Gareth Randall Interviews Mike Oldfield

June 1, 1995
Gareth Randall

"The following is the transcript of an interview that took place at Mike Oldfield's home studio on Thursday June 1st 1995. The questions all came from list members. I would like to thank Mike Oldfield and his manager, Clive Banks, for giving permission for the interview to go ahead."

"Where appropriate I have transcribed Mike's answers exactly as they were given, to try and preserve the flavour of his talking style."

Gareth Randall

How does the compositional process work for you?

"I scribble down little bits of ideas wherever I am - in the pub, watching TV, or in the car - and I have to stop the car and write down the idea on a scrap of paper. Then I go into the studio and work on it and make it into a little one- or two-minute piece. I do that for a few months, and I end up with a whole library of bits; then I start thinking about how I can link them together. I also think about common elements; how I can use the same tune in different parts, and patchwork it together until it has some kind of form. I polish every little bit until it's as good as I can get it, and then it gets the final overall polishing in the mixdown. Any large thing has got to be done in bits, really... and quite often I'll do it all again once I've mocked it up in demo form."

Do you find that the latest digital technology means you work differently when you come to link the segments together? Doing something like Tubular Bells by hand must have been a nightmare.

"It's basically the same, but we did a lot of tape editing in those days... nowadays we rent in another machine and edit it digitally, which is just as difficult, really! There's something nice about getting a razor blade out and hacking bits of tape about... but digital editing does sound better."

What gives you the greatest satisfaction - composing long complex pieces, or shorter songs with wider appeal?

"The shorter songs are often the little sections that I've worked on, and I feel that they can stand up on their own, so I won't integrate them into the whole - I'll leave them as separate entities. At the moment, though, I find myself going round in circles with songs, especially lyrically... I'm not really a lyricist, although I've had occasional flashes of inspiration! I find it a bit limiting... I've kind've lost my way with songs, but I might work on them again, if I could maybe work with somebody... co-write something..."

"Currently I'm not getting satisfaction from either long pieces or short pieces, which is why I'm working on musical virtuality... it's a whole new thing, about to explode in a big way. We're about to build a virtual cinema in here [gestures around the studio] so you'll be able to see in 3-D, and we're doing lots of things like writing our own software to control the soundtrack of this VR world. At the moment there aren't any machines on the domestic market capable of reproducing this, but there will be, probably next year."

"You might say I've got a bit bored with just music... especially with all the possibilities this kind of technology can offer. I find it much more exciting to work on something really different and new."

Which of your tracks or albums is your favourite?

"I don't listen to my old music, to be honest... I'm saving that for when I'm in my bath chair when I'm ninety. I'll put on my laser walkman, or whatever exists then, and think [imitates quavery old voice] "That was a good one!"

"The big hits tend to be your favourite, but that's probably more an ego thing. I love parts of Amarok, which is probably my least successful album; there are parts of it that I hate, parts of it where I can't believe how I could be so naieve, but other bits I think "Wow, that's tremendous!"

'Ommadawn' and 'Amarok' are almost always cited by fans as being your best works.

"Yes, but fans are different from success! Amarok has sold the least copies of any of my albums, but technically it's probably the best thing I've ever done. It was an experiment to see if I could do it without computers - even though it doesn't sound like it, it was all played by hand. It sounds like samples, but every little thing was played by hand, and I had a lot of fun doing it."

At this point I mentioned the infamous (among guitarists!) intro riff to Amarok, and Mike said "Oh, that's easy!", picked up a classical guitar, tuned it up, and played it. Sitting as I was about a foot away, I was able to watch his technique closely - the left hand fingering is almost ludicrously simple, frequently only employing two fingers, with all the work done by the right hand.

"It's just a hammering technique. I learned it when I went to buy a classical guitar from Ivor Maraints; he played this little thing [demonstrates rapid repeated fill] that sounds tremendous, but it's dead easy to do, because it's all just hammering... if you learn a basic clawhammer technique from folk picking, you can do all the stuff I do."

"A lot of people don't think that I'm a guitarist because when I play it doesn't look like I'm doing anything, but there's still a sound coming out!"

'The Songs Of Distant earth' has been the hot topic of debate on the mailing list; it seems to have generated a mixed reaction. Is this something you were expecting?

"I didn't know it had generated a mixed reaction! All I know is that I can't listen to it now, especially the first fifteen minutes, without being personally very moved. There's a lot of things wrong with it; it was a bit of a rush to finish it, but in general I'm very pleased with it. It was a great opportunity to work with a computer. Take the introductory rhythm track - there are so many components to it, to be able to pick them up with the mouse and graphically move them around, align them, chop bits out... I was investigating the possibilities of using computers. I do seem to spend most of my time sitting in front of computers, and it's much more fun to sit in front of a Silicon Graphics machine and fly around a universe you've created than it is to sit in front of some other machines..."

"I'm very pleased with 'The Songs Of Distant earth'. It's got a good feeling to it. I didn't realise that a lot of people really liked the folky stuff! I think one of the reasons why I've survived as an artist for so long is that I don't just stick to one thing... I've embraced new technologies, and if I always made folk albums maybe I wouldn't be taken seriously by the rock world - not that that really matters, but it does seem to be almost a family or Mafia thing and if you want to stay successful you've got to relate to that somehow. But I must say that I'm giving folk music a rest and I'm getting on with this virtual reality business."

Your daughter Molly is credited as having done some synth work on 'The Songs Of Distant earth'. What did she do, and was she any influence on the very contemporary, ambient feel of the album?

"It's funny you should say that! She's fifteen, nearly sixteen... I used to play her things, just to see if her generation could relate to it, and she'd come along and give me CDs of dance mixes and things that she liked and that was nice. I like to have that kind of input from a person of that generation. I think they're a lovely generation; they don't seem to have the cynicism that maybe we had when we were young."

"She didn't really play anything! On the track The Chamber there's a Russian astronaut sample, and she triggered that off from the keyboard. She was basically a sounding board to see if she could relate to the music, and she was a help in that way. I told her that she should be a producer, because all producers do is sit at the back and go "Like it!" or "Don't like it!"

What is your latest technological "toy" and how are you using it in your work?

"It's a Silicon Graphics machine - the kind of thing that a few years ago would have been called a super-computer. It enables you to model a whole world, which is what I'm doing... [demonstrates moving around the VR world with the mouse - we see a desert plain with a large cactus, an ocean scene with a large whale, a glass bird in the sky, Ayer's Rock, and an open-plan chalet-type house on a rocky promontory with a fountain and a bronze statuesque child figure beside it]

"Everything will be animated - the bird will fly, the whale will swim, you can drive or fly around the place... there's an underground cave system and certain areas that you have to explore, an underground cathedral, all that kind of thing... and depending on where you go you'll hear different pieces of music. It's a very exciting thing, but these machines are very expensive at the moment, although at the rate that they're shrinking microprocessors, I'm fairly certain that in a year's time, certainly two, you'll be able to buy a TV-top unit for two or three hundred pounds that'll be your CD player, it'll play videos, and you'll also get these musical virtuality things. The other thing is that all the games manufacturers are going to make quite boring games and a lot of them are going to be very violent - I've already seen some of them, people getting impaled on spikes and stuff like that... I think that kind of stuff's really bad, so I'm trying to do something which is different from that, which is, if you like, an enriching experience, it's pleasant and makes you feel good instead of just murdering everything in sight. It's disgusting really; I met one of these games-makers and he's not interested in creativity, art or anything - he's just interested in pandering to the lowest primeval instincts in people because he thinks that'll make him a lot of money so he can go and have a house in Florida and a few Rolls-Royces... I think that's pretty disgusting."

Was it true that Richard Branson put pressure on you to write songs rather than instrumentals?

"Yeah, he did... I was at somebody's birthday party just after Moonlight Shadow had been a big hit and of course they all thought "Wow, big hit - got to do them all exactly like that then!" which was a blinkered mentality, and unluckily I followed that advice and wrote a lot of songs, most of which weren't very good. You can't force things like that; all you can do is what is right for you at the time and that's all I'm doing at the moment..."

The songs from your late-80s/early-90s period show a definite religious or spiritual influence. Did you begin to practise any religion around that time?

"No, I've never practised a specific religion, but I love going to churches and I love going to ancient monuments, and there is an awareness - some people call it New Age and all the streetwise kids go "Boring! Rubbish!" - but there is a spiritual awareness growing. I mean, anyone who thinks that all we see on this little tiny planet is the be-all and end-all of existence must be pretty stupid, I would say. All I am is open to every possibility, and there is nothing that I would say is impossible. Somehow, when you're in that frame of mind, you write much better music and things really work... and you appreciate nature so much better, as well. It's full of incredible things, plants, animals... human beings are unbelievable things!"

"You begin to appreciate what a great place we live in. Quite often we get stuck inside our mental problems and we can't see out and think "I've got nothing and I'm so miserable..." but if you open yourself up to all these possibilities and think "Well, we live in a much bigger place than we realise" then somehow your problems look very small and insignificant."

There was a rumour that you'd joined the Church of Scientology.

"Really? Some of these organisations are really good and some of them are very bad... if the people in charge of them are running them for the right reasons, they want to give something, then they can be very good... but I'm not involved in Scientology. But I wouldn't say that I might not, one day."

You have an instantly-recognisable guitar sound. How much is down to your unique fingerpicking style of playing, and how much is down to the processing and effects you apply?

"Well, I've got two guitar sounds that I use, and it's a mixture of my technique and the processing. Most people play with a pick; you can't get a very clean sound because no matter how much you try and stop the other strings they're always ringing a bit and they interfere, but because I grew up with the folk technique of playing with my fingers I can always stop the strings that aren't being sounded, so I get a very clean sound."

"I also use a violinist's vibrato; most guitarists use a rock vibrato which is a bit ugly and too much... I use this very fast side-to-side vibrato and I also use a technique from classical guitar where you play the note and you make it ring with the vibrato, it kind of makes it sustain a lot more..."

"I use an old Roland GP-8 guitar processor, which you can't buy any more, because I'm used to the sound... the other guitar sound I use is a Stratocaster put through very heavy compression and gating. But it's basically down to the technique and the feeling I put into it. I always imagine it as some kind of musical creature talking... there aren't many people who can do that. Paul Kossoff used to do it, and the classical guitarists, and I love flamenco music. The basic is putting all your feelings and emotions into your music; it's something you really have to work at. You have to believe in it and you have to have total confidence in what you're playing, and then the thing sounds real, it sounds really alive and kicking, it's talking, it's communicating..."

What are the chances of a world tour that will cover your back catalogue of material as well as your more recent output?

"One of the problems of me touring is that you need so many people! I mean, I could just have a backing track and a couple of musicians, but that would be kind of cheating. The thing about this virtuality project that I'm working on is that if you had a big enough screen you'd be able to take it on the road, and I've been thinking about all kinds of ideas for allowing the audience to participate. At the moment I control it with a mouse, but imagine if we hired somewhere like the Roundhouse [a 3,000-seater venue in London] and every tenth seat had a little box with two buttons and there were 3,000 people, so there'd be 300 boxes... if everybody pressed the left-hand button it would go left, if everybody pressed the right-hand button it would go right, if half pressed left and right equally it would go straight on, if a few more pressed right than left it would go a bit right... so the audience would control the picture, there'd be a musical backing track which would provide the skeleton of the music and the musicians would actually have to follow what the collective audience decided by their button inputs. I find that kind of thing really exciting!"

"I must say that I got a bit bored doing tours. The Edinburgh concert was fantastic, and the first few after that were great, but doing the same thing night after night lost the element of unpredictability that I want to bring in. But we'll certainly play some old stuff, including songs, on the next tour - whenever that might be!"

Do you have archives full of completed unreleased material going back years, or are any unreleased tracks simply off-cuts from specific album projects?

"Pretty much anything that I've completed has been released. There are obviously lots of things that I haven't used, but I often store things up - I might not use them on one album, but three albums later I'll remember them and work them in. There's probably an album's worth of material in various cupboards all over the place which might one day see the light of day - like the original 'Tubular Bells' demos which I've got next door. They're quite good actually - they're a bit rough, but they're quite nice."

Is there any instrument you've tried to learn to play but could never quite get the hang of?

"Yes - the blasted violin! [Laughs] The trouble with learning to play the violin is that you have to put up with the sound of yourself learning, and it's so unpleasant... I just can't get the hang of the vibrato! Maybe if I had some lessons I could play it."

"Apart from guitar I can't play anything really well... I can get by on keyboards and get by on lots of things, enough to use, but I'm not really good at anything apart from guitar."

What do "static 18" and "automatic 18" from the lyrics of 'Five Miles Out' refer to, and what does "caught in the middle of a hundred and five" mean in 'Moonlight Shadow'?

"If you look at the cover of 'Five Miles Out', the plane is a Beech 18. If your radio is breaking up, the control tower would tell you "Lost in static" and then give the call-sign, so it was "Lost in static, 18". It was just one of the lyrics I scribbled down one evening in the pub! When I was writing that song I just scribbled down anything I could think of to do with aeroplanes, and then assembled them into lyrics."

"As for Moonlight Shadow - well, it was a hundred and five people, just signifying a large amount of people, and presumably it was a hundred and five rather than a hundred and four or whatever because "five" rhymed with the next line!"

Is Moonlight Shadow really a reference to John Lennon's murder?

"Not really... well, perhaps, when I look back on it, maybe it was. I actually arrived in New York that awful evening when he was shot and I was staying at the Virgin Records house in Perry Street, which was just a few blocks down the road from the Dakota Building where it happened, so it probably sank into my subconscious. It was originally inspired by a film I loved - 'Houdini', starring Tony Curtis, which was about attempts to contact Houdini after he'd died, through spiritualism... it was originally a song influenced by that, but a lot of other things must have crept in there without me realising it."

Was a full-length video of 'Amarok' ever made?

"No, there wasn't any video made for 'Amarok'. It was a rather sad situation; I delivered it to the record company and I was getting on very badly with them at the time. They wanted me to call it Tubular Bells 2 and I said "Come on, it's not!" They said "If we call it 'Tubular Bells 2' it'll sell millions" and I said "But it's not 'Tubular Bells 2'; if anything, it's 'Ommadawn 2', it's based on the ideas that I started off with on 'Ommadawn'. So there was no single and no video and it just disappeared. People still talk about it, which is nice."

Where do you see yourself going musically? Have you put your Celtic influences behind you forever?

"Well, The Songs of Distant Earth has Celtic influences in the guitar - that's another thing about my guitar style, I've always used grace-notes, which is a bagpipes thing. I've just learned to play the bagpipes and you have to use grace-notes because you can't stop them; once they're going you can't stop them and you either wail away or put grace-notes in!"

"No, I'll never get rid of my Celtic influences. It's just a case of using them in a modern way; in fact it's more than modern, it's future-based."

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield