Late in 1990, towards the end of a mammoth world tour, Midnight Oil played a few North Island centres. Once a band that you could catch at the Hillsborough or Gluepot, this time round it was near sell-out gigs at the 10,000-capacity Mt Smart Supertop in Auckland and Wellington Show Buildings. NZ Musician was lucky enough to secure an interview for bass columnist Kenny Pearson with recent Oils’ addition, bassist Wayne Stevens, aka Bones Hillman, perhaps better known still as being a Swinger.
On a wet and windy morning, we headed to Auckland’s Regent Hotel to catch Bones Hillman between breakfast and the airport bus. Dodging the rain and clutching a Walkman cassette recorder that was to prove unreliable on the occasion, the calm of the luxury hotel foyer seemed another world. But it’s no easy life these guys have, believe it.
Now 32, Bones began his musical career 15 years back under his real name, Wayne Stevens, trying drums and saxophone before discovering the bass guitar.
“The first was a Diplomat Rickenbacker that I picked up on K’ Rd, which l used with a Jansen amp I bought on time payment.”
All good Kiwi musician roots.
“Actually the shop lost its records in a fire, so I got it pretty cheap!”
Never one for lessons, he taught himself to play pick style with plenty of grunt. It sounds like he became the arch typical mid ’70s rock era musician living on the smell of a frying pan and $15 a week.
A long way from there to the Oils, whom he joined in 1987 after their original bass player, Peter Gifford, left to pursue an easier life in the clothing trade on Queensland’s Magnetic Island.
“I knew the band from years ago when The Swingers and Midnight Oil were playing the same town and we checked each other out. I was living in Australia with Neil Finn. I hadn’t really played in a long time when out of the blue the phone rings with the offer of an audition. After a couple of plays l was in!”
Before Midnight Oil, his time with The Swingers (started in 1978 with the original line being Bones, Phil Judd and Buster Stiggs), and particularly their hit single Counting The Beat stands out in my mind. The song was revived recently with the film, User Friendly, about which incidentally Bones knew nothing.
“I do occasionally get royalty cheques but they never amount to much.”
Counting The Beat is famous for its bass hook and large round bass sound, big harmonics and neat arrangement.
“I used an alloy neck Kramer with fresh round wound strings, plugged straight into the desk on that song.”
He’s still got that bass and a cage of others including a GuiId acoustic bass guitar, which he describes as being great for living room jam sessions. His main gig axes are a Sunburst 1960 Fender Precision bass, a blue ’62 Fender P. bass, a Spector and a semi acoustic Epiphone bass that’s sometimes used in the studio.
‘I love the Fender basses. They are so strong and have a great sound. The Spector is great too but it can be affected by sweat getting into the electronics. That can cause the bass to cut out half way through the gig. The Epiphone has got this huge bottom end that really gets the woofers moving in the studio! It doesn’t work on the gigs though —being a semi acoustic it’s prone to feed back. I’ve tried the Guild acoustic in the studio along with electric tracks, it’s a bit rattley but nice and warm.”
Back on stage Bones uses a large Ampeg amp with four EV bins, fat and punchy being the emphasis with volume a prerequisite given the large front house volume used.
“Really I just use a foldback for myself! I go direct first then to the amp. Use a bit of chorus and sometimes distortion just to let everybody know I’m there!” (Not really a problem since he also takes the bulk of the second vocals on stage.)
He uses Rotosound regular gauge strings.
“A new set every night, the sweat just kills them. New strings are so much easier to control, tension is great, they’re so bright and easy to get a sound with!”
While happy to praise Rotosound he was pretty scathing about product endorsements.
“It’s funny how when you are young and struggling and really need that stuff, no one wants to help. But now when I can afford what I want and need, people want to give it to me!”
Asked whether he has a recognisable sound, or style to his playing he comments:
“Not a sound, but a style yes. I close the strings off a lot with the edge of my palm and forearm. I wear a sweatband both to stop the sweat and to save wearing my arm away! The effect is to give the dynamic change when I open the strings up – things really fly.”
And so to gigging with Midnight Oil, he’d certainly looked to be enjoying himself in Auckland.
“That tent really sucks up the sound when it’s full of people. I couldn’t hear myself at first. I was using a wireless and the level set at soundcheck wasn’t enough, so the tech came out and fixed that.”
Sounds like luxury!
“In Europe we were playing to 10-12,000 people and in the States to 5-6,000. We’re really doing well in Europe at the moment. We did three tours through there this year.
“We played a lot of festivals in countries like Norway, Switzerland and Belgium – there we shared the bill with Bob Dylan and The Cure. In the States we did two tours, quite a lot of college gigs – no rig, just the band. Even a bit of busking!
“Since March we’ve done 165 gigs and I’m about worn out. In the States, for instance, you’re on the bus half an hour after the gig. Arrive at the next city midday, get a few hours sleep at the hotel, up for soundcheck and a few hours later the gig. Then it’s the whole thing over again.”
Less like luxury, more like gruelling.
“We’ve got four more gigs in Australia then a six-month break. Pete wants me to go spying with him but that’s his department – it’s not for me!”
Year-long world tours apart, Bones says that the band doesn’t plan very far ahead. They know that they will get another album out within three years. Apart from doing the bass lines for himself, he’s not part of the Midnight Oil writing team.
“I haven’t really written since The Swingers. I don’t really read or write music anyway!”
His record-buying covers everything from rock to the Singing Detective soundtrack, but he says it’s usually of established albums that he knows he will like most of, rather than just one or two tracks. Darryl Jones he cites as an influence.
“I’ve watched him three or four times and I dig his playing because it’s so different to mine. I’m Mr Slugger and he’s Mr Technique. We’ve become friends with a mutual respect for each other’s bag.”
Finally, I asked Bones about the theme for the Oils’ latest album and tour, the Blue Sky Mining number.
“Well, basically there are a lot of companies, in Australia particularly mining companies, that are just that, blue sky companies. They exist on paper only and are really just tax write-offs. Inspiration also came from the fight over the asbestos mines that were still working in the ’60s when officials knew of the dangers but kept it quiet from the workers. About 10,000 people passed through those mines before anything was done.”
Well, it was great talking with Bones Hillman. A down to earth guy who has worked his way up and now shares a stage and colourful life with Midnight Oil. Good one, mate, keep it up.