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A Synth Pioneer Returns: An Interview with Thomas Dolby

Steve Stav

PopMatters caught up with Dolby by phone as he prepared to depart England for a seven-city solo "lecture tour" of America. Using visuals, he'll be speaking about his experiences with the game, providing some background on the new record, and performing some of his new compositions.

Thomas Dolby

A Map of the Floating City

Label: Venice in Peril
US Release Date: 2011-10-24

Leave it to multifaceted innovator Thomas Dolby to end a long semi-hiatus with a big splash. Twenty years after his last solo studio album -- and three decades after his smash debut -- Dolby returns to the fold October 25th with the daring A Map of the Floating City.

As imagination-stirring as his first disc, yet even more musically organic than 1991's Astronauts & Heretics, the new album features guest appearances by Mark Knopfler, Eddi Reader, Imogen Heap, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster and Dolby's old Camera Club cohort, Bruce Woolley. Created and assembled on Dolby's beach-bound, wind-powered, converted antique lifeboat, A Map of the Floating City reveals to everyone but the most diehard of fan the rather traditional storyteller that's been lurking behind Dolby's whiz-kid persona all these years.

Dolby has focused much of his energy in the last couple of the decades on cellular ringtone and music-download technologies, as well as the TED Conference. These experiences served the synth pioneer well last summer, when he debuted a socially interactive Internet game to promote his upcoming CD. Sharing the new album's name and incorporating titles and themes from Dolby's music career, the game prompted participants to set sail in vessels of their choosing in search of imaginary treasure and real prizes.

PopMatters caught up with Dolby by phone as he prepared to depart England for a seven-city solo "lecture tour" of America. Using visuals, he'll be speaking about his experiences with the game, providing some background on the new record, and performing some of his new compositions.

* * *

You're obviously not off-the-cuff pandering to anyone with the new album. It seems very "genuine", fresh and obviously the result of a lot of work. At this point in your life, what has motivated you to get back in the saddle?

I felt I had some good music in me, still. I felt I hadn't done it all or said it all. I actually want to be out there singing for my supper, in an odd way. I've always steered clear of situations that involved spontaneous music in an intimate setting. It always sort of terrified me, because I'm really a "studio guy". I work really hard to achieve the sound and performances that I get. I'm not a spontaneous, song-and-dance guy who can sit down at a piano and jam. I've always been very "risk-adverse" in that area, and I think that's a shame, really. I feel I've missed out on that sort of freedom.

It's really those things that have brought me back to it -- more great songs, I hope, more stories to tell, more experiments with musical styles and production styles. Collaborations with different musicians... this is "Side Two" (chuckles).

Ah, so not everything comes easy in Thomas Dolby's life.

Oh, no. I tend to gravitate towards stuff that's really hard. I like a situation that you find yourself in where you really don't know what you're doing. I find it terrifying and thrilling in equal measures. What comes out of it often surprises me, because I didn't know I was capable of doing it.

For example, people I've worked with... Foreigner, Def Leppard. There were no preconceptions of what the keyboards would sound like on their records. So I got into the studio with them, and it was a challenge. I had a reputation to match up to, and yet, I had to introduce an alien element into that music. It's stimulating for me, because it's something different -- I'm not able to fall back onto tried and true formulas. I like being stretched.

I see you take another brief stab at jazz-piano in the new record. Were you immersed in jazz as a kid, or young man?

Not really. I think a lot of genres of music... I take them in, and in my imagination I sort of know how I'd like them to sound. I suppose with "Love Is a Loaded Pistol"... well, when Tom Waits was in his "piano and orchestra" phase, there was a certain lushness combined with a world-weary voice -- which I liked. I actually had the piano melody for this piece ten, twelve years ago, but it never had a vocal.

(The lyrics) came to me when I fell asleep on my lifeboat, and had a dream that I got a visit from Billie Holiday. She offered to give me a lyric, and I was very excited about that, in my dream state -- "Wow, this could be hot!" She whispered in my ear, "This time it's love." And I said, "That's it? Where did you go? Oh dear, I'm awake." (laughs)

I managed to get that in there, and a lot of the rest of the lyrics came from titles of some of her songs.

For being thematic, A Map of the Floating City is such a smorgasbord, stylistically... "Oceanea" and "Simone" are bound to get attention, but I've been attracted by "17 Hills". It's quite a quiet epic. Apart from the obvious nod to Americana, what is the song really about?

Actually, the melody and the title came to me when I was floating on a windsurfer in San Francisco Bay. Sometimes the fog rolls in and the wind shuts down, and you find yourself floating. I looked back at Alcatraz, and had this sort of flash of someone escaping from Alcatraz by getting a piece of twine and making a raft out of driftwood.

The whole story came out of that. I backed up a bit and thought, here's a guy who was condemned, and decided to take his chances in the Bay, instead "Let the wind decide my fate." Looking at the city from Alcatraz, you just see a few hills, but you're not aware that there are so many.

So, that's how the song came about.

I must confess, I'm not much of a gamer. I really don't know how Internet games work. However, I imagine that you learned something from the experience. Additionally, I would venture that A Map of the Floating City was at least slightly risky, something could go wrong, technically.

Oh, yeah. In fact, within minutes of opening the game up, the server went down. We underestimated the load it would be under.

I deliberately wanted the story to be open-ended enough for the participants could affect its outcome. So, they made up some of their own rules. The guy who I intended to be the villain turned out to have such a big fan club, it was rather hard to give him his comeuppance without causing a total riot. But that's fine, it was supposed to be democratic from the outset -- and sure enough, the reaction from the players really did change the upshot of the game.

I started to play it, but I didn't really get out of the gate, so to speak. I had a busy summer. I feel foolish about abandoning it now, reading the wrap-up, I apparently missed some excitement.

Part of the reason to do the (site's) Floating City Gazette was... it's like a blog. You could follow the action by reading the blog. This lecture tour I'm doing... you can learn the entire story of the game, and hear some stories and highlights, see some screen captures and listen to some of the new music. So, anyone who might've felt they didn't have time to play the game might enjoy coming to the lecture.

Would you produce another game?

Well, what I would love is if there was a way (for the participants) to keep the last one going. In fact, people were very upset when the game ended. They asked, "Can't we just start again?" The problem was that it's actually quite expensive to keep it up. There's not only the server, but all the hours the programmers spent troubleshooting it. I couldn't afford to start it again, and there would, of course, be spoilers out there -- so there wouldn't be any real mystery to it.

What was nice is how the game took on a life onto its own, and the characters and tribes and alliances had their own personality. And they got a taste of collaborative writing... one of the things that happened near the climax of the game was a daring sortie to Budapest, in a blimp. One of the things that was discovered there was The Book of History. It was missing a page, a shriveled page had been ripped out of it. Each tribe had to write its own version of how they imagined the page would have read, and put it into a pot. The original one was also in the pot. They then had to vote on which one they believed to be the authentic one.

When we announced which page was really the authentic one, there was a complete rebellion. People demanded to know who had been tampering with the evidence. They wouldn't let it go... in fact, the story changed. At about that time, the Gazette's science correspondent, Miss Sakamoto, went missing. She'd been the one that had been given the forensic evidence that proved "Page A" was the genuine one. That was kind of how that piece of the game ended. The interesting aspect of it, though, was how people sat up two, three nights in a row, groups of people writing their version of the missing page from The Book of History.

(Laughing) They took control of the game, they weren't having any of it... they wanted their own ending. I'm very impressed with the energy and determination that they showed, and I'm hoping that the game will survive, somehow, propelled by those players.

This "Dieselpunk Dystopia" seems to have sparked the producer in you... it appears that you took on an Oz-like role in a sort of social experiment.

It was fun. The players didn't know that I was as involved in the game as I was.

Have you delivered the grand prize, a free concert, to the winners yet?

No, that's going to be in December. Fortunately, it's in England -- though I was certainly willing to go wherever the winning tribe was.

What's often been overlooked by the masses is that you're a lyricist, a storyteller. The new disc should give many newcomers a jolt.

You don't often hear that said about a new artist, do you, that you should buy this to listen to the lyrics... it's not a focus these days, and it's something that I miss. I miss poring over the lyrics on the back of an album cover. I don't think it's a lost art, but if there's a literary voice behind the songs, I think it makes it a rarity and something a bit precious. Especially that instrumental music is a lot more popular now, and it often involves a lot of repeated samples that are certainly not narrative... they're a lot more impressionistic.

I think either there's a value to (lyricism), and people are gonna applaud me for it, or I'm just hopelessly out-of-date and missing my mark, wasting my time (laughs).

The sensation of The Golden Age of Wireless seemed to overshadow its lyrics a bit, but by the time of The Flat Earth, and certainly by Astronauts & Heretics, the songwriting was being pushed to the forefront.

I think that sensationalism and thrills... in the early days, I used to flip between that and something more introspective. As you get older, you tend to downplay the sensational and think, "Let's get to the guts of this." So more of what I write and sing is from the inside-out now.

It's also partly reflective of the times. You said earlier, "You're not pandering to anybody." I'm not making music for an A&R guy or for a radio programmer, which was always a temptation in the old days because... unless they liked it, no one else would get to hear it. Now, if I'm doing it for anybody other than myself, it's for the audience. And they're just a button-press away. I think that's a very healthy thing about the way that the music business is going. Taking out the "middle men" obviously changes the economics of it, but it also changes the way people write music. You get the feeling you're writing for the audience, not for these people that you have to get past to get to the audience.

How has your family, your kids reacted to your recent and upcoming work as an entertainer?

Well, my kids are quite bemused by it, really. They're big music fans, but they they weren't yet around when I was actively working as a musician before. They've heard stories, and heard records and everything, but they didn't get to see me out there being a musician day-to-day. They've got a much happier dad now. I was getting quite bogged down there, being a businessman in a business that really no longer interested me. So, I think they're glad that I've gotten back to doing what I really love.

Listening to your albums last night, I seized upon three timeline-stops in your solo career. In the beginning, "Europa and The Pirate Twins", then "I Love You Goodbye", and now, "17 Hills". "Europa" has been talked about to death, and we discussed the new song. What was the impetus for "I Love You Goodbye?" I still think it might be the best thing that you've ever written.

It's a bit of a road movie. My best friend and I lived in L.A. at the same time. I then moved to Northern California with Kathleen (actress Beller, Dolby's wife), and he moved to New Orleans. He'd been living there a couple of years, and had really gotten immersed in the whole culture. He was a DJ on an alternative radio station down there. This was 20 or more years ago, and I had some really memorable visits with him... going into Cajun country.

It was a song to a friend, really, reminiscing about a great time that will never be repeated -- or maybe it will, who knows?

When I found the video on YouTube a year or so ago, I shared it on Facebook. Reactions ranged from, "What a great song, I remember this!" to "This is Thomas Dolby?" It's odd, being so well-known for one thing that your other attributes are often overlooked. Again, the song is reflective of your lyrical sensibilities... and no one mentions that you have a pretty good singing voice.

That's very kind. In my dreams, "I Love You Goodbye" would have surpassed the commercial success of "She Blinded Me With Science". And then... it would have been a different story. I think that was partly what drove me away from the music business in the first place. I agree with you, I think it's among the best songs I've ever written, and I don't understand why a song like that can't be a hit (chuckles).

You should re-release it. "A New Thomas Dolby Single." A lot of people would be none the wiser.

One of my kids once came back from the playground and told me that one of the kids there said that his dad said that "your dad stole a song from the Backstreet Boys."

I said, "What are you talking about?" and had my kid ask some questions the next day. It turned out they were talking about "I Want It That Way". If you think of it, not only is the melody similar to "I Love You Goodbye", but both of them also end up with a line in quotes: "... never want to hear you say -- I want it that way." A sort of expository thing, but in the same melody.

(Chuckles) But you know, I lift melodies from people all the time, subconsciously -- sometimes consciously -- so I'm not going to be the first one to throw a stone.

After visiting the US, Dolby will tour the UK in November. A full concert tour of America is being planned for Spring 2012.


October 5, 2011 New York, NY 92 Y Tribeca

October 7, 2011 Chicago, IL Martyrs'

October 10, 2011 Seattle, WA Triple Door

October 12, 2011 Portland, OR KINK FM October 13, 2011 San Francisco, CA Bimbo's

October 14, 2011 Los Angeles, CA Masonic Lodge @ Hollywood Forever Cemetery

October 17, 2011 Los Angeles, CA Grammy Museum

broadcast live on Sirius XM Loft at these times: Wednesday October 5th 2-3pm ET, Saturday October 8th 12-1pm ET.

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