After 30 years, the pop innovator still loves playing games with the musical landscape. He gave Justin Stoneman a sneak preview
Mike Oldfield may still be living off the fame of his now 30-year-old cult album Tubular Bells in the UK, but abroad he is a huge, cutting edge star. When I told a Spanish taxi driver at Valencia airport that I was on my way to meet Mr Oldfield, he became so excited that he inadvertently mounted the kerb and nearly took both our lives.
Spain, and most of the rest of Europe, embraces Oldfield as a creative genius. As we enter the hotel in which he is staying, crowds jostle for his autograph. Now the man who helped to launch Virgin Records and make Richard Branson's fortune with 20 million copies of Tubular Bells may be about to transform the music industry again.
His Tres Lunas project, on which he has spent four years, is a revolutionary mix of music and computer game. While games usually depend on a sport, puzzle or combat, the eco-friendly and non-combative Tres Lunas puts music centre stage. You travel from deserts to lush greenery and an erupting volcano, trying to collect seven gold rings, while birds fly in time to the drumbeat. Latin-influenced, chill-out dance music changes according to the landscape, as if you are creating your own surreal soundtrack for each part of the game.
Oldfield gives a radiant smile. "I'm 49, I've made more than 20 albums and I'm about to release something I feel is fresh and challenging. It's great still feeling so creative and hungry."
In 1972, an unknown 19-year-old with straggly hair and a tape displayed those same qualities to Richard Branson. A fledgling operator in the music industry, Branson took a bold risk in using Oldfield's eclectic mix of sounds to launch a record label. When Tubular Bells was released, the gamble paid off.
Oldfield is confident he will hit gold again with Tres Lunas and the technology that drives it, Music Virtual Reality. "This is unchartered territory," he says. The music industry is losing young consumers to computer games, so he came up with a solution - combine them. The result may herald a new era in entertainment. "I wasn't going to make an album," Oldfield explains. "I just wanted to make a game. I've put in more than £1million to create it - there was no record company advance."
Nicky Horne, his manager, adds: "The fact that there was no commercial interest helped make this special. Before I was Mike's manager, I interviewed him for Radio 2 and he showed me the game. I found it mesmerising. The music had been written to go with the game, not as an album, so there was freedom that I hadn't heard in his music in years."
At the time, Oldfield was out of contract with Virgin, so Horne became his manager and negotiated a joint deal to release the game and album. "At first record companies didn't understand the concept," says Horne. "Warner Bros in Spain came to Mike's studio, saw the game and, in an instant, understood." Somebody who also understands the value of Tres Lunas and its powerful fusion of two worlds is Oldfield's former boss Richard Branson. "He wanted it," smiles Oldfield mischievously.
Horne confides: "I've never revealed this but we were about to sign on the Monday with Warner. I got a call the Friday night before - it wasBranson ringing from his home in Necker Island, parrots squawking in the background. He said, 'I hear you're about to do a deal with Warner - I want to sign you.' I told him what the deal was. He rang me back the next day and said, 'We'll match it'.
"I think because Mike had in effect made Virgin Records, Richard had this vision that he could now transform his current label, V2, into a major success. But we had to tune him down." Was Oldfield tempted to return to Branson for old times' sake? "If I am honest," he says, starting to giggle, "I was never really going to give it to him - I just wanted to wind him up."
He demonstrates the game. "It would take weeks to navigate it all," he smiles, clearly pleased. "I wanted a game without any violence or any of the negative stuff that games pour into children's minds. I just wanted to create something beautiful."
The young Oldfield was ill-prepared for the success of Tubular Bells, seeking refuge from the pressure in alcohol and LSD. Even now, he is agitated by the attention generated by Tres Lunas. "I just wanted to hide," he says of the album's launch party.
There have been various failed relationships - his marriage to Diana Fuller, the leader of a course he took to "confront his fears" in 1978, lasted just a month. He had three children with PR agent Sally Cooper and two with Norweigan singer Anita Hegerland. Now he is happily ensconced in a new Thames-side home with his French girlfriend Fanny Vandekerckhove, 25. "I feel truly contented, both personally and professionally," he says.
Whether his game sells millions or not, he is still an innovator. Expect to find Britney and Kylie dancing under your joystick very soon.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net