only thing I’ll say about drumming, which I’ve come to know as an absolute truism, is be appropriate to the band and to the musicians, and involve yourself as much as possible in the other sides of the band. If you can, involve yourself in the songwriting, in the identity and in all the other creative aspects apart from the drumming in the band. Just speaking personally, I get enormous pleasure out of the whole band thing. The drumming is one side of it. I’m sort of like a fan on stage as well.
BW: That probably accounts for your impassioned performances.
RH: If you think that it’s your last gig, (hen you’ll play to your limit, and that’s what I think of every time. I f I don’t come back totally exhausted after the show, I know I haven’t played as hard as I could have.