By Steve Stav
Blinded by science, indeed. Sometimes it seems as if the general public only has the capacity to absorb one burst of brilliance from an artist during a particular era. They seize it, savor it, assign it a place on a shelf or in the memory, and move on. Thomas Dolby was not yet 25 when his first brilliant burst, 1982's The Golden Age Of Wireless, made him a synth-pop/"New Wave" icon almost overnight. Thirty years later, millions in the 15-50 demographic recognize his most popular hit — but if asked to name another, most will draw a blank.
Of course, Dolby has always had an aura of misconception-prompting mystique surrounding him; perhaps the keyboardist was so busy in the 80s, he was merely one step ahead of listeners. A look back at Dolby's credits can surprise even someone familiar with the man's work. For example, he played on Foreigner's 4 and Def Leppard's Pyromania, and produced several gorgeous Prefab Sprout albums... when he wasn't busy making his own records, writing songs for other artists, and appearing on dozens of albums in a number of genres.
A near-departure from recording in the early 1990s to delve into cellular ringtone technology seemed to encase Dolby's mystique in legend-preserving lucite. In 2006-07, however, the synth phenom emerged from cold storage with a successful, one-man "Sole Inhabitant Tour."
Further whetting fans' appetites have been a pair of download-EPs released as precursors to Dolby's first album in twenty years, the upcoming A Map Of The Floating City. The EP-appetizers are expectedly wondrous; his thematic signatures of romantic adventure and imagination-sparking observations have certainly survived the decades, and have exquisitely matured with time. Moreover, the new album (which features guest appearances by luminaries such as Mark Knopfler, Natalie MacMaster, Imogen Heap and others) will doubtlessly reinforce the fact that behind the electronic wizardry and technical prowess, there's always been a very gifted singer-songwriter.
From his beachfront home on England's east coast, Dolby recently discussed via telephone new ideas, faded memories... and vintage lifeboats.
SS: I just saw a picture of your lifeboat studio... you couldn't possibly require further inspiration. What an amazing place to work.
Dolby: I know... that's the only bad thing, there is no excuse; if I have a day where I'm not productive, I say to myself, "You spoiled little brat! Living in a place like this and not getting anything done today!" (laughs). It is a wonderful place to be.
I sort of have the best of all worlds... I can go record with other musicians, or I can send stuff to musicians elsewhere - there are two or three musicians on the new album that I've never met in the flesh. It's incredible, really, how technology has made places like this not so remote anymore.
SS: I imagine you sit out there and witness the storms?
Dolby: Absolutely, in all sorts of fierce weather. It gets pretty intense out here. I love working out there when a gale blows, it's wonderful. I record everything; the ambience of the lifeboat ends up on the record; the song "To The Lifeboats" has some creaking in the background, which is actually the turbine on the mast creaking through the deck. I sit and watch the ships, I have binoculars; when I have the blinds closed, I have a periscope so I can peer out at the ships. They're building a wind farm out there, which you can just about see with the naked eye when the light is right; otherwise you have to use binoculars. There's currently 56 of them on the horizon, there's going to be 141 when they're done.
This is so great... I wrote "Windpower" in 1980-1981, and I'm so pleased that's it's actually come to be.
SS: What was the inspiration, or motivation, for your "Nutmeg of Consolation"?
Dolby: Our garden floods... not often, but about every five years or so, we get an extremely high tide and the sea comes in a bit. So, it was impractical for me to have the proverbial "garden shed studio," which I did have in California when I lived there. So I came up with the idea of having a boat in the garden. At one point, I thought it would be a seagoing vessel — I thought I would sail around the world to record my album, and occasionally go up the Siene or the Hudson or the Thames and give a concert on the deck! This would have taken some serious sponsorship, of course, and I didn't have the energy to traipse around with my hand out. Part of the reason for the name, "Nutmeg of Consolation" was that it was a consolation prize - a boat on blocks in the garden.
I spent about six months looking for a suitable vessel... I was looking at fishing boats, as they have good wheelhouses with all-around vision; however, they can be a bit "fishy." I eventually found this converted ship's lifeboat from the 1930s... it was about to be scrapped, as part of its hull was stove in. I found some local boat builders; in the process of rebuilding the hull, we installed a doorway where it was damaged. It has a drawbridge with an anchor as a counterweight... so you wind a big wheel in the wheelhouse and the drawbridge goes down, the anchor goes up with a system of pulleys and chains and ropes, making a fantastic clanking sound.
There used to be a diesel engine below the wheelhouse, and I took that out and installed a bank of batteries. On the mast there's a 450 watt wind turbine, and on the roof of the wheelhouse there's solar panels. So, provided there's some sun or wind, the batteries stay charged, and I can work quite happily without needing any power off the grid at all.
SS: You own the ultimate treehouse.
SS: Your upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City... the name sure fires the imagination. How long have you had this idea for a record, and what prompted it?
Dolby: Well, for probably 15 years I've been wanting to make an album with this title. It means various different things to me... there was a floating city in Tokyo in medieval times, where the merchants used to bring their barges into Tokyo harbor to trade. Eventually, there were so many of them, it was girdlock. No one went anywhere, they just stayed roped together, and it became this sort of heathen city outside the jurisdiction of the rest of Tokyo. During the day, you could trade silks and spices and things there, and at night, it was a den of inequity. It sounded like a nice place to be.
Secondly, from my lifeboat studio here in East Anglia, facing out across the North Sea towards Germany and Holland and so on, I see the container ships coming and going. They're stacked high with containers, and sometimes in certain lighting conditions, it looks like you're looking at the Manhattan skyline off in the distance. When they're several of them, it looks like an archipelago of Manhattans. That, to me, is very evocative.
The final piece of it, really, is that the idea of a floating city as a kind of different dimension, sort of an invisible reality... so that's how the title came about. Then, the three continents, Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea - as I started to assemble the songs for the album, they seemed to be falling into three distinct categories. So, they ended up being three segments on the album. The first, Amerikana, is really sort of a farewell to America, where I lived for 20 years... I might be back there someday, but at least for the time being I'm in my native England. During the time I was living in the States, I became very fond of indigenous Americana, whether it be cultural or places I visited — parts of America that seemed to be frozen in time.
In a way, we're very "Pan-European" in Britain, everything is sort of "brie on a baguette," served to you by a Polish immigrant. Which is fantastic about England, actually, but by contrast, when I go to the United States - especially away from the coasts - it seems very indigenous there. So Amerikana is my contribution to folk storytelling, but definitely told from the point of an outsider.
Oceanea is more about my return to my spiritual homeland. My mum's family is from here, I grew up around here. I learned to sail here as a kid; it's very dear to me, and it's very relaxing for me to come home.
Urbanoia is about cities... I obviously still visit cities - New York, London, L.A. or wherever - but cities are not the place for me. I'm not a city person, they're deeply unsettling to me — but sort of thrilling at the same time. Urbanoia definitely has a darker tinge to it.
So it's sort of a little triptych of portraits of these different continents, pushed together to make up the album.
SS: Are you finished with the record?
Dolby: I'm very, very close. I actually assembled it for the first time a few days ago. It's got a few "t's" to cross, "i's" to dot, but it's getting close.
SS: Do you have a date set for the release of the Urbanoia EP?
Dolby: I'm actually not going to release a third EP. I've been working on a game with the same title as the album — that's going to be released very soon.
SS: A game?
Dolby: Yeah, sort of an alternative reality game. Free, on the web. Instead of the EP, if you want to hear music from Urbanoia, you'll have to discover it within the game. The game involves my entire catalog — it contains every item, character, every location named in every song I've ever written. It's going to be very exciting, I think, for hardcore fans... and, from a marketing perspective, the goal is to turn some of my 'casual' fans into hardcore fans, to convert some of the former into the sort of nutjobs that get on the Flat Earth Society pages — and I mean that in the most affectionate way (chuckles).
It will be on thomasdolby.com, and it won't require any software download; it's in a web browser.
SS: Wow. It's great that it will be free. It always chafes me when an artist releases EPs, you buy them, and then he releases a box set of them all - plus a new song you just have to have.
Dolby: I was a bit wary of that; it seemed like a bit of a ripoff to do that. That's why I talked myself out of releasing a third EP. Although there are additional songs that aren't on the EPs, it still seemed like a chore, to expect people people to pay for three EPs... and then pay another $15 or whatever for the album. I think it will be very interesting, it's a whole other aspect of things; I hope it will build some anticipation for the album's release.
SS: I imagine that speculation abounds among your fans as to what other tracks will round out the album... indeed, I can see from your website that suspense for the whole thing has been building.
Dolby: My hardcore fan base has known for three, four years that I've been working on a new album. For some of them, I think it has been quite frustrating — "Where is it already!!" But by and large, they've been very patient. A lot of 'em say, "Hey, we've waited for 20 years; we'd rather wait another year and have him get it the way he wants it. I'm not exactly prolific... I was talking to Peter Gabriel the other day, and I told him, "You're prolific by my standards!"
SS: It can be frustrating, from a fan's standpoint... yet, an artist such as Peter Gabriel is worth waiting a bit for.
Dolby: He is worth waiting for, and there's a fanfare, an excitement about it. Things have changed a lot since I started, or since he started. In those days, everything was about the "street date." Everything was clouded in mystery until you pulled the trigger on a "street date," and suddenly there's an album and a tour and a video, and the rest of it. These days, given how accessible we make ourselves to the audience via social networking and blogs and things like that... unless you want to turn your back on all if it, say, "No! I'm going to stay a private person; it's nobody's business what I'm doing, and it'll be done when it's done."
Personally, I enjoy the interaction, I enjoy the fans being involved and feeling they have an investment in the album. I think that's sort of the "modern way;' I think the whole "street date" thing is obsolete.
SS: When did you become the leader of this cult, The Flat Earth Society?
Dolby: (Chuckles) Oh, I think it dates back to '83 or '84, right when that album first came out. I don't even know if it was me who coined the term, or it was the fans themselves who named the fan club that way. Back in those days, it was just a physical mailing list. It stuck around; for all the years I wasn't doing any music, there was still an interest. The Internet had emerged, and people were analyzing the music, doing tribute cover versions and sharing chord sequences, things like this.
I'm not sure if they ever thought I'd come back and do any more music at all; I think some of 'em assumed I was like a dead guy, like Nick Drake or something.
SS: Are you ever surprised by the level of interaction on the website? You've even got people researching the history of your lifeboat.
Dolby: Things like that are fantastic, obviously — the collective sort of "mind share" that you get on the Internet. I guess because I have a relatively large number of well-informed people following me, I'm able to stick up a picture of my lifeboat and ask if anyone can help me identify it — and someone's going to come out of the woodwork who's an expert on 1930s British vessels. That's pretty great.
That's the plus side. On the negative side, there are times when I feel a little intruded upon. To give (the fans) early access to a bit of music... many people will say, 'Wow! It's really fascinating to see the process as it unfolds." But others will say, "This is not polished! This is like a demo that I could do."
SS: I've long been fascinated with your collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Field Work." How did this song come about?
Dolby: I can tell you how we met, initially. For the song, "Radio Silence," from The Golden Age of Wireless, I was looking for a Japanese singer. This was at a time when Japanese pop was first getting some exposure in the UK... bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra had been doing some interesting stuff. Anyway, Akiko Yano was a well-known singer in Japan, I'd heard some of her stuff and she seemed to have the appropriate voice. I found out she was going to be in London, so I called up and arranged for her to do a session for the album.
She came with a friend who was introduced to me as "Luigi" — or that's what I thought I heard. I started to explain to her the harmonies I wanted, which were jazzy and quite tight. She said, 'I think the best thing would be if Luigi writes them down for me.' So "Luigi" came into the room, and based on hearing the chords I was playing from the control room, he notated them for her in about five seconds flat. And I was rather proud of these complex, tight harmonies! (laughs)
It suddenly occurred to me that this guy was some sort of musical genius, and then it dawned on me the mistake that I had made. I'd seen Ryuichi's name written, but I had never heard it pronounced by a Japanese person. I had been thinking, "Wow, a Japanese guy with an Italian name, that's kind of unusual."
SS: So that was the beginning of your friendship.
Dolby: Yeah... I didn't know they were an item at that point; I did know she had sung with YMO, but I hadn't put two and two together (Sakamoto and Yano were married in 1982; they divorced in 2006 - SS). So, we exchanged our info, and a while later he asked me to collaborate on this song. He send me some backing tracks, and I sent back an idea for the vocal. He said, "Yeah, this great, but let's do it together in the studio." He spoke almost no English at that time; a lot of this (communication) was done through an interpreter.
We arranged to meet at New York City, sort of halfway between London and Tokyo. We then realized to our embarrassment that we had each checked into the downtown Hilton under assumed names, names that the other person wasn't aware of. We wound up simultaneously calling our respective offices and having it sorted out - a kind of "Spinal Tap moment." We ended up meeting in the bar.
So we wound up recording the vocal there, he liked what I was doing, gave me pretty much a free hand. Then he asked me to direct the video, which was pretty great.
SS: The video for "Field Work" was rather bizarre, a juxtaposition of themes... but it worked. Did you share the creative input for it?
Dolby: The concept was basically mine, as I recall. But the personality of this Japanese guy now living in the States was something that Ryuichi came up with — the big old sweater and shopping bags, et cetera. I honestly don't remember very much about it. It's kind of dangerous, I've discovered in some ways, to tell stories from twenty-five years ago — because people remember them differently (laughs). I was just reading a bit in a David Bowie biography where someone that I know was recounting a story from Live Aid... it wasn't how I remembered it at all!
SS: It's been almost 30 years, and yet with all of your accomplishments, so many people primarily associate you with "She Blinded Me With Science." Does this frustrate you, or do you view it as the calling card you've been dealt, and an opportunity to surprise listeners?
Dolby: In reality, it might be a calling card, but I get more feedback along the lines of, 'Oh, he's so much more than that' than I get "Oh, he's the guy who did "She Blinded Me With Science." I get that sometimes, especially from people on the periphery, or people who were too young to know anything other than that. So, I'm resigned to that. It's not my favorite song, either, but it's not a piece of junk. I'm very proud of it as a record, and I think it was a good video.
I see it as sort of a commercial now. If I had just done songs like "Screen Kiss" and "Weightless" and "I Love You Goodbye," I probably would have remained a totally obscure figure. Those songs are not mainstream; they're challenging, an acquired taste. They're not for everybody. So I might have easily done an album or two, get dumped by the label and would never be heard from again. Instead, because I was able to have commercial success with "Science" and other singles from that period, I had a springboard for hundreds of thousands of people to discover the rest of my music, and some of it stuck.
That's great news, because when I sat down and wrote those songs, they meant a whole lot to me. I'd come up with a chord change and go, "Oooh! That felt great. I wonder if anybody else will get the same jolt that I just got." And evidently, some did! This is what's so fantastic about it.
Nowadays, it's not just numbers. Back in those days, it was like, "Wellll, Thomas, your album just went gold." Now, was that because 'Science' was a big commercial hit, or was it because people liked "Airwaves" and "Cloudburst At Shingle Street"? You had no way of knowing, and the record company certainly couldn't tell you, because to them it was like selling soap powder. "Great, half a million people came out of the woodwork and bought this, let's aim for three-quarters of a million units next time."
These days, you know with incredible precision exactly how people found out about (the record), what songs they downloaded the most, what fans are saying... you even see the cadence to things. When I put out Oceanea, my gut feeling was, "The title song will bowl people over. But 'Simone' is kind of a sleeper, and down the road, once people have gotten over the title song, they'll realize how good of a song 'Simone' is." Sure enough, you see that sort of arc to things; you can almost watch it happen in real time. You can even stimulate things by releasing an alternative mix of "Simone" at just the right moment. All of this I find incredibly positive, and it's healthy for an artist to be working in this atmosphere — versus the old days, when it was all about the industry... it's much more gratifying.
SS: Will you be touring the U.S. in the coming year or so?
Dolby: I really hope so. I'm trying to figure out a way to do it economically... it's a tough time for the touring business. I don't have a long track record of putting bums on seats; it's a puzzle to put together a concert tour with a four or five piece band. For my last tour, I was performing mainly sequenced versions of songs in my past catalog; the new album really demands "real musicians," I don't see how I can do it solo. I'll figure it out; it might have to be a double bill, or a package tour or something. I'm open to suggestions.
SS: Perhaps you could anchor the tour with gigs at some steampunk conventions.
Dolby: Oddly enough, someone said to me the other day, 'You are to steampunk as Iggy Pop is to punk."'
SS: It could work, you know. With your image — and your imagery of retro-science — it's not that far-fetched, the idea of you being a de facto musical icon of the scene.
Dolby: I think such a show could be a nice idea, though I might be accused of "jumping the bandwagon"... though that would be ironic, as I'm more or less doing the same thing as I was in 1980. There's certainly a lot of heat around steampunk at the moment, though I don't know how quickly it might dissipate. So far, I haven't noticed a strong musical movement to go along with the fashion-and-culture one.
SS: Some folks regard you as a bit of a genius. What aspect of being a professional musician has challenged you the most?
Dolby: Um... it's sometimes hard to remains passionate about something when you're required to be so analytical about it. It's a bit like being a '"foodie"... it's hard for someone to cook for a "foodie" — "They eat some of the best food in the world; how could they possibly like what I have to serve up?"
It's kind of hard... because when I listen to music, I can tell so many aspects of it from my own experience about the production, the songwriting, the choices the artist made, and so on. And I kick myself for being so dispassionate about it — why can't I just respond to it in a visceral way, as I did when I was 14, 15? That's probably the most challenging thing for me.
On the plus side, that's kind of why I took a break from music in the Nineties; I felt that sort of professional apathy setting in. The good news is that coming back to it now in my fifties, after all this time, I don't have any of that sort of cynicism. In a way, I've got a broader mind in regards to being open-minded to other people's music, collaborations, things like that. I'm really enjoying it, I feel fresh and energized about it in a way that I wouldn't have been if I had kept treading the boards and trying to do a revival every couple of years (chuckles).