Confessions of a Midnight Oil sideman

Australian Jack Howard, who rose to fame with the band Hunters & Collectors, is on a world tour with Aussie rockers Midnight Oil.

I’ve been keeping a journal since the official beginning of my Midnight Oil year on Monday February 6th 2017. Not that I’ll be sharing it with anyone except myself; and not that it’s full of behind-the-scenes dirt and lurid backstage debauchery (if only) but it would be poor form to disrespect the band’s privacy. And the rest of it would be too mundanely personal to be of interest (along the lines of – finally found a good coffee or – did 15,000 steps according to my iPhone or – do I need to change jocks today?)

Here’s a brief view of my world so far this year.

The prequel begins way back in the day. In 1990, H & C toured the world with The Oils and the horn section played with the band every night. All the hits – Beds, Power And The Passion, etc. It was a tremendous experience and it included the career highlight of flying in a helicopter to a gig in the Swiss Alps. Since then, I’ve also played with Rob, Jim and Martin in the psychedelic surf outfit, The Break. A close connection over almost thirty years.

Early 2016, Rob phoned me up one morning – hey Jack, The Oils are going back on the road next year and we were wondering if you’d like to join us. Awesome, says I. It’s a world tour lasting the better part of a year starting in Brazil, says Rob…stunned silence. Ah, let me check my diary…(!)

So almost a year later, I arrived in Marrickville’s Top End Studios – hopefully prepared; and not before months of pinching myself that this was real and suppressing the nagging doubt that it all might not happen.

We spent the first day running the big guns – all good – but I was briefly disappointed with the thought that my role might be limited to the big brassy hits (four or five songs in a two hour set, sitting bored backstage drinking the rider – of tea and coconut water); but as the days and weeks roll on and the immense scope of the song list becomes apparent, I am given a myriad of cowbell, keyboard, backing vocal, flugel horn, trumpet and lemon shaker roles to fulfill. I even get to provide comic relief during the shows eventually – playing Rob’s drums (Simmons pads in Generals Talk) when he ventures front of stage to play the cocktail kit and sing. The depth and thoroughness of their rehearsals is a thing to behold. One day, Head Injuries from start to finish (taunting my pals back in Melbourne by text – guess what? I just sang along to Koala Sprint!), the next a detailed working over the songs from Earth and Sun and Moon.

I even get to provide comic relief during the shows eventually – playing Rob’s drums (Simmons pads in Generals Talk) when he ventures front of stage to play the cocktail kit and sing. The depth and thoroughness of their rehearsals is a thing to behold. One day, Head Injuries from start to finish (taunting my pals back in Melbourne by text – guess what? I just sang along to Koala Sprint!), the next a detailed working over the songs from Earth and Sun and Moon.

Like possibly some other punters out there, I lost touch with the band’s albums of the ’90s (a decade of small children growing up, H & C touring and life chaos) but it was the discovery of the newer material that was the most rewarding part of the process for me early on – songs like Tone Poem, Safety Chain Blues, Ships of Freedom and many more. And as much as the band is most renowned for its legendary live shows and its politics, it’s easy to forget how damn catchy most of these songs are – the brilliant twin guitar riffing and the uplift of the chorus.

The most pertinent piece of advice early on was from Jim – don’t play just to fill up space, play for impact, respect the song (which I have to say has always been my musical mantra anyway). Even if I’ve got a tambourine in my hand, just save it for the chorus. Save that great key change mellotron part at the end of In The Valley until it’s due. Don’t jam on Power And The Passion, just let rip with that famous horn line at the end.

From my own trumpet playing point of view, I have to practise every day – even it’s just for a half an hour before the tour bus rolls in the morning. I have to do my drills (long notes, flexibility exercises and scales – fascinating, I know). If I slack off, I’ll pay for it. The brass parts are not super-demanding but they’ve got to be sharp and sure; and I have to say that I have a lot of human frailties and self-doubt as a musician so I really need to stay on top of it.

Now it’s late May and we’re somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco – hazy hills in the distance, a food stop at a gas station off the interstate (doing our best to find healthy fare). We’ve just left another great city that we’ve spent less than forty eight hours in. The priorities become – how’s the hotel? What’s the wi-fi password? Do I have a view of downtown Manhattan or a brick wall? Is there any good sport on TV tonight? Where do we go for a decent coffee and breakfast? Get some personal space (Thank god the days of sharing hotel rooms are long gone).

On tour, follow a few golden rules – be on time, be low maintenance, do your job, don’t mope. Get to the gym when you can and try and see some sights. Don’t ask unnecessary questions of the tour manager.

Some days, I feel a part of it but not a part of it – story of my life really – but at fifty eight years old, what would I rather be doing?

Read Part 2 of Jack’s blog here.

Jack Howard plays with Hunters and Collectors, teaches music and continues to release his own music on jackhoward.bandcamp.com.