Thomas Dolby is fond of hats. He’s certainly worn a few during his lifetime: musician, songwriter, record producer, tech entrepreneur, family man. Last summer, he donned yet another, that of “internet game producer.” After a seven-city multimedia tour of the U.S. in October, the ’80s icon can add “storyteller” to his crowded closet.
The goal of the tour was to somehow kill four birds with one stone: promoting Dolby’s first studio album in 20 years, A Map of the Floating City; recapping a limited-run interactive game of the same name, laying some groundwork for a spring tour, and providing insight into what Dolby’s been up to these last two decades. Judging by the ’80s icon’s sold-out October 10 appearance at Seattle’s swanky supper club, The Triple Door, Dolby’s aim was phenomenally accurate.
Resplendent in jacket and paisley patterned beret, Dolby promptly broke the ice by performing his first hit, 1981’s “Europa And The Pirate Twins”. The traditional banks of synthesizers and gadgets had been replaced, at least temporarily, by a small keyboard, a little trigger pad and two laptops. Amazingly little was lost, sonically, with this minimalism; desserts and wine would be barely touched by the enthralled audience for the next 90 minutes.
Touching a key on a slide carousel-vanquishing laptop, Dolby then introduced the fans to the view from his home in the British coastal region of East Anglia; as images flickered on a theater-sized screen, he proceeded to describe one of the key catalysts of his fuller-time return to music — a wind-and-solar-powered, antique wooden lifeboat-turned-studio that’s parked in his back yard.
After explaining that the coastline is slowly being lost as England is tipping to the east, he quipped, “Whereas most self-respecting, middle-aged, ex-pop stars would build a shed in their yard to put a recording studio into… I decided that I needed something that could float when the floodwaters came. I spent about six months scouring eBay, and eventually found a wonderful solution — called ‘The Nutmeg of Consolation.’ The idea was, when the floodwaters came, it would rise up and float like Noah, and I’d drift off into the sunset.”
With an engaging approach that lies somewhere between “professorial” and “fireside chat at the pub,” it became very clear, very quickly that the keyboardist — the son of school teachers — was a naturally gifted public speaker. Yes, Dolby’s almost flawless, stumble-free patter had to be rehearsed – but doubtlessly only in his mind. No scripts or teleprompters in sight; he could launch yet another career as an actor. Moreover, there wasn’t any apparent ego behind Dolby’s delivery; he seemed as thrilled by the music and topics as his audience.
At times that night, the diehards might’ve considered some of the artist’s efforts akin to Lou Reed explaining that he was once in The Velvet Underground, but the fact remains that Dolby — save for his biggest hit — vanished from mom ‘n’ pop America’s radar a long time ago.
The songwriter — who’s only been living at home in England a handful of years after spending most of his career(s) in the States — segued into “To The Lifeboats”, a somber track from Floating City. A story about the inspirational ghost of Billie Holiday visiting him in a dream whilst napping on the lifeboat folded into a new torch ballad, “This Time It’s Love”.
Shifting gears and video images, Dolby then began to outline his Floating City album and tie-in game, which were partly inspired by a legendary “floating city” of roped-together trader vessels in Hong Kong’s harbor, and by the giant container ships Dolby spies via telescope from his lifeboat studio.
“It made me start to think of the album as something more than an album,” Dolby recalled. “It occurred to me that a lot of people these days are not really buying albums, or CDs. They’re spending a lot of time on social networks, and playing video games. I thought it would be a good way to release my first studio recording in twenty years would be not only as an album, but as a game, as well.
“I know that not everybody is a ‘gamer,'” he continued. “In fact, I haven’t played a game since Myst, or something like that. But I thought if I could invent a game that I would actually like to play, and maybe by doing so, I could find my way to a new audience… a different kind of audience, with some (people) that are maybe too young to know me from the first time around.
“I wanted to come up with a back story, a setting for the game,” Dolby remembered. “I’ve always been fascinated with periods of history where science was so mysterious that it almost seemed like magic. I’ve been particularly interested by Nicolai Tesla.”
The mere mention and photograph of the great Tesla drew applause… remember, this was Seattle and the silicon chip, not Shreveport and shrimp. Dolby then dove head-first into describing the game for the riveted crowd. Names, concepts and vignettes flew by the eyes and ears: A death ray, a crash-landed seaplane, electrically induced mass amnesia, role playing, shrewd trading and tumultuous alliances; a daring sortie to Budapest, by dirigible; Tesla’s underhanded nemesis, Thomas Edison; even Herbert Hoover inserted himself into the equation.
Tossing in the vivid trailer for the game, the wondrous experience seemed to lack only popcorn. Indeed, Dolby’s presentation had the feel of a montage of Disney’s classic Jules Vern adaptations, updated for grown-ups. Then again, the audience shouldn’t have expected much less from an artist who’s worked missing submarines, Marconi miracles, Cold War intrigue and exploration of a Louisiana bayou — among other Romantic themes — into his songs. All of this was encapsulated in this interactive adventure, which references hundreds of titles, characters and plots from the artist’s entire catalogue.
Dolby continued to pepper the narration with some remarkable new songs, prefacing each one with often-humorous anecdotes. “Secret Twin Brother”, with its dance floor-ready hook, had folks moving in their seats. The CD’s first single, “Spice Train”, was debuted, and a short video of album guest Imogen Heap playing the jew’s harp preceded a nod to Americana, “Toad Lickers”, whose lyrics actually involve an instant urban myth about a marauding band of Welsh eco-hippies, all high as a kite from toad secretions.
Eccentric scientist Magnus Pyke was celebrated as Dolby concluded the evening with a re-construction of “She Blinded Me With Science”. The keyboardist expanded the song by repeatedly triggering the late Dr. Pyke’s various famous utterances, to the audience’s delight.
The singing lecturer — or lecturing singer — came back for a super-cool encore of 1984’s frenetic “Hyperactive!” before leaving the audience to pay their dinner tabs and/or queue up for a post-show meet-and-greet.
Dolby’s whirlwind tour of the Pacific Northwest, which included performance-stops at radio stations, also involved a visit to the tech-mecca of Redmond, just across Lake Washington from the Jet City. A private, slightly abbreviated version of the previous night’s Triple Door show was delivered to employees of PlayNetwork, a cutting-edge provider of custom-branded music and video programming.
The even more intimate setting — the company’s new studio-stage — provided an opportunity to not only savor Dolby’s new songs a second time, it allowed one to re-visit and re-focus on the previous night’s highlights. Trading in the beret for a dapper fedora, Dolby seemed to describe in greater detail the amount of dedication the Floating City game’s participants displayed over the previous summer; on a smaller screen but viewed from a distance of feet instead of yards, the fan-created artwork and ingeniously photo-shopped images were even more impressive.
After relating a fabulous story of a near-mutiny by game participants after an engineered plot development was met with outrage, Dolby announced that the game would live on. Participants were continuing to play on the website without its creator behind the curtain, so to speak, and new players were welcome.
Delightfully, after the obligatory finale of “Science” came a Q&A with the audience. Immediately, someone asked what ringtone was currently in use on Dolby’s phone, prompting the singer to recount his experiences with his tech company, Beatnik, and Dolby’s association with Nokia’s classic ringtone. He had, in fact, previously visited PlayNetwork in a business capacity some years earlier.
“Yes, but what is your ringtone right now?” the fan reiterated.
“‘Voodoo Chile,’ by Jimi Hendrix”, Dolby responded, to applause.
Invoking the Dolby-penned Lene Lovich track, “New Toy”, another employee inquired about Dolby’s favorite collaboration. Playing the instantly recognizable intro to Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You”, he said that he enjoyed the experiences and challenges of all of his wide-ranging session work… but stated that playing with one of his heroes, David Bowie, during 1985’s Live Aid concert was a career highlight.
“I’m not particularly fussy,” Dolby explained when an employee asked what his keyboards of choice were. He segued into an anecdote about an early Fairlight synthesizer that wound up being stored in a shed at his former home in northern California.
“Weeds came up through the floorboards and covered the chassis,” Dolby recalled. “I had to use a machete to cut it out of there!”
The synth wizard seemed intrigued by the suggestion that the Floating City game make its way to the online virtual reality world of Second Life. He said that he’d just been approached with the idea the night before; there would be a number of hoops to jump and tape to cut regarding licensing, but such a maneuver wasn’t out of the question.
After signing autographs, Dolby quietly packed up his road show, bid farewell and hopped into a chauffeured SUV. Off to another city, and to another round of re-introductions.
Ultimately, Dolby’s tech-noir, show-and-tell tour added at least two dimensions to a reputation that has ranged from enigmatic eccentric to misrepresented singer-songwriter. It would have been nice to see more teens and twenties dotting the audiences; they might’ve been more surprised and inspired than anyone by an original diesel punk who (to borrow from the Norwegian band A-ha), has been living — through talent, imagination and determination — a boy’s adventure tale for most of his life. It was truly thrilling to hear a chapter of it, told and sung.