by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2013 Anil Prasad.
Throughout his 45-year career, British composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield has remained apart, yet a part of pop culture. His career has been split between adventurous, long-form musical epics and accessible, yet eclectic rock and pop songcraft. Works including Tubular Bells, Ommadawn, Incantations, Platinum, and Amarok are among the most expansive instrumental works ever recorded. The breadth and depth of influences and instrumentation incorporated into the albums is unprecedented. Those albums find Oldfield seamlessly combining rock, folk, classical, world, ambient, and electronic music together, as if they were elements of a single genre.
Even with their diverse, innovative approaches, many of those epic albums connected with mainstream audiences. Several are best-sellers, most notably his 1973 debut effort Tubular Bells, which has sold more than 17 million copies worldwide. The album, released on Richard Branson’s then fledgling Virgin Records, catapulted Oldfield to stardom and yielded the first major profit for the label. The album’s proceeds served as the seed capital that funded what became Branson’s multi-billion dollar Virgin Group, now comprised of more than 400 companies.
As a tunesmith, Oldfield is also accomplished, with a series of song-focused albums including Five Miles Out, Crises, Islands, and Heaven’s Open to his credit. A few have spawned major hit singles, such as “Moonlight Shadow,” “Family Man,” and “Shadow on the Wall.” Even within the pop realm, Oldfield often manages to infuse inventive arrangements and unique instrumentation into his pieces.
Tubular Beats, Oldfield’s latest release, bridges multiple worlds. It’s a remix album that goes into club and trance territory, created in partnership with DJ Torsten Stenzel. The disc reinvents several of Oldfield’s best-known instrumentals and songs. The album incorporates passages and samples derived from master tapes from his back catalog. He’s in possession of many of them as part of an extensive reissue project. This September, Oldfield releases expanded versions of Crises and Five Miles Out. He has also completed a new Steve Lipson-produced rock album, which comes out late 2013, featuring bassist Leland Sklar, drummer John Robinson, and a gospel choir.
Innerviews began its conversation with the Nassau-based Oldfield by discussing his landmark appearance at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. He performed “Tubular Bells” and “In Dulci Jubilo” for 80,000 people at Olympic Stadium and a global viewing audience of one billion.
What did performing at the Olympics mean to you?
It was like how Sir Edmund Hillary felt when he got to the top of Mount Everest. It was a validation. It was marvelous. The event brought out the best in the whole nation. I wanted to do a good job. British people are incredibly talented when they want to be, but they get kind of miserable and moody. I think it has a lot to do with the weather, because it rains a lot. [laughs] It was absolutely the right choice to select Danny Boyle as the director, because he’s such a talented genius, and a nice person to work for. He makes you feel confident and good about yourself. Everyone wanted to give him their best. Seeing my old country at its best with the whole city of London alive was wonderful. It had been cold and rainy for weeks before the event and then the sun came out. People were on the streets and at street fairs. It was great. There was a big sense of excitement. We were all worried that it was going to rain on the night as there were a few clouds about, but there ended up just being a few rain spots in the show. Another reason it was great is because I had my son Luke on stage, who’s also a musician. I think people were skeptical of the performances and expected a disaster. Instead, they got a global triumph. How could I not be elated to be part of it?
After the Olympics, you could have put out practically any recording and received a lot of exposure for it. What made you want the next album to be Tubular Beats?
That was started years before. I didn’t put it out because of the Olympics. I had signed a new publishing deal and one of the executives involved put me in touch with a DJ named Torsten Stenzel who lives a few islands down from me in Antigua. He said “Torsten’s on your side of the pond. You should meet up.” So, Torsten came over and it was his idea to do a remix project. I thought “Well, because I was doing 5.1 remixes of my old albums, I have the multi-tracks here.” The original Ampex tapes had been dug out of these old libraries. Some of them had to be baked in an oven because they were over 40 years old and in such bad condition. From there, we transferred the music to digital.
Torsten and I worked together on Tubular Beats over the Internet. We didn’t have to be in the same studio. We used some samples from the original albums and I thought it was a cool project. I love technology and software. You can do amazing things these days. You just hold one key down and incredible sounds happen. There must be armies of people around the world designing the sorts of virtual instruments and plugins we used. Torsten introduced me to all kinds of specialist tools that DJs and remixers rely on. Interestingly, I’ve worked completely without any software on a new rock album. But the way Tubular Beats happened is I’d do a bit of work and send it back, then he’d do a bit of work. In the end, he took over most of the work, because I was working on writing new material and finishing up back catalog remixes. So, it’s more Torsten’s album. It was finished long before the Olympics. It had nothing to do with capitalizing on it.
How important is it for you to reach younger listeners through vehicles like Tubular Beats?
I don’t think like that. I love music and if somebody wants to do a version of a song, I’m fine with it. If you go to my Facebook page, you’ll see all the different versions of my music people have done. I don’t mind. Some of them are great. Some aren’t so great, but it doesn’t bother me because I’m not precious. I still do all of this out of a love of music. I was born with this musical ability and vision. I don’t sit and analyze things. I don’t think about it much. I have no idea of other artists or genres that music journalists talk about. I haven’t got a clue.
Describe your philosophy to revisiting and remixing your back catalog.
Oh, I don’t have a philosophy. It’s just fun. [laughs] I’ve kind of semi-retired now. What should I do? The record company wanted to re-release my catalog, not all at once, but a few a year. It’s a lovely way of revisiting my old work. I do have new musical ideas, but I don’t have anything near the drive to work as I used to. I probably work a couple of hours a day now, whereas 30 years ago, it would be 15 hours a day. I was obsessed. As for today, it’s just engaging to work on music. It keeps me busy. I like doing it.
Working on the remixes is fascinating. When I heard the multitracks, it was almost like it was just yesterday when I was making the albums. I remember every single second of all of them. When I revisited Five Miles Out, I forgot how many versions of the title track I did. There are four different versions. I couldn’t get it right. I spent more than three months on that one track until it finally came together. I just saw the film Hitchcock about the making of Psycho. I didn’t realize the movie only succeeded as the result of editing. When people saw the first edit, everybody hated the film. They thought it was a disaster. It’s a similar thing when listening to my old music. A lot of it came together after a tremendous amount of editing through cutting and pasting. Back then, you literally had to physically cut the tape and stick it back together with sticky tape. In that way, it was also like how they used to work on films. I do feel Five Miles Out and Crises mark the best of the midpoint of my career. Long after I’m gone, they’re still going to be here and I have an opportunity to present them in a new way to people.
You’ve said you were overcome by emotion when you went back and re-listened to the contributions of the late Pierre Moerlen and Morris Pert on Five Miles Out. Tell me what went through your mind.
It’s easy to take things for granted and then those people are suddenly gone from the world. You see, when I work on the remixes, I’m not just listening to the finished tracks. I’m zooming in on the bass and snare drums. I can hear Pierre and Morris as if they’re in the room with me. I’m not listening to part of a mix, I’m listening entirely to their contributions. I remember the occasions. I can even remember pressing the record button and starting to play together with these people. What a wonderful drummer Morris Pert was. Every strike of the drums or cymbals had such an intensity to it that I probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time. It’s only now that I can really appreciate it.
Kevin Ayers recently passed away. What are your thoughts about him as a presence and personality in your life?
Kevin was very much a part of my early life during my teens. I joined his band when I was only 16. He was the first charismatic person I ever met up until that time. I had been a school kid trying to get out of school. I had only played at little folk clubs and colleges. Suddenly, there was this tall guy with tremendous charisma who had just come off a tour with Jimi Hendrix. I was awestruck by Kevin and his attitude to life. It’s hard to describe that attitude. It was a relaxed, Mediterranean attitude. He liked to enjoy life, take it easy and not take things too seriously. Unfortunately, his attitude was not suited to being tremendously successful in the music business, in which you do need a lot of drive, savvy and street smarts. If you don’t have those things, there are so many people who either take advantage of you or don’t listen to what you have to say because you didn’t sell enough albums the last time out. Kevin was a lovely character, though. He was very kind and took me under his wing a little bit—not musically, but in terms of an attitude to life.
Another musical partner of yours, Pekka Pohjola, departed a few years ago. What are some of your memories of your time together?
To be honest, all I can remember is our first meeting. I was at the Manor Studio and he brought me a bottle of vodka and this strange black bread from Finland. He was a very large man—very Nordic. He played the bass amazingly well. I wasn’t very personally friendly with him. He was a very aloof kind of person. He performed on the first tour I did, the one with 80 people. We did do a little bit of recording together. There are some nice tracks of his out there that I played on.
You’ve previously spoken about feeling pressured by Virgin in the ‘80s to write pop songs, but the fact is what passed for pop on Five Miles Out and Crises are actually remarkable in terms of construction and ingenuity. Clearly, you felt there was something of value in the format.
To me, it’s all just music. There’s no difference between types of music. You can even hear music in things that aren’t music, like lapping waves and howling winds. Where I live now, we’ve had hurricanes like Sandy and Irene. They make amazing noises and it’s all music to me. I don’t categorize and I don’t philosophize. There are vibrations in the air that have a tremendous effect on you in a very non-verbal way. What I will say is I have a lot of trouble writing lyrics. I used to cheat a lot, using a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. I bumped into Tim Rice many years ago and asked him if he did those things. He confided in me like it was a big secret and said “Oh yes, I do. I think we all use those props.”
While looking back at those albums, did you ever say to yourself “I got away with some incredibly expansive pop songs here?”
“Five Miles Out” is an extraordinary, constructed piece of music. It’s almost like a little operetta. I’ve chosen an extra version to put on the re-release, so people will get an idea of all the work that went into getting to the final one. Also, “Mount Teide” is a beautiful thing, which I did with Carl Palmer. I underestimated his drumming abilities. There are lots of outtakes of his drumming that didn’t get used in the final track. He’s an excellent musician. I’ve worked with some of the best drummers in the world, including Robert Wyatt. I used to be the bass player to his drums for about a year and he was amazing. And of course, there was Simon Phillips, the human octopus on the drum kit.
When listening to your back catalog…
My back catalog? That’s a lot of music. I worked it out. That’s 36 hours of music.
I probably know every note.
I’ve wondered if your albums have somehow reflected world events that were unfolding during the making of them.
Not really. My routine from the first tour with 80 people onwards was I came straight back into the studio and thought “What do I do now?” I would think “Okay, we’re going to try something completely different.” So, we came back to New York, hired some session musicians, recorded Platinum, and then did a tour. We’d come back off tour and go back into the studio. I decided to work with David Hentschel and made QE2. For 20 years, that was my life. It was album, tour, album, tour. I worked with hundreds of musicians and did God knows how much traveling. I probably traveled all the way around Europe 100 times. At the end, I felt like I lived at Frankfurt Airport, because it was the big hub to get anywhere in Europe. I remember visiting Copenhagen endlessly too. I’d watch the news and read the papers. I knew about world events, but I’m not political at all. I was a working musician and wasn’t really that aware of what was happening. I was aware, but I wasn’t involved emotionally or politically.
You’re one of the first Western musicians to combine African and Celtic music, with Ommadawn being the first fruit of that concept. One could argue you’re an uncredited world music pioneer. Describe your initial interest in mixing world cultures.
It began when I was in a record store somewhere in England. They used to have record stores, you know. [laughs] I’m dating myself now. I still have great memories of shopping at Tower Records in Los Angeles, where I lived for awhile. I’d go there a lot. Long before that, in Reading, a little town I grew up in, there was a record store that had a record library section. They let you take out LPs, as we used to call them, and in the section were a couple of African music albums. I have no idea what they were, but they had people playing these obscure instruments made out of huge vegetable things with strings stuck on them. I was fascinated by the recordings, especially the tribal vocals. I loved the sound of the tribal drumming too. I thought “I like that. I want to use that on my track.” I didn’t set out to do anything particular. I just liked the sounds. On the original demos of Tubular Bells, I used a set of toy bells for babies. I got them right from a baby’s crib. It was something that made a nice sound. I even used a Hoover vacuum cleaner on one track because I liked the sound I heard when I turned it on. The sound of the vacuum’s engine seemed harmonic to me.
Did you ever think for a moment during the process “I don’t think anyone has ever done this before?”
I never gave it even the slightest thought. It’s all just sound waves to me.
Possibly the most interesting sound waves you’ve created were on Amarok. I’ve never seen you speak much about it. Essentially, it was intended to be the sequel to Ommadawn, right?
Kind of, yeah. When I started it off, I had to begin somewhere. There was tremendous pressure on me from Richard Branson to make Tubular Bells II. I remember playing squash with Richard’s partner Simon Draper. After the game, we were having orange juice and I said “I’m thinking about make a sequel.” His ears pricked up and he said “What? Tubular Bells II?” In my mind, as soon as I said that to him, the pressure was on me to do it. But by then, my relationship with Virgin had sunk pretty low. They didn’t have much interest in me. They put out my albums, but they were much more into people like Sex Pistols, then Boy George, then Phil Collins. I was very much put on the back burner. My contract also had a stupid, miserable royalty level and I couldn’t change it. So, I was committed to do what turned out to be 13 albums. By this period, I was only a few albums away from completing the contract. I didn’t have a manager, so I thought about things from a business perspective. I had to learn how to do that, because otherwise, I would be sucked dry by all the sycophants and sharks out there. Everybody tries to get as much as they can. I thought “Well, when I get to the end of my Virgin contract, then I’ll do Tubular Bells II.” At that time, I thought, I could do Ommadawn II instead.
Provide some insight into how the album came together.
It started with me saying I’ll have bodhrans again, and have Clodagh Simonds and Bridget St John, the singers on Ommadawn, come in. Then, I decided I wasn’t even going to compose it. It was going to be a complete improvisation. So, I’d get into the studio every morning with the producer Tom Newman and the first thing that came into my head was the first thing that got recorded. It started with a bodhran rhythm, then the melody came. I had Clodagh sing it and then I thought, let’s make it into a round, and it grew like that. I had some crazy ideas. It was going along, turning into this beautiful Celtic thing, and I got a bit bored with it. I thought “Let’s put some outrageous, discordant stabs on it.” [laughs] I thought that would liven it up a bit. Then I thought it would be nice to have some footsteps on one bit. Next, I thought “What about brushing my teeth on this bit?” I was also into making model helicopters at the time and I thought “I have all these little tools. They all make sounds, so let’s use the air modeler’s toolkit on it too.” Then I had Jabula, the original drummers on Ommadawn come in. They were from South Africa and they were all ANC before the end of apartheid. They came en masse into the studio. Then I got a choir of 100 people involved in a big studio in London. Margaret Thatcher was being deposed at the time, so we got an impersonator on the album too. It was just fun. This is the album I am most looking forward to mixing in 5.1 surround. There isn’t a demo for it to include. The album is entirely that first shot.
Amarok is my favorite album of all time.
It’s mine too. It’s very nice of you to say that.
Musician friends of mine continue to marvel at Amarok. They can’t understand how you made something that complex prior to Pro Tools or Logic.
And it was all hand-played as well. I used a very primitive sequencer and sampler that was a precursor to Notator, which became Logic. It was on a primitive computer called an Amiga. I would arrive every morning and plot something out in skeleton form, put it on the multitrack and say to Tom “Okay, we’re going to work on that. That’s the little sketch.” Everything on top of that sketch was hand-played. There were no synthesizers. Eventually, we threw away the sketch. That was the technique of working on it.
There’s this amazing acoustic guitar section at the beginning of Amarok that’s in no time signature. It just felt nice to play it. I remember a jam session I had in Los Angeles with Stewart Copeland and Jeff Lynne, who were playing along to that part. It was quite extraordinary because there’s no time signature anywhere. But, I tell you what. One of the ways I got to the point of being able to do that is when the band ended up in Athens after one of our many, many tours. Morris Pert, who was extraordinarily rhythmically talented, started jamming with some of the local Greek musicians at a market. They didn’t play in any time either. There was no “one, two, three, four.” We were playing along with them. I was on acoustic guitar or bouzouki, which I can play a bit of, because it’s like a big mandolin. We were enthralled by the lack of structure. It was just notes flying around, but it wasn’t in random order. It had a logic to it, but it defied logic. That’s something that Amarok tried to capture.
How did Virgin react to the finished master when they received it?
They said “It’s Tubular Bells II.” I said “No, it’s not. I have to think of a title for it.” One of the first things that came to mind was to look in the Celtic English dictionary. Ommadawn was Gaelic for idiot. My autobiography was called Changeling. Amarach is “changeling” in Gaelic. To me, it sounded like “Amarok,” so I spelled it out that way. On the cover, the word is hand-carved in metal by Tom Newman. He got these lumps of metal, cut and filed them out and created what you see. Virgin was outraged that I wouldn’t call it Tubular Bells II, but I wouldn’t because it wasn’t Tubular Bells II. It was Ommadawn II, if anything. But Ommadawn II didn’t sound good as a title. It didn’t sound right. So, Amarok it became and Virgin refused to promote it. I had to promote it myself. I hired my own radio plugger. We conducted a first listening session at my studio near London. We put all the chairs out. I hired a caterer and got sandwiches and champagne, and only one person came out, and that was Bob Harris from Radio One. Bob loved it. He played it on his show. But if I had called it Tubular Bells II, the place would have been packed. It’s unbelievable that just not calling it something has that effect. It was tragic, really and it didn’t sell hardly anything. I don’t think it charted or anything. But I’ll tell you one good thing. I often get people like you who say it’s their favorite album. And it’s my favorite album too. So, what the hell? It has stood the test of time. If in 100 years it’s known as my best work, no problem.
The album includes a famous Morse code section that decodes into “Fuck off RB”—a reference to the difficult relationship you had with Richard Branson at the time. What was the fallout from it?
Well, I didn’t tell anybody for about a year after it came out. I was hoping with all the clever people in the world that somebody might listen to it and think “There’s Morse code in it. What does it say?” But nobody did. It was my little gesture of defiance, but it went unnoticed. So, I thought I better tell somebody about it, otherwise nobody will ever find the hidden message. [laughs] If I hadn’t opened my mouth, nobody would have noticed. People still can’t find it to this day.
Once you did open your mouth, did Branson freak out?
No, no. It was all right. It was kind of funny. It wasn’t rude. It was an elegant way of expressing my dissatisfaction at the time. It wasn’t really nasty. I get on well with Richard now.
The next album after Amarok was Heaven’s Open, another unique release in your discography. It remains the first and only album that features you entirely on lead vocals. It remains shrouded in mystery to this day. What can you tell me about the making of it?
That was another turkey. [laughs] That was me deciding to be a rock singer, which wasn’t very successful. I even hired a really good singing teacher. I spent six months with this extremely large, bossy lady who made me do all of these vocal exercises, singing “eeh, aah, ooh” and all this kind of stuff. I worked very, very hard at it. I did get one nice piece of feedback on the album. I was near Lake Geneva in Switzerland to ski and somebody introduced me to the race car driver Jacques Villeneuve. He had just won the Formula One title. He told me the title track “Heaven’s Open” was his favorite song. I can just imagine him sitting there on the grid thinking “This is that moment. It’s waiting for you,” just as the lyrics say. So, I inspired a young guy to win the Formula One. That’s not bad is it? It was kind of worthwhile in a way.
How do you look back on the album from a musical perspective?
The title track is pretty good, but we were running into trouble with it while making it. Tom Newman, who produced it, was quite friendly with David Gilmour. There was this little pub in West London where people would just turn up and jam. I went there and just jammed a few times. Once, David was there and he very kindly offered to come out and listen to the track and help us out a bit. He made some subtle suggestions and I think he got co-producer credit on that track. I’ve remixed all of Five Miles Out and Crises, but when it’s time to revisit Heaven’s Open, I think I’ll only remix a couple of things. There’s no contractual obligation for me to remix everything, so I’ve been picking and choosing.
Heaven’s Open is also the only album credited to Michael Oldfield, instead of Mike Oldfield. Why?
Why not? [laughs] I felt like it. I thought because I was singing, I should be portrayed slightly differently. Perhaps I had some logic at the time.
Another album I’ve never seen you discuss is the unreleased Orchestral Hergest Ridge. Why does that album remain shelved after all this time?
I didn’t like Orchestral Tubular Bells and Orchestral Hergest Ridge. The reason they came to exist is related to the first Tubular Bells performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall back in 1973. When I was working on the Olympics performance last year, the hotel I was staying at was on the embankment near the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I borrowed somebody’s bicycle every morning. I would cycle up and down and stand outside the stage door of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I would remember how 40 years ago, I went in there, shaking like a leaf before performing my first-ever concert on my own. It was like meeting my old self. After that one concert, I was so horrified with the difficulties of reproducing my albums that I didn’t want to go on tour. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t go on tour until 1978, which was five years later. Back in 1973, Richard Branson said “If you won’t go on tour, I’m going to make orchestral versions of these albums and get orchestras to play them.” That was his plan. So, he hired David Bedford, who did a very good job, but the music was never meant to be orchestral. I made an orchestral album called Music of the Spheres, but that was designed to be like that. So, I didn’t approve of the orchestral albums. I wasn’t involved. David did them entirely on his own, though I did play a bit of guitar on one part. But they otherwise had nothing to do with me—not a bean.
Tell me about your forthcoming rock album.
I’ve done the best I can. I’ve made all of these songs and I tried to sing them myself. But you know my voice on Heaven’s Open? Imagine that voice 20 years later and that’s what it sounds like. It barely hangs together, so I was looking for the right singer. I listened to a lot of people in order to find a really good vocalist who could not just sing the songs, but also enter into my emotions. I found him and you’ll be hearing about him soon. We’ve also re-recorded the backing tracks live with a proper rock band using some really good session musicians. It was done much in the same way as I worked on Platinum. Live sessions are totally different from playing everything yourself. I had to do a lot of research to find the right people.
You’ve described the album as “music straight from the heart.” Describe what you mean.
A lot of the songs are pretty miserable, actually. I’m toying with the album title Man on the Rocks. [laughs] That’s the title of one of the songs. There’s one song on the album which is really great that I’ll tell you about. I live in Nassau on the water and the area where I dock my various boats by the harbor is very beautiful. So, I wrote a song about sailing. It’s not like Rod Stewart’s “Sailing.” It’s more of a tongue-in-cheek, shake off the shackles of the modern world and get out on the ocean song. It’s quite funny. It’s a bit Pirates of the Caribbean. I can see Johnny Depp on the front of the boat singing it on the pirate ship. It’s a happy song. But the rest of the album is quite miserable, yet very powerful. I loved playing guitar on the album. Somehow, my guitar sound has improved. You know the guitar at the end of “Ommadawn Part One,” the real screaming part? Well, now I’ve got this box called Eleven by Avid and you just press a button and it makes you sound exactly like that Gibson SG going through a Fender Twin Reverb with the right speakers. So, that’s fun. I worked with Steve Lipson on the album, who’s worked with Trevor Horn. I love working with Trevor and I’ve also got on well with Steve too.
Tell me about your relationship with the guitar—your faithful musical companion throughout your career.
It’s like part of my body. It’s like an extra limb. I don’t have to think about it. I just pick it up and play it. It’s because I learned to play when I was so young. I got all my technique before I was even a teenager, around ages 10 to 11, so I don’t have to work anything out. The guitar is like a voice. It’s as natural as talking. The sound is very important to me. Some guitars are good, some aren’t. You have to get a lucky one and be careful not to lose it. Guitars age as well. Sometimes they’re great for a few years and they gradually become not so great and you don’t want to play them anymore. I’ve got a very boring Fender Telecaster at the moment. It doesn’t look special at all, but it’s just nice to play it for the time being. I was contacted by PRS England recently because they saw me playing a PRS at the Olympics. The PRS is really pretty to look at, but the guitar I use in the studio is a real ugly thing.
You have one of the most immediately recognizable guitar tones in history. I haven’t heard it reproduced by anyone else. How do you achieve your sound?
It comes from the way I learned to play electric guitar, which is through fingerpicking on acoustic. It’s a very pure sound, because I play with my fingernails. Any string that isn’t ringing is dampened by my other fingers. Most guitarists who play with a plectrum let the other strings ring a bit, messing up the purity of the sound. That’s the secret. Also, I use a violinist’s vibrato, rather than a rock guitarist’s vibrato. My vibrato is from side to side, whereas the typical rock guitarist goes up and down. My sound is a mixture of all of that and the very Celtic style I use, with lots of little grace notes like on the bagpipes. I put a lot of power and emotion into every note. I can play one note or three notes with such passion, conviction and authority. I don’t have to impress by playing very fast. I can play something very simple, too. I also use electronics to get the right sound. I used to have all sorts of strange, weird boxes to help me achieve my sound. At one point, I even bought the very original Manor desk. I took two modules from it and used them as part of my guitar rig. But now, I can have everything in a simple box like the Eleven by Avid and plug in and go.
Do you compose on the guitar?
No, not really. I never wrote music with the guitar. Tubular Bells was mostly written on my grandmother’s upright piano—a real honky-tonk thing or on electric guitar. There was a bit of guitar involved, I suppose. Mostly, my music is written without an instrument. It isn’t really even written. An idea arrives in my head and I hear it. It makes me feel more like a messenger than a performer. I receive ideas somewhere deep in my subconscious. It's conceived there and grows into an embryo and pops out of my consciousness. I don’t know what it is that’s happening. The times I try to sit down and compose are the worst times. I can’t do that. I sometimes wait months or even years for a good idea.
How do you capture those ideas when they emerge?
If I’m not in my studio, I have to write them down. I’m one of those terrible, sinning, nasty, horrible smokers. I roll my own cigarettes. I have these rolling papers and there’s this little space at the top which is just big enough to write a little stave—a few notes of music. If I even write five or six notes down from the idea, then I always remember it. But if I don’t write it down after an hour or so, it’s gone forever. There was a time when I had a big coffee jar full of little bits of Rizla papers with all of the different ideas I had. When it came to album time, I’d empty out the jar and listen to them all. They’re very precious musical ideas. I remember “Mount Teide” came out through that process. Mount Teide is a mountain on the Canary Islands which I climbed to the top of.
Is there a spiritual element to the arrival of musical ideas for you?
I think there is. We could talk for hours about just that, but I prefer not to try and analyze it, but rather accept it. It’s a blessing, really. Who knows where ideas come from. The musical scale is so simple. There are only 13 notes and only so many combinations of them, but something else accompanies the melodic component and that’s almost a spiritual component. You can have the same notes in one piece and another, but they’ll be totally different pieces of music depending on the spiritual component surrounding those notes. We’re getting into a very theoretical area here, which I tend not to think about. I’m just lucky.
I used to theorize and read a lot. A few years ago, I learned transcendental meditation, or TM as it’s called. I live by the water and have a little dock here, a boat, and a Jet Ski as well. If it’s a nice day and the sea’s not too calm, I take the Jet Ski out all on my own and go to one of the little islands around Nassau and plop myself down there and swim into the beach. I’ll sit there for maybe an hour and do a bit of meditation. When you’re in that deep, meditative state, you don’t need answers. You’re just there. It feels like words are just blah-blah blabbering noises and a very primitive way of communicating. That’s all I can say about that, really. I don’t need to theorize anymore.
You’ve explored virtually every musical genre imaginable in your music. Are there any other elements you want to incorporate in the future?
When you’re in a deep meditative state, there’s nothing there. It’s total silence. But in some strange way, there is the most musical music imaginable, which is no music. Yet it’s still music. I’m thinking about the ultimate human evolution, which was Arthur C. Clarke’s idea. I did an album based on his book about the concept of 2001 in which we gradually replace all of our physical parts until we are totally mechanical. And then at some point there comes a point when we realize we don’t even need the artificial. In other words, we can exist without anything physical. In a way, I’m saying that music is like a carrier of something. Maybe someday we won’t even need sound waves. John Lennon once recorded a silent track. Maybe my next album will be silence. I don’t how my record company will feel about that. [laughs]
Have you ever considered that the money you generated for Virgin in its early days eventually led to Richard Branson launching Virgin Galactic? In a way, your music is related to the emergence of commercial space tourism.
It did occur to me once that the only purpose of my music was to launch Richard. But hang on, I thought that’s not being very fair to myself. [laughs] It’s part of a very big plan. Richard is an extraordinary person. He started off the idea of commercial space flights, really. He might not be the last though. There is talk about putting a couple into orbit around Mars in a couple of years. There’s also Elon Musk and his rockets. Richard did bring the idea of commercial space flight into the public consciousness. Will he be the most successful? I know Richard will give it his all, but there might be other people who do it too. People with enough money will go up there, but Richard will make it more affordable. It’s still $200,000 to do it. It’s not like everyone can do it. Perhaps in 20 years it’ll be more affordable for many people. We’ve got to go out there. We’ve got to go to the stars.
How did it feel to do an interview in which the interviewer made no mention of Tubular Bells?
[laughs] My God, yes. It’s true. Unbelievable. That’s the very first time that’s happened. Normally, the first question is “Why did you write Tubular Bells?” That’s when I kind of crawl underneath my desk, because there was no specific reason for why I wrote it. But see? We did an excellent interview without you mentioning Tubular Bells. It is possible.