For those of us unable to attend the reputable TED Conference, a staple of Thomas Dolby’s varied energy and idea-generating processes (he’s served as Musical Director at the conference since 2001), we’ve been bereft of his music-making for quite a while, now. The five time Grammy™-nominated British artist quit the music business in the early ‘90s and delved into the realms of ideas and technology both at TED and with his former company, Beatnik Inc., where he tinkered around with what would become the Beatnik Audio Engine—every time your cell phone rings a little diddley of “William Tell Overture” (or the latest hit by you-name-the-pop star), think of Dolby.
As the steampunk aesthetic embraces technology past, present, and future, so too Dolby personifies the creative and intellectual process of music ideas past, present and future. He also turns out rather nicely in steampunk fashion. His new album, A Map of the Floating City, will release in the near future—this summer.
Meanwhile, he updates us on some happenings in Dolby-land (which sounds like a very cool place to be) with his responses to PopMatters 20 Questions:
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
When I’m on a transatlantic flight, for some reason I get really weepy and emotional at the sappiest movies. This happened recently with some dreadful movie about a disabled kid who learns to play baseball! It must be the Male Menopause.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Mr, Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. My wife and daughter hate it when I say this! I just sit stoically in my study while all the histrionics carry on around me. But I can be depended on to go rescue a child from scandal in London when called on.
3. The greatest album, ever?
The one I’m working on, A Map of the Floating City. How can I say anything else? Every time I make an album I want it to be the greatest album, ever. But if I had to pick a single album by someone else, it would be Hejira by Joni Mitchell.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek, because at least it knows it’s drivel. Star Wars takes itself far too seriously. The first couple of movies were quite charming in a goofy way, then they were followed by a bunch of hooey, IMO.
5. Your ideal brain food?
The TED Conference. The best minds on the planet bring you the newest ideas, and they spark off each other. You learn enough there in four days to last the whole year.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Helping build the Beatnik Audio Engine—probably the most popular synthesiser ever made, with over two billion shipped, by the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturers. The fact that it was primarily used for annoying ringtones is beside the point!
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I’d like to be remembered for the wide spectrum of music I made, from the quirkiest uptempo funk to the most poignant, atmospheric ballads.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Dan Hicks, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Bowie, Bjork.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
“Beside You” by Van Morrison.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I’m a skilled helmsman of classic racing sailboats.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
When I was struggling with the difficulty of my job as TED’s musical director and thinking of quitting, my wonderful wife Kathleen talked me out of it. She’s TED’s #1 fan, and felt it’s good for the planet, good for my career and good for my soul. I’ve enjoyed ten years with the organisation, and it’s grown into a global phenomenon.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My vintage 1930s lifeboat, The Nutmeg of Consolation, which I bought on eBay for $2,200. I spent a year and countless thousands more bringing her to the garden of my beach house in East Anglia, restoring her, and converting her into a solar-powered recording studio, where I am currently finishing up my first new album in 20 years.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
Old sailing clothes. Thick sweaters, oilskin trousers, and thigh-high wellington boots.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Nicola Tesla. A mad genius who was too busy with his newest invention to take proper credit for his previous ones—which included radio, AC current, and many innovations so far ahead of their time that we probably still haven’t caught up to him, a century later.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
To Venice, the Italian Renaissance in the time of the Medicis. I adore the art, music and architecture from that period. The world was still an enormous and undiscovered place, yet the focus was on man-made beautiful things, and talent was prized above all.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I’m a sucker for a spa vacation. Piles of clean towels, the fragrance of exotic oils, the sound of ocean waves, or even that ridiculous massage music (who on Earth is it that makes that stuff, and how do they keep themselves awake?)
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ... ?
Coffee and chocolate. Or, if I’m too lazy to make coffee, espresso flavoured Green and Blacks chocolate!
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. I am not a city person. I gravitate towards water so I’d have to say, somewhere where I can sail, play tennis, and go for long walks on the beach. In fact, right here where I live!
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Don’t be such a wimp. We’ve had a string of them here in the UK. They seem to lack all conviction. There’s something about politics that distills it out of you, that saps your passion.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Getting ready to release my new album this summer, and then tour North America and Europe in the fall. It’s great to be back making music after a long gap. I’m delighted and relieved that my hardcore fans have stayed loyal, and eager to meet a new generation of fans who weren’t around when I last put out some music.