Mad? Us?

October, 1992

Q Magazine

Nineteen years and 13 albums after the original, Mike Oldfield has completed Tubular Bells 2. But..."I ought to explain that there's been a big difference in me psychologically since the early days." Andy Gill reports.

THE ENTRANCE to the grounds is classic old Hollywood style, with a phone you have to call from to get someone to operate the remote-controlled wrought-iron gates so you can purr gently down the drive to the house. A medium-sized mansion perched up on a steep side-road off Doheny Drive, it used to belong to some disabled Los Angeles businessman whose mustachioed visage peers down from a crap vanity painting in the oak-paneled library; to facilitate wheelchair access, he built the place with wide corridors and ramps, which are convenient for trundling the flight-cases of recording gear in and out. It's a bloody long way from Hergest Ridge, that's for sure, but Mike Oldfield seems as in his element here as anywhere else, feet up on the edge of his mixing desk as he rolls himself a Rizlaful of Old Holborn.

When he decided to rent the place for nine months to record his new album, Oldfield had his own battered old desk shipped round via the Panama Canal, rather than hire one here in the city which probably has more mixing desks to the square mile than any place in the world. Seeing as how it's producer Trevor Horn and his assistants who must do most of the knob-twiddling and EQ- tweaking, this seems an unnecessarily great length to go to, but at least the former boy genius seems at home here, surrounded by his own equipment and a Nigel Tufnel-esque room stuffed with around two dozen guitars at parade rest on their stands. The most valuable, he reckons, is the tatty Telecaster which used to belong to Marc Bolan.

Oldfield's here to record Tubular Bells 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the umpteen million-selling, Virgin empire-founding album which a shy, diffident teenager recorded nearly two decades ago. So why do the sequel now?

"Better to ask why I didn't do it before,' he replies. "The reason I didn't do it straight after the first one is that I didn't want to do anything after the first one. It was so successful that it scared me. I ran off to the Welsh countryside and lived in this little shack on top of a mountain. Meanwhile, the phone was ringing every two or three minutes, saying 'Make another album! Go on tour! Do some press! Do some TV!'... Fuck off! Leave me alone, y'know? The first Tubular Bells was my whole lifetime of music up till then, and I wasn't really ready to do another one."

"I OUGHT to explain that there's been a big difference in me psychologically sides the early days." This is self-evidently true, as a brief glance through old press cuttings shows. In the earliest, there's Mike Oldfield the church mouse, shy and reclusive, impervious to changes in fashion or social mores (a rock photographer of the era used to claim that the only change in his appearance from one year's photo session to the next was an increase in the number of dope-burns on the front of his T-shirt); later, following his brush with the Exegesis self-awareness group, there was a smarter, shorter-haired, and exaggeratedly self-confident Oldfield with a distinctly truculent edge, almost as if he was passing through a berated snotty adolescence. Now, he seems more mature, self-aware but mellow with it.

"The reason why I'm a musician in the first place is that as a child I was from a very insecure family background," he offers. "My mother was very sick and I witnessed some pretty horrible things, so I turned to music as an escape from that, as a lot of people do. I sort of shut out the rest of the world and lived in my little world of music, which was like my Virtual Reality. I couldn't go into a city, even into a shop, without going Gaaah! and rushing back to my music. I was having terrible psychological problems, panic attacks, insecurity - I thought I was going out of my mind, I was on the edge of insanity. I've got over that now, I feel much more connected, and I can even allow other people to make contributions to my music - like, to have a good producer."

The breakthrough came when he attended an Exegesis seminar, the psychotherapy group widely attacked in the press for its forceful methods of persuasion: tales of people not being allowed to leave the room, and being forced to urinate where they sat, were common at the time. Oldfield downplays the methods - "People have a resistance to facing their problems: if certain things happened in their childhood, they'll have evolved a system, or a way of behaviour, to avoid feeling that pain again, and sometimes they need to be forcibly encouraged to be honest with themselves" - while emphasising the results.
"It was a revelation to me. I was having these panic attacks, and I was manipulated into this position where I had to go and look at Exegesis and find out what the hell it was. I sort of went through the fear barrier and came out the other end, and I'd turned into a new-born fetus, just tumbled out of my mother's womb."

Blimey. That must have been a bit unnerving.

"No it wasn't. It was unbelievably, ecstatically wonderful! Because it meant that the thing I'd been frightened about, when I was born, was being born. I even felt all the mucus and blood on my hands and face. I started off thinking, Aaagh, I don't like this, I want to get back into the womb, I was nice and warm and comfortable in there. And I've been remembering it my whole life, up until then. It's nothing to do with being brainwashed into a zombie, or whatever people say; it takes a lot of courage to be able to do that, and I'm proud I was able to."

ALL OLDFIELD'S psychological break-throughs, however, couldn't stem the tide of public taste, and when the vogue for Mike Oldfield-style lengthy instrumentals fell out of commercial favour, after his third album proper, Ommadawn (1975), he found himself increasingly at logger-heads with Virgin. When punk came along a year or two later, he found himself effectively beached, utterly out of step with musical taste and, consequently, shunned by the company he'd helped start.

"They didn't seem to want me to make instrumental music any more," he recalls. "It didn't fit into one of their slots, it made life too difficult for them... They wanted to go into work in the morning and deal with the single and the video, and have it nice and organised. I didn't fit in. I kept coming up with one-hour instrumentals. In fact, the Managing Director said he didn't know what to do with instrumental music: 'How do I promote it? Radio One won't play it'."

Which, you might think, seems slightly churlish, given that that was the kind of music on which the company was originally built. But trusting their analysis, he took singing lessons and endeavoured to supply Virgin with the kind of "commercial" albums they might be able to sell. All to no avail. Despite a few successful singles, the relationship between company and artist deteriorated so much that, when Oldfield released what he considered his best album in years, Amarok (1989), he took it upon himself to promote the record with his own money when he saw it was going to go virtually unattended at Virgin. He made a radio jingle, bought airtime, and even organised a postal campaign and treasure-hunt style mystery (in the vein of that Kit Williams picture book that promised a gem-encrusted brooch to anyone who could crack the code hidden in the book). The £1,000 prize remains unclaimed to this day.

So when, in the mid-'80s, Oldfield began thinking about doing a sequel to Tubular Bells, he kept the idea to himself and waited out his contract. "Richard was too busy with his airline and his balloons and stuff, and I just felt there wasn't anybody there I could relate to. I thought, If I'm going to do Tubular Bells 2, I want to feel that my record company's going to appreciate it and know what to do with it, not say, Thanks very much, press up a couple of thousand copies and stick it in the dustbin.

"I had this horrendous contract I was committed to right back in 1972, I think it was, which I didn't realise at the time - I was 19 then - committed me to 10 albums at a pretty dismal royalty. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to improve my deal with Virgin, but the only way I could improve it was to agree to give them an extra three albums. So between 1973 and last year, I did 13 albums, which is a hell of a lot. I was pretty sore about that, and didn't want to give them Tubular Bells 2. I had to work through my album commitment, get free, and get myself organised with a team of people who were really going to appreciate it and make it as successful as the first one."

The team comprised a new manager, Clive Banks (Simple Minds), a new label, Warners, and a new producer, Trevor Horn. While he's more noted for his technical expertise, Horn has also influenced the emotional weight of the music.

"Because of this period of having to make so many albums, an element of frustration has crept into my playing," explains Oldfield. "Trevor's trying to encourage me to play with more feeling. I was getting a lot of anger into my playing, and he'd say, Play that with a bit more love, and when I did, the music started to sing instead of growling at you. Also, with 48 tracks, and occasionally even 96 tracks, you can cram things so full of stuff that it sounds like musical goulash - you have to strip it away and let beautiful things hang there. Occasionally I get into a mode which Trevor calls my 'machine-gun overdub mode'. I just spray the thing full of overdubs, and then he goes through them all and sorts out which ones he prefers. "

He plays the first side of TB2, whose progress we follow on one of those big high- resolution monitor screens as the 48 tracks shuttle by - 10 tracks of piano here, a dozen guitars there, and even a section played by the LA Police pipe band, a fact about which Oldfield sensibly keeps quiet, so soon after the LA riots. Have computers simplified Oldfield's style of multiple-overdub music, what with the magic of digital recording, sequencing and quantising replacing all that fiddling around with tape?

"No!" he snorts. "I could, theoretically, make an album with a modern computer in an afternoon; but to do it properly ... For example, there was one section where I played it all live, acoustic bass and everything, and Trevor took it into his computer and said, Let's try something different; let's chop it up into 138 individual bits and put it back together again. So he got his two slaves, who he gives all the donkey work, to do it, and the result was really weird: it sounded like a real person, but a bit robotised. It wasn't sampled, it didn't sound like a sequencer, it sounded totally different. That takes a lot of time, that kind of stuff."

IT'S CERTAINLY far removed from Oldfield's early days in the music biz. A musical prodigy, he was performing in folk clubs by the age of 10, and was on the road throughout his teens, first with his sister Sally in their group The Sallyangie, and then alongside classical arranger David Bedford and crazy baldheaded saxist Lol Coxhill in Kevin Ayers' Whole World. Life on the road, he recalls, was awful, a period of sustained discomfort in the back of Transits, no sleep, and little money.

"Plus I usually had an awful hangover, because Kevin was teaching me how to drink at the time! Just before the gig he'd keep passing me a bottle of wine - I was only 16 at the time - and I'd get on stage and play all out of tune. I stuck it for about two years, then I had a real nervous breakdown, told them I was leaving. Then they started to appreciate me: Kevin said, Come back. What do you want? I said, All right, we're not going to be drunk when we go on stage, and you're going to let me do the arrangements to your songs. He said OK, and I went back for a while, but it didn't work out. The best thing that came out of it was that Kevin lent me his tape recorder, a two-track machine on which I did the demos for Tubular Bells."

Tubular Bells, of course, was the first time that the minimalist principles devised by such as LaMonte Young and Terry Riley had been brought into rock in a convincing manner, a development Oldfield also credits to Ayers: "Repetition, that's something Kevin taught me. There was this bit we used to play in The Whole World that went on and on and on, and I said, Why does it go on and on and on? and he said, Because it does. And I got the idea that it was all right to just keep on repeating some- thing. I've never worried about that. You see . . . " - and here he picks up one of the flotilla of acoustic guitars, and picks out the TB intro - " . . . you can either listen to the top part, or you can listen to the bottom part, which is doing offbeats. And if that goes on for long enough, you'll be able to see it in lots of different ways, from different angles."

It was, I suggest, the first piece of amorphous rock music, one that was always changing, always in the process of becoming.

"That's right," he agrees. "There's only three or four melodies in the whole thing, but they keep developing, growing, turning into something else, reappearing in places you don't expect them. You might listen to it 20 or 30 times before you realise that, say, the intro melody has moved down into the bass. It's like reading a great big book full of ideas - you never run out of discovering new things.

"Tubular Bells still sounds fresh to me, and I keep being reminded of it: every time I turn the TV or radio on, I hear derivatives of that introductory riff. No matter where you are in the world - Singapore, New York - it's used in commercials and films, anything from talk shows to horror films; it's become part of the film language. It's so easy to do a bit of music like Tubular Bells, you just sort of rock backwards and forwards on your thumb and finger. People have done rap versions of it, club versions-it just won't go away."

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield