FEATURE

MIDNIGHT
He’s one of the greatest songwriting talents and performers this country has produced. Now, post Midnight Oil, Jim Moginie has been turned onto life on the other side of the glass.
Text: Andy Stewart

AFT ER  

JIM MOGINIE:

ians in Jim Moginie is one of the most iconic music Australian rock. For 25 years his the history of cal consciousness musical contribution to the globa l politi r and songw riter for as lead guita rist, keyboard playe e in the thick Midnight Oil has placed him fair and squar globe has ever some of the gutsiest political actions the of on new witnessed. The phrase ‘oils ain’t oils’ took gig morning the band played a guerrilla-style meaning the e the offices of Exxon on the back of a flatbed truck outsid oil spill the in New York City, protesting the Alaskan away with. any looked for all the world to be getting comp on the front page and The gig put the disaster back tting liability, and contributed to the company finally admi ultimately chang ing its ways.

audio to continue our recent conversation about production…
GOO D COP BAD COP the Production Andy Stewart: Jim, we spoke recently on ight Oil at AT World where you ment ioned Midn Panel cers over the years. had had a few run-ins with produ when producing Does that now mean you’re Mr Nice Guy s? other You can’t Jim Moginie: In the end it’s about honesty. There’s a fine line between telling someone always be nice. rting them, what you think and at the same time suppo s. It’s an ongoing process, especially with younger artist ction’ is an and calling what I now do ‘record produ term. To me a interesting and perhaps slight ly inaccurate guy who book s the studio, chooses record producer is the ces out of the songs and basically gets the performan become very blurred people. That’s about it. That line’s is, if you’re lately and my advice to budding producers call yourself to get involved in someone’s record and going r be caref ul to avoid becoming ‘the producer’, you’d bette gets the blame the meat in the sandw ich or the person who get a producer so we if things go pear-shaped. “Hey, let’s but with some can blame him!” I know that sounds mad, cts, it’s a bit like that. proje

Jim has done As a linchpin member of Midnight Oil, rights movement, the environment and more for the land around Australia various other political and socia l causes musician outside the band. than just about any other most epic, He’s co-w ritten and played on some of the of rock ‘n’ roll politically charged albums in the history selves, but also and his legac y is not only the songs them socia l ibution to the emergence of an Australian his contr conscience. and a solo These days Jim combines his love of music got more r with his other passion – audio gear. He’s caree of his studio than most stuff lying around on the floor tion – or is it people acquire in five lifetimes and his ambi ess renting out a pipe dream? – is to start up a hire busin s. esoteric instru ments to unsuspect ing band is long and The equipment list in his Sydney studio envy. The class-A enough to turn most green(ie) with s are comprised of a semiwalls of the track ing room and glass – random collection of recycled timbers, stone t timber up on the wall each with its own story to tell: “Tha ceiling “used to there,” Jim recounts, point ing up into the floor of the old Roya l Antler Hotel.” be the he preaches, but There’s no doubting Jim pract ices what the leg off a chair with political he’s not one to chew and one hell of diatribe. He’s softly spoken, empathetic at his studio, Ocea nic, a guita rist. I caught up with him

ion this People often forget it’s a high-pressure situat The artist is under pressure, especially recording business. that was if they’re trying to follow up something get into the music and you successful, but I think once you quick ly. start playing, it all tends to dissolve pretty that pressure AS: So do you try and take advantage of or do you prefer to make when you’re recording someone, an artist feel relaxed? just enjoy JM: I try and make them feel relaxed and themselves.
PLAC E WITH OUT A POST CARD doesn’t sound like AS: Being relaxed and enjoy ing yourself cer Glyn experience you once had work ing with produ the us a bit about that? Johns years ago. Can you tell

JM: I was about 23 when Midnight Oil made

Place

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Without a Postcard, and at that early stage I’d never even been outside Australia. Suddenly we were invited by Glyn to his farm in Sussex to make a record and every day you’d be eating breakfast and looking up at all these gold records from bands like The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Joan Armatrading, The Eagles, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, you name it… gold records everywhere… and you’d be sitting there having your Crunchy Wheat thinking, “How the hell are we going to get up there?” But there was something about the band that Glyn recognised – essentially it was our capacity for live performance. Personally, I couldn’t see it at that time but he thought we were a really great live band and just wanted to capture that. I remember thinking maybe we should make a record that was a bit more experimental like the other records being released at the time – you do get influenced by what’s successfully being released around you… and I was a young pup you see. Anyway, we went in there and made a very, very live-sounding album and Place Without a Postcard was the result. I remember Glyn was a very opinionated, very forceful guy. He didn’t want you to play guitar in the room if he wasn’t recording it, didn’t want anyone near the studio if you weren’t recording, and loved the first take. He’d have a red light that he’d switch on if a take wasn’t going well, so when the light came on you’d have to just stop and start again. No words were exchanged; you just had to go from the top. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but listening back to the record now I think it’s one of the best things we ever did. It was simply the band playing at its best, without any bullshit going on: no machines, no click tracks… It’s got a real rawness to it, a raw honesty that at the time just seemed a bit daggy to me… but Glyn was like: “That’s good enough. That’s what you are. Go with it. Trust it.” AS: So you didn’t enjoy making that record at all? JM: No, I personally didn’t enjoy making that record at all. AS: Not even when you were in the middle of a take? JM: Well, obviously you enjoy that part of it, but Glyn was quite an intimidating guy. He was constantly saying things like, “When I recorded Let It Be, every time Lennon walked into the room he’d make some wisecrack… he was a funny guy you know.” We were intimidated that’s for sure. But he got some great vocal performances out of Peter. There was one incident where things weren’t going very well and he just said, “Right, okay, stop the machine. Peter and I are going to have some time…” He went into the overdub booth… and well… I don’t know what he said to Peter but he came back after about an hour and a half and said, “I’ve got it.” He pressed record and Pete nailed the vocal in the first take. Lucky Country was the song. It was all about Australia and I think he must have talked to Peter about his family… and that came out in that take. It’s an extraordinary vocal performance that Glyn drew out of Peter, and he did it with psychology, and knowing the difference between someone merely singing along – la, la, la – and someone actually feeling it from the gut; actually living it. That’s why I think when you comp things up with DAWs it doesn’t have the same effect at all. It might be ‘perfect’ and the singer might prefer it ’cause it makes them sound like they can sing in tune, but it’s cannibalism. It’s much better to have a verse that says it all, get focused and get it on tape – preferably live while the band’s playing. That will give it a sense of realism. It mightn’t be perfect but the feeling will be there. It’s that feeling that’s all too often

lost when you comp a vocal. The problem with DAWs is that because they allow you to fiddle with performance, you invariably do. To me the crucial thing is to listen to what you’re doing as a performer, and put down a heart-felt raw take. That’s always going to be more happening, and a punter who listens to a record – even though he or she won’t necessarily know the difference – will go: “I prefer that one… don’t know why. It just feels better.” Everybody wants to be perfect these days and when technology feeds that mania you’ve got problems. When people are cool enough to leave things alone you usually get a much better result. I wouldn’t say it’s the case across the board but you’ll definitely get something that feels more human, and people will relate to that because it is human.

GUITARIST BECOMES PRODUCER AS: Can you tell me how you made the transition from Midnight Oil guitarist to producer? Was it any more complicated than Midnight Oil simply breaking up?

JM: I fell into it somewhat after I did a bit of work with Silverchair… some B-sides that we recorded in only a few hours. They sounded fantastic and it all snowballed from there. Silverchair was doing some music with Nick Launay – Nick and I are great friends and go way back. Nick’s a brilliant producer: part mad Spaniard, part analytical Englishman. Anyway, he actually said something like – and Daniel Johns was quite ill at that stage – “Oh I just thought Daniel might like to meet someone like you...” and I said, “Someone like me? What does that mean?” “Someone who likes to fiddle around with gear and quite enjoys getting weird sounds out of it!” And he’s right of course – I do. I played keyboards on a couple of Silverchair’s albums after that, and then just started working with other people – Neil Murray, The Fauves, Neil Finn, Sarah Blasko – and played on their albums too. That’s really how it is with all the albums I ‘produce’ these days – I’m usually playing on them somewhere. I can’t help myself. I get enthusiastic and think, ‘Oh, what about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ to which the band either responds: ‘Yeah, yeah!’ or ‘No, no. Please don’t!’ I must admit, I do get carried away sometimes – I want to be out there with the band. AS: But you don’t want to literally be in the band, I assume? JM: No, I certainly don’t want to be in the Tarago with them fighting about the tambourine overdub we did 18 months ago. Sometimes I have to back off ’cause I know what it’s like to experience producer interference from a band perspective. We made an album once with Malcolm Burn – who’s done some work with Daniel Lanois – where Malcolm ended up playing a lot of the instruments on the record, and even though it was kind of interesting, it did make me think, ‘What if he’s wrong? What if we could have played them better?’ I mean, it’s our record after all. AS: I think it’s kind of weird when a producer starts to live vicariously through another band like that – impinge on the band’s right to perform their own music… JM: Yeah you’ve got to be respectful. You’ve got to understand the chemistry of the band and sometimes you’ve got to get right out of the way. Other times it’s necessary. A band might need another musical colour: somebody to pick up an acoustic guitar, even somebody to just hit something to get them in the mood. With a great band, like The Living End for instance, who were in here at Oceanic a few weeks ago, you don’t need to do anything much. I’d never dream, for instance, of jumping in and grabbing the guitar off Chris Cheney and playing it. In that circumstance my philosophy is simple: it’s the band’s record and they have to live with it. They’re going to be the ones out there on the road after all, and they’ve got to know it’s them playing it. You don’t want a Milli Vanilli situation arising… The worst kind of producer is the one that goes: “To get a hit record you’ve got to a) make sure it’s less than three minutes so it gets played on the radio; b) make sure the guitar solos are no more than 10 seconds long; c) get this guy to mix it; and d) that guy to master it.” My attitude is more like, “You know what guys? Radio isn’t going to play you anyway, so you’re free to do whatever you like.” And they go, “Oh, okay then. We’re free to be who we are?” “Yes, you’re free to be who you are. That’s fine with me.” People come in here sometimes thinking ‘Jim’s going to give us a good record because he’s had so many hits himself’ blah, blah, blah… but really, I’ve got about as much clue as the next bloke. If it’s exciting to listen to, that’s great. If the band feels like they’re excited then that comes through in the performance. If there are some interesting sonic ingredients in there then that’s great too. But the most important thing is the song. First and foremost, the song must be there.
SELF-DISCOVERY AS: Is it important for an artist to ‘discover themselves’ do you think – have the guts to be themselves, as it were?
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Discovering what they don’t want to put on their record is sometimes more important than what they do want

THE LIBERATION OF LIMITATION

AS: Implicit in this observation is presumably the ability to play instruments. But then again, the charm with some albums is the ‘inability’ as it were of the players. Would you agree? JM: Yeah, and for me I’m just liking being around all of it. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a punk band or a pop thing with high production values, as long as I’m working with musicians and around that energy. I love that feeling of starting with a clean slate – where you don’t know what you’re going to do, yet somehow it all falls into place – for me, that’s what it’s all about. I think the longer I do this, the more I’m convinced you have to get as much down live as you can. In fact, the more you can record things where people are being captured almost without them even knowing it, the better it is. And part of the charm of my new recording space is that when people walk in here they pick up some strange instrument and before they know it they’re playing music. To me that’s how production begins. From there you can easily embark on a conversation with the artist, where they might then say: “Oh well, I don’t really like electric guitar but I really like nylon string guitar” or “I really like upright pianos but not grand pianos.” Being surrounded by instruments naturally provokes those conversations – that’s how I like to start to formulate an idea of what the artist likes – discovering what they don’t want to put on their record is sometimes more important than what they do want. Making some rules – and sure, rules are made to be broken – can make your life a lot easier. As a record develops, having a palette of predetermined colours that you’ve chosen beforehand rather than being open to literally everything makes things move forward quickly. There’s nothing like a well-chosen limitation.

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JM: Psychologically that’s sometimes very hard because when people do that and find there’s nothing there, it’s terrifying for them – no-one wants to discover that! When there is something there and they can unlock it, it’s wonderful. But of course not everyone is a songwriter and there’s no harm in singing someone else’s song. I did a recording in here with Sarah Blasko last year – a bonus disc of songs for a record she’d done in Sweden with Bjorn Yttling. We were playing songs from musicals like The Sound of Music, Fame… we even did a version of Xanadu! I know it sounds daggy but it was just beautiful. Those songs could be played in a rainstorm busking in a tube station and they’d still work! There’s something completely bulletproof about those songs. She was in that corner over there singing [Jim points to where the drumkit is currently set up] and I was playing piano over here, and I swear there were moments where the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I thought: ‘This is why I’m in this business. This is so beautiful’. So whether it’s your song or someone else’s, if the person in the spotlight is at all doubtful about what they’re doing, it’s going to be obvious to the audience. A vocal performance has to be sincere and compelling – it’s gotta be intense. It can’t just be half-arsed and you definitely can’t go into a recording session thinking: ‘We’ll put it together in ProTools and make it sound nice later’. That’s folly. In the old days – and I do hate talking about the old days – in the ’50s the singer had one shot at a take… and then more recently one or two tracks of a 24-track tape machine. You had to step up at that moment and find something in yourself. What annoys me now is that things can take so long – people, musicians can be terribly indecisive. I mean I’m a musician and I can be indecisive – more than most other people – but I know musicians can prevaricate and the technology allows them to. It’s a sin! You’ve gotta control it! A song recorded with hundreds of indecisive overdubs? That’s my version of an unholy nightmare from Danté’s Inferno.
GEAR LUST AS: How did you end up becoming a ‘gear guy’ Jim?

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A song recorded with hundreds of indecisive overdubs... that’s my version of an unholy nightmare from Danté’s Inferno

JM: I’ve always loved gear and I guess in some ways it’s an addiction. But as you of all people must know, it’s also a fascination. When I was in Midnight Oil we’d always be in studios in England or The States where there would invariably be an instrument lying around and we’d be like: ‘What’s that? That’s great! Gotta use that’. When we did 10 to 1 with Nick Launay I got the number of this guy called Maurice Plaquet, who had a gear hire company in London. We were always getting marimbas and Hammond organs off Maurice, and the day I walked into his warehouse was when it all started. There were all kinds of instruments: harpsichords, theremins… some quite esoteric stuff. It looked incredible. When The Oils split I started to hoard instruments and hire a bit of the gear out, which was actually a lot of fun. It’s still in the back of my mind somewhere to take it a bit further and develop a warehouse collection of hire gear like Maurice, but I think with the state of studios and budgets in Australia being the way they are, I’m not sure it would work out! There are a lot of people recording but they don’t have the budgets to hire instruments. Budgets have just been killed.
REIGNING IN A MIX AS: Now that you’re a producer of bands like The Fauves and The Break, I assume you take the mixing reins sometimes?
CSIRO TESTS OILS JM: I actually came from a science background. Believe it or not, I was doing a degree in architectural acoustics when the band first took off. Needless to say I didn’t quite finish it, but that’s where I was heading. I worked at the CSIRO for a while working with building materials: testing their transmission loss etc. A guy would bring in two sheets of glass or something and we’d test them and give them a rating. I remember we designed the windows for the High Court building in Canberra – the judges wanted to sit in silence but they also wanted to look through glass at the lake. AS: Did you enjoy the job? JM: Yeah, I really enjoyed it, but I enjoyed the band more! So I guess you could say there are two sides to my brain: a science-based side, which is quite nerdy and obsessed about gear, and the other side which is just my wild artist persona that’s a bit of a nut. (laughs)

JM: I do and I’d say I’m okay at it. I can get everything balanced quickly, but mixing is something best left to other people sometimes. I like to get the performances right, and get some exotic sounds hopefully – I’m always learning. But you can’t do everything: produce the song, be the engineer, be the mixer – it
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turns you into a control freak I reckon. You’ve got to look around and think to yourself: ‘I should be doing this, he should be doing that’. If you can achieve that as a producer it helps you avoid that awful sense of dragging the album around like a ball and chain. Any company boss knows about delegating – producers should too.
THE ART SCHOOL APPROACH AS: I know you’re a great musician with a powerful imagination. How do you manage to produce albums with people and avoid racking up hundreds of experimental overdubs?

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Adding countless overdubs or layered sounds quickly erodes intimacy and the ability to draw the listener in

JM: I’m like everyone else: I like to discover new things on an album after repeated listens, but ironically this is one of the things that leads some people to recording 300 tracks on one song. Going down all the possible roads to make sure nothing’s been left out is a distraction, and recording 10 versions of every part is just plain criminal. Then of course some poor bastard has to mix it all! Personally, I think musicians that work like that should be taken out and shot! There’s a certain momentum in a session, a certain energy, and you’ve got to know when that’s run out. You just can’t keep texturalising a song forever. I like to take the art school approach. With sculpture, for example, as with music, there are tools at your disposal: you’ve got chisels to carve with, hammers to beat things into shape with and saws to cut with. Instruments are like that too. Things can be made rough, things can be made smooth, and there’s a perception of depth and negative space where shapes are created by a hole. This enterprise utilises the same part of the brain that perceives three-dimensional space and it’s exactly the same in music: taking away things can be so much more powerful than piling more stuff on. Adding countless overdubs or layered sounds quickly erodes intimacy and the ability to draw the listener in. It’s like going to a party where there’s a thousand people yelling their heads off: you tend to just switch off, turn around and go home – or at least I do! If it’s smaller and there’s not as much noise going on you feel like you’ve been invited in. It’s more meaningful. AS: Although, you must have wanted to put lots of layers on top of a performance to physically create that sort of scale before, surely? JM: To me, overdubbing the same thing several times just smoothes things off too much, like sanding something back – you end up with a very shiny surface. It may be pleasing to some to create that mirror finish, but it’s not an aesthetic I like. I particularly dislike hearing a double-tracked vocal where the singer is using the word “I”. I take the attitude that when you’re recording vocals and someone says “I”, you don’t double-track it. If it’s “we” then okay you can have as many voices as you want. But if the lyric is: “I like the sound of surf crashing on the beach” then I want there to be only one person saying it. Again, to me it’s like sculpting – I’m hearing things much more in those terms than I used to. Having embarked on a bit of a career as a sculptor recently I actually really like that idea of it just being pretty bony – not too slicked up. I think sometimes when you overdub a couple of backing vocals, those can sound good. But once you get three on there it’s a whole other world and now we’re starting to smooth it. Record four or five and suddenly all bets are off – it becomes too polished, or conversely, turns to mush. I prefer sounds being sharp and rough. Having said all that I’ll probably triple-track the next thing I do! (laughs).

LIVE RECORDING IN CANS JM: Recording with headphones can sometimes really cripple a recording. They can make musicians become very critical of their own performance and then they start to collapse. The air comes out of the song like a balloon and they fall on the floor. They become nit-picky and a pain in the arse. Sometimes it’s much better to record with everyone playing live at the same time. Music is about energy, not just clarity. When I record in here with The Break [A surf band Jim plays guitar in with Rob Hirst, Martin Rotsey and Brian Ritchie] I just put up a few perspex screens to get a modicum of separation and then we just go for it. Bass blasts straight into the kick, and guitars are in the room. It’s just a quicker way to get to the heart of it. And really good surf music is all about the energy anyway. Put the reverb up really high… that big moving sound is much bigger than the thought of the song. The sound of the song is what gives birth to the song

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Go to: www.jimmoginie.com for more info on Jim Moginie’s solo albums and extra curricular activities.

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