When Mike Oldfield dares to step out of his front door and give an interview, the British press smack him in the teeth. If he had lived at the time of the French Revolution, he would have probably lent casually out of his studio window during an execution to amicably ask the hangman to grease the guillotine so that the noise would not disturb him. Having not promoted himself strongly over the last few years, he has been given the image of an arrogant recluse who doesn't care what goes on around him, as long as he doesn't get any hassle.
Ridiculous stories has been told about the 37 year old Brit because of the lack of information: his reclusive life in his contry mansion with private studio, tennis court... his many trips in aircraft and on acid, his girlfriend Anita, his difficulties with Virgin boss Richard Branson etc. Maybe there's something in them, but this article is going to concentrate solely on his music, with which the born individualist occupies himself every day and almost every night.
On the day of this interview, he is sitting in his studio, working hard on his next album, a record which he'd rather finish sooner than later, so that he can free himself from the yoke which has already bound him for 13 albums: Virgin Records. The life long contract is quite clearly signed in his handwriting - but everyone makes mistakes, even Mike Oldfield, who admits it (contrary to what one might expect!) Ringing me from his mixing desk, his first question is: "What do you think of 'Amarok'?"
Dick Speelpenning: I've written, that, for me, it's the 'Ommadawn' of the 90's. A very good album, perhaps the best of the year.
Mike Oldfield: Great, lovely, thank you! A fitting description, since Amarok was initially conceived as 'Ommadawn II', although it does have life of it's own! I'm actually working on 'Tubular Bells II' too - while I was rehearsing for it, I thought it would be a good idea to do 'Ommadawn II' first. I had so many ideas for Tubular Bells which I couldn't ever do anything with - 'Hergest Ridge' was a completely different kind of record; more folky and orchestral. I then gave up developing the basic ideas any further. 'Amarok' points the way for 'Tubular Bells II' - it is an album of real "handcrafted" music, without computers.
Why two parts for heaven's sake?
I thought it would be quite amusing - they do it in films, but as far as I know, no-one in the music business has ever done it!
What does Amarok mean?
It doesn't have a real meaning, but it's similar to many Gaelic words, like morning or happy. If you split the letters up, you get Am-a-rock... it could mean: I am a rock. Maybe that implies I don't want to change anything by following trends. I don't want to do what other people already do. I know what I want... and that's what I do! Amarok means a lot for me, and I find it a pleasant word. Apart from that, the shape of the letters pleases me, especially reading down from top to bottom like on the cover. My producer Tom Newman crafted them out of metal himself.
You've worked with lots of different co-producers over the years. Is Tom back because he produced your first two albums?
Not necessarily. I asked him because my deepest inner feelings are important, and tom has a very good influence on me: he's very laid back, knows lots of great jokes... we laugh a lot, which produces a positive atmosphere - very important when recording.
Simon Phillips, with whom you worked for a few years told me that you prefer working together with another person.
Yes, that's true - I always worked well with Simon. He was here two months ago for a week to help do the backing tracks for the other record which I'm recording at the moment.
In spite of others being around you, you're a complete individualist!
Absolutely! I've been a complete individualist since school. I never mixed with other groups and was always the one who wanted to do something different.
Before 'Tubular Bells', you played in two groups: Kevin Ayers & The Whole World and Barefeet. Have you not had the desire to form a group since then?
Yes, I have. Perhaps in the future. One of the problems was always the relationship with the record company. Unfournately, I agreed in 1973 to record 10 albums, which have since become 13 out of various reasons. I've devoted my whole time to finishing these 13 records. Luckily, I'm now working on my last for Virgin, which will appear in 1991. I can hardly wait till it's finished. I've never had time to do anything but fulfil my duties: recording albums and occassionally to go on tour. When this record is finished, my future will be open again at last. Then I can work on 'Tubular Bells II'.. a good bit of experimenting... and maybe even form a "part-time" group.
Which goes on tour?
It's about time. Yes, I'd like to go on tour again, but I can't do that before 1992 when 'Tubular Bells II' comes out. My contract won't let me release another album before May 1992 if I'm on a new label.
So you're definately leaving Virgin?
I really do hope so!
Are they not doing anything for you any more?
No - not now, at least.
But you made them big!
Basically, yes, but now they're too big. I get the feeling that the people working there now don't value my talent. The see success and commercialism as important. I don't see it like that - I'm more interested in the quality of the music. I've had enough of their attitude.
Have they forced you to make commercial albums?
Yes, at times, with 'Earth Moving' especially. They weren't too happy with its success. 'Amarok' is my personal revenge for that - a record purely for the sake of music. I wanted to be creative again.
Does Earth Moving bother you now?
I made 'Earth Moving' in full cooperation with the record company. It was a record which they wanted.
But not you?
That would be too simple. I didn't have real problems with it, because I could experiment writing pop songs. 'Earth Moving' is in my discography and I'm not ashamed of it.
But in your few interviews a few years ago, you commented unfavourably on songs in the Top 40.
Although you've been responsible for such songs over the last few years.
Yes, I have to admit - I had to experience what it is myself, and realise that things can't progress in the same direction. It showed me that computers are the cancer of popular music and destroy it. Little kids put the radio on and think they're hearing real people. In reality, a computer programmer is manipulating digital samples of other people. This develpment is terrible and I've firmly decided to fight this trend with all my energy.
Jon Anderson told me that he asked you not to ring him up asking for his help until you make proper music instead of simple pop songs.
(chuckling) Really? That's not true... funny! He thought I would get a Grammy for the guitar solo on "Shine" - they were his words!
The pop songs in 'Crises', like 'Moonlight Shadow' didn't sound as if they were written to get a hit single. They sound much more sincere than the songs on Islands.
There's some truth in that. One of the most interesting things about 'Crises' was that it was recorded with session musicians, and the backing tracks were recorded live. Everything on 'Earth Moving' was computerised. I've now moved away from computers completely. I'm living in a tent in my garden at the moment in protest. Computers are practical tools to help write music and make demos, but in the end, when you record albums and go on tour, you have to use real musicians and instruments. Computers have been around for just about 10 years (in music, at least). Kids don't know any different. They have a place in music, but we have to find it first. One of the biggest problems with computers is they discourage people from learning how to play real instruments. I don't know any instrumentalist who's become famous over the last 10 years by playing briliant guitar, keyboards or any other instrument. I can only think of one: Nigel Kennedy, but he's from the classical field. Don't you find that alarming? A computer is a toy. If you want to stay a child your whole life, just play happily with the toy. They're nice games, but you don't achieve anything if you don't learn how to play properly. You need an awful lot of love and affection for what you do.
You yourself play many instruments, also traditional instruments!
Traditional folk music is music which makes me happy. I like playing traditional instruments like mandolin or bagpipes. I won't use them so much on 'Tubular Bells II', but 'Amarok' provided a good opportunity to use them again.
There also many African influences on 'Amarok'.
I've always been interested in African music. I played with two musicians from black Africa once as a child. I love African voices, especially in chorus. I've often used African drums, too. Exactly, the same drummers play on Amarok as did on Ommadawn.
You used voices as instruments on Incantations, among others.
I wanted to stop that at one time - I wanted to learn how to write lyrics. It's an extra dimension, using tones which also have a meaning. The voices on Amarok sound like tones, but most are lyrics sung in Zulu - I wrote them myself, with the help of someone who can speak Zulu!
You've always had a nose for unknown but talented singers: you sister Sally, Maggie Reilly, your girlfriend Anita Hegerland!
Oh, I don't know. It's connected with my youth and my sister Sally. We played together in folk clubs at 13. Since then I've grown accustomed to women's voices! I'm pleased that I find the right people at the right time, but I won't be doing that any more in the future - that's part of a secret plan which I'm working on at the moment.
Were you worried that people would accuse you of re-using the pattern of past successes on 'Amarok'?
What goes on in pop music today has nothing to do with progress. Everything seems to have been thrown back 5000 years. I turned the clock back 17 years in the hope that I'll find a path which will take me in a different direction. Despite computers, today's recordings sound so primitive and have absolutely no value.
What direction will you take after 'Tubular Bells II'?
I'm workin on a secret project, which I can't say much about yet, but you'll hear about if before 'Tubular Bells II'. I will be my last album for Virgin and I hope it will pave the way for future work. On the other hand, what's good about a new direction which finishes up a blind valley? No-one can exist without their parents and grandparents - everyone builds on the past, sometimes in the wrong direction. I get letters now from people who loved my instrumental music, but not 'Earth Moving'. They're all returning with 'Amarok'. People must realise I can't always make the same kind of music, though. My albums can be completely instrumental, vocal, or a mix of both. I can write rock, pop or folk - I simply write the music I want, and I try to be sincere. I'll do that more in the future; sheer music for music's sake, without worrying whether it'll be successful or people like it. That's what I do best.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net