A conversation with Thomas Dolby
Thomas Dolby issues a career-spanning two-disc compilation, Hyperactive, on July 27 via BMG’s The Masters Collection.
The set features the expected “She Blinded Me With Science” as well as “The Devil Is An Englishman,” “May The Cube Be With You” and “My Brain Is Like A Sieve.” By the time the set makes its way to stores, Dolby’s will be on the second date of a brief U.S. tour. Dubbed an Evening of Music and Storytelling With Thomas Dolby, the dates find the musician and educator opening the hood on compositions selected by members of the audience, revealing information about the piece’s composition, recording or melodic/harmonic structure.
Once the tour comes to an end, Dolby will return to Johns Hopkins University where he will launch a new undergraduate program at the Peabody Institute. The curriculum focuses on music composition and 3D sound design for virtual and augmented reality and is the first of its kind offered at a major U.S. university.
Dolby spoke about preparing for the current tour, his role as an academic and his appreciation of progressive rock from his home in England.
When did the concept for this current tour come to you?
I’ve been doing a lot of lecturing and speaking in recent years. I sometimes enhance those talks by playing a little music. This is sort of the reverse. It’s decoupling the music from the process. Unzipping songs a little bit and explaining what the inspiration was, explaining some of the chord sequences and lyrical ideas. The order in which they came to me. Then I explain some of the sounds and the beats I put together and in some cases the stories behind the recording. Strange things that went on and so on. I find that the audiences really appreciate getting their nose under the tent.
How do you go about preparing for a tour like this which I imagine is different than a 90-minute greatest hits tour?
I made a list of my favorite songs, ones that I would like to be asked about. I looked at each of them and thought, “What are the interesting aspects of this? Is it the composition? Is it the sound and the production? Is it some memory that I have of recording it?” I have been writing down random notes and wondering if I should play some individual parts or chords, wondering whether the right way to do that is to build them up by looping parts, allowing the audience to see the work as I do it on the video screen, or just to go into the song.
I think the stripped down versions of the songs are quite interesting because I’m not an impresario when it comes to piano and voice. Not an Elton John type. I’ve always tended to use my production and my arrangements as a crutch. It’ll be interesting to hear the songs in a stripped down, vulnerable format.
As you went back and worked through your songs were there things you were surprised by, things that came back to you for the first time in a number of years?
In the past when I’ve played concerts I’ve often had spoken intros to songs. I suppose out of laziness you tend to fall back on the same introductions. I didn’t want to do that this time. I thought that anyone who has seen my shows before isn’t going to want to hear the same kinds of comments about the songs as they’ve heard at previous shows. I’m avoiding those clichés and digging a little bit deeper.
I’ve also got more time to speak about the songs and analyze them than I would have in a normal show. In a normal show you might do 12-15 songs. In this, it’ll probably be half a dozen total. They will vary from night to night based on what the audience chooses.
A far larger number of people are aware of commercial hits such as “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive.” But the really hardcore fan base who come to every show they can and own every recording I’ve ever made, who post on newsgroups and make tribute albums and write fan fiction based on my characters, the songs that their into tend to be the deeper cuts. Things like “Screen Kiss” or “Budapest By Blimp” or “I Love You Goodbye.”
I imagine it’ll vary from venue to venue. I imagine there will be nights when I don’t get asked to play the hits at all, where people ask for their favorite songs. It’ll be very interesting to get out of a venue alive without finishing up with “She Blinded Me With Science.”
When did you discover that there was such a dedicated fan base for your work?
There was a long gap between Astronauts and Heretics and A Map of the Floating City. That was something like 17 years. During that time the Internet emerged and people were getting further and further into analysis of my music and lyrics. I would lurk around the newsgroups and watch this. I felt a bit like one of those dead guys that just gets bigger.
It was very heartwarming to find that. I also think given the platform to feedback about my songs and express themselves it was very gratifying to find out that the songs I cared about most tended to be the ones that they enjoyed the most or were dearest to them. There was also satisfaction in knowing that the strange chord change that I had discovered at three o’ clock in the morning while hunched over my piano that hit me in a certain way emotionally was the same emotional reaction that the audience got from that chord change as well.
Great to have it confirmed, as though we needed it, that music really is a universal language.
Do you feel like a large percentage of your audience is made up of musicians?
Not really. I know that a lot musicians appreciate my work and that there are sound designers and sound engineers that use my sound recordings to test out their systems. That’s very flattering. I find it slightly embarrassing because if they knew how slapdash I often am about sounds they would be quite shocked.
I sometimes kick the sound engineers out of the studio and I push the faders up until something starts to smell funny. I don’t take much notice of meters and peaks and troughs. But I do think musicians like that there is a discreet clarity to my sounds, I tend to pick things that are very complimentary by being very orthogonal to each other.
I guess they probably also like my stuff because it’s unpredictable. A lot of pop music is built on the same patterns. If you pick up a guitar and learn C, F, G and Am, you’ve got 70 to 80 percent of the classic pop catalogue covered right there! Where that leaves off is where I begin!
You began releasing albums at a time when progressive rock was deemed dead in the press. And yet there are elements of your songs that appeal to progressive rock fans and share some of the same traits.
In the early to mid-‘70s I was listening to Pink Floyd and Yes and Genesis and Soft Machine and Gentle Giant. I was really into that stuff but I think that it got very stagnant rather corporate by the mid-1970s. So, when punk rock came along and I was 18 or 19, it was a sort of revelation because it had this disposable, devil-may-care attitude. Certainly the musicians had no pride in their technique. It was very refreshing.
I went to those pubs and clubs and saw those bands. It was exciting from a social point of view but, musically, it was not that stimulating because it was back to the three-chord sequence thing. It was really only when bands like XTC, Talking Heads, Television, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Cure came around and took some of the energy and attitude of punk but applied new musical horizons to it and interesting lyrics and sounds and so on that I really found my niche.
You mentioned the gap between Astronauts and Heretics and A Map of the Floating City. In that time between did you think that you’d make another record or did you essentially consider that part of your life over?
I always believed I’d make another record but I’m always attracted to areas where I feel I’m needed most. I really wanted no part of where the music industry was headed in the early ‘90s. I felt like a rat off a sinking ship. Didn’t like the industry and didn’t like the way they were digging their heels in and trying to resist the advances of technology. It was really unpleasant to me.
Conversely, the world of technology was heating up and eventually exploded with the arrival of the World Wide Web. So, Silicon Valley was the place for me. I felt that I was needed there because it was a bit of a void as far as sound and music went. It was a silent movie waiting for the talkies.
During those years I did very, very little serious music. I did create music to compliment the technology and software I was making at Beatnik. My only tangential connection to music was that I spent 12 years as musical director of the TED conference. I would play the intros to sessions and I would book other musicians to come in and I would collaborate with them. That was an honor to do given the high quality of the content.
It was very elitist in one sense and the general public didn’t get to share in that until much later. But that wasn’t really about the music. It was about the ideas. So my connection to and my hold on serious music making at that time was quite tenuous.
You’re launching a new undergraduate degree course at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins this fall.
I’ve been teaching there for four years. For the first three I taught Music For Film and TV and helped launch a new film and media center that Hopkins had funded. I settled in Baltimore and really liked it. I liked the environment, the work that I was doing and where I was living. The general atmosphere of Baltimore which reminds me very much of British port cities like Bristol and Hull and Newcastle and Glasgow. I really see tremendous potential for Baltimore and it’s not overcrowded like Brooklyn or L.A. I get a real creative charge from being there.
I encouraged Hopkins to allow me to come up with a new program that would make sense to them. The Peabody Conservatory, the oldest in the U.S.A., felt that they needed to modernize their curriculum. Classical music is barely treading water. That while conservatories are turning out large numbers of classical musicians who will never be able to find a professional career.
The flipside is that in games and virtual reality and location based entertainment there are all sorts of different career paths opened to trained musicians if they have the right skills. So, I’ve built this program that launches in the Fall 2018 semester. We’ve built a brand new lab to do VR music and spatial audio, adaptive composition. I’ve spent the last year recruiting my first cohort of students. I will get to be a major part of their lives for the next four years. It’s a very thrilling time to be doing that.
What does being an educator satisfy for you?
I never had a teacher or mentor when I was starting out. There was no university where I could have gone that would have been relevant to me in electronic music or experimental film. So I had to plot my own course. There weren’t rule books for the area that I was working in. What I was doing was all brand new. I thrived on the fact that I was one of the ones that was helping define what could be done in those areas. But there were no guidelines to speak of. I got to the point in my life where rather than seeking out the next frontier I felt it was time to give a little bit back and maybe help a new generation of creative students by showing them the mindset that it took for me to push forward and circumnavigate problems.
These days if you’re a student and you have a problem it’s a few key presses away to the solution. You just Google it, download the manual, post a message on a forum, you find a YouTube video of somebody’s who has figured it out. And your problem’s solved!
Well, unfortunately, that’s not really the way the world works and that’s certainly not the way you create original art. A lot of original art comes about through necessity because you find a roadblock and rather than stumble on it you find a creative way to use it to your advantage. That’s what creativity is really all about. I hope that’s something I can pass on to my students.
It may not be something that they can get from their very learned, scholarly professors at top American universities. I’m grateful to Johns Hopkins for giving me that opportunity.