As one of popular music’s supreme musical technicians – a man who mastered everything from the Farsifa organ to the flageolet on his groundbreaking 1973 debut, Tubular Bells – it strikes me as endearingly primitive that Mike Oldfield still rolls his own cigarettes. Chatting affably via Skype from his home in the Bahamas, he frequently ducks beneath his webcam’s gaze to rout through a packet of tobacco. The old school smokes tie in rather tidily with his return to vintage rock on his twenty-fifth studio album: “Man on the Rocks”.
The burst of new songs took him by surprise: he thought that 2008’s orchestral album Music of the Spheres, might have been his last. But he was reinvigorated by his performance at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, where he provided the soundtrack to the NHS section, reworking Tubular Bells in a giddy, swing style. Despite his reclusive nature he found playing for a global audience of 900 million exhilarating.
“I am a man of extremes,” he grins. “I couldn’t believe it when Danny Boyle called me – it was just about the only offer that could have lured me away from my beloved Bahamas. I did have a bit of stage fright before I went on knowing that everyone was watching: the queen, the world. But once out there the whole experience was blissful. Everything was raining down from my perspective: the lights, the fireworks, the interlocking rings, James Bond, the Mary Poppinses ... It was so inspiring.”
Oldfield got the biggest career boost of all the artists who performed that night: at HMV, sales of Tubular Bells rose by 757 per cent overnight. He pays tribute to the experience on a track from the new album called “Following the Angels”, but most of the record’s guitar-driven 70s swagger spiralled out of hurricane Irene, which battered his home in the summer of 2011.
“There’s nothing more awe inspiring than seeing nature at its wildest,” he says. Safe behind his hurricane shutters, he thrilled at the sounds -- “the howling. White noise yowling” and sat up all night watching it on the Internet. “What’s fascinating is that while what’s happening on the ground is wild, if you watch what the satellites show you from space then it’s just beautiful. This spiralling, slowly rolling, swirling thing.”
Afterwards, Oldfield found himself playing Rolling Stones records, paying fresh attention to the drum clatter. “I listened to the snares. And I started experimenting with these old blues slide guitar sections in open G tuning, which is what Keith Richards uses.” Never a vocalist, he admits he did try singing the songs himself at first. “I thought: let me see if I can sing like Mick Jagger.” But he was unimpressed with his efforts and called his record company. “I asked them to recommend a rock vocalist with a really high range and I was instantly pointed toward Luke Spiller of The Struts. I went online and thought: yeah. He did a much better job of sounding like a rock star than me.”
Pouting and snarling in drainpipes and beads like an upstart hybrid of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury (with a dash of Mighty Boosh comedian Noel Fielding) you can watch 23-year-old Spiller in action in the video to new single, ‘Sailing” which was shot on board Oldfield’s 68 foot yacht, The Seadragon. As they slice through the turquoise, Oldfield leans against the rail with his guitar: in his element with the combination of precision engineering and expansive isolation.
“There are hundreds of islands out here and many of them are uninhabited,” he says, “so you can get onto your boat and in twenty minutes you’re on your own island. I like to do that. I went out to one of the little islands this morning and did the dance I was shown by an Aztec Indian on a beach in Ibiza at about six o clock one morning. It’s a sort of ancient war dance: stomping on alternate feet and moving backwards and forwards while moving your hands in contra-rotating spirals and looking very warlike. I like to be completely alone. I’ve always been like that. I’ve never liked busy cities, I’m a wilderness person.”
Although he had a very happy early childhood, everything changed for Oldfield when he was seven and his “wonderful” mother gave birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome and was prescribed barbiturates to which she became addicted. She suffered from serious mental health issues for the rest of her life and Oldfield retreated into music. His big break came when he was nineteen and Richard Branson gave him a week’s studio time to record Tubular Bells for the new Virgin record label. It launched both men’s careers but Oldfield hated the attention and – suffering from extreme anxiety – fled to the Welsh countryside. “It drove Richard mad!” he laughs today. “He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want the attention. He loved it all, of course.”
In recent years he’s told numerous interviewers that he created the famous phrase from Tubular Bells by flipping Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor upside down. But today he’s dismissive of the idea. “That’s not really it. It’s similar to the Toccata, which I’ve always liked. But it’s not really the same tune upside down.” These days Oldfield attributes much of Tubular Bells’ success to its unusual key signature: “Most music is in 4/4 time, but that curious little figure at the beginning is in 15/8. It’s like a puzzle with a little bit missing. That’s why it sticks in the brain. And that’s why it worked so well as the soundtrack to The Exorcist – with that little bit missing everything is not quite right.” Not a fan of horror movies, Oldfield himself didn’t see the film until fifteen years after it’s release and, at some points, found himself the only person laughing in the cinema.
Although Oldfield grew to resent the terms of his 30-year contract with Virgin, he says he and Branson are good friends these days. “We came back here and got drunk together and listened to all kinds of odd music. He likes the jokey little ditties I did rather than the big works: In Dulci Jubilo (1975) and Portsmouth 1976.” They’re both Oldfield’s highest charting singles hits.
Although decades of psychotherapy, tai qi and Aztec war dancing have made Oldfield a calmer man than he has ever been he is still making sense of his demons. One song on the new album – Nuclear – is about Oldfield’s conviction that he is still living with the fall out of his grandfather’s traumatic experience in the First World War. “I never knew him,” he says, “So I hired a company to find out about him. It turned out he was a great character before the war but came home a very different man. My mum was one of ten or eleven kids and all the children born after the war had problems like hers. I wanted to see if I could spread my senses in the place he was. I travelled around Ypres and the battlefield museums and I saw the graves of his regiment: the Royal Munster Fusiliers. And I could feel it. Still there. It’s a blessing and a curse for those of us who have this extra sensitivity.”
A father of seven, Oldfield says he is determined to let the damage “stop with me.” Although there is still upheaval. He has just been granted a divorce from his third wife – the mother of his two youngest boys. Against a backdrop of melodic, motorway-friendly dad rock “Man on the Rocks” celebrates freedom and new horizons. Is it a break-up record? Oldfield nods. He tells me that the title song is about addiction: “Not necessarily to drugs or alcohol – it can be to certain kinds of relationship patterns, about an addiction to failure.” He says he can’t discuss his present situation at the moment because the legal process is ongoing.”But I have my boys here half the time and I’m a much better parent than I used to be, for the simple fact that I am stable.” And putting down his tobacco, he holds his hand up to the webcam for me to admire the lack of shakiness. “There you are!” he smiles. “Not bad for a guy of nearly 60!”