For Whom The Bell Tolls

January, 2000

Classic Rock

Over 25 years since he first sent the world into gentle paroxysms of sequel, the surprisingly splendid Millennium Bell. So is the world really ready for Tubular Bells IV?

Your new album, 'The Millennium Bell', is a musical celebration of the last thousand (it says five for some reason) years, taking in different musical styles, from the hymnal opener 'Peace on Earth' to the dance-orientated title track. Where did the idea come from?

I did a big concert in London in September last year. Just after that I came up with the idea when we synchronised the end of the concert to Big Ben and the sound of the bells - so that Big Ben became part of the concert. I thought that if we could do that with Big Ben at ten o'clock, we could do it with a bell marking midnight on the Millennium evening. Once I thought of it, it seemed like a lovely idea, so I spent last year working towards it.

The piece is broken down into 11 tracks, yet despite the differences in musical styles, it does tend to flow as one piece. Was that the intention?

Well, I always listen from the beginning to the end. I find it more satisfying. With the pieces on their own, I think the sum is greater than the individual parts. That's the way I personally feel about it. The only reason I split things up into individual tracks is that I used to make long, seamless pieces of music, but people had their favourite bits and they'd complain about having to listen to the whole thing to get to their favourite bit. So I started to split the music up so you could put ID points in there and skip to your favourite bit.

Ethnic sounds, choral parts, your trademark guitar sound and even dance vibes: they're all on TMB. Was it difficult to keep the music flowing and not let it become disjointed?

Not really. It's like a little musical documentary, if you like. And it's also designed for an event, which I've never done before. It's for an evening, so it's different in that way. And specifically designed with a concert in mind, which I've never done before.

The MB concert will take place at Berlin's Siegessaule Square on New Year's Eve in front of an estimated 500,000 people, along with the biggest fireworks and light show in the world. How do you envisage fitting it all together?

We've got a Russian orchestra from St. Petersburg, and everything is having to be arranged for them. I've never worked with Russians before, although I did meet their musical director.

11 tracks. A celebration of 2000 years of music. How difficult was it squeezing it all in?

It was a question of sticking a pin in a map and saying, "I'll go there and I'll go there." I've always been fascinated by the Inca civilisation, so I thought I could possibly make a piece of music about that. I did a piece about Excalibur and King Arthur, but unfortunatley it didn't turn out very well so I opted out. I travelled to a lot of these places to get ideas. I went to Peru, to this undiscovered city in the Andes from the Inca times. It was interesting and the whole thing isn't complete yet - and it won't be until 12 o'clock in Berlin.

You have a very private persona, and you don't tend to work within the orthodox norms of the music industry. But we've seen a lot of Mike Oldfield in the last year or so. Any particular reason for this upturn in creative activity of late?

Yes, there is. I went through a very [quiet period where I] didn't work very much. When I left Ibiza, I thought, "Well, you've got this fantastic career", so I decided to give my all for the next couple of years, which is what I've been doing. It keeps me busy and it keeps me occupied. I love creating new things. That's the reason. I was planning on taking it easy next year, but I don't know. I seem to have created a bit of a stir around me and my music.

Was your fallow period a direct result of the nature of Ibiza as an island - all that sun, sea and sand?

Partly. I had this dream for many years to design and build my own house, and I finally made that a reality a few years ago. But so very often with these dreams, once you achieve them, it's like - what now? The only thing to do is to do it again. The reality wasn't as good as the fantasy, and it made me realise that I had a wonderful career. I already had a lovely house in England and I enjoy my work such a lot that I may as well concentrate on that.

Is it true that Noel Gallagher of Oasis is buying your Ibiza pad?

Yes, that's true. It has a seperate recording studio. I took all of the equipment out of it, but all the spaces are right so he can put his own stuff in. It's a wonderful studio, overlooking the sea.

You worked on TB3 there, and tried to record the sound of the wind, did you not?

(Laughs). Well, I wanted to. Actually, the sound of the waves through a microphone doesn't sound as good as the real thing, so I never used that.

TMB is your fourth 'Bell' inspired work, but there's very few actual bells on there compared to the previous three. Is there a danger that the 'bell' factor, so to speak, might actually overshadow the rest of your work?

When I put that word and that little symbol on a record, it's like the Stones regrouping and making an album. It's like a recognisable trademark. And it's like the rest of the albums I do are like solo albums. But I feel that I've done enough in that form now. I may revisit it in a virtual reality project which I plan to get into at some point.

In a fascinating career, what would you single out as the highpoint?

I'm hoping that the highpoint will be New Year's Eve.

Why did you choose Berlin?

I was offered quite a few places, from South Africa to New Zealand. There were a couple of possibilities in London and Spain, but it was the biggest event that I could find. And I wanted to do something on a large scale. I really enjoyed playing TB2 at Edinburgh Castle. That was quite a large scale thing, and the Horseguards Parade was quite big. The opportunity to do an enormous one was irresistable.

Any low points in your career?

Yeah, I suppose taking my (original TB) demos around to different record companies and being shown the door smartly was a low point. What else? Since it got started back in 1973, I wouldn't say career-wise there's been a low point at all, because I've always loved working. Even if some albums haven't been as succesful as others, I've always enjoyed the process of writing and recording them.

Has there ever been an album that you've been very fond of that has not worked well on a commercial level?

I suppose so. There was a crazy one called Amarok. It wasn't a great commercial success, but with some fans it's absolutely their favourite thing. Some of the concerts on the last tour of Europe, they were shouting for it. But it's a very weird and wonderful, complicated thing to perform live. There would be eight guitars playing incredibly fast, and to be honest I wouldn't be able to find enough players who could play that quickly.

Your first four studio albums - TB, HR, Ommadawn, and Incantations - were all based around lengthy pieces. The next, Platinum, was the first to feature individual songs. What prompted that move?

Um... I always felt that I had songs in me. I started out in folk clubs and wrote folky songs. I felt that was in there somewhere. At the time, there was a strong movement away from long instrumental music, and there was big pressure from the record company to write shorter pieces. I always had this fear of singing myself, although I did make a vocal album where I was singing (HO). I took six months of singing lessons for that. I like to try things that I've never tried before. I've managed to write a few good songs. I realise that I'm not a prolific songwriter, but occasionally there's a good one in me and I wanted to explore that. It's become very useful, especially at live shows when you play 'Moonlight Shadow' and the audience goes bananas. But that has to be balanced with all the instrumental music, as I'm known as an instrumentalist.

Moonlight Shadow, Family Man, Shadow On The Wall and Man In The Rain - you've certainly proved yourself adept at writing good pop songs. Presumably there will be more in that vein at some point again in the future?

I must say that writing Moonlight Shadow was a journey in itself. It didn't come overnight. It was several different songs before it became that one. I tried to get other people to write the song. It was only when I stopped and thought, "Well, if I'm ever going to make this happen, I'm going to have to sit down and write it myself", that I spent a whole night at my house with a rhyming dictionary and a bottle of wine, and I came up with the lyrics and the tune. It just happened to be the right thing, which was lovely, but it took three months of hard work to get to that point.

You've worked with a wide variety of vocalists over the years, including Maggie Reilly, Chris Thompson, Aled Jones, Anita Hegerland, Roger Chapman and Jon Anderson, to name just a few. Which, if any, of the above stands out as a personal favourite. And which vocalists would you like to collaborate with that you haven't already?

I was always able to get them to come in and sing the way I wanted, apart from Jon Anderson. He came in, did his thing and that was that. He wouldn't even allow one overdub! In the future, it would be lovely to work with an amazing vocalist, but I have done that. Bonnie Tyler's a fantastic singer. Perhaps Pavarotti would be interesting.

On 1987's 'Islands', you worked with Kevin Ayers again, whose early band The Whole World you started out in. That must have been weird?

Yeah. I had this idea to write a song for him. He's such a great character. That song is made for him. I may have bumped into him once since then.

You were only a teenager when you joined The Whole World - it must have been an eye opener?

Yeah. There were a lot of strange musicians in that band - Lol Coxhill, David Bedford. I especially like David Bedford and I respected him because of his classical work. Sitting in the same room as someone who could write symphonies and had stuff performed at promenade concerts and things, that was great. And he was the only one of the group who liked my demos for TB, and he encouraged me. I'm forever grateful for that.

Three sequels on from the original version of TB, plus the classically orchestrated version of the album, plus the live version of the same... which, of the above, would you say is your own personal favourite?

Um, I don't have favourites of things that I've done. In fact, I'm not very retrospective at all. I'm always thinking about the thing I'm going to do next. Perhaps one day when I'm a very old man I'll sit down and listen to everything. It'll probably take me two days, and I'll try to make some judgement then. But at the moment, I'm already thinking about the next thing.

On TB3, you started experimenting with dance music for the first time. Can we expect to see a whole album of dance-orientated music from you in the future?

I possibly could do that. For me, what that means, because so much of that music is done on computers, is: repeat this 156 times instead of eight times. And you can set this thing, go off on a holiday, come back, and it will still be churning the thing out. I don't really see the point in that. To get the timing right so it's interesting in a longer piece is more of a challenge. Dance music can't have much of a melody and more than two chords. It's trying to get into this trance state. So when it starts, it's simply a matter of deciding how long to leave it for, and that's simply a question of putting the number of repeats in a computer. It's not difficult.

Was there a worry that by toying with dance music, your more conventional may have felt it was a step too far away from what you're principally known for?

Well, there are some fans who think I should play mandolin all the time. (Laughs). But I don't make the music for them, I make it for me and what keeps me interested.

Do you enjoy playing live now?

Yeah, I love playing live and everything that goes with it. Apart from the travel and having to stay in hotels. But the actual concerts are lovely. The moment of going on stage is very exciting, and the reaction at the end is normally just so wonderful. It's a real high.

That wasn't always the case in your early career...

hat's true. For a start, to get musicians to be able to play like me, they normally had to be jazz musicians, because they had the right technique, but they didn't have the right feel. As technology's got better I can sample bits of old albums and get a drummer to play electronic pads to set off the old sounds. It's become a lot easier. Also over the years I've met various people who understand my music and will help me. I've also got better at explaining how I want the music to be. And more and more I can produce the albums more faithfully to how they sound. In the early days that was impossible. The live version of TB in 1974 was awful. The audience loved it, but it bore no relation to the recorded piece.

Is it not true that you went into therapy in order to help you get over your stage fright?

Yes! (Laughs). I've got better at that now. I'm a lot more comfortable on stage than I used to be.

What goes through your mind when you're playing live now?

Well, it depends. If I'm in the middle of a tour and I know the part so well I can almost do it on automatic... sometimes I daydream. It depends on how well I know the piece. If it's the beginning of a tour, I'm thinking more about what I've got to play next. If I'm lucky , I'll sail awayand get lost in what I'm playing, which is when it gets really good. It doesn't happen all the time and a lot of things happen onstage that the audience isn't aware of.

You sometimes seem almost embarrassed by the sheer adulation of your fans.

Well, I am a bit. They do seem to love it so much, but the more concerts I do, the more I accept it. It's one reason why I carry on doing it. It gives an enormous amount of pleasure to a lot of people.

They're a very noisy group of fans...

Yeah, they're wonderful. I was very moved at the end of the Horseguard's Parade show. Although I especially enjoyed the sight of Richard Branson soaked like a drowned rat in front of me. It was lovely! (Laughs).

Virgin's inital success with you has grown into an empire that encompasses airlines, trains, soft drinks, vodka... Do you ever feel the teensiest bit responsible?

To be honest, Virgin to me was always just the record company. Although Virgin Airlines is a great airline, it's almost like, "Hang on, I'm sitting on a record company airline." It doesn't seem to make sense to me. It does make sense in the end - for Richard, it could have been a record company, it could have been a cola factory. It just happened to be a record company which was, I suppose, lucky for me. It was my last chance back in those early days. But if he hadn't had a record company he'd have had something else. A dog food company. It doesn't matter to him as long as it makes money.

What are you planning to work on next?

Well, I'm planning to work on stuff through the Internet. But that probably won't come into reality for a year or so and I'll do it in modular fashion, bit by bit, so I won't do it all at once. I'll make one small virtual reality world and later on that will connect to another, and you'll be able to download them bit by bit. And, eventually, over the years, you'll be able to build up this enormous musical thing which will be unique to your perception of it.

Any other albums - either 'Bell'-related or otherwise - that you've got in the pipeline?

Well, it'll be this virtual reality project and I'll make an album from pieces of that. But I wouldn't have thought there'll be anything for at least a year or two after TMB.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield