A chat with Thomas Dolby, Thomas Dolby interview, A Map of the Floating City
Thomas Dolby

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The hit giveth, and the hit taketh away, and few people understand this principle better than Thomas Dolby. He scored a massive worldwide hit with a song that only vaguely resembled his normal output (“She Blinded Me with Science”), and quickly discovered that he was now the wacky synth-pop guy, something he never aspired to be. Eventually, Dolby grew tired of the business altogether and left for Silicon Valley, where Dolby created the technology behind polyrhythmic ringtones in cell phones. As Bullz-Eye editor Will Harris joked, Thomas Dolby is one of the few people with enough money to have Oprah killed.

Recently relocated back to his native England, Dolby is putting the finishing touches on A Map of the Floating City, his first album in nearly 20 years, (we’ve heard two-thirds of it, and it’s awesome), which will be preceded by Oceanea, a three-song EP of songs from the album. Bullz-Eye caught up with Dolby to discuss the new album, its corresponding online video game, the unconventional location for his recording studio, and the time he watched Stevie Wonder impersonate Marvin Gaye.

Bullz-Eye: You actually recorded this album on a boat?

Thomas Dolby: Yes.

BE: How big is that boat?

TD: It’s a ship’s lifeboat. It’s 33 feet by 13 feet. It was designed to rescue 99 people.

BE:  It’s really warm sounding for something that wasn’t done in a proper studio. Do you work with vintage gear, cutting-edge stuff, or a little bit of both?

TD: Well, I don’t have room for a lot of musicians at the same time. I just have a couple of vintage-style mic [preamps] called Millenia, and I plug everything into that, and I just do things bit by bit.

BE: You brought Eddie Reader back to sing with you on this EP, and as big-time fans of the Trashcan Sinatras, we never miss an opportunity to discuss anything related to them, however tangential. [Note: Eddie Reader is the sister of Trashcans lead singer Frank Reader.] How did you two first cross paths?

"I initially start writing a lot of my songs for other people, but I'm not very good at writing coverable material. I started out writing "One of Our Submarines" for the Thompson Twins."

TD: She auditioned for me when I was touring The Flat Earth. She was a fabulous singer, but she was unable to reach the high part in “Hyperactive.” It’s very funny to hear her tell the story, but she drove her neighbors crazy for days on end trying to reach the high notes, and couldn't quite do it. And since that was my single in the charts at the time, I really, really needed somebody that could nail that part. But we stayed friendly, and I did some production work for her, and she came and played at Ted's [as in TED Conference, Technology Entertainment and Design in Long Beach], where I'm the music director, and we've just worked on and off together over the years.

BE: Speaking of "Hyperactive," the press release mentioned that you originally wrote that for Michael Jackson. I had never heard that before.

TD: Yeah. I'd met Michael in 1982 or '83, and he was doing an album with the [Jackson] brothers, called Victory, and he said, "Have you got any grooves you can send us?" So that was what I came up with, and I never heard back. [Laughs]

BE: Well, selfishly, I'm glad you held on to it.

TD: Yeah, a lot of my songs, I initially start writing for other people, but I'm not very good at writing coverable material. It tends to be too individual and personalized. I started out writing "One of Our Submarines" for the Thompson Twins. I started out writing "Road to Reno" [from his new album] for Belinda Carlisle.

BE: I want to hear the Thompson Twins cover "One of Our Submarines." I think that would be cool.

TD: [Laughs]

BE: I’m not surprised that the new material is reminiscent of The Flat Earth. That album was a bit ahead of its time, but I think your fans would welcome another album like it now.

Thomas DolbyTD: Well, I think that, in a lot of ways, that was the most enduring period, of my early work. It's interesting, really, that songs like "Hyperactive" and "She Blinded Me with Science" were the big radio hits, but the ones that really connected with people at a deep level were the moody, atmospheric songs. And it doesn't really surprise me, but it makes me slightly sad, because there was a side of me that felt that the industry should have done a better job of pushing that side of my music. But inevitably, once they smell money in a certain style, especially in those days, they would contrive to make you milk that formula again and again. And maybe the conventional path to have taken would have been to string together five or six quirky, up-tempo synth pop hits, and then gradually segue into ballads. The thing is, ["She Blinded Me with] Science" was such an anomaly for me, really. It was just tongue-in-cheek, a moment's frivolity, and I certainly wasn't going to settle into a comfortable groove, doing quirky, English synth pop. So I cut to the chase, really, and what I would hear from the record company was, "Thomas, everybody loves 'Screen Kiss.' It's just great, we love that song." And I'd go, "Well, great. Is that going to be the new single?" "Well, no, actually, we're thinking of going with 'Hyperactive,' because it's a more natural sequel to 'She Blinded Me with Science.'" I could never really persuade them to get behind the slow stuff.

BE: Was it their idea to use the 12" mix of "Hyperactive" for the video?

TD: I can't remember, actually. I don't know how that came about.

BE: You use Auto-Tune on the EP. For whatever reason, that struck me as odd, the kind of thing you’d avoid using if you could help it.

TD: Actually, there is no Auto-Tune on the record.

BE: No? How did you make that sound?

TD: It's very heavily compressed and filtered, to the extent that if you're looking at a needle, it's pinned in the red all the way. And there's a filter where you basically take out a lot of the treble and bass and leave a very narrow frequency in the middle. I was very careful with the tuning, and I did a lot of takes, and picked the best ones to switch between, but I don't actually use Auto-Tune.

BE: Good for you. Are these three songs a good indicator of what the rest of the album sounds like, or do you have some surprises in store?

TD: There are definitely surprises in store. The album's in three sections. It's called A Map of the Floating City, and it has three continents: it has Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea, and the flavor of each one is very different. Amerikana is an affectionate look back at the 20 years I lived in the USA. And during the time I lived there, I gained a very high level of respect for the roots and the culture. In the UK, it's very trendy to slag off everything American, but I didn't want to do that. I enjoyed my time there; I was happy there, and I may well move back there again once our kids are through school and stuff like that. Oceanea was very much a set of homecoming songs, because I was delighted to get back to the UK and move into the area where I spent a lot of time as a kid. I feel a very strong connection here. I really loved setting up the lifeboat as my new recording studio, and the Oceanea songs came out of that transition. Urbanoia is about cities. I'm not really a city person; they're dark and uncomfortable places for me. But that makes them fascinating for writing songs about. I'll give you an example: one of them is called "Evil Twin Brother." It's about being jet lagged in New York during a heat wave and being unable to sleep at 3am, and hungry, and going out to find a bite to eat at a diner, and ending up chatting up a Russian waitress whose shift ends at four, and she knows a club where they'd let us in. It's a fictionalized after-hours fantasy about New York City, but it is quite dark.

BE: I look forward to hearing it. Are there plans to tour?

"In the UK, it's very trendy to slag off everything American, but I didn't want to do that. I enjoyed my time there; I was happy there, and I may well move back there again once our kids are through school."

TD: Yeah, very strong desire to tour. The USA would be the most obvious place to come. The last time I was in the States, I was doing a one-man show, stacking up electronics. [Note: we saw that tour, and it was very cool.] But that style would not be appropriate for this album. The album is pretty warm; there's a lot of musicianship on it, and I think the right way to do it is with a full band. But I don't have a full-time band on salary, so I'd have to find the right players that could cover both the new stuff and some of the obligatory older songs as well. And that will happen, but it's in the back of my mind at the moment, because I'm focused on getting the album finished, which is now very close.

BE: The press release for the EP describes you as reclusive, but I have to say that despite not making a record in almost 20 years, I have never thought of you as reclusive. Andy Sturmer is reclusive. You, on the other hand, were doing press for someone else’s album [a reissue of Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, which Dolby produced] a couple years ago.

TD: That's true. I think, to paint me as a hermit, is a little bit off the mark. In fact, [Prefab Sprout lead singer] Paddy McAloon would fit that bill a lot better than I do. When you live out in the middle of nowhere, and you spend weeks on end without going into a city, you get acclimatized to the woods, and it's rather strange when you find yourself walking down a crowded shopping street, and you glaze over with the eye contact, and the close proximity to other human beings is a bit mesmerizing.

BE: Speaking of Paddy, we in the States finally got to hear the lost Prefab Sprout album Let’s Change the World with Music last year. As their longtime producer, I have to ask you: when did you first hear those songs?

TD: It was in the early '90s. At the time that we did Jordan: The Comeback, a lot of these songs were around as well. I'm a bit hazy on the exact sequence of things, but I remember him sending me some of the songs and saying, "This is the next album. Let's get going." And [I remember] hearing that Sony Music pushed back because some of the songs mentioned God, and that the mention of that word in a couple of songs would tarnish [McAloon] as a born-again Christian, or something like that. And that seems insane to me, because he's anything but. To me, the songs seemed to be a re-examination of faith and belief, but in music rather than in some deity. So I was very upset with Sony about that, but as I recall, Paddy didn't put up much of a fight; he just wrote another set of songs that became Jordan: The Comeback.

BE: So the songs on Let's Change the World with Music came first?

TD: I believe some of them pre-dated Jordan: The Comeback. I may be wrong about that.

BE: A couple of years ago, I got a compilation of Michel Gondry’s music videos, and I was shocked to discover that you were one of the first English-speaking musicians to work with him. What do you remember about shooting “Close But No Cigar”?

TD: I'd come across Michel because he did one for Steely Dan. Was it Steely Dan or it might have been one of them solo, I can't remember. I think it might have been a Donald Fagen solo single. [Note: it was, for "Snowbound."] And it was this fantastic model of a future city, this Jetsons-style future city. [Gondry] was in Paris at the time, and I was in the UK. I went over there and shot with him. He was a very early master of what by today's standards were very primitive examples of video paint boxes and things like that. And clearly a deranged and genius brain. Yeah, I had a good time filming that with him.

Thomas Dolby

BE: I also have to tell you that I love the Beatles sample in that song.

TD: (Chuckles) What Beatles sample? (Laughs)

BE: Ha! Watching the Grammys the other night reminded me of when you, Howard Jones, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock did a demonstration on these strange new things called synthesizers. What do you remember the most about that?

TD: Actually, what I remember most about it was the night before, because we had to record the music the night before, lay down a backing track to play along with. Our brief from the producers was to do one hit from each of us, followed by the National Anthem. At about one of two in the morning, we were at Stevie's studio, Wonderland, and people were sort of losing steam, and were wandering off into different nooks and crannies in the space, and we still hadn't done the National Anthem. I wanted to get it finished and get some sleep before the show.

Stevie had disappeared, so I decided to go and look for him. And I'm wandering around the dark corridors of this, it's like a big, art deco cinema in LA, and I heard some piano coming out of a room, and I went in there, and it was a tiny room, stacked up with boxes and files and things. And Stevie was in there, playing piano on an upright, with no chair. I said to him, "Stevie, we've got to figure out the National Anthem so we can get it done and get out of here." And he said, "Well, what do you think?" And I said, "I think a slow groove, a really sexy, soul version of it." And it's only me and him in this tiny room, which is unusual in and of itself. And he thought about it, and said, "That's a bad idea." And I said why? And he said, "Because Marvin [Gaye] tried that at an NBA basketball final, and he never got on TV again until the day he died." The network guys couldn't handle a black man singing a sexy, soul version of the National Anthem. And I said, "Wow, that much have sounded fantastic!" And Stevie paused for a second, and he started playing and singing, and I swear to God he was channeling Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem in that moment. And my heart stopped; it was absolutely breathtaking. He played a few bars and sang a few licks, and said, "He did it like that," and felt his way out of the room. And I was standing there, absolutely unable to move. It was quite stunning. And then years and years later, I tell that story, and [the interviewer] said, "That Marvin Gaye performance is on YouTube." So relatively recently I was able to look it up, and it completed the loop. It was really amazing.

BE: That's great. So you're still fine-tuning the record?

TD: I've got two songs to go, which are half-done. They're written and everything, so I'm very close to completion. But the other thing that's taking up a lot of my time is that there is a game as well as an album.

BE: Ah! Tell us about the game.

TD: It's an alternative reality game. It's web-based, and uses social networking. You can play it with any browser, and it's free. It's a fictional world that ties together characters and places and themes and items from all my songs going back to the early '80s. It's set in what I suppose you can call a post-apocalyptic world, but it's not in the future. It's kind of like...in the '30s, there were all sorts of very outlandish weapons attempted, like death rays, and acoustic devices that could explode airplanes at great distances. Nikola Tesla was actually approached by the US military to build an electronic ray that would shoot planes out of the sky.

BE: Like what Kate Bush sang about in "Experiment IV"?

TD: Actually, I don't know, I'll have to check that out. How old is that song?

BE: It’s from The Whole Story, her best-of that came out in 1986. The chorus is, "They told us what they wanted was a sound that could kill someone from a distance."

TD: Right, okay. That's good to know. Anyway, the long of the short of it is, what had happened if those experiments had borne fruit? What if there had been no Second World War, and instead there had been an instant World War that had taken place with all the extraordinary devices? What would have been left of the world afterwards? That's the atmosphere of the game.

BE: I want to play this. When does it go live?

TD: It's going to take three months, running up to the release of the album. And it's not a game where individual prowess counts. There are nine tribes, three on each continent, and when you sign up, you get sorted into one of the tribes, and you have to collaborate with your tribe's people to solve the mystery and be the most successful tribe. And the winning tribe will get invited to a secret, private concert, at which I will perform the album in its entirety in the late summer.

BE: Very cool. Will that be in the States, or England...?

TD: Well, it will be wherever the winning tribe is.

BE: Oh, so people are going to be sorted geographically, then.

TD: Yeah. That won't be significant in the game, but when people sign up, we will sort them geographically, so if you leave on the east coast in the USA, and your tribe wins, that's where the secret gig is going to be.

BE: Very cool. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I can't wait to hear the rest of the record.

TD: Thank you, it's been nice talking to you, too.

BE: It's good to have you back.

TD: Likewise.

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