For Whom the Tubular Bells Toll

August 24, 1996

Eletronic Telegraph

Now that it is apparently becoming cool to like Mike Oldfield, Caspar Llewellyn Smith visited him at his Ibiza home.

MIKE Oldfield no longer wears bell-bottomed trousers and he shaved off his bumfluff-beard years ago, but still he remains an unrepentant hippy. Despite his selling more than 40 million records in the course of a 23-year career, this damning fact means that he has never been considered terribly cool. But now, as the millennium nears and New Age values regain a certain currency, he can prattle about his beliefs in the healing powers of dolphins and say things such as, "Sometimes I feel like I've been to the future," and sound at least vaguely sane.

Not that any criticism bothers him. In the past six months, he has found a new happiness. The unexpected success in 1973 of Tubular Bells, that cheesecloth Symphonie fantastique, turned its 19-year-old author into a paranoid wreck, and despite years of psychotherapy Oldfield says he never felt quite right. Not until, that is, he recently discovered the joys of meditation, and of Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese art of exercise (a kind of slow-motion Earth Mother version of step aerobics).

"I've done a lot of work on myself," he says. "And I believe that through meditation, when you're in a very deep relaxed state, you're probably as close as you're able to become to your spiritual self. And then magical things start to happen."
Like what, exactly?

"Well, everything that happens to me is magical. Like now, we're here having a nice talk: that's magical. If you were to ask me, 'What problems do you have?,' I'd have to say, 'Well, I don't have any.' "
The peace-and-love brigade were supposed to be killed off by punk and the Sex Pistols, but Oldfield just about survived, recording Tubular Bells II four years ago, which followed its predecessor to No 1 in the charts; now he has a new album, based on a Celtic theme, ready for release. Of course, Johnny Rotten and Co have recently re-formed, which ought to excite some sort of reaction from their old enemy. But the composer of Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, among other patchouli-scented Seventies classics, seems content to turn the other cheek.

"I didn't like the Sex Pistols at the time," he says, "but I don't want to pass judgment on them now. In fact, I must start listening to their music. There was . . . there was a great energy about it, wasn't there?"
He is so laid-back as to be almost falling over.

His first words are, "Is that a chicken sandwich?", and then he grabs my lunch to take a bite. Not that this is always the case. We meet in a stunning, hill-top hotel in Ibiza, looking down over the sea, at about four in the afternoon. Oldfield, desperately hungover from an inhumanly heavy and late night, stumbles out of the room he is temporarily staying in, weaves his way over to the swimming pool, and crashes in. Seeing me, sitting at the edge, he doggie-paddles over.

His first words are, "Is that a chicken sandwich?", and then he grabs my lunch to take a bite. Half the chicken slithers out of its ciabatta berth and into the pool. "Damn!" he exclaims. "Oh no!" Oldfield has moved to Ibiza to build his own house, which is loosely modelled on the palace of Knossos in Crete, the ancient home of the Minotaur, and looks "like something from Atlantis!" He has decided to leave Los Angeles, where he has been based for the past decade, because the city is becoming too dangerous, and will probably sell his other house, in Little Chalfont, Bucks, because he is fed up with the weather in Britain.

Ibiza, he says, is a spiritual place, with an above-average scattering of hermits and Buddhist monasteries, although the island is also known as a partygoer's paradise. "You can go down the spiritual path and meditate, and then when you want to go out, you've got: Pow!"

Oldfield is now a regular visitor to Ibiza's Cafe Del Mar, the favoured hang-out of the island's club-goers, and claims to be on first-name terms with most of the DJs. He is only dimly aware of today's new rock bands ("Well, I like wotstheirname - the Gallagher brothers - Oasis?"), but is quite a fan of dance music. "I like groups like Orbital," he says, "because if you take away the rhythm track, the records sound all lovely and floaty and New Agey."

In fact, for someone once so deeply unfashionable, Oldfield can now claim to be something of a musical icon for the rave generation, because the ambient meanderings of Tubular Bells prefigured much of the chill-out music of contemporary acts such as the Orb.

In a neat irony, the Sex Pistols' influence on current trends has proved to be quite limited, while the more experimental dabblings of Oldfield and his peers have proved to be of lasting influence. The Pistols may be back, but so are King Crimson; punk rock didn't manage to snuff out prog rock.

Oldfield's new LP, Voyager, is an amiable enough affair, particularly on tracks such as "Celtic Rain", which highlights his meticulous guitar playing, and "She Moves Through The Fair", which is based on a traditional Irish tune. Oldfield says it was an easy record to make, because "I've always been drawn to Celtic music, and tend to play naturally in that way."

Nevertheless, he has had enough of working as hard as in the past.

"I've always done everything: produced, engineered, played - I even made the tea. But now I want to delegate more. In fact, I think this is the last album I'll make of its kind. When I went into the studio to make Tubular Bells, I had no idea that I would spend the next 23 years in the same place. Now I want to get out more, explore my spiritual side, and actually have a life."
This is encouraging news because for years Oldfield was miserably unhappy. Now, the laughing 43-year-old man sitting by the pool in his swimming trunks, looks perfectly well-adjusted. Of course, when he made Tubular Bells, he saw music as his only form of self-expression, which perhaps gave the album its peculiar potency; now he's not so worried about his music. In fact, he says he doesn't worry at all.

"It really doesn't bother me what people think any more," he says. "I've been attacked as an old fart, and I've been heralded as a genius."
The truth lies in there somewhere.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield