In November 1987 GARY STEEL met up with Bones Hillman just after he joined Midnight Oil. Find the original story and transcript below.
Note: Below, we run Steel’s 1987 story and as a special bonus, the complete interview transcript. (Gazza can’t remember whether the story ran in the now-defunct Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, or the magazine he was editing at the time, RTR Countdown.) RIP Bones Hillman.
Eight years ago, in a dingy Wellington club, a little-known bass guitarist from a fledgeling band watched with wonder as Midnight Oil beat their small audience into submission.
They were the loudest band he’d ever heard.
One year later, that bass guitarist was at the top of the charts throughout Australasia with the classic pop sound of ‘Counting The Beat’, along with his cronies in The Swingers, Buster Stiggs and Phil Judd.
Two years down the line and that band were all over, and another dream fell apart.
September 1987. Bones Hillman joins the very same band he remembers pinning a crowd to the walls of that Wellington venue, all those years ago. He had introduced himself to them at the time but had not seen or spoken to them since.
With long-time bass guitarist Peter Gifford off the road due to health problems, Hillman won his place in the touring unit. After the tour, he was confirmed as a fully-fledged Midnight Oil member.
“I thought they were great”, says Hillman of his first experience in a Midnight Oil audience. Now that he’s up there with the band, “They’re definitely the biggest and best thing I’ve ever played with.”
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Hillman started out with NZ’s infamous proto-punk group, the Suburban Reptiles. A later version included ex-Split Enz songwriter Phil Judd, and the association carried through to The Swingers, a trio whose fate was sealed by the expectations created by the monster hit, ‘Counting The Beat’. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t top it.
By late 1979, Bones Hillman was living in Melbourne, a city he has remained in since, except for a brief return visit to NZ a couple of years ago: I did about five months in Coconut Rough… we toured once or twice. I worked in a petrol station to get the money to fly to Australia. Took me three months. The only way to do it.”
Before his appointment to the Oil mob, Hillman was a hired hand around the city. Rather than dedicate himself to just one band, he spread his talent around. “The main thing was to support myself as a player,” he says. There’s no way you can give one hundred percent when you’ve been working an eight hour day.”
I chatted with Hillman, subsequent to the New Zealand Music Industry Awards, and he was buzzing with excitement about his Oils appointment. Sitting in the Sheraton Hotel foyer at 1am attempting an interview after a long night isn’t an easy task.
Hillman was sharing a table with Neil Finn, with whom he also shares a house in Melbourne. “We just all came across on the same plane… free nosh at the Sheraton without wearing a bow-tie!”
Steel – “But people were supposed to wear suits and ties, black ties.”
Hillman – “What the hell! Dress code is nothing.”
Steel – “So why are you here?”
Hillman – “I migrate once a year to see my parents. It’s the cheapest time of the year to do it.”
Steel – “Bones, most of the bands you have played in seem pretty poppy…”
Hillman – “The Swingers were very hard-driving in the early years…”
Steel – “Yeah, but the Oils are so… thumpy. Have you changed your style to suit?”
Hillman – “Yeah, my sound and style. Playing with the Oils, you lower your strat as low as it goes, you turn the volume up, and thump like hell! And sweat! And the more you sweat, the better it sounds! Because your strings become waterlogged! It sounds like a wet piece of wood!”
Midnight Oil are big. After years of hammering away, the Oils and the public’s fickle taste have coincided perfectly. Their single, ‘Beds Are Burning’, has the bizarre distinction of attaining the Number One spot on the NZ charts twice, after briefly making way for U2. And their latest album, Diesel And Dust, was at last count sitting pretty at Number 2.
Hillman, unsurprisingly, is stoked. “They’ve crossed over now. A lot of young kids come along. The audience mimics Peter. The crowd sing so loud. You really have to concentrate, because the audience knows all the words and sing them equally loud as you!”
After a brief tour here next February, Midnight Oil is off to crack the lucrative American market but, being the new boy Hillman is unsure if Peter Garrett will contemplate toning down their overtly Australian, overtly political lyrical content for their new market. But the band are prepared to start there from the club level again, working their way up the ladder. “We’ll have to tread carefully,” he says, well remembering the strife NZers Dragon got themselves into there in the late ‘70s. Says Hillman in a moment of considered nostalgia: “I first remember Dragon when I was 14-years-old, and they were doing a song called ‘Weetbix Kills, Weetbix Burns’!”
Suddenly, it’s time for Bones Hillman to get back to the partying. “There’s now a New Zealand in the Oils. That’s about it!”
THE UNEXPURGATED INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT FROM 10 NOVEMBER, 1987.
Gary – Why exactly are you here?
Bones – I migrate… come across once a year to see my parents, and it’s the cheapest time of the year to do it. And I live with Neil from Crowded House. We just all came across on the same plane. Free nosh at the Sheraton without wearing a bow-tie.
Gary – I thought it was quite a good sign that people decided to be on-conformist.
Bones – Yeah! I mean, what the hell! Dress code is nothing. It would have been nice to have a few live performances. And to be able to hear what people were saying.
Gary – Even Tim Murdoch?
Bones – Well, Tim Murdoch has had a few under the belt. I’ve lived on and off in Melbourne since 1979. Since when I first went over with The Swingers. We disbanded in ’82. I came back here for a few years. It took me two years to earn enough money to get the hell out of here again. I did about five months with Coconut Rough. We toured once or twice. I worked for a petrol station to get the money to fly to Australia. Took me three months. The only way to do it.
Gary – How long have you been with the Oils?
Bones – I first auditioned for them late August. That dragged out over three weeks and it finally got confirmed, and I started with them on the first of September. We did two-and-a-half weeks’ rehearsal and an Australian tour. The week after that I got confirmed that I was a fulltime Oil. And we’re here in February.
Gary – They’re huge.
Bones – They’ve crossed over now. The audiences in Australia… a lot of young kids. They come along, 15 or 16 years old, and they know all the words. Four thousand of them just mimic Peter… the audience sing so loud. It’s the only band I’ve ever heard… you really have to concentrate, because the audience sing every word equally as loud as you are. I usually play a couple of times a day, just run through to make sure my fingers still work, I know what key I’m playing in, the words… with the audience singing every word you can’t afford not to know the words.
Gary – You’ve played with mostly more pop-oriented bands.
Bones – The Swingers were very hard driving in the early years; Suburban Reptiles…
Gary – But not as… thumpy. Have you changed your style to suit?
Bones – Yeah, my sound and style. You do that with every band you play in. Playing with the Oils, you lower your strat as low as it goes, you turn the volume up, and thump like hell, and sweat. The more you sweat, the better it sounds, because your strings become waterlogged. But there’s a real style to it. It took a couple of weeks to figure out. Listening to an album is very different from actually playing a physical song… my sounds don’t change from song to song. The better it sounds if it sounds like a wet piece of wood. There’s now a New Zealander in the Oils. That’s about it! After we tour here, we’re off to base ourselves in America.
Gary – So it’s going to be trekking across America?
Bones – Yes, the Oils are out to crack the overseas market. The band is a great band. It makes a lot more sense than going over for six weeks and coming home. What does that really achieve? When you’re there you’re there, when you’re not no one thinks about you. It will be at club level.
Gary – Will the band change its orientation to suit? It’s very based on the Australian thing.
Bones – That I can’t say. At the moment I’m just a bass player that sings. All this I will discover in time. We’ll have to tread carefully. Dragon copped a lot of strife there at one stage. Dragon were certainly legendary and seedy at one stage. They’re pugging out now. I first remember Dragon when I was 14 years old, and they were doing a song called ‘Weetbix Kills, Weetbix Burns’! [Shona Laing walks by and says, “Don’t trust him, he’s a journalist!”]
Gary – How did she cope with supporting the Oils in Oz?
Bones – I would never support the Oils. They’re a one-eyed audience. They’re there for one reason.
Gary – What would your attitude have been toward Midnight Oil in ’79?
Bones – I saw the Oils at that time, at the Rock Theatre [Wellington]. I’d never heard anything so loud in my life. We introduced ourselves to them. I thought they were great. NZ was at a funny stage at the time. The only bands that were getting work were like Hello Sailor and Th’Dudes. Then all of a sudden there was the breakthrough. I never found the Oils that foreign. Peter Garrett was such a commanding character onstage. I never saw them again until I auditioned for them eight years later. Rob Hirst, the drummer, rang Neil, asking if they knew of any bass players, because the Enz got Paul Hester through the Oils. Coincidentally, I lived in the same house.
Gary – Why did Peter Gifford, the bass player, leave?
Bones – He was unwell, health problems.
Gary – Are the Oils the best band you’ve ever played with?
Bones – The best band live, yes. They’re definitely the biggest and best thing I’ve ever played with, but I don’t know the mechanics of it yet.
Gary – Have you kept in touch with the other Swingers?
Bones – I see Buster and Phil regularly. There were no aspirations of getting together and playing again. It worked once, why try and make it work again? You move onto new ground. That’s always been my attitude. [Bones explains that he played with a number of bands on a casual basis over the previous couple of years and just chuck them in when he’d had enough]. The basis of the whole thing is to try and stay a musician without another fulltime job. There’s no way you can give 100 percent when you’ve been working an eight hour day. The main thing was to support myself as a player.
Gary – What is Phil doing these days?
Bones – Um, yeah, he’s got a band with Nigel Griggs from Split Enz, Noel Crombie, himself, and a guy called Michael Danielson, and they’re called Schnell Fenster. [Ha!] They’ve been doing demos for a period of months now, and they’re just about to score a record deal.
Gary – So, the rumours that Phil had given up music aren’t entirely true?
Bones – Well, people like to make up rumours about Phil Judd. It’s always been the case. He was painting for an exhibition [for a while] because he’s an incredible artist. The Schnell Fenster project probably happened when he was 70 percent complete for the exhibition. One day he will finish it.
Gary – He attracts a few loony fans?
Bones – Yeah, they’re warped and twisted. But he’s not as zany as he makes out to be. It’s how people interpret it. I think he’s a very down to earth person who… but then I’ve always kicked him in the bum and told him he was slack and stuff, which a lot of people would never do. Okay, the guy’s really talented, he’s got a few phobias and stuff. Just give him a kick in the backside every now and then to make him realise that… which I think he appreciated. He’s a perfectionist. And it’s not very often something is perfect.
* RIP Wayne Stevens/Bones Hillman.