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20 Questions: Thomas Dolby

Thomas Dolby's electronic impulses are fed by neurological brainstorms generated by the likes of Oliver Sacks and the artists and scientists of TED. PopMatters' 20 Questions gets a zap from Dolby's electrifying fingertips.

Thomas Dolby

The Sole Inhabitant

MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Deluxe Edition
Label: Lost Toy People
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
Artist website

Thomas Dolby is the sci-fi fantasy of a Renaissance man: a master in modern music expressed through technology. Primarily known for synthpop, music which incorporates electronic instruments (and the rabidly popular 1982 song, "She Blinded Me with Science"), Dolby, so named by schoolmates after the manufacturer of the cassette machine he carried with him everywhere, now, among other cutting-edge work, composes for the annual TED conference, where brilliant colleagues in the arts and sciences generate world-charging brainstorms.

The Deluxe Edition of his CD/DVD combo, The Sole Inhabitant releases in the US on 10 June 2008.

Dolby gives us a sample of his engaged and interesting life here in his delightful responses to PopMatters' 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Musicophelia, by Oliver Sacks. He's the neurologist who wrote Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Musicophelia is about how our brains process music. He's documented cases over the years of strange musical experiences. One 41-year-old guy, for example was struck by lightning, and suddenly he knew how to play Chopin.

Many people are haunted by music in their heads that won't leave them alone, like schizophrenics hearing voices. And Dr. Sacks himself grieves over his own lack of musical lucidity -- he loves music, but cannot hear it in fine detail in his mind, only melodies.

I have the opposite problem. I compose entire songs in my head, lyrics, music, chords, even the sounds and the mix. It's no surprise to me that Beethoven was able to compose even after he went deaf. But unlike him, I'm often challenged to get the sounds in my head out into a physical form. I'm sometimes reluctant to start recording a song because it will supplant the sounds I have in mind with something that may not measure up as well, after which it is changed forever.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. He just chills out in his study while his wife and daughters run amok around his house. He takes his wife's hysteria in stride, making the occasional dry witty remark which totally spoofs the frivolity of the English upper classes. In my own household there is a fair amount of that too, on occasion, but luckily I'm blessed with a couple of sensible Lizzies, and no idiotic Kitties and Lydias.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Hejira, by Joni Mitchell. Back in the '70s, Joni was the prototype for all those feisty, melodic female singer-songwriters that have cropped up in later decades. To my mind, she's never been bettered. Her chord sequences, poetry, unusual guitar tunings, and lush piano ballads are absolutely original, brave, and transcendent. Probably her zenith was this album. Using a combination of Jaco Pastorius' soaring fretless bass and dreamy pedal steel, thickened 12-string guitar, and almost no drums or percussion whatsoever, songs like "Amelia" (about the famous lady aviator Amelia Earhart who disappeared without a trace) manage to be challenging and deeply soothing at the same time.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to co-produce Mitchell's 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, and though the album sounds fine, it was not a happy partnership, probably because I was a brat and wanted things my own way. She's got quite a toilet mouth on her, and she chewed me out appropriately, both to my face and in the press.

I discovered that there's a pitfall when you meet your heroes -- if the experience sucks, a little piece of magic is gone from your life. It was fully 15 years before I could listen to her music again. But time is a great healer. I appreciate her music now as much as ever. I bought her most recent, Shine, and sadly she's struggling with her vocals, and weighed down by an incurable cynicism about the planet and the state of the species.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Original Star Trek! I have never gotten into the later generation stuff. Nor did I ever like Star Wars that much, even the first three. But Kirk down on the planet, packed into that cheesy tunic, making out with some green chick while the puritanical Spock looks on in disapproval -- that's priceless.

5. Your ideal brain food?

The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference which happens every year in California, and which I have musically directed since 2002. It's a meeting of brilliant minds where writers, entertainers, brain surgeons, explorers and robotics experts rub shoulders for four days, giving brief but rapid-fire talks about whatever is getting them excited.

The juxtaposition of people from such different worlds sounds like it could be chaotic, but somehow a flow emerges, and by the end you'll truly believe that man can fly. It's not unusual to see a speaker rip up his speech as some new revelation hits him, fueled by the non-stop intellectual stimulation.

Being a musician at TED is a dream gig, because you get to sprinkle fairy-dust on the whole proceedings, alternately providing a palate-cleanser in between the multiple brain food courses, or aspirin for the audience's migraine.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Earlier this year I took my family to Morocco to help build a school in a small Berber village. It was a new kind of trip for us. We already live in two fantastic locations, and wonder where we could possibly go on holiday that would be better. But this year we flew to Marrakesh and met up with a wonderful Moroccan guide named Abdellah. He took us up into the High Atlas mountains, then down into the Sahara, where we slept under the stars, rode camels to the top of the giant dunes, and joined a drum circle round a Bedouin campfire. From there we went to a tiny Berber village called Talamanzou, where we stayed with a local family, sleeping on their couches and sharing their steam baths and endless meals of couscous and tagine.

The community is trying to get kids connected to the Internet. There are tech companies that will offer them free computers, but first they need a building to house them. So our donation helped them hire workers and buy materials for five days, and my family and I rolled up our sleeves and learned how to mix cement and slap it into concrete walls. My kids were blown away by the whole experience. Not least by the role of women in a Muslim environment. Yet we gained an appreciation for a completely different culture, steeped in history, trodden down by Imperialism; and it showed them the other face of Islam, a million miles from the horrors on the evening news.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

My more obscure songs like "Screen Kiss", "I Love You Goodbye", and "Cruel". I think it's inevitable when you have hits as big as I had with "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Hyperactive", that still get played on the radio 20 years later, people will tend to assume those songs define your music. But in my case, the music I really care most about is my quieter, more personal side.

I am glad those hits gave millions of people an in-road to discover the rest of my music. But it's a shame that the industry is so compartmentalized, because I could never persuade my label to risk putting out one of the quieter songs as a single.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Leonardo da Vinci and Brian Eno. (Aren't they actually the same person?!) One invented the helicopter and drum machine, as well as painted the Mona Lisa; the other invented ambient music and oblique strategies, while still finding time to create mega-hits for David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.

Eno actually comes from my local small town in East Anglia. Apparently he can sometimes be seen sitting on our beach staring out across the North Sea. Yet I've never met him. He was supposed to appear at TED one year, and I had this whole piece written to dedicate to him, then he cancelled at the last minute. Maybe I should learn from my Joni experience, and leave my heroes alone.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Side 2 of Low by David Bowie. Speaking of Heroes (!) and Eno... Bowie is one hero I've met that did not disappoint. He was a total gentleman, and very smart and funny, as well. I played with him at Live Aid at Wembley. We had almost no rehearsal, and I was petrified. I had to open the set with the solo piano intro of "TVC15", which is pushing the boundaries of my ability. But somehow, staring out across those tens of thousands of people, my adolescent muscle memory just kicked in and my fingers played themselves.

Low was the most influential of all Bowie's albums. It was a complete revolution. The first time electronic music techniques had really been applied to pop music. And Side 2 was effectively the first time ambient music hit the mainstream. Plus the album was laden with hits like "Sound and Vision".

10. Your hidden talents...?

Windsurfing! I'm not brilliant -- started too late in life -- but I get by. I've windsurfed some of the world's top locations: Hawaii, the Gorge, Baja, Lago di Garda, and the San Francisco Bay. My beach in England is actually a prime windsurfing location. These days it's very out of fashion -- there are more kite surfers these days -- but that doesn't diminish its fascination for me. There's something about being strapped to a piece of plastic zipping across the water at 18 knots, when the wind is blowing at 12, that makes me very horny.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Don't read bad reviews! You know they will be out there. Every great album or single ever made got some bad reviews. If you don't piss a few people off, you're probably not pushing the envelope hard enough. But the point is, you know they're out there, just don't read them.

YouTube comments are deadly -- the standard of the comments is really appallingly low. Yet if I make the mistake of reading them, and someone slags me off, it sticks with me all day. It's as if the judgment of the whole world is against you. Intellectually I know that's not the case, but that's how it feels. So these days, I just don't go out and look for reviews.

When there's a good review, someone will forward it to me. That way, from my point of view, I only get good reviews!

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My vintage lifeboat. She's in my garden, overlooking the sea, though she will never go back in the water as some of her planks are rotten. I'm in the process of converting her into a solar- and wind-powered recording studio, to make my next album. She was an open ship's lifeboat on a merchant vessel that serviced the southern Pacific in the period between the world wars.

In the '50s someone added a deck, cabins and a wheelhouse, and lived on her as a seagoing houseboat. Then she spent years on the canals in the north of England. When I found her, she was in a farmyard near Reading, about as far as you can get from the sea in the UK. The owners had a fortnight to sell her before they had to burn her, because the council had demanded she be moved. So I rescued her and craned her into my garden, where she will live out the rest of her days.

We are in the process of rebuilding the wheelhouse using antique timber. Then the wind turbines and solar panels will go on the roof, so she will be carbon-positive.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

WW2 surplus! I hate fashionable clothes. I hate the constraints, especially in men's clothes, which are so impractical. A suit coat is like a straight jacket. I just always think of the victorious President Richard Nixon with his arms in the air, and his shoulder pads scrunching up like bundles of laundry.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Filmmaker Bruce Robinson of Withnail and I. He's got one of the most brilliant minds on the planet. I'd like to take him to dinner, and tap it one more time before it sinks into final oblivion. That screenplay is my favourite comedy script of all time. Sadly, he's addled his brain with booze, and he's never really followed it up. The two main characters in Withnail and I are the two halves of his split personality.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I try not to do it so much these days as it doesn't seem fair to my family! My time machine is in mothballs. Some of the fuses have blown and you just can't get the parts, any more.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I am remarkably stress-free. However, I've never had a spa vacation, so I'll pick that. Perhaps at the health farm that features in Little Britain -- but preferably without its most famous inmate.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Coffee. The rest I can do without. I gave up smoking when I was 28. When I met Kathleen, she said she would never kiss me if I smoked. I really wanted to kiss her. So that did the trick.

I don't like vodka -- the only spirit I drink is single malt whisky; Laphraoig, Macallan, or Lagavullin. Chocolate is nice, but I could certainly live without it. Coffee, on the other hand, is essential to living. I'm not a snob about it. A Starbuck's grande cappuccino is fine (I know, I know).

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country. Far from anywhere, but near to water. I live in a village with 20 houses and no shop or pub. It's a village that's probably doomed, as many along our coastline have been reclaimed by the North Sea. But at least it will be very exciting before the end. Within a few years, at high tide we may be cut off from the mainland altogether. A private island!

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

It's time to 'fess up that we're a bunch of greedy Imperialists that have stripped the poor and poisoned the planet, and if we're going to survive as a species it's now or never. Quit trying to be the world's bully boy -- there's no room to argue about ideologies. Nor is there room for huge companies to make mega-profits from oil, trees, or fast food. We have to fix this thing, or we're all going to die together.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

My first new studio album in nearly 20 years! I'm really enjoying having the luxury of returning to music after all these years away. And I'm surprised and delighted that I still have an audience.

The challenge now is to introduce my music to a younger crowd that wasn't around the first time. I've got several songs written, but I can't start working on them in earnest until my lifeboat is finished. But keep your ear to the ground. It'll be out...when it's ready!

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