Mike Oldfield on "The Break"


UK radio

The Break: Many of the people who listen to this programme will be teenagers, and they won't be aware of why you have the reputation you undoubtedly enjoy. They weren't around for the original 'Tubular Bells' - so what is 'Tubular Bells II'?

Mike Oldfield:Since I started making music, things have become more categorised. You've got dance music, world music, rock music, heavy metal, New Age, folk... when I started out, all these categories didn't exist. All I've really done is take bits of all the types of music that I like and make them into a long instrumental collage.

I'm sure that some of the younger listeners to this show listen to classical music - I hope so, because there's a wonderful world out there. But in the last fifteen years the music business has been far too commercially orientated, they've been aiming things at young people just to get their money out of their pockets to buy records, which is something that I disapprove of - I believe that music should be made purely for the joy of making it. There are a few notable exceptions to the commercial trend, but they tend to be part of the old guard of music; Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the Stones... they play it because they love to do it. So if you imagine a symphony, or a piece of music symphonically structured but using electric instruments, computers and samplers as well as acoustic instruments, mostly played by me and produced by a modern producer, then you start to get a picture of what it's like.

Playing most of the instruments yourself must take a very long time.

It's quite painstaking work, but I'm pretty practised at it by now! Most of the second half of Tubular Bells 2 was done in a week. My producer says that once I get going, I'm like a machine-gunner firing overdubs at the tape; I can run off probably a hundred overdubs in a day. Once I get an idea I'll just keep adding instruments as I think of them. It's great fun!

You were the cornerstone of the Virgin empire with Tubular Bells, but now you've moved to WEA. What do you think of Richard Branson's move away from records and into aeroplanes?

I don't know, really, although it was me who introduced him to aeroplanes! I got my pilot's licence in 1979 and I asked him if he'd like to come up for a little trip. I'd been nervous of flying, which was part of the reason for me learning to fly, to conquer the fear, and I took Richard up with me and he was a bit nervous himself. He was always playing practical jokes on me, so I took the chance to play one on him; I quietly cut the throttle on the engine and we started spiralling down. He started panicking, yelling "What's wrong? What's happening?" and I acted cool and calm, and he was a bit put out when he realised what I'd done. He must have wanted to get one up on me, because the next thing he did was go out and buy a Boeing 747!

Richard was never much of a music buff; it was a good opportunity for him to start what became a huge corporation and sell it for a lot of money later on. I bear the man no ill-will; he makes me laugh and I wish him every success with his airline - provided that I can get free travel on it!

In the early days, Virgin planes had performers walking up and down the aisles entertaining the passengers. Could you ever see yourself doing that sort of thing?

I did push my luck one day. I'd just finished an album called 'Earth Moving', and for the launch party I asked if I could borrow one of Virgin's jumbo jets. To my surprise he said yes, so we had a party with a couple of hundred people flying all over the UK. It's a very good airline, by the way - I recommend that people try it!

Is a complex piece of music like 'Tubular Bells II' capable of being performed live?

Absolutely; we've got the Edinburgh concert coming up, and it'so perfectly possible to play it live. The only thing is we need about twenty people and two Macintosh computers to do it! We've got a complete lighting rig, and also a conductor. We've got him because given the size and complexity of the piece, it's too much for any one person to memorize, apart from me, because I wrote it. The Macs generate timecode to help keep everyone playing in time, and also change sounds on the various keyboards and switch things on and off. It's all very expensive, but it gives a very good representation of the album.

Because of your contract with Virgin you didn't do as well out of many of your albums as you should have done. Do you have any regrets about your early music career?

Not really, no. I just did what was appropriate for me at the time. After 'Tubular Bells' I wasn't ready to face the world, but there were lots of people saying that I should have been out there as the spokesperson or ambassador for instrumental music. I just didn't have the personality to be able to do that at the time; I could hardly string two words together. I was a very musical animal, almost to the point of being autistic. I went off and lived in my little cottage in Wales and got on with writing very Celtic albums, which is what I really enjoyed doing and I've got no regrets about that.

Your charity Tonic is very close to your heart, and you've often said that governments should provide the kind of help that Tonic tries to. Do you think you might try your hand at politics, determining what governments do rather than doing their job for them?

It's very unusual for a musician like me to be interested in this particular area. I don't understand politics, to be quite honest, and I wouldn't find it very interesting. I would definitely like to have a hands-on effect on people with Tonic, though. There might be a young person listening to this right now who may be very similar to the way I was when I was fifteen or sixteen; what I'm saying is that there's help available, even if it seems very distant. When I was unhappy in my teens my way of dealing with it was to rebel; I took drugs, I drank too much, I made myself even more unhappy and there was nobody to turn to. I tried the local doctor but he'd just scribble out a prescription for a few tranquillisers, and the last thing I needed was to be sedated because that stops you from exploring your problems and making progress. Hopefully, Tonic will mean that people will be able to get help instead of turning to drugs or drink. Quite often, the problems can be very easy to solve once you have the courage to face them, and that can give you all the fuel and energy you need to get on with your life.

Was there a single moment when you realised how to deal with your problems, or did you change gradually?

There was a single moment. It happened in about 1978. I suddenly realised that I was living on my own in the country, I didn't really have any friends and my career was taking a dive. I realised that I had to come out of my shell and look at the problems which were holding me back as a person, but propelling me forwards into the world of music and giving me a career as a musician. It just came to the crunch.

How did your problems manifest themselves?

Mainly as a general feeling of panic, that something was terribly, terribly wrong. It could happen anywhere - in a lift, in a supermarket, driving a car or even sitting in a quiet country meadow - so obviously it wasn't the situation that was the problem, it was the feeling. I took an Exegesis course in self-awareness, where they break your personality down and build it back up, and through that I re-experienced my fears. It was like opening some huge cathedral doors and facing the monster, and I saw that the monster was myself as a new-born infant, because I'd started life in a panic. In those days there was no natural childbirth; you were just pulled out by your feet, slapped on the back and the umbilical cord was cut, and so suddenly all my life-support systems had gone... it's a very disrespectful way to treat a new-born member of the human race, and luckily they're starting to move away from that now. Natural childbirth means that the baby continues to get blood from the umbilical cord for many minutes after birth; it gets laid on the mother's breast and it takes its first breath in its own time. I've seen it myself; I've got five children of my own and I've seen them all do that. It's a wonderful moment, and perhaps future generations won't have to suffer some of the psychological problems that we faced because they'll have had the benefits of natural childbirth.

You're a big fan of technology, but you're still a very musical performer. Do you treasure and cherish your more conventional instruments?

I've got quite a few old guitars which I love to play. It's so easy to get a keyboard now that virtually does it all for you, it really worries me that people aren't learning to play properly any more. The only way you'll learn how to play properly is through practise, practise needs motivation, and it can be difficult to find that motivation when you can switch on a synth or a computer, press a few keys for a few minutes, and you instantly sound like the latest chart bands! I'm very keen to communicate the importance of being able to play properly, and not rely on a keyboard full of samples, which unfortunately too many people do these days. Real acoustic instruments are much more fun to play than keyboards, and they're like wine - age improves them!

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net