Thomas Dolby re-enters the music market and rethinks the basics.
Did The Time Capsule do what you wanted it to do?
I think it did, really. The main thing was it was just a big talking point, having it parked outside the gigs, and as time went on and people understood what it was, they sometimes came prepared. The quality of the messages improved over time.
Engaging audiences seems like a significant part of what you’ve been doing. You’ve also developed an online game, “A Map of the Floating City” and a trailer to accompany it. What are you going for? How does that engagement fit into your art?
I think it keeps it, really. The sort of album model when we were kids doesn’t really hold water anymore. That’s not the basis where musicians and fans engage. There I was making the Floating City album, and thinking, “This is great, but people don’t really buy albums these days. Oh, what are they doing now? Well, they’re spending a lot of time playing games and social networks and things like that.” I decided that it would be fun to use these new platforms to reach out to fans.
When I started out, MTV was just taking off and I didn’t know very much about filmmaking or video. I love learning a new creative skill, which enables me to push myself. I liked playing around in a discipline I’m not good at, really. I love that situation where you experiment and learn as you go along. I’ve always been open to that, so in terms of the game, in terms of social media and so on - it was great to discover that in this new age, there were new ways to interact with fans. But I needed to learn how to use the new tools.
I’m always surprised that artists continue to release albums since when people don’t consume music in that way anymore.
I think some of that is the legacy of the way we’re used to behaving. Certainly, bigger labels, never, I don’t think, evolved beyond that model. You’d sign a five-album deal, or a seven-album deal, and the assumption was that there was a cycle of 12 to 18 months. Everything would be focused on record the album, get the street date for it, gear up the marketing team, get it out there, bang it out and promote it. Write new songs, go back into the studio, do it again. That’s very much the way that record companies are still geared, and the way they’re set up fiscally from quarter to quarter, with the expectation of how much new product coming out. They were so rigidly entrenched in that, and I don’t think they’ve really moved on.
You’re independent at this point, right?
With the Internet, there’s not a reason to save up until you have 10 or 12 songs. You could release them as you recorded them if you want, right?
[For A Map of the Floating City] I had accumulated a collection of songs, songs which I’d written in quick succession once I started focusing, but I also had a backlog of songs that I’d worked on in my head, in the shower, working on the beat. For years. Some of them were complete, some of them were just ideas. When I started making music again, that was the way it turned out.
I don’t think people sort of sit down and listen to an album for a concept album like they did in the day, like The Dark Side of the Moon. I felt that having been away for so long, I wanted to create that snapshot update of where I was as a middle-aged guy. I imagine that now, the songs from the album are spread far and wide on peoples’ playlists.
[When Dolby refers to being away, he left music in 1993 to develop a new type of sound file that allowed small files to carry improved sound quality. His company, Beatnik, developed sound synthesizers that were licensed by Nokia for their mobile phones, then got into the ringtone business. He returned to music in 2006. “Beatnik is still the sound engine in all Nokia phones and with many manufacturers,” he says.” But there wasn’t much of a need for ongoing development, really, because when we did that license, it was before the age of complete songs on mobile phones. That little MIDI-based synthesizer that we put in those phones is what was used to do the ringtones and mix the sound. People have their own song collections on their phone, so you can use one of those as your ringtone. There’s not so much of a need for synthesizers beyond user-interface beats and things like that.”]
How did the Americana section of the album come about?
I think I’d lived in the U.S. for 22, 23 years, and then moved back to the U.K. I wanted to wrap it up with a fun souvenir of my time in the States. While I was here, I got a feel for the American culture. Being a Brit, my credentials for doing Americana might not seem very good, but folk music of any kind and any type is passed on around the campfire from one traveler to another - I thought, “I have as much right as anybody else to write songs in that mode.”
Obviously, they’re quite cheeky. “Road to Reno” and “Toad Lickers” has smatterings of Americana about them, the instrumentation and some of the chord choices. The stories I’m telling are a little bit dark, a little bit tongue-and-check.
Did you have to think about how to make the connection between your musical voice and Americana?
Not really, no. I love playing with new genres and styles. I’ve never worked very much with banjos and dobros, but obviously once you start working in that vein, there are certain conventions and flavors that come naturally to those instruments. And I draw not on specific artists or songs that have influenced me, but in general, on a misguided sense of how those instruments are used. I think jumping into those things without doing my research would’ve resulted in a bit of trouble.
Back when I did “I Love You Goodbye” [from 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics album - his “Cajun techno” tune], I remember doing an interview with a New Orleans radio station, and it was a morning talk show. I was in California in a hotel, so it was like four or five in the morning in California. I set my alarm for this live interview, and I slept through it. The phone was right by the bed, and I picked it up and said, “What?” And they said, “You’re live on WKUX! Or whatever it was.” He was saying, “Yeah, we love that ‘Bayou Rain’ song of yours down here. Is it based on a true story?” I said, “Yeah, I have a really good friend who’s based here in New Orleans and I came down and we went on a little road trip. That was what inspired the song.” He said, “Are you sure you’ve ever actually been to Louisiana?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, why?” And he said, “You would’ve known then that we don’t have county sheriffs; we have parishes. But we love that ‘Bayou Rain’ song of yours. Do you know which state the Everglades are in?” All of this was live on morning radio. He was kind of beefing me up.
One of the consistent elements of your work since the start has been its look, a view of the future that people had in the past.
I think some people would call it retro-futurism. It’s looking fondly at how futurists perceive the future way back when. What it amounts to is a kind of a parallel universe, really. It’s like if you look at steampunk for example, Steampunk is how this civilization would have progressed if there’d never been the electronic microchip. That’s why we’d be getting around in blimps, and everything would be steam-powered and made of glass and copper and leather and gears. There’s something very charming about that, like history could’ve turn out different. Where I lived in England, it’s been very vulnerable to invasion. If you take some of the oldest residents there, they remember World War II. From day to day, you could almost see the German tanks amassed on the other coast across the North Sea. The rest of Europe was occupied, and everyone in the English countryside assumed it was only a matter of time before they would invade. They had no idea how long the war was going to last, and there was rationing. They took down the road signs. You weren’t allowed to talk to anybody. You saw the bombers flying over every night on their way to and from Europe. It could’ve turned out differently.
Is there a specific period of retro-futurism that speaks more to you than others?
I think that the years around World War II is the one that speaks to me. I feel some connection to that for some reason; I don’t know quite why that is. The clunky technology at the time, the wireless and radar technology, I have an affinity for.
Has your relationship with “She Blinded Me with Science” changed over the years?
I think it’s changed a little bit, but I always felt that to have commercial success, it was kind of a blessing because I had access to things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done. I basically consider myself a marginal, cult artist, in the vein of some of the people that I idolized when I was younger, like Captain Beefheart, for example.
There’s were lots of sort of legendary figures, Dr. John, Professor Longhair - people know the name, might have an image in their head, but probably couldn’t name a song of theirs. I consider myself fortunate that I have a call for that sort of view. What’s slightly unpleasant about it is that there’s also a slew of people that never got past that, and weren’t aware that there’s another side to what I was doing. It’s not that much of a burden, really. I’m certainly very grateful because there are hits, and then there are evergreen hits. The fact that they’re still getting played, used in commercials, showed on The Big Bang Theory as this ringtone - it’s a lot of songs from the same era that are long forgotten, that I’m actually grateful for as well.