By Dave Thompson
You may not be able to pick Mike Oldfield out of a police lineup, but chances are better than average his music will ring a bell. He is, of course, Mr. “Tubular Bells.” And, regular as clockwork, the 40th anniversary of the release of his greatest hit delivers what a lot of people might assume is another anniversary remake. But Mike Oldfield, speaking to Goldmine from his home in Nassau, quickly insists, “‘Tubular Beats’ is not really my album.”
It is, as the credits reveal, a collaboration with DJ Torsten “York” Stenzel. But Oldfield is adamant.
“It’s more Torsten’s album [than mine]. He runs the Ministry of Sound club in Antigua, which is a few island hops down from me. What happened was, I signed a publishing deal two or three years ago with a company called Stage 3, run by a chap called Steve Lewis, who was one of the very, very original people at Virgin in the early ’70s. Then his company got bought by BMG, and there’s a chap somewhere in Germany who contacted me and said, ‘There’s this chap called Torsten who lives on your side of the planet, and would like to get in touch with you. So he hopped on a plane, came over here, brought all his software and everything, and we spent a day going through things and eventually decided it would be rather fun to make a club album.”
GM: Was there anything that really stood out for you in his approach?
Mike Oldfield: He used to make his own videos, and he made one of these two very glamorous-looking girls racing each other on golf carts around this golf course on Antigua to one of my tracks, ‘Guilty,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s an active, creative chap.”
GM: ‘Tubular Beats’ ranges through your career, offering remixes of everything from “Tubular Bells” and “Ommadawn,” through to “Let There Be Light” and “Guilty.” A lot of artists would have just let the remixer get on with it, but you were hands-on throughout the process.
MO: We decided that instead of the original artist having zero contact with the remixer, we’d send files back and forth, and I would contribute actively with him, which I enjoyed, because I got to see how these people make their remixes, and all the amazing software plug-ins that you can get, that play one note and they go — whoooooosh. Unbelievable! Really weird things that I never knew existed. But Torsten did most of the work; I only did maybe a quarter of it, so it’s mainly his album, although I think commercially it looks like my album, my name, but that’s more of a marketing thing. My cover, as well … luckily, I own that; I bought that off the photographer 35 years ago for £6,000, and I’m glad I did.”
GM: You’ve also been busy reappraising your catalog for a series of deluxe editions.
MO: I’ve been doing 5.1 remixes of all the albums … I’ve just got the multitracks of “Five Miles Out,” and I’m looking at them at the moment; I’m downloading the track from London right now. They got hold of the old masters, and they had to put them in the oven, because they’ve been falling apart, and they had to redo a lot of the edits because the tape that was holding the tape together had fallen off. They transferred them to digital, and it’s amazing looking at all that work and all the outtakes, too. I’ve been going through them; I’ve found at least three versions of the title track, and there’s probably some more. I could make probably an album of just that one song. It was such a great song … eventually. We couldn’t get the damned thing right for about three months.
GM: Are you going to remix your entire catalog?
MO: The ones that we have. For some bizarre reason, and we’ve looked at it from every possible angle, but the masters for “Tubular Bells 2” onward have just disappeared. We’ve got the stereo masters, but if I want to do 5.1, obviously I’d need the multi-tracks, and we can’t find them. They’re in digital storage somewhere, but we just can’t find the damned things. We’ve searched high and low in all the warehouses in London.
GM: And there’s a new album in the pipeline, too?
MO: The new album is totally different from “Tubular Beats.” There’s no software at all, and everything is live backing tracks. It’s rock songs; instrumentation is bass, drums, guitar. The only keyboards are Hammond organ and acoustic piano, and vocals. We’re actively looking for vocalists. I have a co-producer called Steve Lipson, who’s worked with hundreds of artists — Trevor Horne, Annie Lennox, people like that. And he came over a couple of months ago, we went through things and got along. We’re going to work in the same way. I’ll stay here and send files backwards and forwards, and its just the same as being there … even the sessions I can be there. I can see the people on Skype, get high-quality sound, and if the studio broadcasts as a Internet radio station, I can pick it up in iTunes.
GM: Not at all like the old days, then.
MO: My son, Luke, has just re-equipped my old studio in Denham, where I recorded “Five Miles Out.” He’s put in all the old analogue equipment with reel to reel tape, so things are kind of going back. I must say, listening to these “Five Miles Out” masters again, the sound is great. It’s tape and a Neve desk, good mics, good recording techniques. I almost don’t have to remix it because it sounds so damned good. There’s not many ways you can recreate these sounds any more, apart from buying these strange software contraptions that have pictures of the old stuff, like a valve compressor, but it doesn’t really sound that different to a software compressor.
GM: Do you have any favorites of the albums you’ve done so far?
MO: This one. I was looking forward to doing this one. Those two albums, “Five Miles Out” and “Crises,” the middle section of my working life, I’m most satisfied with. They always seem to go together; I don’t know why.
There was the first three albums, “Tubular Bells,” “Hergest Ridge” and “Ommadawn.” “Hergest Ridge” I’m not so keen on, although I like the remix better than I liked the original. But then it got to “Ommadawn,” and that was fantastic.
MO: ’Incantations’ … I didn’t like that much. I made a decision that it was going to be a double album. I don’t know why I did, just that was the thing that you did in the late ’70s, make a double album, so I thought, ‘Well, I’d better.’ But I should have made it a single album. It took me three years to make that album, and I didn’t enjoy it … a couple of good bits, but even the remixing, I couldn’t face remixing the whole thing into 5.1, so I just mixed a few bits. I’m not contractually obliged to do any of this; I don’t have to do anything. But if I didn’t, they’d just put out the original stereo, and that would be that. So it’s been nice for me personally to revisit the old works and do mixes, see if I can do them better. I’m looking forward very much to doing these two albums, then it’s going to go down a bit after this. We’ve got “Discovery,” there’s nothing that great on it. And then there’s the weird ones, like “Islands” and “Earth Moving,” and then we’ve got “Amarok;” I’m desperate to do that one. And then “Heaven’s Open,” not really. So high spots for me are going to be these two and “Amarok.”
GM: ‘QE2’ and ‘Platinum’ were the most recent releases.
MO: “Platinum” — I found the original live multitrack of the session, and it sounded so damned good I didn’t do anything to it. I just panned things around, and off we go. They were done in Electric Ladyland with these amazing musicians who went in there, got themselves all miked up, smoked a few joints, put the record on, and off they went; God are they flying. I was flabbergasted that these people could be so good — the bass player especially; Neil Jason was his name.
GM: And ‘QE2’?
MO: I wasn’t that keen on “QE2,” to be honest. No, there was nothing there that really grabbed me. There was one song that was a lovely song … at the time the vocoder had just come out and everybody was going, ‘Isn’t this amazing?‘ Now it sounds so awful, so I decided that I’d make it into a new song. Just across, on another island from here, there’s a yoga retreat. They have these beautiful Hindu statues, temples, so I decided to write some lyrics for that song, and instead of ‘Sheba’ it became ‘Shiva,’ and I really enjoyed doing that. I couldn’t believe it, but I put it on, and there was Phil Collins playing drums on it, and funnily enough, I found a bit of an outtake of him playing drums, and it was just at the time when he was doing ‘In The Air Tonight,’ and there was a little bit of him almost warming up for that with his big tom toms. So I found that, and I made that into a track, which has become a demo for the rock album I’m working on. I don’t think we’ll end up using it, but he’s there on the demo, so all these little things lead to other things.
GM: Finally, tell us about the Olympics. Your performance at the opening ceremony — personally, it was my favorite part of the entire show.
MO: I don’t know who was more scared: me or [son] Luke, who was in the band playing guitar. We were backstage, teeth chattering … and then on we went in front of the Queen and a quarter of the population of the planet. But the nicest thing was the people. You know how miserable and grumpy we Brits can be. But when we put our minds to it, my God, are we good at what we do. Everybody was doing their … almost like the Blitz spirit, all going for it. Absolutely lovely, especially after everyone was putting it down beforehand. But they pulled it off magnificently. GM