As one the ‘80s most unlikely endearments, Thomas Dolby – the synth-wit author & vocalist behind the ponderous radio / video smash ‘She Blinded Me With Science’, is at the forefront of his biggest revival yet. After absorbing the harking sounds from a flourish of trumpets among fans all over the world, Dolby answered with the release of his first vocal-instrumental album in 20 years (‘A Map of the Floating City’, Redeye Music) and is on the verge of returning to the States on a wide 26-date US tour beginning next month, including a stopover at The Loft in Midtown Atlanta on March 20th.
Thomas Dolby has always had an eye for big profit trends. Thompson Twins front-man Tom Bailey once cited him as the culprit influence that urged the Twins to change musical direction from scruffy guitars to synthetic machinery. Using the popular cliché, well, the rest is history. Years later, Dolby exercised his mental telepathy into a new software endeavor called Beatnik, developing polyphonic ringtones for Nokia, the technology rooted in billions of mobile devices today. This time however, Dolby is banking on the future by exploiting the past. Last year, the Dolby marketing team invited participants to engage in a virtual historic world with the debut of ‘A Map of the Floating City Game’, which Dolby cites as an adventure of survival “set against a dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently”. Expanding on this theme, he’s raising the bar of interaction to a new level as Dolby invites audiences the opportunity to communicate with tomorrow’s existence, using a time machine capsule (a customized teardrop trailer featuring an internal video production studio) that will park outside of each venue on his upcoming tour, allowing fans or guest artists to upload a personal video message to the future. According to Dolby, videos will be recorded with minimal supervision with rules posted outside of the vehicle.
Atlanta’s renowned new wave enthusiast Jeremy Kennedy recently caught up with Thomas Dolby, extracting the depths of where Thomas Dolby is today and his personal convictions within the fundamental interior of the new record.
JK: As one of the earliest commercially recording users of electronic pop music, listeners might be interestingly surprised that your newest record isn’t as complicated as some of your previous recordings. Was it your intention to make an organic record featuring real guitars and percussions, rather than record a collection of synthetic tracks? If so, how difficult is it to compose a full length record with acoustics than with computers and synthesizers?
Dolby: “Well, if you actually go back and analyze my music in the past, you may be quite surprised that there are fewer elements of electronics than you think. From my first album, I’ve worked with a band, you know, done backing tracks using a rock band as well as (tracks) that are programmed. So there’s always been a mixture of the two. I like both of working – the autonomy of working on my own but also, as the magic that happens when you get a few guys in a room, which you can’t possibly replicate. And the main thing is that even if you’re able to program lots of different parts, different instruments, they have no knowledge of each other, therefore each instrument is in its own little universe. Whereas when people are playing together in a room, they’re just making minute adjustments, in tune to the adjustments all the time based on the mix, the tuning and the rhythm and the sound and you know, just the vibe that’s in the room. So, if you record real musicians, you get building blocks to work with as opposed to little briquettes.
JK: How multi-instrumentally capable are you? Can you pick up and play a guitar?
Dolby: “Not well enough to be recorded. No, I mean I dabble. I have a good enough understanding of each instrument good enough to work with musicians and be helpful as a guide to them. Then, there are instruments that I don’t understand at all – and I love working with those as well and exploring the capabilities of those instruments. I get a big charge out of working with them and sort of improvising with them, not in terms of improvising the notes as I try to be very deliberate about that, but in terms of textures and sounds and you know, ways to adapt the notes that I’ve composed to the realities of an instrument which often has irregularities of which gives it its personality.”
JK: Thomas Dolby fans will quickly realize that ‘A Map of the Floating City’ is lyrically aligned with some of your most intriguing recordings. As an artist, you’ve uncovered some of your deepest personal thoughts, revealing a more human side with the passing of time as your albums have come to fruition since your glory years on MTV. How autobiographical are you on record? Are you comfortable revealing yourself as the man behind the machine?
Dolby: “I think everything is semi-biographical but I use a lot of artistic license. I imagine my process is quite similar to a novelist in that my real life experiences translate into fiction and I let my imagination fill in the blanks. But like a novelist, I really enjoy picking a different setting and set of characters for my songs and sort of let the characters drive the story themselves. So there are aspects of me in all of these. ‘Evil Twin Brother’, for example, is a dark fantasy about being jetlagged at 3 o’clock in the morning wandering out into the streets of New York, picking up a Russian waitress in a diner and going to a Euro-trash underground dance club, though it’s not clear what happens after that but it’s something evidently that I’m not too proud of.” With a laugh, “I may have gotten as far as the diner, but no further than that in real life. I haven’t been to a club in years.” Continuing, “So there is definitely a sort of film quality to that section of the album. ‘Amerikana’ also has a fictional edge to it because I’m telling stories like a classic American songwriter with lots of verses with a robbery, a murder, an ambush, a jailbreak, etc. But, I tell them from the point of view of an English chap who has no right to be there other than hold a big campfire and we’re all storytellers, sharing our stories. I do think that the ‘Oceana’ section of the new album is directly the most autobiographical. It’s very much in the first-person; although I’d say that ‘Simone’ is again, a bit of fiction, but it touches on a subject that’s very close to my heart obviously.”
JK: After 20 years of working and living in Los Angeles, you packed up your family and equipment and headed back to Britain a few years ago. Some speculated that you were retiring from music altogether but you disproved this notion with your first non-instrumental release since 1992. Did this move inspire your new album or had you already laid down tracks prior to forwarding your postal mail?
Dolby: “No. I hadn’t laid any tracks down. I didn’t really lie any down until I got to the U.K. Some of them had been ideas I had knocking around in the back of my mind. One song for example ‘Love is a Loaded Pistol’, I’d had the piano part for ten or twelve years though it never had lyric. One day I had a very strange dream as I was napping on my lifeboat. I’d dreamt that Billie Holiday came to visit me and I was touched that she’d traveled through time from 1947 to bring me a line of lyrics, but unfortunately the line was a bit cliché; I was left with this dilemma, as I hate to dis Billie Holiday, then I woke up.” Laughing, “I figured out a way to work the line into the song anyway and a lot of the rest of the song I made up using titles from a back-catalog.”
JK: You seemed to have left the Eighties’ on a high-note albeit in 1992, with an engaging collection of anecdotes called ‘Astronauts & Heretics’. With an all-star lineup that included Jerry Garcia, Budgie (Siouxsie & the Banshees), and Eddie Van Halen, the record demonstrated your versatility as a musician while redefining your image as a ‘mad scientist’ in the studio. How important was it for you to lose that image? Do you embrace your past or do you cringe at the thought of resurrecting your white lab coat?
Dolby: “This is an interesting trivia question, but I don’t think I actually wore a white lab coat. Maybe you’re thinking of Spinal Tap. I used to wear a white suit, but never a white lab coat. How important is the image perception? I’ve never consciously felt a need to sort of eradicate a re-write of history. When I was starting out, it was really a way to differentiate myself from my contemporaries, to drill on the academic aspects of my background which is considerable. My father is a professor of classic archaeology at Cambridge University, my mom was a math teacher and all of my siblings are all academics in one form or another. Moving forward, I was a tinkerer with electronics and synthesizers and so on.”
JK: You’ve been quoted as saying that you felt you never ‘fit’ in the Eighties? Why?
Dolby: “I had commercial success in the Eighties and I’m unequivocally unashamed of my accomplishments. Singles are a segway to discovering the rest of my music. I’ve never considered myself as being main-stream, you know. I’ve always thought of myself as being very marginal, sort of eccentric cult-art. So whatever it took to get people to discover the hidden gems is a worthwhile sacrifice. I still enjoy playing ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’. They are both very extroverted and simple.”
JK: With today’s superhighway of information, “A Map of the Floating City” is virtually tangible with a few points, clicks and satellites. Whereas before, singles required three basic formats to succeed (radio, retail, and MTV), today the opportunities are unlimited. For example, I recently heard a cut (‘A Jealous Thing Called Love’) off your new album at my local Starbucks. Did you ever imagine that music could be made so readily accessible? In your opinion, has technology made recording music favorable or has it counteracted the industry?
Dolby: “This is good news. That’s two different people now that have told me that they’ve heard ‘A Jealous Thing Called Love’ in a Starbucks.” Proudly continuing, “Maybe Starbucks will be my savior here. That’s great that they’re playing it. I think the quieter stuff on the new album has got its own kind of appropriate outlets.” Pausing, “If you force me to choose between doing sort of up-tempo, extrovert stuff versus the quiet, atmospheric stuff, then I’d choose the latter any day. I think that that’s my natural vent as I’m a pretty introverted person and verging on being a hermit. But, I just have this occasional exhibitionist streak that floats to the surface.”
JK: You’ve demonstrated your ability as vocalist on many beautiful ballads over the years, including ‘Beauty of a Dream’ and the new single ‘Oceana’. Have you ever considered performing any acoustic shows to showcase your softer side?
Dolby: “It’s challenging. I’m not really a song-and-dance guy. But it is intimidating also being someone of my generation because we got away with it. Today, (they) keep breeding these kids that can sing like Aretha Franklin and dance like Fred Astaire and they’re all good looking. There’s an entire line around a block of them.” Laughing, “It’s rather intimidating. I do take the plunge and do some of my quiet songs solo live even though I know I’m not the best singer in the world. I play ‘Screen Kiss’, ‘Love is a Loaded Pistol’, ‘Oceana’ once, so hopefully people can forgive me as the odd impurity for the sake of being in the moment.”
JK: Let’s step back to the late ‘70s if you will. Readers might be surprised to learn that you were once part of a pre-destined super group called The Camera Club featuring Geoff Downes (Buggles, Asia), Bruce Wooley (Grace Jones), and the master producer himself, Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC). The Camera Club’s records are some of the most amorous artifacts in new wave. Do you consider these recordings to be elemental milestones in your illustrious career? How likely would you be to participate in re-releasing all of the Camera Club material in a digitally enhanced format?
Dolby: “I think Bruce would love to do that. He’s very aware that the Camera Club album has a very high-cult value and a lot of people are still conscious of it, you know what I mean? It was ahead of its time, one that slipped under the radar. I only played on one of the two albums; after I went out on my own, Bruce did another album after me. It’s all a bit of a blur now thinking about it.”
JK: Speaking of Trevor Horn, you contributed to the 1992 original motion picture soundtrack ‘Toys’ (produced by Horn) with the track ‘The Mirror Song’ featuring Robin Williams and co-star Joan Cusack on vocals. Were the vocals recorded in a collocation together or were they recorded in separate locations? Are there any memories from working with them or making that record that you would like to share?
Dolby: “Trevor tends to have several studios on the boil at the same time. Then he pulls it all together in one place and sort of sits there and plays God; he’s the editor, the character picking a little of this, a little of that and brings it altogether. Working with Robin was real joy and I got to work with him again on ‘FernGully: the Last Rainforest’ (1992, 20th Century Fox). He actually recommended me for that gig.”
JK: Finally, in one or two sentences or statements, if you would kindly, briefly describe each of your five US-released albums. As a father would describe his children, we’d love to know what you think of your records.
The Golden Age of Wireless (1982):
Dolby: “An exploration of finding my feet.”
The Flat Earth (1984):
Dolby: “Dreamy… atmospheric”
Aliens Ate my Buick (1988):
Dolby: “British ex-pat sends a wild postcard home”
Astronauts & Heretics (1992):
Dolby: “From the inside out, for the first time.”
A Map of the Floating City (2011):
Dolby: “Wisdom & maturity, with a cheeky sense of fun.”
Thomas Dolby: The Time Capsule Tour live at The Loft (March 20th / 9PM). Tickets on sale now at Ticketalternative.com
For more information on Thomas Dolby, please visit www.thomasdolby.com
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