Mike Oldfield talks Tubular Bells, the dark side and getting his mojo back

Mike Oldfield photo

It’s been a turbulent few years for Mike Oldfield. There was the “absolute pinnacle of [his] personal achievement”: his performance at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Then, in 2015, his eldest son Dougal died. Meanwhile, his third marriage ended in divorce, and the musician who helped build Richard Branson’s Virgin empire with his 1973 album Tubular Bells is still reeling from the emotional and financial cost. “I’ve got more lawyers than friends,” he says from his home in Nassau, with a faint laugh. “Since the Olympics, I’ve been shown the dark side of life and human nature. Still, it hasn’t been boring.”

Your latest record, Return To Ommadawn, revisits your 1975 album, Ommadawn. Instead of an updated David Bailey image of you on the front you’ve gone for a desolate winterscape.

Yes. I’d been binge-watching Game Of Thrones and got the idea that the cover could be wintry. It’s about being lost in the snow and finding a safe haven.

Ommadawn was made in tough circumstances: your mother died; you recoiled from the celebrity Tubular Bells brought. This time there was more tragedy. Was there a sense of déjà vu?

[Breathes out] Sometimes life gives you these trials. The last four years have been very difficult. I put it down to some power in life keeping a balance. The period around the Olympics was so good, it couldn’t possibly have lasted. I put my emotions into the music, especially the guitar playing. It sort of gives you power. Otherwise you make bland music that doesn’t pull at the heartstrings.

The title Return To Ommadawn suggests returning to a place, even a state of mind?

State of mind is more like it – a musical state of mind.Ommadawn was quite successful, critically – everybody loved it. It marked the end of that first period of my musical career, with those first three albums [Tubular Bells, 1974’s Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn]. Then with the release of the next album [1978’s Incantations], things went a bit weird. It was the time of the ‘skinny guys shouting’ – what I call punk rockers – and there was a lack of interest in my kind of music.

Did you feel any kinship with the more experimental bands on your label, such as XTC, Magazine and Simple Minds?

Oh no, I hated them all. Eurgh! Things were so difficult for me then. I was being vilified in the music press, progressive music was ridiculed… In order to survive I had to become more mainstream. I put out the singles Guilty and Moonlight Shadow. But I lost my way in the late 80s. The Olympics validated me and I felt comfortable going back to my normal self, which was really the first three albums. So I floated the idea on the internet of a Return To Ommadawn and the response was very positive. It’s almost By Popular Demand.

You’re a mercurial character: the shy, anxious hippie genius, the speed freak and qualified pilot, the 90s raver in Ibiza…

Yeah, but they’re different time periods. It was always my dream to get a big motorbike, ever since I was a kid. Eventually I passed my test in 2005 and then I went crazy and got a collection: an R1, a Fireblade, a Ducati… I was never scared riding superbikes.

The terror you felt was more abstract – an existential dread?

Exactly right. But that was a long time ago, back in the seventies. I went through a rebirth experience [Exegesis] and got that existential terror out of my system. I managed to drag up the very memory of the moment of my birth, which is where all the terror and panic attacks were coming from. It was an epiphany for me. I was much happier. But at the same time, I lost the terror, which ended up giving my music its turbocharged emotional intensity. Somehow, over the last four years, circumstances were such that I got my ‘mojo’ – or whatever you want to call it – back.

Are there two types of fan: those that ‘get’ your emotional intensity, and those that only hear pleasant chill-out music?

Definitely. There are some people who don’t hear the emotional intensity and like a good tune, a good beat. I’ve made plenty of tracks like that and there’s a whole section of fans who like that kind of music. Then again, some are absolutely allergic to it. Once I played Tubular Bells to a group of American hard rock fans and they were like, “What’s this? Turn it off!” [Laughs] It was like torture for them.

Whereas Return to Ommadawn was an exorcism for you?

Something like that.

From the man who soundtracked The Exorcist.

You know, after Tubular Bells they wanted to use my music in all sorts of nasty, horrible slasher movies. But The Exorcist isn’t really a horror movie in my opinion. It’s about getting rid of evil.

Where do you think you belong in the pantheon of British musicians of the last 45 years?

Nowhere. Ommadawn – is it Celtic? Most Irish folk music doesn’t feature African drums or African singers. At least they’ve stopped calling me New Age. The only thing that’s really important is that when I leave this world, I’ll leave a lot behind me, which hopefully will be of interest and comfort to people for many years to come.

What next?

There’s Tubular Bells 4, which, like Return To Ommadawn, will be all hand-played. And I’m creating this virtual reality world where the point isn’t shooting and murdering everything in sight – you just experience lots of lovely graphics: particle systems, clouds, space, simulated water, sunsets, all in 3D, and with beautiful music in the background. I’m doing everything but writing the code.

What will the youth demographic make of that?

Oh, they’ll probably say [angry, bored teen voice], “So who am I supposed to shoot, then?” [laughs uproariously]. I’ll probably put in a little shooting range for them, which will be optional.

Return To Ommadawn is out on January 20 via Virgin

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Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.