Seven of Bones Hillman’s best bass moments with Midnight Oil
09.11.2020

Seven of Bones Hillman’s best bass moments with Midnight Oil

Words by Will Brewster

We pay tribute to the late bassist and backing vocalist by diving into his output with the iconic Aussie rock outfit.

With the sad news of Bones Hillman’s passing, we’re taking a look at some of the late bassist and backing vocalist’s most memorable moments with Midnight Oil. 

‘Blue Sky Mine’ – Blue Sky Mining (1990)

As the lead single for Midnight Oil’s 1990 classic Blue Sky Mining, for many, ’Blue Sky Mine’ served as a memorable introduction to the understated brilliance of Hillman’s bass playing, with the New Zealand-bassist being inducted into the band following Peter Gilford’s departure in 1987.

Beneath Peter Garret’s wailing harmonica and the jangly guitars of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, Hillman opts for a pumping bassline with a deceptive melodic twist, making use of slides and playing with a pick to inject the track with a bit of extra grit. There’s key changes galore throughout this track, and Hillman navigates them with ease, locking in with Rob Hirst to provide the bedrock for one of the band’s most poignant tunes. 

Bass playing aside, ’Blue Sky Mine’ also introduced the world to one of Hillman’s most important tricks: his backing vocals. Hillman and Hirst’s upper register harmonies in the chorus make for a perfect counterpart for Garrett’s idiosyncratic tone and vocal phrasings, and help to elevate the anthemic chorus tenfold. 

‘Shakers and Movers’ – Blue Sky Mining (1990)

Hillman’s plectrum-based playing style and choice of instrument – a rocksteady Fender Precision Bass – aren’t exactly unique to the realm of indie rock, but his melodic phrasings and choice of notes almost certainly are. 

On ‘Shakers and Movers’, which was released as a split lead single alongside ‘Forgotten Years’, Hillman pairs a fluid, busy line with some surprisingly technical alternate picking, with his playing at points throughout the track resembling that of The Smiths’ Andy Rourke and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. 

Keep an ear out for how much nuance Hillman’s right-hand muting and use of ghost notes add to the track – it’s so sparingly fine that you’d be forgiven for not picking up on it, but man does it make a difference to the track.

‘Feeding Frenzy’ – Earth And Sun And Moon (1993)

On his second album with the group, Hillman opens Midnight Oil’s eighth outing with an absolute belter of a bassline, making use of a growling bass tone and a Tina Weymouth-esque ostinato groove to set the tone for what several critics consider to be the most sonically fulfilling Midnight Oil release. 

Hillman’s playing alters drastically throughout this track, with chorus and bridge section seeing him employ much more melodic movement and rhythmic trickery. Keep an ear out for his fills in the bridge, and you’ll be rewarded with some incredibly tasteful licks – and once again, Hillman’s backing vocals are astounding throughout this one. 

‘Truganini’ – Earth And Sun And Moon (1993)

Another example of Hillman’s might as a minimalist. ‘Truganini’ proved to be a major charting hit for Midnight Oil around the world, proving to be instrumental in bringing international awareness to the plight of the Indigenous Australian people in Tasmania. 

For the majority of ‘Truganini’, Hillman takes a backseat and keep things simple, with his cyclical playing in the verse and his rooted notes in the chorus giving way for the twin guitars of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey to go to work. 

However, it’s in the second half of the track where Hillman really goes to work, squeezing in some much more melodic fills into the mix and taking centre stage to ride out the song. The plucky, muted bass tone of ‘Truganini’ is another major highlight of the track, and once again, Hillman’s playing is just perfectly suited for the tone of the P Bass.

‘Underwater’ – Breathe (1996)

Breathe is almost certainly Midnight OIl’s most raw record of their discography, and stands out in stark contrast to some of their earlier works. Hillman, who himself came from a punk background, is well and truly in his element across this record, and there’s more than a few moments that showcase his playing: his anchor-like playing in the frenetic ‘Sins Of Omission’ is cool as hell, and the swagger of his lines in ‘Bring On The Change’ is definitely worth noting. 

If there’s any single track in the Midnight Oil discography that could be considered as the Bone Show, however, it’s got to be the album’s opener, ‘Underwater’. The tone on this track should literally be deemed the blueprint for any modern alt-rock bassist: swapping out his trusty P Bass in favour of a humbucker-equipped Gibson Thunderbird, Hillman cranks up the gain and lays down one of his best ever basslines. 

There’s so much attitude seeping out of Hillman’s right-hand on this cut, and his control and note choice is just simply impeccable, particularly when played live. What a monster!

‘White Skin Black Heart’ – Redneck Wonderland (1998)

If you’re only familiar with Midnight Oil’s output throughout the ‘80s, you might be in for a bit of a shock when you listen to Redneck Wonderland. This record is bone-crushingly heavy, with the band linking up with Regurgitator producer Magoo and channeling the energy of acts like Rage Against The Machine to back Garrett’s fiery songwriting with some dense and distorted sounds of their own. 

On ‘White Skin Black Heart’, Hillman opts for a crunchy tone similar to that heard on ‘Underwater’, with the impact of his spacious bassline only being beefed up further by his ridiculously distorted playing. 

Hillman kicks things up a notch midway through the track when Garrett starts to yelp and growl, with his savage playing in the bridge proving to be a monumental highlight of this incredibly underrated album highlight. 

‘A Sunburnt Sky’ – Lasseter’s Gold (2017)

Written by Jim Moginie for the Breathe sessions, ‘Sunburnt Sky’ was a rare demo that was eventually unsurfaced for the band’s Lasseter’s Gold album of demos and outtakes, with the lush, modulated guitars and cavernous reverb of the track baring some similarities to the sound of ‘80s guitar anti-hero Vini Reilly. 

With the guitars providing texture throughout the track, Hillman has much more freedom to roam around the fretboard, playing a nimble alternating octave pattern to both drive the track and provide some melodic counterpoint against the guitars. 

This one’s a bit of a deep cut, but I think it’s a worthy addition just to demonstrate how much of a unique and creative player Hillman really was: inventive as ever, even on the demos.