THE MAP OF THOMAS DOLBY
A CONVERSATION WITH THOMAS DOLBY
Thomas Dolby is a unique kind of celebrity. Massively famous in the 1980’s with his smash hit “She Blinded Me With Science,” the man with the unusual techno-geek persona managed to get his fingers into many pies, including a collaboration with George Clinton, writing the intro to supergroup Foreigner’s song “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” playing the 1985 Grammys, and producing three hit solo albums. By blending his academic upbringing with a love of music and technology it seemed that Thomas Dolby would was destined to be a major player in the music industry.
And he is, but not in the ‘in your face’ style of many contemporary artists. After his stint in the limelight Dolby grew weary of the antics of the music business and took up residence in Silicon Valley, eventually creating the tech company Beatnik which produces software which your mobile phone probably utilizes to play polyphonic ring tones – after all, the technology he created is in two-thirds of cellphones worldwide.
However, after two decades away from music, Thomas Dolby is back with a new album The Map of the Floating City, a stunning three-part concept project that also resulted in a complex multiplayer online game. The album spans three imaginary continents: Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea; features guests such as Regina Spektor, Mark Knopfler and Imogen Heap; and is a surprisingly intimate look into the mind of one of the most interesting figures in music and technology. The Spill caught up with him in the hills of LA to discuss the album, his ‘floating recording studio’, and his thoughts on the music industry.
Spill: It’s been nearly 20 years since you’ve released an album, what have you been up to since then?
Thomas Dolby: I was driving taxis! Just kidding. I took a break from music in the early nineties that was supposed to only last a year, but it took me a lot longer than I’d anticipated. The reason that it took so long was a hobby that I’d started in Silicon Valley turned into a much bigger deal than I’d anticipated, but it took a while to get there. What happened is that we started making interactive music apps for fun, much like the ones you have on iPhones now, and millions of people downloaded them and we made absolutely no money at all.
Spill: You’re referring to your company Beatnik, right?
TD: Right, and if we hadn’t gotten lucky, at the end of the boom and bust of the web we probably would have gone up in smoke like all the other dot-coms. But we had this one deal that had some teeth to it, which was with Nokia. They needed a way to do sound in their phones including beeps and alerts and polyphonic ring tones, so they came to us and licensed our technology and we went to Finland and ported it to their phones and most of the other manufacturers licensed it as well and at its peak it was in two thirds of the world’s phones.
Spill: It seems like you were doing pretty well with it! So what prompted you to return to the music industry, then?
TD: It was boring as hell! When a business matures like that it’s mainly about the bottom line and all the creativity had gone out of it and The Map of The Floating City was sort of my escape, and it’s great to be getting back to doing what I love. I wasn’t cut out to be a business man.
Spill: The Map of the Floating City is broken into three distinct parts – Amerikana, Oceanea and Urbanoia – can you tell me a little bit about all these places that the album describes and their unique themes?
TD: I’m very strongly affected by the environment that I’m living in, and there’s a sense of displacement – you know – that’s stimulating and unnerving. I love living in cities and I get a buzz from living in them but I’ve come to realize that I’m not a natural city person. I grew up in countryside and I’ve since realized that’s the place for me.
The first section, Urbanoia, is about my love/hate relationship with cities. I really do get a buzz out of them, especially late at night when they’re empty. So you get a song like “My Evil Twin Brother” which is about being jet-lagged at 3am in New York and not being able to sleep I go to this all-night diner and I’m being served by this Eastern European waitress called Yolena and I end up picking her up and going to some all-night dance club and against my better judgment I find her dragging me onto the dance floor and I’m raving to this Eurotrash Trance music and it’s not at all clear what happens. But the ‘evil twin brother’ is the sense of denial about the track that I’m going for. The vocal phrasing is a nod towards Michael Jackson, whom I knew, who is the king of denial.
Amerikana is a fond look back at the 20 years that I spent living in the United States and I like roots American music. I find it rather fresh and unaffected in a certain way and people think us Brits are musical innovators but in fact we’re more like musical imperialists, we’re very good at plundering styles from the rest of the world and we bring them home and we manicure them on our little island and export them to the rest of the world and people think that we’re very cool. But it’s a con really because there is really very little British indigenous music, most pop comes from Delta blues or reggae or Chicago house, or not soul and R&B. And Oceanea is about my homecoming and returning to my spiritual home in the United Kingdom.
Spill: And that’s where you have your floating boat-studio, The Nutmeg of Consolation?
TD: Yes, we live in an areas that floods frequently and I couldn’t have a shed in the garden so I went for a 1930’s lifeboat instead which I found on eBay and found some traditional boat belters to help me convert it and I wanted it to be renewable energy powered so I put a big turbine up the mast and solar panels on the roof.
Spill: So do you feel that being in that sort of different environment serves as inspiration when you’re creating music? Do collaborators ever come aboard the boat?
TD: Yes, it’s an incredibly inspiring place to be. Even just moving can inspire you when you allow yourself to feel the displacement of the water. And yes, some of them come, but some I just send away my tracks and we work on them electronically.
Spill: You’ve worked with a number of collaborators on this album and elsewhere, are there any in particular who you would like to have the opportunity to work with again?
TD: Oh, all of them. I’ve had some lovely collaborations and there will be a next generation of collaborations, as well. I especially like the differences between people’s musical perceptions and people very often say that they’ll play my record and often that they’ll try and sound like me, and that’s pretty amusing. For example one time I had Jerry Garcia play with me and he was imitating what he heard which was mind-blowing for me because in my head I just heard him being Jerry Garcia.
In regards to working with someone else again I’d love to get Eddie Van Halen back, he doesn’t play very much with other people since it’s kind of against his principles but his wife and my wife had worked together as actors so we were friendly and one thing led to another and we wound up wandering into his studio.
Spill: The Thomas Dolby persona has evolved into a steampunk swashbuckler of sorts, in what other ways would you say you’ve reinvented yourself over the years?
TD: I don’t think “reinvented” was the right word, I mean I think there’s a construct involved when I was out there doing “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive” though that wasn’t necessarily a stage persona it’s more something that came from inside me. When I started out my competition was all these pinup boys and I thought to stand I should just really be myself, and amplify aspects of me that are really different, which is that I come from a very academic family, my father was a professor of classical archeology at Cambridge University, and my mum was a math teacher, so there’s no show business in my background. And interestingly I’m a big fan of silent films and all the heroes of silent films are underdogs, which I consider myself to be coming from a family with no performance in my blood — I’m actually in Buster Keaton’s house right now.
I never saw myself as a chart-topper, I always considered myself to be someone with a bit of a cult following so when I found myself in the charts it was a bit of a shocker, and there was a lot of pressure on me to distill that persona into something repeatable and produce a string of hits about geology and psychology and I just wasn’t going to do that. I mean, I write some wacky songs but the core of my music is very personal and intimate and atmospheric and those are the kinds of songs that have an impact on people, songs like Screen Kiss, I Love You Goodbye, and Oceanea on this album.
Aside from anything else there’s a line of good looking singers who can sing lined up around the block and they’re coming out of the woodwork so there’s no way I want to go there. But what they can’t do is write a great song with real personality to it that touches people, and so that’s what I’m focused on.
Spill: So another aspect of The Map of The Floating City is the multi-player video game, can you tell me a bit about the concept behind it?
TD: We’ve already discussed the three continents on the album, and my original idea was to release three EP’s followed by the album but it was pointed out to me that if I released the album as EP’s then there wouldn’t be much incentive for people to go out and buy the album.
So I thought about it and I asked myself “if people aren’t buying records what are they doing?” and the answer was that they’re playing video games, spending a lot of time in social networks, and so on. So I thought why not use that as a platform to reach out to a new audience and express myself while I’m at it? That’s what I’ve always done, when I as just starting out MTV was just starting up and I utilized that as a springboard to get people listening to my music and I had a great time doing it, I love dabbling in a new medium where I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
Spill: Do you feel that you drew any new fans in by utilizing a game?
TD: Yeah! A lot of people who played the game were alternative reality gamers who weren’t Dolby fans at all. The game is a collaborative one, however, so you have to be a good game player but also you have to delve into the lyrics and the songs to solve puzzles and there would be people in the forums asking questions and the hardcore “Dolby nuts” would come up with the answers to the clues. It felt really good to entice a new audience in and have a new generation of people discover my music.
Spill: Do you feel that any artists’ ability to produce and sell their music digitally is a positive shift in the music industry?
TD: I wouldn’t say that’s it’s a positive shift in the music industry but it is certainly a positive shift for music. I mean, I think it has helped put the nail in the coffin because the music industry had already alienated itself from its customers with CD pricing and anti-piracy legislation and litigation, etc. I think the fact that simultaneously technology advanced to the point where you no longer need a label to fund you and put you in the studio anymore, that’s really been the death knell for ‘the industry’ per-se.
There will be a new kind of industry emerging, I think, but it’s going to be different because it’s going to be music advocates and people offering these services to help artists get their music out to the audience, helping create shortcuts to find the right audience and reach more people. I personally have got an array of products and services that I can opt into that help me get them there, versus the old way which was can you get a cassette listened to by an AR guy, and can you get signed and then can you get on the radio. Those gatekeepers have really gone now, so I think it’s a hugely positive thing for music.
I think if you’re starting out now then it’s a fantastic meritocracy with the exception of the fact that you’re up against a thousand other guys who’ve got the same idea. You have to work just as hard but you have much more control. I think it’s an exciting time to be a musician.