Thomas Dolby has worn many hats over his long career. Known best for hits like ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’, he’s also been a successful businessman whose synthesizer technology was at one time on â…” of the world’s cell phones. After an alomost twenty year hiatus, Dolby is back with a new album: A Map of the Floating City. Along with the album there is an associated video game called Floating City. With the album, the game, and some special additions to the upcoming tour, Dolby is exploring his lifelong interest in retro visions of the future, or what has come to be known as Steampunk. I had the chance to chat with Mr Dolby over the phone. We talked about his career, his music, his involvement in the TED conference, and much more.
Tom Mohrman: When did you become interested in the aesthetic of Steampunk?
Thomas Dolby: I suppose in the 70’s really. It wasn’t called Steampunk, but if you look at my earliest photos and videos and so on you’ll see that it’s been an obsession of mine for quite a long time.
TM: Were you a big fan of HG Wells and Jules Verne growing up?
TD: Absolutely! That was the stuff that grabbed my imagination when I was a kid. Especially Jules Verne. I was fascinated by his stuff.
TM: Pretty ahead of his time.
TD: Yeah. I’ve always liked retro visions of the future from different eras, but I think the late Victorian era was a particularly fertile one because science was making such incredible strides forward, in terms of medicine and exploration and astronomy and so on. I love the fact that the line between science and magic was blurred. For example Nikola Tesla used to give exhibitions at Madison Square Garden where he’d make sparks fly between electrodes and people would run for the exit because they didn’t know if he was some sort of sorcerer, or a visionary scientific genius. He was a guy who’s visions came to him in a blinding flash. He was an immigrant to the USA where â€˜good ol’ American know how’ as embodied by Thomas Edison was more methodical. It was more about trying a thousand variations and eliminate them until you find the solution.
TM: How was it different for you recording A Map of the Floating City after such a long hiatus?
TD: Well the first thing is you don’t any longer need a label to fund you to do it. And that just makes a huge difference, because the technology you’ve got on your laptop is sort of equivalent to what you had to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for in a studio when I started out. You needed an investor that was kind of stupid enough to back a musician, and they were called labels. They took their pound of flesh, you know? So the first thing is that you can do it yourself, and I think the second thing is that I’m older and wiser and I have fewer stars in my eyes really. Life is too short to mess around flexing your muscles, so I got right down to it. I think emotionally I’ve gone all out on this one. So it’s an album I’m very proud of.
TM: Was the album and the video game conceived simultaneously?
TD: Not really, I’d been working on the album for a couple of years, and it had three sections to it: Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea. They really reflected three environments. Urbanoia is about cities. I get a buzz from being in a city but I’m really not a city person, so it’s not the place for me. Amerikana is about the twenty years that I lived in the States. A fond look back at that, and some of the roots culture and music that I’m quite fond of. And Oceanea is really about returning to my homeland, which was quite a deep experience really. It was quite hostile when I left there in the eighties, and I’ve had a very warm welcome back to the UK. It’s great to have my kids there growing up, so that’s reflected in the songs in that section.
TM: Do you think you’ll ever live abroad again?
TD: I consider it all abroad really, and all home. I make my home wherever I am. I like the challenge of a new place. I find the sense of displacement can be a little bit disconcerting, but actually stimulating artistically. I find that I’m very productive artistically if I’m in a different place.
TM: Nothing spurs creativity like moving.
TD: Really, yeah. Definitely.
TM: Can you tell me a bit about Time Capsule TV?
TD: On the tour that I’m about to start on we’re towing a 1930’s teardrop trailer which looks like it’s been customized by Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla. It houses some curious instruments that allow you to record a video message to the future. We’ll park it outside the shows, and you can have some private time in the time capsule to record a thirty second clip. There will be a time capsule dot tv video channel, like a YouTube, and then the most popular ones based on page views – I’m trying to send them into space. They’re thirty second clips, talking to the camera. They could be along the lines of something to tell your great grandchildren, or if you had only thirty seconds to say, what would you say, and to whom. It could be after our species is wiped off the planet, and an alien visitor comes, you could use your clip, what do you want to tell them? It could be what music would still be relevant in a hundred years’ time or a thousand years’ time – any kind of message to the future basically.
TM: Are you still involved intimately with the TED conference?
TD: Yeah, I’m just heading up there in a couple of days actually. I’ve been a music director there for over ten years. In fact there’s going to be several people there who have their own space ships, from Richard Branson on down, so I’m hoping to persuade one of them to take my time capsule into space.
TM: How has being involved with TED affected you as a musician?
TD: It’s where I get all my news from. I don’t really watch TV or read the papers very much, but I learn more from four days at TED than I do the whole rest of the year. I think the planet is in a really terrible predicament, and if there’s hope it’s with the scientists. It’s not going to be governments or corporations that are going to solve anything. They just make things worse. Through the years there have been scientific breakthroughs that have been game changers. One of the things that really fascinates me is that we’ve got this energy crisis and yet we’re sitting on a planet that’s spinning at a thousand miles an hour, and it’s got a molten core, and it’s got winds and tides galore, you know, unstoppable. It just seems really curious that we’re fighting over the dwindling fossil fuels. It just seems crazy that there’s an energy crisis, that we can’t harness the power of the universe to sustain us.
TM: As an artist who’s always been on the vanguard of new music technology, what are you excited about with new music technology?
TD: I love that it’s gotten easier and easier to make professional-sounding recordings. You can do it with an iPhone app now. And that means that not only the barriers to entry are down and lots of people can get creative, but that we’re hearing world music recorded well. In some cases for the first time, because there didn’t used to be high end studios there. I find it fascinating that some of the recording that you hear back from around the world, I think it’s that really.
TM: What music have you been listening to in the last few years that’s really popped for you?
TD: I continue to be an admirer of Bjork. She’s pretty much my favorite artist of the last twenty years. A handful of different artists, ranging from Transom Lullaby, who is an electronic artist. There’s a band called Athlete, who I really like, and I’m back to classical music. I love Debussy and Stravinsky.
TM: What’s your connection at this point to music you wrote decades ago? Do you still feel that that’s music that you made, or is it from a different person?
TD: It’s definitely music that I made. I’m very fastidious, but I also hold myself to very high standards. I’ve done nothing that I’m not proud of. There’s very little waste. There are no outtakes, or songs that didn’t make it onto the records. It’s good enough to get right and put it on the record, or it’s not good enough.
TM: You do your editing beforehand?
TD: Yeah, pretty much. So I still have a strong connection to them, oddly enough. There’s a spectrum to the music that I do. I think I’m basically an introvert, a bit of hermit, but I have this exhibitionist streak that comes out on tour. When I think of songs like ‘She Blinded Me With Science,’ or ‘Hyperactive’ – they’re very accessible, very catchy, very quirky. But the other end of the spectrum I have very intense and personal songs like ‘Screen Kiss,’ or ‘Budapest by Blimp.’ I’ve actually always found that if you have that kind of breadth there’s a formula which presents itself. You use the more accessible songs as a portal, a way for people to get into your music. As they get drawn in, they hopefully discover some of the hidden gems. I think over the years, although I’m commercially better known for the hits, it’s clear to me that the most impact was really made with people was the songs that meant the most to me. It’s remarkable, but if I sit there and come up with a chord sequence that sends shivers up and down my spine, it really turns out that around the world there thousands of people feel the same way.
TM: What do you think about the evolution of electronic music?
TD: Well it was very rarefied at the beginning of my career. The machines were big and heavy, and they didn’t stay in tune very well. It was quite a small handful of people that were able to get their hands on the right machines. I was lucky to be one of them. But I think those of us who were working then are considered pioneers. It’s really because there were so few of us that you couldn’t help but be a pioneer if you fired one of those things up.
Today the opposite is really true. The technology is very accessible, but there’s ten thousand other guys that can get a hold of the same stuff. Invariably people flip through the presets and number seventeen turns out to sound pretty cool, so they all put the same groove together. So statistically there’s going to be someone in the world who’s put together the same combination. I think the long and the short of it is that there can be a lot of generic-sounding music… Today there are people who live and breathe electronic music, and they play it obsessively like people play World of Warcraft. They sort of disappear in their cubicle for two years and they never come out. And they’re doing some really remarkable stuff. There’s still new sounds to be created, and new combinations. You can be very expressive with the powerful tools that exist today.
Thomas Dolby’s tour will start in Austin Texas at South by Southwest on March 12th, with shows all over the US and Canada – including a stop at Seattle’s Showbox at the Market on April 11th. For a full list of upcoming stops, click here.