INTERVIEW: singer/songwriter Thomas Dolby

This summer, Thomas Dolby [perhaps best-known for 80s hit “She Blinded Me with Science”] will release his first full-length album, A Map of the Floating City, in 20 years. In the garden of his East Anglia beach house, Dolby writes and records aboard a solar and wind-powered 1930s lifeboat. The three-track EP called Oceanea came out on March 28.

Dolby broke onto the music scene in 1982 with his synthpop style with The Golden Age of Wireless. After releasing several more albums, Dolby quit music in the early 90s. He moved to Silicon Valley and founded the tech company Beatnik Inc. He co-invented the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer which Nokia embeds in its mobile phones. In 2001 he became Musical Director of the TED Conference, an annual event in Long Beach, California.

Fans can access Dolby’s music early through a social network-based game, The Floating City, to be launched this spring via Facebook, Twitter, and The Flat Earth Society.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Thomas Dolby.

Amy Steele: Why have you decided to release an album after a twenty-year hiatus?

Thomas Dolby:I like the way the music business is heading. Technology has finally stripped away the bogus marketeering, and it’s becoming a meritocracy. And the Industry is no longer there to force musicians into an unnatural cycle of singles, albums and tours. We can make music at our own pace and release it directly to the audience, without first having to win favour with roomful of executives in satin tour jackets.

Amy Steele: What effect has being the musical director of TED had on you?

Thomas Dolby:It’s made me realize what an appetite there is in the world for entertainment that is also thought-provoking, eclectic, against the grain. And I’ve met some fantastic musicians that also really care about the state of the planet: people like Tracy Chapman, Natalie MacMaster, Paul Simon, Jason Mraz, and Jake Shimabukuro.

Amy Steele: You write and record on a solar and wind-powered 1930s lifeboat. How did you choose that?

Thomas Dolby:I live on the beach in East Anglia [Eastern coast of England] and my garden floods from time to time. It was not an option to build the proverbial garden shed studio. So I looked for something that would float. Now when the waters come I will rise up like Noah. (Well actually that’s not quite the case as I punched a 5-foot doorway in the hull.)

Amy Steele: Your current EP, Oceanea, is relatively simple in style and mellow. How has your songwriting process changed over the years?

Thomas Dolby:Mellow, yes. Simple, no… though I take it as a compliment that you thought so. ‘Simone’ has the most complicated chord sequence I have ever written. It covered 5 sides of large scale manuscript paper. I guess since I have returned to music I am focused on the essence of the song, not the frills. I have no desire to wow the audience with my production technique. There’s plenty of that out there. But there’s a dearth of real songwriting talent, lyrics and structure and storytelling, and that’s something I actually do rather well.

Amy Steele: How are the songs on Oceanea different than what someone might expect from you?

Thomas Dolby: Well, when I look back at the first chapter of my career I certainly touched the largest number of people with my quirky synthpop persona as in ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’. But I touched people the most deeply with my more intimate, atmospheric stuff, like ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘I Love You Goodbye.’ Those are the songs that people kept listening to over the years I was away. They endured. Whereas the more poppy stuff has been supplanted and overwritten a thousand times. Now I have little patience. And I have no record company to demand I keep feeding them pop fluff. So I’m not going to waste any time, I’m just getting to the heart of the matter.

Amy Steele: Can you explain to me your system where fans can access your new material through a social-networking game?

Thomas Dolby: Yes. It will launch in a few weeks, and run for three month up to the release of my album A Map Of The Floating City in the summer. You can access the game for free through your web browser. It’s set in a kind of 1930s that might have come to be had the strange experimental weapons of that time come to fruition. There were sonic cannons and Tesla death rays. In the game, tribes of players collaborate to explore what’s left of the planet following an event of mass destruction. Survivors take to the oceans in the hulls of abandoned vessels, and eventually they raft up, like the merchants’ barges in Tokyo harbor in the 17th century. A strange kind of barter culture emerges, a form of ‘maker’ society where players cobble together inventions using relics from the past. Most of this is done in text form, you understand, it’s a kind of collaborative fiction, not a 3d shoot em up. And as you explore the game, you will discover new songs from the 3rd and final EP from my album, ‘Urbanoia’.

Amy Steele: I think social networking is extremely important for today’s music artists. If you agree, why do you think it is or what role does social networking play for the musicians?

Thomas Dolby: It gets you close to the fans and involves them in the creative process. Gives them a stake in what you’re doing. Take Imogen Heap. She involved her fans right from the period where she was writing songs for ‘Ellipse.’ She would put up Version A and Version B of a bassline and get their input. When she was ready to think about the album cover she asked for artists to submit ideas. She could call for a flashmob and with 3 hours notice, fill a Borders or a Starbucks for an impromptu listening party. And in between she tweeted about what she crumbled on her salad at lunchtime. The Record Industry hates that, because they want everything to be geared to a single, rigid release date. But we don’t make music that way, never did!

Amy Steele: When you left the music business and worked in Silicon Valley, what were the greatest challenges to you and what was the best aspect of it?

Thomas Dolby: It seemed like a very grown-up industry. Creative flair is highly prized. Then when it’s hard to turn into a product, people tackle problems, get round a whiteboard, come up with a solution, implement it, test it. And the money people fund all of this, so we got to play all day like kids in a futuristic playground. I liked that approach! The challenge was for me that, as an entrepreneur, the clock is always ticking. The longer it takes you to hit ‘pay dirt’ the more diluted you become, and you end up owning only a small fraction of your own company. You lose not just equity, but also control, as the VCs and engineers and accountants start to smell money. In a way I’m totally ill-suited to being a businessman, because right at the point where the money starts to flow, I lose interest.

Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea for the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer?

Thomas Dolby: Oh, that was anything but an act of inventive genius. And it was not my idea. Not solely, at least. My company Beatnik had some brilliant engineers and we had made a very small, efficient software synth. Nokia, the biggest cell phone maker in the world, was starting to see Japanese cell phones with a polyphonic MIDI chip. Nokia didn’t want to pay the money per unit for a dedicated chip, so they looked for a small synth. Bingo. They asked us to send engineers to Finland and come up with a format for doing ringtones. They encouraged us to publish it as an industry standard, so that their competitors would be forced to fall into line. And it worked like a charm. They shipped billions of phones with Beatnik embedded. The rest of the industry came to us to license the engine. But it was short-lived, because as MP3 and WAV ringtones became possible, there was no longer a need for a synth. So now it’s doomed to be a question on a Trivial Pursuits card: Thomas Dolby invented A. Liquid paper? B. Ringtones? C. The Internet?

Amy Steele: What do you envision to be the greatest change in the music industry in the next five years?

Thomas Dolby: More and more sophisticated tools for doing targeted marketing of music to fans. Highly targeted advertising, detecting trends early on and focusing marketing dollars where there is already a germ of interest. These will slash the cost of releasing music. However, they will be beyond the grasp of the musicians, so a new kind of management/label/promotions company will emerge, and bands will choose one to help release their songs. However instead of relinquishing rights, bands will retain the rights and the power, and just give up single-figure percentages to those that can work the tools.

Amy Steele: What can listeners expect from your full-length release, A Map of the Floating City, coming out this summer?

Thomas Dolby: It will be my best album! A wide spectrum of music idioms, and some great storytelling, I hope. It will probably upset a few people who have preconceptions about their, or my musical tastes. But I’ve never been scared to upset a few people! The apple cart needs tipping over from time to time.

Thomas Dolby website

Thomas Dolby’s twitter

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