Interview with steel pan pioneer Michael Olivier

Legendary steel pan player Michael Olivier tells us about his music industry experiences in our new interview.
michael-olivier-icmp-london

With our state of the art recording facilities on site here at ICMP, it’s unsurprising that we often usher many major musicians and performers of all kinds through the doors. 

Back in July Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy passed through to get some last minute practice in ahead of the start of his tour, then earlier this month singer and producer on the up Big Chris visited to record with steel pan pioneer Michael Olivier.

Michael, aka Bubbles, has enjoyed a career spanning three decades , arriving in London in the seventies and directing the 20th Century Steel Band. He’s perhaps best known for his tune 'Heaven and Hell is On Earth', a track sampled by the likes of the Jungle Brothers, Black Eyed Peas, Lauryn Hill and even Jennifer Lopez.

It ended up earning him awards from the likes of the British Music Industry (BMI) and American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for his contribution to the music industry in the 2000s and he’s continued to enjoy some success, working as a much in demand session musician, songwriter and tutor. We were lucky enough to sit on the session and then quiz Michael on his experiences…

How did you begin your musical career?

It was in the Carribean as a boy, when I was aged eight or nine. I was born in Trinidad and started to play the steel pan there.

What drew you to the instrument?

The steel pan was for the poorer class of people. If you could afford the piano or guitar it was different but the steel pan was far cheaper. That meant it was everywhere, all over the villages. A lot of my family were more or less the pioneers of the instrument. So it’s in the blood, and that’s all I saw when I was growing up. None of us could afford anything more conventional.

What was your big break musically?

It was with the Pan Am North Stars. They were the only steel pan band who used to tour and leave the country, to take little trips and that. I had encounters at festivals, performing and playing from about the age of 14. I started travelling abroad from that point and playing to more and more people, getting my music out there.

How can musicians make a career out of their music? 

It’s who you know, what you know - this applies to life as well as music. Who you can work with. It’s such an up and down sector, the music business but you’ve got to be in it to win it.

'If it’s harder, it’s tough to say but it’s definitely changed. And not for the better as far as I can see. Where are all the stars these days? Ten years ago music seemed to be flourishing but now I’m not so sure.

What have been your career highlights?

We did this record, this collaboration with pianist Winifred Atwell, As part of Pan Am North Stars, we also went on tour with Winifred and recorded the album 'Ivory and Steel'.

We’ve been talking about how much your music has been sampled over the years - how do feel about your music being used in this way?

It’s a great privilege to hear your music played and used like that as a writer. But I wish I was a bit more established as a person in some ways as the music is out there but hardly anyone knows who is behind it. That’s the only thing that worries me really, there’s not been enough exposure for myself. I’ve had lots of live outings, gigs and performances but to the public, no one knows me. Who’s to blame? I don’t know.

For new and emerging songwriters, have you any advice?

Everyone says work hard. You don’t work for money or music - you should let them work for you. I’ve written so many songs, but success can be linked back to who you know in the business. At the same time, I'm excited as I've still got so music left in me to release. 

Who are, who have been your biggest influences?

People like James Brown, Tchaikovsky, as I like all sorts of music. But I grew up on James Brown. Soul, funk, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley. You know, I like a lot of old school music. With newer artists, I'm a big fan of Amy Winehouse.

What does the future have in store?

Everything and anything. This project with big Chris, tours and writing – I’ve got loads of tracks to release. It was a pleasure being here and working with these guys.

Visit michaelolivier.co.uk for more information on Michael and his various music projects. Michael is currently running the Pan Innovation Project to offer advice around performances, recordings, tutoring and making steel drums. You can get in touch with Michael via his website to find out more.  

All new and returning ICMP students can use our music facilities for personal practice free of charge outside of time tabled hours. We are also open seven days a week. 

ICMP Open Days

Our Open Days are an exciting way to find out more about what ICMP has to offer, and for you to discover the courses we run, here in the heart of London's music industry. Join us at our next Open Day - book your place here.

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by Jim Ottewill
October 3, 2017
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