Q&A: Thomas Dolby Talks Tech, Plays Word Association

Photo courtesy of Thomas Dolby.

Skyping somehow seems an appropriate way of communicating with Thomas Dolby, who made tech-geekery sexy in 1982 with the ubiquitous “She Blinded Me With Science,” and later revolutionized ringtone technology and made major coin from software innovations. It’s been two decades since the British synth-pop pioneer unleashed a new studio album, but this summer, A Map of the Floating City will show that Dolby can still muster a melody. It’s no electro-poppy endeavor though; Dolby 2.0 is more of an unplugged balladeer, as two recent EPs leading up to the album make clear. But fear not, he’s still an endearingly quirky techie at heart — the kind who built himself an eco-friendly studio inside a 1930s lifeboat, and whose voice sounds oddly natural emerging digitized and compressed from a MacBook’s Skype app as he explains his reentry into the pop arena.

People still think of you as Mr. Synthesizer, but your new songs are quite acoustic-oriented and organic-sounding.

People think of me as Mr. Synthesizer because I was very strongly associated with it in the ‘80s … I was one of the first people to break through as a synth player. What I think always set me apart was the songwriting … there was a depth and a soul in the compositions, which wasn’t shared by many of my contemporaries. In the early days there were only a handful of us using electronics in that way. Now there are tens of thousands.

How do you respond to being pigeonholed as an ‘80s artist?

I haven’t really had the opportunity to supplant that with a new collection of memories, so that’s hopefully what I’m building up to with the release of this album. In a way, the impact that I made with music in the early ‘80s was sort of diffused by the fact that I left the music business behind in the ‘90s for Silicon Valley. In the tech world or the mobile phone world, if you talk about “Thomas’s hit,” then you’re probably talking about the Beatnik audio engine, which is in three billion cell phones, not about a song that was a hit on MTV.

How did you get started on that path?

At the beginning of the ‘90s I was feeling quite jaded about the music business. I started consulting with technology companies about how to deal with music. Eventually that led to starting my own company. We made some fantastically imaginative applications, which made absolutely no money at all. We probably would have gone under were it not for the fact that we did a deal with Nokia to put our synth in their phones. That was in 1999, and it’s been in every Nokia phone since.

What does it do, exactly?

It mixes the sound of the voice with alarms, alerts, button clicks, MP3 files, ringtones, all kinds of music are basically being mixed by Beatnik. You used to need a chip to do that … we figured out how to do that just in software.

Today, you feed your tech-geek jones by working with the TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] conferences.

I created a role for myself as a music director. That means booking acts that range from iconic stars like Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel or David Byrne through to virtually unknown YouTube phenomena like Jake Shimabukuro. We put them on in between speakers … you’ll see them shoulder to shoulder with coral reef explorers and astronauts and politicians.

And you emerge with ideas like building a wind- and solar-powered studio on your beachfront property in an antique lifeboat?

Well, I certainly got help and support and inspiration from some fellow TEDsters. And I got up next year and showed them photographs of what I had done. So yeah, it was very much in the context of TED.

Did building the lifeboat studio spark your desire to create new music?

I suppose the inspiration really was moving back to my home country, and back to the countryside where I grew up as a kid. The album is in three parts, these three imaginary continents: Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea. Urbanoia is quite plainly a sort of cityscape. Amerikana was actually quite a fond farewell to the USA, which I left after living there for 20 years. The English tend to be snooty about American culture, although in fact we lap it up; we just don’t like to admit it.

Technological achievements aside, do you sometimes feel like you’re inside an H.G. Wells novel in your lifeboat studio?

I think J.G. Ballard is probably more to the point. I’m thinking of Drowned World, because the East of England is basically doomed. Geologically, England is tipping into the ocean. But I love the sort of fatalism attached to that. I think before the bitter end it’s gonna be very exciting here, like, I may only be able to reach my house at low tide one of these years.

You have a real passion for anachronistic technology too.

Yeah, I like things that used to be modern. Going back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the sense of wonder that existed. If you follow any of the early World’s Fairs, there were some fantastic innovations. Nikola Tesla did a show where he had sparks leaping between electrodes, and people were terrified and amazed. It seemed like magic. At the time it was very mysterious. I like the romance of that period of uncertainty. Is it conjuring, is it supernatural, paranormal, or is it just some brilliant new technology that you’re lucky enough to witness firsthand?

Speaking of anachronistic technology, are you aware that you’ve been called the original steampunk?

The quote that I heard was “He is to steampunk what Iggy was to punk.” I’m rather flattered by that one. Steampunk, who knows how long it’ll be around as a trend? I don’t think steampunk has a sound though, which is a bit unfortunate. It seems to be basically a style of clothes, as far as I can tell.

Maybe you’re the sound of steampunk!

[Mock-modestly] Well, that’s not for me to determine.

Do your kids think you’re cool anyway?

My teenage son went through a heavy metal phase, as many teenage boys do. One day he was playing something and I poked my head around the door and said, “That’s Pyromania by Def Leppard, isn’t it?” He said, “How’d you know that, dad?” I said “Well, who do you think is playing keyboards?” He goes online and says “Booker T. Boffin played keyboards.” And I said, “Who do you suppose Booker T. Boffin is?” He said “No!” I dug out of my garage a quadruple-platinum album that says “Awarded to Booker T. Boffin for keyboards on Pyromania,” and he now proudly has it on the wall over his electronic drum kit. But actually, he doesn’t really listen to them anymore. He’s more into trip-hop and dubstep.

You’ve worked with so many people over the years that it’s impossible to speak comprehensively about them. I’d like you to indulge me in a little word-association game: Just blurt out whatever comes to mind about working with each of these artists:

Belinda Carlisle

Flighty.

David Bowie

Surprisingly gentlemanly.

Def Leppard

Mutt Lange plus a lead vocalist.

Roger Waters

Genius control freak.

George Clinton

Encyclopedic nursery-rhyme brain.

A Map of a Floating City is due out this summer.

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