Mike Oldfield meets Orbital

October, 1996

Q Magazine

Without 'funny' Mike Oldfield ambient music as we know it might never have existed. Without ex-baldies Orbital the Royal Albert Hall might never have hosted a rave. Without cuddly David Quantick there would have been nobody to record their Ibizan chit-chat.

The other moved from playing his builder dad's parlour piano to making bedroom tape loops with his brother Phil and ended up playing the Royal Albert Hall. He is Paul Hartnoll, the wise man of Orbital, whose four albums (two of which are Snivilisation and In sides; two of which are known simply as "the brown one" and "the green one") took modern dance music and ambient sounds in new and rewarding directions.

Their "no verse/no chorus/no singing at all, actually" paths had never crossed. Hartnoll seemed unaware of rare Oldfield forays into singing (Horses: "Some are big/And some are small/Some bang their heads against the wall") but was happy to acknowledge that the Tubular Bellsman had at least introduced him to the concept of the one-man orchestras, while Oldfield was still listening to his freshly acquired Orbital Cd minutes before he met one half of its creative powerhouse.

The meeting itself took place, rather marvelously, on the terrace of a luxury hotel within blazing hot sight of Oldfields still-under-construction house in Ibiza, the Spanish island home of English acid house xcess that, curiously, Hartnoll had never visited.

Later Hartnoll would taste Oldfield's hospitality in the form of a ride on his jet-ski and a trip to an Arab prince's birthday party, but first......

Q: What do you know of each other?

Mike Oldfield: Not a lot . A friend went into Virgin and got me all the most modern and popular CD's, about 20 of them, and I've been working my way through them. I can't remember any names. Don't ask me names of things. I'm very unknowledgeable.

Phil Hartnoll: I never remember names either. I don't remember names of records anymore.

MO: I don't know how musicians keep up with what other people are doing. I'm too busy doing my own thing to be honest.

PH: I buy random records.

MO: You buy random records? That's interesting.

PH: What I do is buy two or three albums by someone I've never heard just to throw me in a random direction. If it works, it sends you in a direction your friends wouldn't have and the radio wouldn't have.

MO: I get stuff out of curiosity. This is the first time for years that I've had the time. I've been bringing out albums for most of my life. I finished all my commitments in March and I didn't want to know about going back in the studio, so I thought I'd see what everyone else had been doing. Since coming to Ibiza, I've been going to clubs and then when I go to a club I just head straight for the DJ and hang around there. They're quite creative, they've got a vibe,they project in their space and they explore that very well. I've been letting other people mix my stuff, taking aback seat. I've previously been a bit of bossy sergeant-major in that respect.

Q: Let's talk about studios.

MO: Naaah! Heh!

Q: You're both quite famous for spending years in darkened rooms squinting at consoles.

MO: Ooh, talk about. Square eyes.

PH: The worst thing that happened with our studio was taking it from our parents house with windows...

MO: (interested) Ahhhh.

PH:...To actually getting a computer, because before there was a computer, you used to have to look at tiny little screens but your eyes were thrown all over these solid actual objects like furniture, but then all of a sudden you get a computer and you're staring at the telly again. My eyesight's got visibly worse.

MO: It's all right when you're actually doing it, but to watch it is the most boring thing in the universe. Watching someone key in numbers on a screen and the occasional sample-burrdup! What the hells going on?

PH: I don't mind sitting in the studio because I'm the one with my hand on the mouse or the keyboard. But I'd like to build my own house, I envisage a round studio with a telescope-style dome that lifts off so you can at least be outdoors when you do it.

Q: What are the best places you've heard your music?

PH: On a Ferris wheel in a fair ground. That blew my head off. It was the B-side of our first single as well. There I was walking past- and I won't go on the things they scare me- and it was blaring out of this distorted PA system. I thought I've arrived!

MO: That's great! I heard one of my tracks, Moonlight Shadow coming out of a Wurlitzer in an Italian fun fair. The other thing is coming back to London Airport, and hearing it on the muzak system.

PH: I once heard a remix we did for Meat Beat Manifesto on one of those, which was weird , 'cos we were going to America to support them.

MO: At the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas they play Jimi Hendrix in the car park. Mmm.Whee...
You know what I was saying about trying to distance myself from the actual nuts and bolts of making music? Looking at what it is, what it's saying and what kind of atmosphere it's got. Music that makes you feel good, it's full of energy, relaxing music, aggressive music. Gatherings of people are like that.
I tried meditating in Pacha, one of the discos here, to try and feel what was going on. I can't really explain in words what it was like, but I'll try: it was ritual humanity, just celebrating being alive. It was a mixture of the music and the atmosphere and the whole thing. I was just trying to get the essence of something, rather than that hi-hat and that bass drum sound.

Q: Is it hard for musicians to listen to music without analyzing it?

MO: Yeah! Yeah, well I'm trying not to do that.

PH: The fact that my mind tore music apart was part of the reason I got into it. I listened to a band

And I used to know there were eight members and I could hear these eight things. It must give some secrets away if you listen to music in that sort of a way.

Q: Why do you still do it?

MO: I try not to do it (mass laughter). But I must say that as regards talking about getting the essence out of music, I can relate to it a lot more than I could ten years ago. There's a - dare I say it- growing spirituality about the music we hear nowadays. And also the science of rhythm is so mind-boggling now. Guys who've spent two or three days working on a two- bar loop.

PH: Yeah, yeah.

MO: We were in the biggest disco last night, Ku. There must have been seven or eight thousand people. There's a giant swimming pool in the middle of it, people jumping in the pool, and I tried a bit of meditation to feel the essence of the whole thing ( Mike is overcome by the absurdity of it all) Ha ha ha HARRR! Paul? Have you ever meditated in a club?

PH: Only by accident. The thing is, what you were saying about the feeling was one of people celebrating life on a basic level, compared to 70's discos. My memory and my older brother's of 70's discos was a place where you got beaten up for looking at the wrong girl. Whereas the house music disco was a place where people went to say hallo and laugh and smile at each other. It would all be jolly.

MO: I'm just curious. Do you think that because most people are taking Ecstasy, it changed the vibe of clubs?

PH: Well I'd be a liar if I said it didn't.


PH: I don't think people are doing anything bad if they're being supplied with the real thing because before, when they were beating each other up, they were drinking X pints of beer plus whiskies and vodkas. You're just substituting one drug for another. The one advantage Ecstasy does have over alcohol _and I'm not saying either of them are good, you're far better off if you can avoid everything – is that with Ecstasy you can get five thousand people in one disco and no fights. I can't imagine that in the 70's

MO: I agree.

PH: I think people are taking less Ecstasy when they go clubbing, but the atmosphere's remained which Is quite interesting.

MO: When did discotheques start? In the early 70's wasn't it? We were in Zimbabwe, watching these natives do there ceremonial dance thing and it occurred to me that the birth of that ceremonial thing has happened in the west. It started in the 70's and it was really naff, all platform shoes, and its become like a congregation. It's more and more spiritual. I think it's great. And if you look underneath the rhythm, the actual chord structures are very spiritual, almost New Age-y, not that I listen to New Age music because I find it boring. But you're not going there to pull or find a mate. I suppose it's a replacement of the church.

Q: It's a communal thing.

PH: Oh definitely. I used to value a club apart from the quality of the music of the music; I often used to judge it on whether people were looking at each other on the dance floor and smiling. If yes, then that was a good club. If no, then there's something wrong.

MO: I've just discovered dancing and I like it. I met this Aztec Indian who showed me an Aztec dance. It's not like a normal dance. I've just discovered t'ai'chi. That's another thing I really believe in. If you look at it scientifically, you're controlling all the muscles in your body. If you look at it spiritually, you're playing with your body aura. If you imagine there's an envelope of the spiritual you, then you can carry bits of yourself around and play with it. So you're surrounded by this invisible putty and when people are dancing they're kind of playing with there energy. I'm experimenting with dance. It's my vocation. By the time I'm sixty, I'll be a dancer! (mass laughter) That's one thing I'm exploring. The other is skiing. I've got these jet-skis....

PH: I'd like to do things like that but I'm absolutely terrified of water. Going out of my depth...

MO: I know the feeling

PH: ...Which is a shame

Q: Well who knows? As time goes by...

PH: Yeah exactly.

MO: Dee dee dee dee dee, dee dee

Q Mike you were known for being fairly introverted...

MO: dee dee dee.... Yeh well I've got extremities. I spent a couple of years being totally introverted and into my world. I would pop up like a jack in the box and then go back again.

PH: I was introverted in my teenage years with my family, but I shout to much. Not aggressively, just shouting at someone when they're next to you.

Q: You've both worked with a sibling. How do you get on with them?

MO: Well, I've got a lot to thank my sister Sally for, because she got me out of school. I hated school. I fell out of school when I was fifteen and she was nineteen. We were this duo, going down the M1 in a little mini van which me and my brother had sprayed bright orange. She always supported me, still does. But it was difficult working together. You obviously have a different experience with your brother...

PH: Yeah it's fine. We don't have a problem, really. It's just like a point of discussion. I'll do something and ask, what do you think of that? He may say change that last chord, and I'll say you do it! You do it better.


PH: But it won't be angry, it'll be, I'll make a cup of tea, see if you can find a better chord. That'll be the extent of conflict. I like it, actually. Anything either one of us doesn't like we normally sit with over time and see if it actually settles or not. We try to put the controversial bit in rather than out.

MO: There are different ways of approaching a project. One is: you've got a very strong idea and you make it like that. The other is to let it find it's own way; be positive about everything, never block anything. You can make anything good, even the naffest idea, if you've got the right positive attitude.

Q: Have you ever made a naff idea good?

MO: Many, many times! I've also succeeded in making a naff idea really naff. I cringe when I listen to some of my things. It's very funny listening to things I made twenty years ago. One minute you're thinking, what the fuck's that? The next god, that's great.

PH: It's funny. It's got to the point now where our first album sounds to me like somebody else wrote I, which is quite interesting I suppose.

MO: What do you normally ask people? The thing I find about musicians talking to each other is that we haven't got much to say. Working together is another thing, but I'm always very embarrassed when I meet other musicians. Not really embarrassed but, but I don't know what to say. Nurrrr....what keyboard do you use?

Q: Drummers get on with each other, apparently.

PH: Yeah that sounds about right.

MO: What do they talk about? Sticks?

PH: No they've got it sussed. They don't talk about music , they just meet another person.... (Paul looks at his DAT recorder he has been making his own copy of the interview with).... I knew I'd do that. I've just taped over half an hour's candid conversation the bus driver from when we toured America.

MO: I'm just about to decide whether or not to do another tour. I couldn't handle it anymore, this whole performing thing. But I have had an idea of a different kind of concert. Maybe it's the same kind of difference between 70's dance music and now.

PH: Well there's a lot of bands now who play to quite large crowds and there's no front person. It's like me and my brother sit behind our bits of equipment and just improvise with the structure of the sequences.

MO: Yeah! Yes that's what I want to do.

PH: There's no focus for the audience.

MO: I'd really like to come and see that. It's a similar thing to what I was thinking of. Just si there and play for an hour, rather than going A-one-A-two. I'm so bored with all that. It would be a kind of celebration, a bit more spiritual, a bit more meditative.

PH: I don't want to play those big cattle sheds.

MO: It's a bit dehumanizing. It's like treating someone as a sex object, or a music object. Sometimes I feel like a music object.

PH: There's an awful lot of people in electronic music, who are doing music because they want to be in a band. Usually someone approaches them and say's you'd better do a gig, and they go, God! I never thought of that! I've got to get out of my bedroom.

MO: Ha HA! That's exactly what it was like with Tubular Bells. I did it kind of in my bedroom, I got in the studio, made this thing and suddenly all the Virgin bosses are sitting around me at a table saying' You've got to do a gig. I totally refused, I was having none of it. Until Richard Branson offered me his Bentley. Ha! It was a clapped-out wreck.

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net